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  • Deux cartésiens: La polémique Arnauld Malebranche
  • Steven Nadler
Denis Moreau . Deux cartésiens: La polémique Arnauld Malebranche. Paris: J. Vrin, 1999. Pp. 353. NP.

The Arnauld-Malebranche debate is one of the great intellectual events of the seventeenth-century. Taking place over an eleven-year time span, and brought to a conclusion only by Arnauld's death, the debate ranged over a wide variety of philosophical and theological issues. At stake were some of the most important questions faced by early modern thinkers: the nature of human knowledge and its relationship to the divine understanding; the appropriate conception of human and divine freedom; the problem of causality; the ontology of evil and the possibility of engaging in theodicean speculation; even the nature of God itself. It is thus very surprising that there has not been, until now, a full-scale (but by no means exhaustive) study of the debate, especially its rich philosophical dimensions.

Many readers approaching the documents of the affaire are, of course, put off by the unpleasant personal invective that characterizes many of the principals' exchanges, as well as by what appears to be the repetitive nature of much of the dialogue. Philosophers, as well, have probably been deterred by the debate's theological dimensions, especially the wrangling over questions of grace. More importantly, contemporary philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition have been led to believe that the philosophical side of the debate is fairly one-dimensional, centered only on the nature of representational ideas and the problems surrounding our perception of the external [End Page 595] world. In fact, as Denis Moreau shows in this learned, highly-readable and illuminating study of the debate, the controversy over ideas was only the opening round, Arnauld's point of entry into Malebranche's complex, systematic, but (to Arnauld's mind) highly objectionable philosophical theology.

The title of this book is important. Part of Moreau's thesis is that much of the passion of the debate, especially on Arnauld's side, has its origin in the familial context. What is at stake, at least in Arnauld's mind, is the legacy of Cartesianism. Arnauld, Moreau argues convincingly (and contrary to a good deal of scholarly opinion), was a sincere and committed (but not uncritical) disciple of Descartes' (177). His attack on Malebranche was motivated, in part, by a desire to prevent "la philosophie cartésienne" from being transformed for posterity into "la philosophie malebranchiste." It was also motivated, of course and perhaps more importantly, by his desire to defend what he took to be the true Christian conception of God.

Part One of the book is devoted to showing how Arnauld's polemical persistence was the result not just of a pugnacious character or personal animus towards his opponent, but rather of a principled approach to philosophical inquiry. His beliefs on the nature and validity of evidence, the proper method to be used in the search after truth, and especially philosophy as a social enterprise all demanded a personal and dialectical confrontation with a heavy dose of rhetoric. Malebranche, on the other hand, preferred a more solitary and meditative mode of inquiry, and was thus unprepared for Arnauld's agonistic onslaught. Thus, Moreau insists with great originality, "on peut ainsi lire cette polémique comme le conflit de deux théories de l'acquisition et de la constitution du savoir."

The occasional cause of Arnauld's attack on Malebranche's theory of ideas and his doctrine of vision in God (in Des vraies et des fausses idées) was the publication of the Traité de la nature et de la grace (1680). The epistemological and ontological objections raised in the initial discussion over "êtres représentatifs" was meant ultimately to undermine Malebranche's theodicy by attacking the foundational principles upon which it rested. In Part Two of the book, Moreau looks at what, in Arnauld's eyes, was the essential flow in Malebranche's account: the assertion of the reality of evil. Evil, Malebranche insisted, was not to be explained away as merely illusory, or as forming an essential contributing ingredient of a larger, more perfect whole. Evil is irreducibly real; there is imperfection...


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pp. 595-597
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