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Malebranche (review)
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Reviewed by
Andrew Pyle. Malebranche. London: Routledge, 2003. Pp. xiii + 289. Cloth, $80.00.

Despite Malebranche's widely recognized importance, no comprehensive overview of his system was available before Pyle's excellent and wide-ranging study. Pyle agrees with scholarly consensus that occasionalism and the vision in God are Malebranche's two most significant doctrines, but his scope extends well beyond those to matters of theology, physics and biology. In the first half of the book, Pyle lays out Malebranche's two key doctrines as responses to tensions within the Cartesian accounts of causation and of ideas. He details how Malebranche's theory of ideas is involved in the debate with Arnauld and provides an excellent overview of what is at stake in the debate, one that makes clear the breadth of his knowledge of Malebranche's corpus.

These chapters are mainly expository, but not entirely so; Pyle also offers a range of internal criticisms of Malebranche's system. For the most part, these criticisms are very plausible. However, there is one which I find less compelling—Pyle's argument that intelligible extension cannot in the end do the work Malebranche wants it to. For Malebranche, intelligible extension is the object of our perception of bodies: we project our various sensations onto it and thereby see bodies. Hence intelligible extension must have parts, namely, shapes. However, Pyle argues, the "logical concept" of extension cannot have parts: it is primitive and cannot be analyzed. And he contends that Malebranche's account collapses as a result: Malebranche wants intelligible extension to be both a concept and an a priori particular, and nothing can fill both these roles. I suspect that Malebranche is in a better position than Pyle suggests. All he needs to solve Pyle's problem is to deny that ideas in the mind of God are logical concepts in the sense Pyle intends, and to hold instead that as archetypes they are themselves particulars. But, furthermore, the argument seems rather out of place in the book, for it relies on a conception of Malebranchian ideas as 'third realm' entities that Pyle elsewhere implicitly rejects.

After discussing ideas and occasionalism, Pyle moves on to an extended analysis of Malebranche's collision rules, where he argues that Malebranche's physics is in tension with his occasionalism. Malebranche endorses the Cartesian claims that bodies are moved by impact and that action at a distance is impossible, and, as Pyle notes, Malebranchists were typically anti-Newtonians. However, Malebranche holds that all causal relations between bodies are unintelligible, including causation by impulse. How then can he consistently maintain that action at a distance is impossible? Pyle argues that Malebranche has no answer to this question. Although Malebranche put forth metaphysical arguments for his physics, in the end metaphysics does no more than provide post hoc rationalizations for theories of motion arrived at on other grounds. [End Page 124]

Pyle then moves on both to Malebranche's theory of generation and to the relations that theory has with his metaphysics and theology, reaching very different conclusions from the case of physics. For, Pyle argues, Malebranche's account of generation is guided almost entirely by a priori constraints, and observation is mere window-dressing. One wonders why the two sciences should have such different methodologies, but Pyle says nothing to explicate this. Indeed, the chapter on generation has less connection with the rest of the book than one might like, and this is particularly noticeable since the bulk of the book forms one continuous argument.

The remaining chapters discuss Malebranche's views on self-knowledge, freedom, grace, and the nature of the soul. Pyle argues, on the model of Richard Watson's The Downfall of Cartesianism (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966), that serious internal tensions led to the downfall of Malebranchism. His careful and generally sympathetic documentation of these tensions is a great strength of Pyle's book. However, at a few points I did feel that internal critique degenerated into something rather more antagonistic. Pyle is quite hard on Malebranche's theology, but certain worries—for instance, that it is unfair for infants who die before baptism to be damned—seem more like worries...