I. Arnauld’s Argument in VFI
Arnauld boldly states his aim in writing the Des vraies et des fausses idées (hereafter VFI) on the first page, namely that what Malebranche says concerning the nature of ideas is based on nothing but false prejudices, and that his claim that we see all things in God is a claim in which “nothing is more groundless.” (VFI.1)
His strategic aim is to discredit Malebranche’s view of ideas as “representative entities”, and Arnauld offers many demonstrations against this doctrine in chapters 4-11 of the VFI. If Malebranche is right about the nature of ideas, namely that they have properties of their own and exist independently of our perceptions, then the stage for philosophy concerning the nature of ideas shifts to the ontological status of ideas, with Malebranche’s “Vision in God” being one of the possible hypotheses. This is precisely how Malebranche presents his argument for the “Vision in God”, in an eliminative argument where he concludes that his theory best satisfies the ontological status of ideas. Conversely, if Arnauld is right, and our ideas are our perceptions as modifications of the soul, then the ontological status of ideas is already answered, and we can take the “Vision in God” as unnecessary, and Malebranche’s eliminative argument is not even able to be intelligibly appealed to.
In this sense, it is easy to see why Cartesian philosophy is crucial to this debate. What is perhaps Arnauld’s most important argument against Malebranche is that his assumptions about the mind and the content of ideas, taken from Descartes, are an incorrect and ill-conceived interpretation of Descartes. Immediately after Arnauld presents an argument that it is our ideas which we see immediately, and against the need for representative entities, he claims that in order that the reader not think that he invented this to get out of the difficulty, “the author of The Search will find the same thing in Descartes’ Meditations.” As we shall see, Arnauld argues that Malebranche’s theory is based on a vicious interpretation of Descartes’ theory of ideas which is at the heart of both of their theories of ideas.
Arnauld’s Razor: When Malebranche argues for his “Vision in God”, he makes appeals to what we commonly classify as “Ockham’s razor”. For example, in the his eliminative argument in the Search, Malebranche argues against a “storehouse” theory of ideas (in which at the moment of creation God has given all the ideas to the soul that it will require) by claiming that God always acts by the simplest means, and thus wouldn’t stock our minds with an infinite number of ideas, which he believes this theory presupposes. (SAT III.2.iv) Since Malebranche feels justified in arguing in this way, Arnauld sought to use the same kind of argument for his own contrary conclusion, thus discrediting Malebranche.
In the fourth demonstration of the VFI, Arnauld begins with the nature of perceptions (which he equates with ideas, which have only a relational difference) in his argument against Malebranche. If we consider what the function of a perception is, we see that what is essential to a perception to represent, namely by enabling us to know the properties and existence of things. Arnauld particularly speaks of bodies, and makes the following argument:
God did not will to create our soul and to put it into a body surrounded by countless other bodies, without also willing that it be capable of knowing bodies, and consequently without also willing that bodies be conceived by our soul. But all of God’s volitions are efficacious. Therefore it is certain that God gave our minds the faculty of seeing bodies and also gave bodies the passive faculty, so to speak, of being seen by our mind. All of that is clearer than day. But consider what follows. God does not accomplish in complex ways what he can accomplish in simpler ways. That is our friend’s great principle, which he uses in this very topic of the nature of ideas. (VFI.x.44)
- It is essential to perceptions to enable us to know the existence and properties of surrounding bodies.
- If this can be achieved by simple means, there is no need of complex means.
- The simplest means of achieving this is for God to give to souls the power of forming ideas on the occasion of physical events in the brain.
- These ideas are our perceptions of external objects.
- God does not accomplish by complex means what can be brought about by simple means.
- God’s volitions are efficacious.
- Therefore, he has created souls with this capacity.
- Therefore, there is no need to introduce an intermediate realm of ideas.
Intentionality as the Mark of the Mental: Arnauld also shares the Cartesian assumption that we have certain knowledge through introspection of the soul of its states and operations. He stresses that this is the most certain knowledge we have: “Nothing is more certain than our knowledge of what takes place in our soul when we pause there. It is very certain, for example, that I conceive of bodies when I think I conceive of bodies, even though it may not be certain that the bodies that I conceive either truly exist, or are such as I conceive them to be.” (VFI.v.22)
Although perceptions (mental acts) are modifications of the soul, they are nevertheless essentially representative of objects. Arnauld takes it to be indisputable that the soul is by its nature a thinking substance. Appealing to the authority of St. Augustine and Descartes, Arnauld justifies his claim:
St. Augustine recognized, long before Descartes, that in order to discover the truth, we could begin with nothing more certain than this proposition: I think, therefore I am. He takes I think to refer to all the different ways in which we think, whether by knowing that something is so with certainty, which he calls understanding, or by doubting, or by remembering. He is certain, he says, that we can do none of those things without at the same time having certain proofs of our existence. He thence concludes that in order for the soul to know itself, it need only separate itself from the things which it can separate from its thought, and what remains will be what it is. That is to say, the soul can be nothing other than a substance which thinks or which is capable of thinking. It follows that we can know well what we are only by serious attention to what takes place within ourselves. However, that requires that when we find it difficult to (express that knowledge in words, we take particular care not to mix with it anything of which we are not made certain by consulting ourselves: words are ordinarily invented by men who are attentive only to what happens in their bodies and in the bodies around them, and who are thus hardly in a position to attach the operations of the mind to particular sounds as occasions for our thinking of them. (VFI.ii.5)
The soul, as a thing which is by its nature a thinking substance, thinks because it is its essence to think. Arnauld holds that this is all that can be said on the matter. However, Arnauld makes the further argument that thought is always the thought of something: “Therefore, since it is clear that I think, it is also clear that I think of something, because thought is essentially thus. So, since there can be no thought or knowledge without an object known, I can no more ask what is the reason why I think of something, than why I think, since it is impossible to think without thinking of something. But I can very well ask why I think of one thing rather than another.” (VFI.ii.6) The conclusion Arnauld arrives at is that intentionality (the quality of mental states being directed toward an object or state of affairs) is the mark of the mental. It just is the case that intentionality is essential to mental states, and modifications are essentially perceptions of objects. While this might not seem like the most philosophically robust account of intentionality, Arnauld would respond that his theory, unlike others, has greater simplicity and harmoniously corresponds to introspection. When we appeal to introspection, as Arnauld explains, we see that our perceptions are perceptions of things and not of representative entities, which are distinct and independent from our mind. Thus, Arnauld says of Malebranche:
…if he had paused at this thought, I know a cube, I see the sun, in order to meditate upon it and to consider what is clearly included in it, as he should have done according to his own rules, I am sure that he could not have seen there anything other than the perception of the cube, or the cube objectively present to the mind, than the perception of the sun, or the sun objectively present to the mind, and that he would never have found the least trace of that being representative of a cube or of the sun and distinct from the perception, which was supposed to make up for the absence of the one object and the other. (VFI.vii.33)
II. Malebranche’s Réponse
Arnauld’s Scholastic Error: Malebranche points to what he believes is at the heart of the dispute. Malebranche holds that modes of the soul are merely sensations, representing nothing to the soul that is distinct from itself, and Arnauld holds that the modes of the soul are representative by their very nature. (OCM VI.50) Malebranche believes that ideas as representative entities are not required to know the modes of our own souls, since these are knowable in themselves via introspection. Knowledge of external things, says Malebranche, can’t be immediate in the same way that our knowledge of sensations as modes of the soul.
As we have seen, Arnauld thinks it is absurd to ask how our souls have the ability to perceive bodies. It is simply the nature of the soul to have this power or faculty, and nothing more can be said. This is precisely where Malebranche attacks Arnauld. For all of Arnauld’s anti-Scholastic tendencies, Malebranche remarks that the word ‘nature’ has no more meaning coming from a Cartesian than it did for a Peripatetic philosopher. (OCM VI.142) Malebranche argues that this can’t be taken seriously as an explanation. At best it is a substitute for a real explanation, but if it is meant to be a real explanation, we must reject this as absurd, since it explains nothing.
The Distinction Between Ideas and Sensations: Arnauld’s error, according to Malebranche, is that he did not properly distinguish ideas and sensations. (OCM VI.54) Arnauld missed the deep and important distinction between knowledge of objects via their ideas and immediate awareness of one’s sensations. Malebranche holds that the only knowledge possible in oneself is sensations, which are modes that have no representational content. Arnauld’s downfall, Malebranche thinks, is that he has no explanation how a mode of the could can be a representation of something distinct from it which it has no resemblance to. (OCM VI.91) All Malebranche requires is that the idea itself be capable of making known the properties of the object. In Malebranche’s eliminative argument for the “Vision in God”, the last argument rejected before he concludes that his doctrine is the only one that can stand is an innatist theory where the soul contains within itself all perfections of other creatures, and thus can know them in itself. Malebranche believes that Arnauld has fallen prey to a major error that resembles this theory, and which prevents his exposition on the nature of ideas from escaping a fatal trap. The error is that souls are stuck within the world of their own perceptions, perceiving only its own mental modifications. Arnauld, he believes, violates the rule of St. Augustine, namely to not think you are a light unto yourself. Not only is Arnauld being impious, but also unintelligible, since particular modes of a finite mind cannot represent general truths or infinity.
Modes of the Soul Are Not Representations: Malebranche frequently claims that modes of the human soul cannot be representations. His support for this can be summarized by the following argument:
- Every mode of the human soul is a particular.
- No mere particular can represent something universal.
- The idea of extension (intelligible extension) is infinite.
- Therefore, the idea of extension cannot be a mode of the finite human soul.
The obvious premise in need of clarification and support is (3). One might ask how the idea of extension is infinite? Malebranche will reply that there are actually two ways in which it is infinite. The first is that the idea of extension represents extension as infinite, and the second is that it represents an infinity of types of figures.