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Malebranche's Occasionalism: A Reply to Clarke Desmond Clarke's picture of the dialectic in which commentators are involved when trying to understand what a philosopher is saying should strike us as a familiar one. He is surely right when he says that it is to concede too privileged a position to an author simply to take their word on whether their doctrine is essentially the same as that of some other thinker. Just because Malebranche and Leibniz insist on important philosophical differences between their respective causal theories does not necessarily mean that there really are such differences; perhaps a deeper analysis would reveal similarities or possible reductions unseen, for one reason or another, by the original disputants themselves. Thus, it certainly is possible that when particular theological claims to which Malebranche is committed are taken into account, his views on divine causality must either be rejected as incoherent or be interpreted in such a way that they amount to the same thing that Leibniz is saying. In fact, I am not persuaded that this is the case with Malebranche's occasionalism. There are two substantive issues between Clarke and myself: (1) What did Malebranche take himself to be saying? and (2) Can the theory Malebranche proposes be both coherent and philosophically distinguished from Leibniz's account? With respect to (1), my evidence is on the table, and there is nothing I could say in a brief reply that would substantially add to the arguments I present in my original article. Let me just emphasize here that, as I note in my article (44-45), my interpretation does not entail that, for Malebranche, God's volitions are themselves temporalized in the sense of "occurring in time"; rather, they are eternal, although a temporal component is included in their content since they have time-bound events as their objects. The second issue, regarding overall coherence, is well-captured by the phrase cited by Clarke, where, after repeated efforts at understanding, an interlocutor says, "I still do not see how your theory is different from..." The problem concerns what Malebranche must in fact ultimately be read as saying, that is, what his doctrine must, in the end, amount to in order to be coherent, regardless of whether Malebranche himself would accept such a characterization of his doctrine. Is it coherent for a philosophical theologian such as Malebranche to speak of a great number of volitions in God, corresponding in a one-to-one manner with the multitude of finite events those volitions are supposed to bring about? While every seventeenth-century thinker would grant that any locution in "imperfect human language " can only inadequately describe God's mode of being or acting--and this issue can be set aside, since it cuts across any interpretation of Malebranche--it is still remarkable that there is no significant discussion in the period of the question that concerns [5o5] 506 JOURNAL or THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 33:3 JULY 1995 Clarke: the question, that is, of how God's simplicity and eternity can be reconciled with admitting a great number of discrete volitions in God. One response to this fact is to say that such a lack of discussion is evidence that nobody seriously entertained such an account of divine volition. But then look at Arnauld--no slouch when it comes to defending the proper, theologically rigorous conception of God, and himself a proponent of an occasionalist solution to mind-body relations.' Concerned about the hypergenerality of divine volition he reads in Malebranche, Arnauld objects that "it cannot be said, unless one strangely abuses the meaning of terms .... that God brings something about by general volitions. For everything that happens, happens in particular , and not in general.... And thus, all that can be said, speaking exactly, is that God acts by particular volitions in consequence of general laws."' According to Arnauld, every event brought about by God--and this includes a multitude of nonmiraculous, natural events--must have as its efficient cause a corresponding volition in God particularized to that event (the example he uses in this context is the creation of individual souls: since each soul "is created by a particular action, [God] must...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 505-508
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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