Malebranche’s Theory of Ideas and Vision in God (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The doctrine of Vision in God is easily misunderstood. It is not the
view that we see God’s essence — that vision in God is vision
of God — though Malebranche’s chief critic, the
Cartesian Antoine Arnauld, charged that it was. It is also not the
view that corporeal objects, such as olive trees and Old English
sheepdogs, reside in God, or that God himself is corporeal. The former
would make Malebranche an idealist or an immaterialist, the latter a
Spinozist, but he rejects all such epithets.

To appreciate Malebranche’s epistemological theory, one must remember
that he was an orthodox Cartesian dualist and an orthodox
Christian. Like Descartes, he maintained that there are two kinds of
created substance — minds and bodies — and that the
essence of bodies is extension (or spatial dimension). God, in turn,
is an infinite, all-perfect, spiritual being. On this traditional
Christian conception, it would be heresy to identify God with his
creatures, to suppose that God was extended, or to pretend to fathom
God’s essence. Concerning the latter, Malebranche stressed that we
don’t see God as he is in himself, for God’s essence is perfectly
simple, and by his grace we see only the diversity of particular
beings. God’s simplicity also entails that he is not extended:

God’s essence is his own absolute being, and minds do not see the
divine substance taken absolutely but only as relative to creatures
and to the degree that they can participate in it. What they see in
God is very imperfect, whereas God is most perfect. They see matter
that is shaped, divisible, and so on, but there is nothing divisible
or shaped in God, for God is all being, since he is infinite and
comprehends everything; but he is no being in particular. Yet what we
see is but one or more particular beings, and we do not understand
this perfect simplicity of God, which includes all beings
(Search 3.2.6, OC 1:439; LO 231).

Here Malebranche underscores another feature of God: the divine
substance is not any particular being but ‘all being’ or
what he elsewhere calls ‘being in general.’ We can see
material beings in God precisely because he is indeterminate; in
seeing creatures we are seeing how they determinately
‘participate in’ or ‘imitate’ his

In conceiving God as ‘being in general’ Malebranche
borrows much from the thirteenth-century scholastic thinker St. Thomas
Aquinas. Aquinas also conceives God as simple and indeterminate, and
thinks it follows from this that we, with our finite minds, cannot
fathom God’s essence, and so must know him through his
effects. Malebranche qualifies this last point somewhat by saying that
we know God through his possible (material) effects, that is,
relative to what he can produce. Indeed, Malebranche holds
that in God we see an infinity of possible worlds:

When you contemplate…extension, you still see only the
archetype both of the material world in which we live, and of an
infinity of other possible worlds. You are then actually seeing the
divine substance, for that alone is visible or capable of enlightening
the mind. But you do not see it in itself or as it really is. You see
it only in its relation to material creatures, only as it is
participable by or representative of them. Consequently, it is not
strictly speaking God whom you see, but only the matter he can produce
(Dialogue 2, OC 12:51; JS 21).

As we have seen, there are no particular beings in God, for God is
simple and general. But still Malebranche will insist that we
see material objects in God. How is this possible? The
answer to this question involves another aspect of his doctrine not
yet broached — the theory of ideas. Malebranche defends a
representational theory of ideas, which holds that we don’t see
material objects directly but only via the ideas that represent
them. On his version of this theory, material objects are
unintelligible in themselves and can be known only via something
spiritual and immediately present to the mind. Malebranche was not
alone in the seventeenth-century in endorsing representationalism; in
fact, it is often thought that he inherited this position from
Descartes. Where they clearly differ is in the ontological status they
accord to ideas. Descartes develops a ‘Christianized’
version of the Platonic theory of innate ideas, according to which
ideas are created with us at birth and constitute the very structure
of our mind. Malebranche, in contrast, vehemently denies that ideas
are created or that they are modifications of finite minds, and
instead regards them as eternal, necessary, and immutable realities
that reside in God. To say, then, that we perceive material things in
God means that we immediately perceive ideas in God, and via these
ideas, we indirectly perceive corporeal objects. Ideas in God
are the ‘archetypes’ or models that he uses to create
things. Thus, we can be assured that our knowledge of material things
is of the highest order.

As already noted, Malebranche restricts the doctrine of Vision in God
to our sensory perception of material objects and their properties and
to the abstract thought of mathematical essences. It does not
encompass knowledge of God’s essence, for as we have seen he thinks we
know God only indirectly, by way of the material things that he can
create. But what about our knowledge of other things, especially the
self or the mind, or other minds? Why is that sort of knowledge
excluded from the doctrine, especially since as a faithful Cartesian
dualist he maintains that there are both bodies and minds?

Given his theory of divine archetypes for creation, Malebranche must
allow that there is an idea of the mind in God, but he does not think
God gives us access to this idea. We lack, therefore, what Descartes
would call a clear and distinct idea of the mind. And since ideas for
Malebranche are the essences or natures of things, he denies that we
have knowledge of the mind’s essence. To be sure, he endorses
Descartes’ cogito, or the claim that one knows one’s own
existence. But here Malebranche distinguishes two kinds of knowledge
— knowledge through ideas as afforded by Vision in God and
knowledge through consciousness — the latter being inferior. I
have knowledge through consciousness of the existence of my mind and
its modifications, which is just to say that I know them by an inner
awareness (sentiment intérieur) that attends all of my
thoughts, beliefs, sensations, passions, etc. But this awareness is
limited to their bare existence and fails to reveal their underlying
nature. Indeed, although sensations and other such modifications of
the mind are typically strong and lively in their affects, they are
‘confused modalities…full of darkness’ (Dialogue 3,
OC 12:65; JS 33). Malebranche’s negative view of knowledge of the mind
is the natural complement to his theory of Vision in God. Following
Augustine, Malebranche often stresses that the human mind is not a
light unto itself, and that God (or what he sometimes calls
‘universal Reason’) is the only true light, that is, the
only source of truth and knowledge: ‘Man is not a light unto
himself. His substance, far from enlightening him, is itself
unintelligible to him. He knows nothing except by the light of
universal Reason which enlightens all minds, by the intelligible ideas
which it discloses to them in its entirely luminous substance’
(Dialogue 3, OC 12:64; JS 32). The human mind is so utterly devoid of
cognitive resources, and thus so completely dependent on God, that it
cannot even know its own nature.

Malebranche thinks that knowledge of other minds is even more
impoverished (if this seems possible), for here we must rely on
conjecture. Other minds are not immediately present to us in the way
that our own mind and its modifications are, and so they cannot even
be known by consciousness. Instead, we must conjecture, on the basis
of our sensory perception of the behavior of bodies similar to our
own, that they are united to minds and that these minds are affected
with the same sorts of sensations and passions as ours. Such
knowledge, however, is ‘very liable to error’
(Search 3.2.7, OC 1:455; LO 239). One might wonder why
Malebranche calls this ‘knowledge’ at all, and not
‘opinion’ or ‘belief,’ in keeping with the
philosophical tradition. The simple answer is that he is using the
term broadly here to refer to ‘ways of perceiving things,’
where by ‘things’ he means all the various substances that
exist — God, bodies, the self, and other minds.

In the last section, we learned that there are no particular things in
God, but what about particular ideas? Malebranche sometimes
writes as if there are, and one commentator has argued that he was
committed to such a view in the first edition of the Search
(Gueroult 1955–9, vol. 1, 63f). This has since been disputed (see
Schmaltz 2000, 72 and other references in note 39), but whatever the
case, Malebranche tends in later editions of the Search and
in his later writings generally to treat ideas as general and
abstract. This is true both of the various geometrical ideas that we
see in God and of the idea of extension: ‘when I said that we
see different bodies through the knowledge we have of God’s
perfections that represent them, I did not exactly mean that there are
in God certain particular ideas that represent each body
individually…’ (Elucidation 10, OC:154; LO
627). Beginning with the Elucidations, Malebranche employs
the term ‘intelligible extension’ to denote the general
idea of extension, and to distinguish it from actual extension, which
again is unintelligible in itself. In addition to being
general, ideas in God are also ‘pure’ in the sense that
they are non-sensuous. Intelligible extension, then, is
just the idea of geometrical extension and its properties, or what in
the seventeenth-century came to be known as the ‘primary
qualities.’ Malebranche reduces these to two — figure
(i.e., size and shape) and motion.

These two characteristic features of ideas raise the following

If intelligible extension is pure, then how can it represent
sensible objects? Following Descartes, Malebranche wanted to
highlight the intellectual character of sense perception, but has he
done so at the expense of its sensory component?

Supposing that intelligible extension does represent sensible objects
how, as a general idea, can it represent particular

To answer these questions we must first uncover an important
distinction that Malebranche draws between ideas on the one hand and
sensations on the other. As we have already discovered, ideas are in
God and are cosubstantial with his substance. Sensations of colors,
sounds, odors, heat, pleasure, etc., on the other hand, are
modifications of finite minds. Another important difference is that
ideas are intrinsically representational, whereas sensations are
not. The idea of a pyramid, for example, represents an actual pyramid
in the sense that it resembles it, but the sensation of pain that one
experience’s when, say, accidentally lacerating one’s arm, in no way
resembles the wounded tissue. Ideas and sensations, then, are very
different kinds of entities, but Malebranche maintains that sense
perception combines elements of each.

When we perceive something sensible, two things are found in our
perception: sensation and pure idea. The sensation
is a modification of our soul, and it is God who causes it in us. As
for the idea found in conjunction with the sensation, it is in God,
and we see it because it pleases God to reveal it to us
(Search 3.2.6, OC 1:445; LO 234).

The composite character of sense perception provides answers to both
of our questions. Malebranche explains:

intelligible extension becomes visible and represents a certain body
in particular only by means of color, because it is only by the
variety of colors that we judge the difference between the objects we
see…. [A]s the sensations of color are essentially different,
by means of them we judge the variety of bodies. If I distinguish your
hand from your coat and both from the air surrounding them, this is
because the sensations of light or color that I have of them are very
different (Dialogue 1, OC 12:46–7; JS 17).

we see or sense a given body when its ideas, i.e., when some figure
composed of intelligible and general extension, becomes sensible and
particular through color or some other sensible perception by which
its idea affects the soul and that the soul ascribes to it, for the
soul almost always projects its sensations on an idea that strikes it
in lively fashion (Elucidation 10, OC 3:152; LO 626).

In sense perception the mind ‘projects’ its sensations
onto intelligible extension, or some determinate part of it, thereby
rendering sensible what is otherwise abstract and general. It was a
common view in the seventeenth century that sensations of color and
light, in particular, also serve another function in sense perception:
they enable us to discriminate shapes and, correlatively, individual
bodies. As illusionists of the age were well aware, one can make a
woman appear headless if her head is covered with something that
blends into the background (such as a black hood against a black
curtain) and she is dressed in clothing that is color-contrasting. In
these passages, Malebranche applies this general point to explain how
the sensations of color and light individuate intelligible extension
and thereby yield sensory perceptions of particular
objects. Sensations both ‘sensualize’ and
‘particularize’ intelligible extension, and thus make it
possible for us to see particular sensible objects in it.

In characterizing the relation between ideas and sensations here,
Malebranche relies partially on metaphors. He speaks of
‘projecting’ our sensations onto ideas and elsewhere he
compares intelligible extension to a canvas onto which sensations are
‘painted’ (OC 6:78). Some commentators have attempted to
unpack these metaphors and to offer a more specific account of the
relation between ideas and sensations in sense perception. They
attribute an ‘adverbial theory’ of sensation to
Malebranche. Since sensations are nonrepresentational, they do not
constitute an extra object of perception over and above the general
idea of extension and the material objects they represent. In other
words, we do not perceive sensations; we directly perceive ideas and
via these ideas we indirectly perceive corporeal objects. Given this
account of the intentionality of perception, sensations are best
understood adverbially, that is, as a way of perceiving
objects in the world. For example, when observing the setting sun, it
would be most accurate to say not that one senses ‘red,’
but that one senses redly (see Jolley 2000, 37f; Nadler 1992, 64; Pyle
2003, 57, 63–5 and Radner 1978, 89). However, more recent discussions
have cast serious doubts on whether Malebranche could be committed to
an adverbial theory of sense perception, for a variety of different
reasons (see Nolan 2012, Ott 2014, and Simmons 2009).

In addition to the roles already discussed, sensations play one other
important function in Malebranche’s epistemology. They provide a kind
of ‘natural revelation’ of the existence of bodies. It is
important to remember here that the idea of extension in God does not
reveal anything about the existence of bodies, only their
essence. Speaking once again of the composite character of sense
perception, he writes: ‘There is always a clear idea and a
confused sensation in the view we have of sensible objects. The idea
represents their essence, and the sensation informs us of their
existence’ (Dialogue 5, OC 12:113; JS 74). More strongly,
sensations ‘make us judge’ that there is an object in the
world corresponding to our perception (Elucidation 10, OC 3:143; LO
621). ‘God joins the sensation to the idea when objects are
present so that we may believe them to be present….’
(Search, 6.2.6, OC 3:152; LO 234).

Although sensations provide a ‘strong propensity’ to
believe in the existence of bodies, they do not provide conclusive
proof or even evidence of their existence, for the senses often
deceive us (Elucidation 6, OC 3:55f; LO 569f). Malebranche notes, for
example, that ‘our eyes represent colors to us on the surface of
bodies and…our ears make us hear sounds as if spread out
through the air and in the resounding bodies; and if we believe what
the senses report, heat will be in fire, sweetness will be in sugar,
musk will have an odor….’ (ibid., OC 3:55–6; LO
569). Like many of the mechanical philosophers in the seventeenth
century, Malebranche holds that so-called sensible qualities (colors,
sounds, odors, heat and cold, etc.) are not in bodies — which
again are to be conceived in terms of geometrical extension alone
— but are modifications of the mind. However, his point in the
passage cited is that the senses deceptively entice us to attribute
them to bodies. If they deceive us in this way, then it is at least
possible that they also sometimes deceive about the existence of

If the senses do not provide absolute certainty about the existence of
bodies, one might wonder why God uses them at all for this purpose,
especially since Malebranche also contends ‘faith obliges us to
believe that there are bodies’ (ibid., OC 3:62; LO 573). Why
then don’t the revelations of Scripture suffice? Why do we need the
‘natural revelations’ of sense? The answer is that like
most Cartesians, Malebranche holds that the main purpose of the senses
is to aid and preserve one’s mind-body union. If a lion is chasing me
or if I am in danger of being consumed by a raging fire, I do not need
to be absolutely certain that the lion or the fire exists in order to
know that it is in my best interests to flee. So whereas faith obliges
me to believe in the existence of bodies generally, sensations inform
me of the existence of those particular bodies, such as my own body
and those in its vicinity, which may affect it positively or

Malebranche’s philosophy generally owes much to the thought of
Descartes and Augustine. This is particularly true in the case of
Vision in God, which bears a striking resemblance to Augustine’s
theory of divine illumination, but which is also informed by Cartesian
views about the role of ideas in cognition and the intellectual
character of sensory perception. One way of gaining insight into the
doctrine of Vision in God then is by regarding it as a synthesis of
Descartes and Augustine’s philosophies of cognition. By integrating
their views, and using each as a corrective to the other, Malebranche
produces a new doctrine that attempts to preserve and extend their
philosophical insights while avoiding their limitations and

Let us pursue this inroad into Malebranche’s theory of cognition,
beginning with his Cartesian inheritance. Descartes is often read as
holding a representative theory of perception, according to which our
perception of material objects is mediated by ideas. Ideas are the
immediate objects of perception and, via these ideas, we are able to
perceive bodies in the world. He encourages such a reading in the
Third Meditation, where he famously says that all ideas are ‘as
it were the images of things’ (CSM 2:25, AT 7:37). Descartes
explicitly denies that ideas are mental images; however, he
suggests here that they are like images in the sense that
they represent objects in the world.

Why would someone hold such a view, especially as it seems to violate
commonsense? In cases where I am looking directly at an object that
is before me, such as a tree, I am inclined to think that what I
perceive directly is the tree itself, not some ideational proxy for
the tree. Proponents of the representative theory, however, are often
motivated by cases of non-veridical perception. In endorsing this
theory himself, Malebranche is no exception. When I hallucinate a pink
elephant nothing in the world corresponds to my perception;
nevertheless, my perception has an intentional character, i.e., it is
‘of’ or ‘about’ some object. Indeed,
Malebranche maintains that all thought takes an object, on the grounds
that ‘To see nothing is not to see; to think of nothing is not
to think’ (OCM 2:99, LO:320). Call this ‘the principle of
intentionality.’ If, in hallucinating the pink elephant, there
were not some object of my hallucination I would not be having a
perception at all. Ideas are introduced as a way of explaining how my
perception can be intentional even in such cases. Absent a material
thing, there must be some immaterial surrogate — call it an
‘idea’ — toward which my perception is immediately

Having established this result in the case of hallucinations, dreams,
sensory illusions, etc., the representationalist must find a ground
for extending this conclusion to veridical perception. For in
veridical perception the principle of intentionality could be
preserved without appealing to ideas. One could say that the immediate
object of my perception is some material thing in the
world. Malebranche eliminates this possibility by appealing to the
principle that all the immediate objects of perception must be of the
same ontological kind. One set of perceptions cannot have ideas as
their objects, while another set of perceptions is directed toward
material things. If non-veridical perceptions derive their intentional
character from being directed toward ideas, then so must all
perceptions; otherwise this principle would be violated (see Nadler
1992, 83).

The Argument from Properties: Establishing the representative
theory of perception is just one part of Malebranche’s task in
defending the doctrine of Vision in God. Having argued that ideas are
the immediate objects of perception and thought, he must now deal with
a further question: ‘where’ are ideas? What is their
locus? Malebranche’s answer of course is that ideas reside in God,
but in affirming this claim he is making his first important break
with Descartes. It is fair to say that this is one place where
Malebranche sees himself as correcting Descartes and using Augustine
to do so. Descartes had taught that ideas are modifications of human
minds. Indeed, Descartes would say that the ideas that figure most
prominently in Malebranche’s doctrine — viz. the idea
of extension and the ideas of various mathematical objects — are
innate, part of the very structure of the mind bestowed upon us by
God. This means that Cartesian ideas are 1) finite mental items and
2) created. Malebranche rejects both of these claims but, ironically,
he does so on grounds that appear to be at least partially inspired by
Descartes’ own writings.

In the Third Meditation, Descartes stresses that insofar as they
represent things to us, ideas are real beings, even if the objects
they represent do not exist outside thought. The
‘representational reality’ of ideas falls short of the
actual being of things in the world but, nevertheless, it is not
nothing (AT 7:41, CSM 2:29). He reaffirms this point in the Fifth
Meditation and adds that the ideas of various geometrical figures have
‘immutable and eternal’ essences, as is clear from the
fact that these ideas resist efforts by our mind to deform them. For
example, once I have recognized that having angles equal to two right
angles is part of the content of the idea of triangle, I am compelled
to recognize this property ‘whether I want to or not’ (AT
7:64, CSM 2:45). In general, Descartes holds that so-called
‘clear and distinct ideas’ are such that I cannot add
anything to them or subtract anything from them (AT 7:51, 117–8; CSM
2:35, 83–4). Although he does not mention Descartes as his source,
Malebranche develops these points in a way that leads to some very
anti-Cartesian conclusions. He too wishes to stress that ideas are
real beings and that they resist our mind’s efforts to alter them:

I am thinking of a number, of a circle, of a room, of your chairs, in
a word, of particular beings. I am also thinking of being or of the
infinite, of undetermined being. All these ideas have some reality
while I think of them. You do not doubt this, because nothingness has
no properties and they do. (Dialogue 1, OC 12:37; JS:10)

You believe this floor exists because you feel it resist
you….But do you think your ideas do not resist you? Find me
then two unequal diameters in a circle, or three equal ones in an
ellipse. Find me the square root of eight and the cube root of
nine….[M]ake two feet of intelligible extension equal no more
than one. Certainly the nature of this extension cannot countenance
that. It resists your mind. Do not, therefore, doubt its reality
(ibid., OC 12:41–2; JS:13–14).

So far, Malebranche has not said anything with which Descartes would
disagree: the fact that ideas have properties and resist our thought
demonstrates their reality. But Descartes also speaks of ideas as
‘immutable and eternal.’ Malebranche concurs with this as
well, and adds that they are ‘necessary,’
‘universal,’ and ‘infinite’. The idea of
extension, for example, is ‘necessary, eternal, immutable, and
common to all minds….’ (ibid., OC 12:42; JS:14) To say
that ideas are ‘necessary’ just means that ‘it is
impossible that they should not be as they are,’ and this is
something that Malebranche thinks is discoverable in thought
(Elucidation 10, OC 3:130; LO 614). Ideas are infinite in the sense
that they are ‘inexhaustible.’ One can discover in the
idea of extension, for example, ‘infinite numbers of
intelligible triangles, tetragons, pentagons, and other such
figures,’ as well as an infinite number of truths that can be
demonstrated of them (ibid.). The ideas of extension and the various
geometrical figures are also immutable (or unchanging) and eternal in
the sense that they did not come into being, and will not go out of
being. And although cultural norms and tastes may vary among cultures,
races, and periods, the truths of mathematics are universal and common
to all intelligences in the sense that all minds will, upon
reflection, discover the same ones. Such truths are not the product of
agreement but are intellectual givens that impose themselves on our

From the claim that ideas are necessary, eternal, immutable, etc.,
Malebranche draws his first and most important anti-Cartesian
conclusion, namely, that ideas must reside in God and be
‘coeternal and consubstantial with Him’ (Elucidation 10,
OC 3:131; LO 614). Indeed, since Descartes affirms some or all of
these properties himself, consistency would seem to require that he
abandon his view that ideas are created modes of finite minds. If
ideas are necessary and eternal then they cannot be created, as
created things are contingent and have a beginning. Ideas also cannot
be modes of the soul, for ‘it is clear that the soul’s modes are
changeable but ideas are immutable; that its modes are particular, but
ideas are universal and general to all intelligences; that its modes
are contingent, but ideas are eternal and necessary….’
(Search, OC 2:103; LO 322–3). Malebranche expresses his
positive conclusion at times by referring to God once again as
‘universal Reason’ or the intelligible realm of ideas:

But if it is true that the Reason in which all men participate is
universal, that it is infinite, that it is necessary and immutable,
then it is certainly not different from God’s own reason, for only the
infinite and universal being contains in itself an infinite and
universal reason. All creatures are particular beings; universal
reason, therefore, is not created. No creature is infinite; infinite
reason, therefore, is not a creature (Elucidation 10, OC 3:131;

Although he appears to draw these results from tensions within
Descartes’ theory of ideas, Malebranche finds additional support and
inspiration for the doctrine of Vision in God in Augustine’s theory of
divine illumination. Indeed, it is often said that Vision in God
combines Descartes’ representationalism with an Augustinian or
Neoplatonic ontology of ideas. The exact degree to which Augustine
directly influenced Malebranche here, however, is difficult to gauge
and one commentator has argued that the influence was minimal at most
(See Connell 1967). That having been said, Malebranche often writes as
if the lineage was direct and tends to minimize his philosophical
differences with Augustine over the nature of cognition:

It therefore must be, as St. Augustine says in 500 hundred places,
that ideas are eternal, immutable, necessary, common to all souls, so
that there are most certainly truth and falsehood, justice and
injustice, eternal truths and laws; and that our souls are enlightened
by the same ideas in consequence of the union that they have with this
universal Reason which contains them all in its substance, which alone
is the life and light of all intelligences…. (OC

Despite what he regards as general agreement, Malebranche
differentiates his view from Augustine’s in two ways. First, whereas
Augustine spoke of seeing ‘truths’ in God, Malebranche
speaks primarily of (immediately) seeing ‘ideas.’ This
minor difference stems from Malebranche’s tendency to privilege ideas
and to understand truth in terms of them. Truth is but a relation
among ideas, though on his scheme relations need not be anything real,
over and above ideas, for in perceiving any two ideas we can also
grasp the relations between them.

We are of the opinion, then, that truths (…such as that twice
two is four) are not absolute beings, much less that they are God
Himself. For clearly, this truth consists only in the relation of
equality between twice two and four. Thus, we do not claim, as does
Saint Augustine, that we see God in seeing truths, but in seeing the
ideas of these truths — for ideas are real, whereas the
equality between the ideas, which is the truth, is nothing
real…Thus, our view is that we see God when we see eternal
truths, and not that these truths are God, because the ideas on which
these truths depend are in God — it might even be that this was
Saint Augustine’s meaning (Search 3.2.6, OC 1:444;
LO 234).

Malebranche speaks rather baldly here. He seems to deny truths any
reality whatsoever, but what he really wants is something
weaker. Elsewhere he draws a distinction between real relations like
truth and imaginary relations such as falsehood. He denies reality
only to the latter, and wants to reduce real relations to ideas
(Search 6.1.5, OC 2:286; LO 433). Thus, the difference
between Augustine and Malebranche on whether we directly perceive
truths or ideas in God may be only nominal, for Malebranche is not
denying the reality of truths but merely reducing them to ideas.

Second, and more significantly, Malebranche self-consciously extends
Augustine’s theory of divine illumination to material things. Where
Augustine limited his account to the intellectual apprehension of
truths that are eternal and necessary, Malebranche conceives Vision in
God as an all-encompassing theory of cognition that includes the
sensory perception of sensible objects in the world. Malebranche
believes that Augustine was prevented from seeing how the theory of
illumination could be extended in this way as a result of two
philosophical prejudices. First, he maintained that we see bodies
directly, without the aid of ideas. Second, like most philosophers
prior to the scientific revolution he thought that colors, sounds,
pains, heat, and other sensory qualities are in bodies. But of course
these qualities change. If these two prejudices are combined, as
Malebranche believed they were in Augustine’s thinking, then to say
that we see material things in God would mean that God contains
objects that are changeable and corruptible. But this violates God’s
immutability. Malebranche, however, thinks he has the resources for
avoiding this result:

We further believe that changeable and corruptible things are known in
God, though Saint Augustine speaks only of immutable and incorruptible
things, because for this to be so, no imperfection need be placed in
God, since, as we have already said, it is enough that God should
reveal to us what in Him is related to these things (Search
3.2.6, OC 1:444–5; LO 234).

Malebranche is able to extend the scope of Augustine’s theory of
illumination as a result of what were then two recent philosophical
developments, courtesy of Descartes. First, the representational
theory of ideas allowed Malebranche to say that what we see directly
in God are not changeable objects but ideas or essences. In the case
of material things we see intelligible extension, which is immutable
and incorruptible, in keeping with the divine nature. Second,
Malebranche took from Descartes the view that colors and the other
so-called ‘secondary qualities’ are not qualities of
bodies but sensations or modifications of the mind (whether Descartes
actually held this position himself is controversial). Since bodies
do not have these qualities, the idea of extension need not represent
them, and once again God is spared from having to accommodate
changeable entities. It is interesting to note here that by reducing
secondary qualities to sensations, Malebranche can also explain the
variations we see in the primary qualities of extension. Even if
bodies are not colored, they still change their size, shape, motion,
and position. How can intelligible extension represent those
variations without violating God’s immutability? The answer is that
it need not, for as we have already discussed, color and light
sensations ‘particularize’ extension and enable the mind
to discriminate shapes and, correlatively, all the other primary
qualities — sizes, positions, motions, etc. Sensations, then,
are responsible for all the variations we see in material

In the previous section, we examined Malebranche’s most mature
argument for locating ideas in God in the Argument from
Properties. This argument, which first appeared in Elucidations of
The Search After Truth
, highlights the Neoplatonic and
Augustinian character of Malebranchean ideas and reveals his efforts
to correct Descartes. When coupled with the Cartesian view that all
perception is representational, it provides one of Malebranche’s
strongest supports for Vision in God.

When first introducing the doctrine of Vision in God in the
Search, however, he takes a different tack. There he presents
a negative, or eliminative, argument in which he enumerates five
competing theories of how material objects are known, and then
systematically eliminates each one until only Vision in God
remains. For such an argument to succeed, one must ensure that the
enumeration is complete — that it exhausts all possible
theories. Malebranche clearly thinks that he satisfies this
requirement, though critics from John Locke onwards have complained
that it does not. Some recent commentators have attempted to show why
Malebranche’s enumeration is, indeed, complete or at least why he
thinks it is (Connell 1967, 162; Nadler 1992, 138–140).

But rather than pursue that line of thought, we might note something
else about Malebranche’s strategy: he does not rest content with the
standard structure of an eliminative argument. After raising doubts
about the four other theories, he marshals various positive arguments
in support of vision in God. One might think that Malebranche is
simply making as strong a case as possible for his preferred theory
or, since he has these other arguments ready to hand, displaying them
for his readers’ edification. But when his positive arguments are
examined carefully, one finds that many of the same reasons are used
to cast doubt upon the rival theories. It would appear that as much as
trying to convince the reader of Vision in God, the Argument from
Elimination lays the groundwork for that doctrine by prefiguring the
positive reasons in favor of it or, to put it somewhat differently, by
revealing what is required for us to have knowledge of material
objects. Malebranche holds that once one appreciates the requirements
or preconditions for knowledge, she will be forced to conclude that
only Vision in God satisfies all of them. Thus, behind the surface of
Malebranche’s eliminative argument lies a deeper, more positive
approach. Given this understanding of Malebranche’s strategy, and in
the interests of brevity, we shall focus here on the positive
arguments that he adduces in favor of Vision in God.

Malebranche’s arguments appeal primarily (but not exclusively) to
facts about the divine nature and about the relation between God
— the infinite substance — and his finite creation. This
reflects the theological spirit of Malebranche’s philosophy generally,
but it is also a common strategy of the modern rationalists (most
notably, Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz) to derive
conclusions about finite beings from considerations about infinite
being. Malebranche identifies five main reasons in support of the
claim that ‘we see all things in God.’ Before developing
these reasons, however, he reminds the reader of two other
considerations, introduced previously, that provide a prima facie case
in favor of Vision in God. First, there must be ideas of all created
beings in God, for otherwise he would not have been able to
create. The view that ‘blind creation’ is impossible is
part of Malebranche’s Augustinian heritage, and relies on the
intuition that in order to create something one must have models or
archetypes of what one is going to create. Ideas, then, serve as these
archetypes, but they must be in God himself prior to creation for
otherwise there would something external to God constraining what he
could create, which would violate his omnipotence or supreme
power. God can have the ideas of all things within him because he
contains an infinite number of perfections and, as discussed in
section 2, he sees all possible beings by considering how his
perfections can be imitated in finite ways. There is a deeper
intuition here as well, and that is that if God is truly wise or
omniscient then creation must be an intelligible and rational process
whereby God acts in accordance with certain standards. Malebranche
rejects Descartes’ doctrine that the created universe is an arbitrary
product of God’s indifferent will. Ideas in God, then, constitute
these eternal and immutable standards.

Second, Malebranche holds that created minds enjoy an intimate union
with God even in this life, as a result of our complete and utter
dependence on the creator. As a result of this union, God is always
‘present’ to our mind. Speaking metaphorically,
Malebranche says that God is, in a sense, the ‘place’ of
minds as space is the place of bodies. On the basis of these two
considerations, Malebranche concludes that God could, if he saw fit,
cause finite minds to see all things in him: ‘the mind surely
can see what in God represents created beings, since what in God
represents created beings is very spiritual, intelligible, and present
to the mind. Thus, the mind can see God’s works in Him, provided that
God wills to reveal to it what in Him represents them’
(Search 3.2.6, OC 1:437; LO 230). Since the ideas of all
things are already in God and our minds enjoy an intimate
union with him at all times, it is easy to see how God could make us
see all things in him. But, again, Malebranche does not intend these
considerations to be decisive, only to show how Vision in God is
possible and ‘conforms to reason’ (ibid., OC 1:438; LO
230). The introduction of these considerations is primarily strategic,
for he then proceeds to develop and reinforce them in his five main
arguments, to which we now turn:

  1. The Simplicity of the Divine Ways: Having already
    highlighted the rational character of creation in the first
    consideration, Malebranche begins this argument with another such
    point that once again underscores God’s wisdom. God always creates in
    the simplest of ways. This is a consequence not only of his
    simplicity, but also of his wisdom and power.

    God never does in very complicated fashion what can be done in a
    very simple and straightforward way. For God never does anything
    uselessly and without reason. His power and wisdom are not shown by
    doing lesser things with greater means — that is contrary to
    reason and indicates a limited intelligence. Rather, they are shown by
    doing greater things with very simple and straightforward means

    How is Vision in God simpler? And simpler than what? One of the
    alternative theories that he considers in the Argument from
    Elimination is that God creates a complete set of innate ideas within
    each mind. But our mind is capable of thinking of an infinite number
    of figures, numbers, etc. Thus, if this alternative theory were true,
    it would mean God would have to create an infinite set of ideas for
    every finite mind. But as God already contains within his
    understanding a complete set of ideas or archetypes for creation, it
    is far simpler for him to reveal them to us, to allow us to see all
    things in him.

    One should not underestimate the intended force of this
    argument. Malebranche is not conceding that God could have
    stocked every mind with a complete set of innate ideas but just
    happened to act in accordance with his simplicity. One commentator has
    noted that in the first four editions of the Search,
    Malebranche begins the argument by saying, ‘although it is not
    absolutely denied that God can make an infinity of infinite numbers of
    entities representative of things with each mind he creates,
    nevertheless one ought not to believe that he does….’
    Daisie Radner concludes on the basis of this statement that the appeal
    to simplicity is ‘not considered even by Malebranche to be one
    of the stronger arguments for seeing all things in God,’ for it
    does not rule out the alternative view, absolutely speaking (1978,
    52). But this conclusion misunderstands the sentence above that
    Malebranche subsequently excised in later editions. To get a grip on
    what he means we must compare similar language, and a similar point
    about divine simplicity, to which Malebranche appeals in his theodicy
    (i.e., his solution to the problem of evil). He attempts to justify the
    existence of evil in the world by saying that although God wished to
    create the best of all possible worlds absolutely speaking, he was
    constrained to act in such ways as honor his attributes or perfections
    — especially his simplicity: ‘His ways must bear the
    character of His attributes, as well as His work. It is not enough
    that His work honor Him by its excellence; it is necessary in addition
    that His ways glorify Him by their Divinity’ (Dialogue 9, OC
    12:214; JS 163). For Malebranche, God’s works and his ways (or means
    of creating) must honor him; he therefore strikes a balance between
    the ‘beauty of the work’ and the ‘simplicity of his
    ways’ (Dialogue 9, OC 12:215; JS 164). This is not the best of
    all possible worlds that God could create, absolutely speaking, but it
    is the best relative to the simplicity of his ways (Jolley 2004). In
    making this point, Malebranche is not claiming that God could have
    made a better world, for that would require violating his
    simplicity. On the supposition that he is going to create anything,
    God must act so as to honor his perfections; otherwise he would not be
    an all-perfect being, which is impossible. The same point applies to
    Malebranche’s epistemology; here too divine simplicity constitutes a
    side constraint on God’s actions, such that there is no genuine sense
    in which he could have created each mind with a complete set of
    ideas. Divine simplicity demands Vision in God.

  2. Dependence: It is a mark of Christian philosophy generally
    to stress the dependence of created beings on God. This emphasis
    manifests itself primarily in the traditional doctrine of divine
    concurrence, according to which God not only creates but also
    continually conserves finite minds and bodies in their existence. But
    Malebranche thinks this doctrine has an air of mystery to it, and
    fails to capture the magnitude and character of our dependence:
    ‘that general and confused term concourse, by means of
    which we would explain creatures’ dependence on God, rouses not a
    single distinct idea in an attentive mind’ (OC 1:440, LO 231). A
    proper conception of God entails that we depend on God in every way
    possible, not just ontologically but cognitively as well. Vision in
    God is the only theory that does justice to the latter, for on this
    account God not only causes us to see material objects but he is the
    one in whom we see them: ‘He is truly the mind’s light and the
    father of lights’ (ibid.).

    The view that created beings depend completely on God informs
    Malebranche’s entire philosophy. Indeed, Malebranche acknowledges this
    at the end of the chapter we are discussing, where he returns to the
    theme of dependence and invokes the words of St. Paul which he sees
    his philosophy as vindicating: ‘In God we live, move, and have
    our being’ (Acts 17:28). It is sometimes said that Vision in
    God is the ‘epistemological correlate’ of Malebranche’s
    Occasionalism, according to which God is the only true cause
    (McCracken 1983, 66; Nadler 1992, 141; Pyle 2003, 56). Where
    Occasionalism stresses our dependence on God’s power, Vision in God
    underscores our dependence on his wisdom. Without God, we are both
    causally and cognitively impotent.

  3. Infinite Cognitive Capacity: In his first argument,
    Malebranche appealed to the fact that we are capable of thinking of an
    infinite number of things, at least in principle, and this is obvious
    he thinks from considerations of mathematical objects, which are
    infinite in number. The question raised by the third argument —
    which Malebranche declares to be his ‘strongest’ —
    is how this infinite capacity is possible. He might have ended the
    argument here by concluding that we must see all things in God, for a
    finite mind is incapable of containing an infinity of beings.
    Instead, he attempts to strengthen his case by observing a further
    wrinkle in the nature of cognition. Malebranche asserts that whenever
    we desire to think of some particular object we must first survey all
    beings and then focus on the object we wish to think about. If we did
    not already have at least a general and confused apprehension of the
    object we wished to consider, then we could not direct our attention
    to it. Malebranche takes this to be a datum of our experience, but the
    underlying principle is of Platonic origin. Plato famously argues in
    the Meno that all knowledge is recollection, for it is
    impossible to inquire about that of which one is ignorant. One must be
    at least dimly aware of all things one seeks to know, and thus
    learning is more like remembering than discovering something entirely
    new (cf. McCracken 1983, 66). Augustine (On the
    10.33) had already adapted this argument for his own ends,
    and here Malebranche is following suit.

    So each of us is capable of thinking of an infinite number of things
    and, more importantly, in thinking of any particular thing one must
    grasp this infinity. It is at this point that Malebranche concludes
    (for the reason given above) that this infinity of beings must be in
    God, and that it is only through our union with God that these beings
    are present to us in thought. How does God contain this infinity? Not
    by literally being composed of an infinity of particular ideas, for
    again God is perfectly simple. On Malebranche’s conception, God is
    ‘being in general,’ ‘infinite being,’ or
    ‘being without restriction’ (3.2.8, OC 1:456; LO 241). In
    him, ‘all beings [are] contained in one’ precisely because
    he is infinite and indeterminate. This point allows him to further
    clarify the nature of cognition: ‘not only does the mind have
    the idea of the infinite, it even has it before that of the
    finite…. In order for us to conceive of a finite being,
    something must necessarily be eliminated from this general notion of
    being, which consequently must come first’ (3.2.6, OC 1:441; LO
    232). Here Malebranche follows Descartes in affirming that the idea of
    the infinite is conceptually prior to the idea of the finite, but then
    adds a twist that pushes him away from Descartes (and closer to
    Spinoza), namely that we conceive particular things by limiting or
    negating the idea of the infinite.

  4. Causal Efficacy: In this argument, Malebranche begins by
    noting that ideas are causally efficacious ‘since they act upon
    the mind and enlighten it’ and ‘make it happy or unhappy
    through pleasant or unpleasant perceptions by which they affect
    it’ (3.2.6, OC 1:442; LO 232). To establish that these ideas are
    in God, he then invokes an Augustinian principle, namely that
    ‘nothing can act immediately upon the mind unless it is superior
    to it.’ To make sense of this principle, one must envisage, as
    Augustine did, a hierarchy of being in which minds are higher than
    bodies and God constitutes the upper limit of moral perfection. For
    Malebranche, these are the only substances there are. So it follows
    that only God can act on the soul and, insofar as they are
    efficacious, ideas must be the very substance of God.

  5. The Purpose of Creation: In his final argument,
    Malebranche appeals once again to creation, focusing this time on its
    purpose. He maintains that as an absolutely perfect being, God can act
    only for his own glory. There is nothing that he lacks for which
    created beings somehow compensate. Thus, God created the universe so
    that his works would reflect his perfections and, as much as possible,
    be directed toward him. As conscious beings whose thoughts point
    beyond themselves, minds are especially well suited to this purpose
    for only they are capable of knowing his perfections. But don’t we
    know other things besides God? Yes, Malebranche will answer, but
    given God’s aim in creation we can know his works only if we also see
    him to some extent (3.2.6, OC 1:442–3; LO 233). Vision in God
    satisfies this requirement, for it affirms that we see all things in
    God by way of ideas that are identical with his substance.

Malebranche is a philosopher whose thought developed markedly over
time. In part this was due to his lively engagement with critics and
his attempts to respond to their objections, and also to his
recognition that his doctrines required further articulation than he
had provided in earlier writings. One of the most significant
developments to the theory of Vision in God was the view that ideas
are causally efficacious. Malebranche had already argued that ideas
have properties — necessity, eternality, immutability,
universality, etc. — but in response to an objection by his
Cartesian critic Pierre-Sylvain Régis, he came to ascribe
causal powers to them as well. This new theory is introduced in the
context of the claim that the mind is united to God, even in this
life. It is because of this union, Malebranche maintains, that Vision
in God is possible. We are always in immediate contact with being in
general and so can focus our attention on the idea of intelligible
extension at any time or immediately perceive it in sense

Régis was rightly curious about the nature of this union with
God. Malebranche had spoken metaphorically of the
‘presence’ of God to the mind, but without ever specifying
what he meant. Régis noted that this union cannot be understood
on the model of the union of one body with another, for that requires
actual physical contact; nor should it be thought to resemble the
mind’s union with the body, for that would make the mind and God
mutually dependent on each other, and the infinite being depends on
nothing. No, Régis argued, the only viable way to understand
the God-mind union is on the model of cause to effect, respectively.
At this point he uncovers an important objection that he had been
anticipating: if mind-God union is to be understood causally, then it
is still possible that we perceive bodies by means of ideas that are
in us, but caused by bodies themselves, as Descartes himself had
taught(SG 1:188; also see Schmaltz 2000, 76–7).

In his response, Malebranche attempts to exploit Régis’
suggestion but without leaving the door open to Cartesianism. Lacking
causal efficacy and being ‘invisible’ in themselves,
bodies cannot act directly on the mind in the way that Régis
had indicated. In virtue of being in God, however, the idea of
extension can ‘affect’ or ‘touch’ the mind in
various ways (OC 17–1, 282–3). In changes made to previously published
works, two years later (1695), Malebranche even more explicitly ties
the intelligibility of ideas to their causal efficacy (Robinet 1965,
259, note 2). Readers are told for the first time that the reason
ideas are intelligible and bodies are not is because only the former
can act on the mind.

The theory that ideas are efficacious becomes Malebranche’s mature
position, and to mark this development changes are made to later
editions of the Search and to other writings. With the advent
of this theory, it becomes easier to see the relation between Vision
in God and Malebranche’s other main doctrine of Occasionalism, or the
view that God is the only genuine cause. Indeed, one can regard Vision
in God as a corollary to Occasionalism. As the only true cause, God
produces minds, bodies, and the various changes they endure. The
mind’s nature is to think and to perceive, and God produces those
modifications via ideas, which are the instruments by which he
enlightens us.

Make no mistake about it, the theory of efficacious ideas marks a
significant development in the doctrine of Vision in God. One
commentator aptly notes that Malebranche’s epistemology shifts from
being a vision in God to a vision by God
(Alquié 1974, 209). Ideas are no longer the direct objects of
perception, passively awaiting our reflection upon them, but the
active agents of cognition. Moreover, whereas on Malebranche’s
earlier view ideas figured exclusively in the intellectual side of
perception, on the new version of the doctrine they cause both our
sensations and what he came to call our ‘pure perceptions’
(perceptions pures). Malebranche had been reluctant
previously to say that ideas are ‘sensible’ lest he
attribute colors and other sensible qualities to God. But on the
revamped doctrine he can say that ideas are both sensible and
intelligible insofar as they causally affect our mind in different
ways (Schmaltz 2000, 80). ‘When the idea of extension affects
or modifies the soul with a pure perception, then the soul conceives
simply this extension. But when the idea of extension touches the soul
more sharply, and affects it with a sense perception, then the soul
sees, or senses extension’ (Christian Conversations3,
OC 4:75–6). Thus, the theory of efficacious ideas enables Malebranche
to offer a more unified theory of cognition.

One of the hallmarks of Descartes’ epistemological project is its
obsession with refuting skepticism. Descartes begins his
Meditations by entertaining the widest and most radical
doubts possible so that he can defeat them once and for all. Some
commentators have suggested that Malebranche’s doctrine of Vision in
God is also designed to refute skepticism, at least concerning our
knowledge of the essence of material things, but in fact the relation
of his epistemology to skepticism is more complex, and he is best read
as aiming for something more modest. Although Malebranche is as
obsessed as Descartes with finding the correct method for discovering
the truth, nothing like the Cartesian method of universal doubt can be
found in his writings. There is a very simple reason for this:
Malebranche refuses to take seriously some of the more radical forms
of skepticism. He never doubts that certain types of knowledge are
possible. The task of the doctrine of Vision in God then is not to
refute skepticism, but to show how such knowledge is
possible. The problem with rival theories of cognition, especially
Descartes’, is that they encourage skepticism and fail to account for
the knowledge we clearly have.

At times, Descartes seems to allow that there are some truths —
such as the simple propositions of mathematics — that can never
be doubted, but in darker moods that carry the day he worries whether
an omnipotent deceiver might beguile us even about these. Malebranche,
however, is more impressed by Descartes’ first inclination. That I
exist, that I have various thoughts, and that twice two equals four
are not subject to deception but are known by what Malebranche calls
‘simple perception,’ by which the mind ‘perceives a
simple thing without any relation to anything else whatsoever’
(Search 1.2, OC 1:49; LO 7). He opposes simple perception to
reasoning or inference: whereas the former consists in a direct or
immediate grasp of something, reasoning constitutes an indirect
apprehension and involves more than one mental act (Schmaltz 1996,
24). Because of the latter, reasoning requires the use of memory,
which is subject to error and deception:

For when we reason, the memory acts; and where there is memory, there
can be error, should there be some evil genius on whom we depend in
our knowledge who amuses himself by deceiving us… [But] I am
quite persuaded that he could not deceive me in my knowledge through
simple perception…. For even if I should really suppose such a
God, a God as powerful as I can imagine, I feel that in this
extravagant supposition I could not doubt that I am, or that twice two
equals four, because I perceive these things through simple perception
without the use of memory (Search 6.2.6, OC 2:370; LO

Malebranche does not quite say here why he thinks things known through
simple perception are impervious to the omnipotent-deceiver doubt,
though his examples provide some indication. Descartes himself had
said that even a malicious demon could not make him doubt his own
existence, at least while he is presently attending to this
. Such doubts are self-defeating: if the demon deceives
me about anything then I must exist in order to be deceived. Rather
than offering an explanation of this kind, Malebranche is content here
simply to report on his own psychological response to the
‘extravagant supposition’ of a deceiving God, which fails
to instill doubts in him about such simple truths. This supposition,
however, does cause him to doubt things that depend on inference and
here he is quite explicit that this is due to the fallibility of

To defeat doubts of the latter variety, Malebranche thinks, ‘It
is…necessary to know by simple perception and not by inference
that God is not a deceiver, because reasoning can always be mistaken
if we assume God to be a deceiver’ (ibid., OC 2:371; LO
481). Malebranche is indicating here his own analysis of, and solution
to, the infamous Cartesian Circle. As he sees it, the Circle results
from ‘ordinary proofs of the existence and the perfections of
God’ that involve inferences and hence are subject to the very
doubts that their conclusions are designed to dispel. Since on his
view, simple perceptions are not subject to doubts of this or any
kind, the only way to defeat the omnipotent deceiver doubt is by
establishing that God exists and is perfectly benevolent from
‘proofs’ by simple perception. The term
‘proofs’ here may seem confusing, given Malebranche’s
distinction between simple perception and inference, but he uses it
loosely to refer to his version of the ontological
‘argument,’ where God’s existence is established directly
from the idea of an infinite or supremely perfect being. Malebranche
thinks that one of the virtues of the doctrine of Vision in God is
that it provides such a proof by simple perception. Recall from our
earlier discussion in section 4 that Malebranche thinks we have an
infinite cognitive capacity; for example, we can think of any one of
an infinite number of geometrical figures. A precondition for this
capacity, he maintains, is that we be in constant and immediate union
with the idea of being in general, which we then delimit in various
ways when thinking ‘square,’ ‘circle,’
etc. But the idea of being in general or the infinite can’t be in any
finite thing such as our mind. It can only be in God — more
precisely, it can only be God himself, for there can be only
one infinite or all-encompassing being:

we can only apprehend the infinite in the infinite itself…. For
the first principle of our knowledge is that nothingness is not
perceptible, whence if follows that, if we think of the infinite, it
must exist. We also see that God is not a deceiver, because, knowing
that He is infinitely perfect and that the infinite cannot lack any
perfection, we clearly see that He does not want to beguile
us….’ (ibid., OC 2:372; LO 481–2).

Although Malebranche sometimes refers to the ‘idea’ of
God, strictly speaking, ‘The infinite is its own idea’
(Dialogue 2, OC 12:53; JS 23). And we can explain our infinite
cognitive capacity only by our union with this infinite being, who
must therefore exist.

In addition to thinking that there are some truths that are impervious
to doubt, Malebranche also has a different understanding of Descartes’
principle that whatever one clearly and distinctly is true. Descartes
maintains that when I clearly and distinctly perceive something my
will is causally compelled to affirm it. So, for example, if I
understand the proposition that five is the sum of two added to three
then I will spontaneously affirm its truth. But as one commentator has
noted, Malebranche has a normative, rather than a causal-psychological
conception, of clear and distinct perceptions (Lennon 2000). Reason
‘obliges,’ rather than causally compels, my will to
assent. Indeed, I can resist a clear and distinct perception, but only
at the risk of ‘feeling an inward pain and the secret reproaches
of reason’ (Search 1.2, OC 1:55; LO 10). This is
significant because it explains why Malebranche refuses to take some
forms of skepticism seriously: skepticism with respect to things
perceived through clear and distinct perceptions is simply perverse,
for it violates norms to which reason demands adherence (Lennon 2000,

So far, we have seen that Malebranche is concerned to defeat some
forms of skepticism and is contemptuous and dismissive of others.
Although Vision in God plays a prominent role in defeating skepticism
of the first variety, regarding inference, its more primary task is to
explain how knowledge is possible. This point is evident in some of
the demonstrations that Malebranche marshals in support of the
doctrine, which have the character of ‘transcendental
arguments.’ Transcendental arguments typically begin with some
claim about knowledge that is taken as given. The transcendental move
then involves showing that such knowledge is possible only if some
condition, or set of conditions, has been satisfied. We might view the
Argument from Properties, discussed in section 3, as an example of
such an argument. Malebranche argues that the condition for the
possibility of knowledge of truths that are necessary, immutable, and
common to all minds or intelligences is that we see all things in

No one disagrees that all men can know the truth, and even the least
enlightened of philosophers agree that man participates in a certain
Reason that they do not determine….I see, for example,
that twice two is four, and that my friend is to be valued more than
my dog; and I am certain that no one in the world does not see this as
well as I….There must, therefore, be a universal Reason that
enlightens me and all other intelligences. For if the reason I
consult were not the same that answers the Chinese, it is clear that I
could not be as certain as I am that the Chinese see the same truths
as I do (Elucidation 10, OC 3:129; LO 613).

Malebranche begins here by assuming that we have knowledge of
mathematical and moral truths. The problem involves showing
how this knowledge is possible, and he resolves it by
appealing to Vision in God. The Argument from Properties is not the
only demonstration in Malebranche’s arsenal that has a transcendental
flavor. Indeed, one can view all of his positive arguments for Vision
in God, including those discussed in section 4, as constituting an
over-arching transcendental argument. Viewed in this way, each of the
considerations that he puts forth are not so much separate arguments
as they are separate conditions for the possibility of knowledge that
only Vision in God can jointly satisfy.

Malebranche’s primary objection to other theories of cognition, then,
is that they fail to satisfy these conditions and, in the case of
Descartes’ theory in particular, encourage the skeptic’s claim that we
lack knowledge. Descartes’ very conception of ideas as perceptions, or
modifications of finite minds, makes it impossible to guarantee that
they accurately represent their objects:

For if our ideas were only our perceptions, if our modes were
representative, how would we know that things correspond to our ideas,
since God does not think, and consequently does not act, according to
our perceptions but according to His own; and therefore He did not
create the world according to our perceptions but in accordance with
His ideas, on its eternal model that He finds in His essence
(Search 4.11, OC 2:99; LO 320).

[T]o maintain that ideas that are eternal, immutable, and common to
all intelligences, are only perceptions or momentary particular
modifications of the mind, is to establish Pyrrhonism and to make room
for the belief that what is moral or immoral is not necessarily so,
which is the most dangerous error of all (Elucidation 10, OC 3:140; LO

As discussed in section 3, Descartes insists that our ideas of
geometrical figures and the like are ‘eternal’ and
‘immutable’ (and Malebranche takes him also to hold that
they are ‘common to all intelligences’), but Malebranche
wonders here how this can be possible if they are merely fleeting
modes of finite minds. To identify ideas with such modes suggests that
they are merely subjective representations that vary among perceivers,
and whose correspondence to reality can never be established. It thus
invites skepticism (or ‘Pyrrhonism,’ an ancient form of
skepticism, though here the term just means radical or universal
skepticism) regarding our knowledge of the essences of created

Again, the virtue of Vision in God is that rather than encouraging
skepticism, it shows how knowledge is possible. If ideas are eternal
and immutable realities in God that serve as his archetypes for
creation, then there is no problem about whether they conform to their
objects. On the contrary, created objects must conform to them:

It is certain that things conform to the idea that God has of
them. For since God created them, He can only have made them according
to the idea that He has of them. Now according to the opinion that I
maintain, the idea that I have of extension in length, breadth, and
depth is not a modification of my soul: it is eternal, immutable,
necessary, common to God and all intelligences, and this idea is the
model of created extension from which all bodies are formed. I can
thus affirm with truth of created extension what I see contained in
this uncreated idea (OCM 9:925–6).

Although Malebranche had his share of admirers and imitators, he also
had his share of critics. The theory of Vision in God was subjected to
severe and sometimes bitter attacks by some of his contemporaries,
especially Cartesians such as Arnauld and Régis who saw
themselves as defending the legacy of Descartes against a corrupting
influence. Fortunately for us, Malebranche was eager to defend himself
and his replies to criticisms often help elucidate and amplify his
original doctrine, as stated in the first edition (1674) of the
Search After Truth. In some cases, these replies are quite
extensive. Although the dispute with Arnauld ranged over other topics,
and was originally sparked by theological differences, it lasted some
11 years and occupies several volumes (four of Malebranche’s, two of
Arnauld’s) of their collected works. Some of Malebranche’s critics
were dismissive of his doctrine. ‘[Vision in God] is an opinion
that spreads not and is like to die of itself, or at least do no great
harm,’ John Locke was reported as saying three days before his
death (quoted in Cranston 1957, 478). Malebranche, however, could be
equally disparaging of his opponents. To his critic Simon Foucher, he
quipped: ‘When one criticizes a book, it seems to me necessary
at least to have read it’ (OC 2:496). But once the dust from the
ad hominems settled, several important philosophical issues
became apparent. We shall begin here by discussing objections to the
doctrine that were prevalent in Malebranche’s own time and his replies
to them. We’ll focus on internal criticisms, that is,
objections that purport to expose incoherencies, unsound arguments,
and inconsistencies with larger aspects of his philosophy (as opposed
to complaints, for example, about his Cartesian infidelities). Toward
the end of this section, we shall examine a few objections that have
been raised by recent commentators.

Let’s begin with an objection that may have already occurred to the
reader. Malebranche claims that the idea of the infinite cannot be a
modification of our mind, for our mind is finite; it can only reside
in God, the sole infinite being. But anyone familiar with Descartes’
causal argument for God’s existence, from the Third Meditation, knows
that he argued otherwise. We have an innate idea of an actually
infinite being that has been implanted in us by God himself. How, as
finite beings, can we contain such an idea? To answer this question,
Descartes drew an important distinction between two aspects of an idea
— its so-called ‘formal’ being and its
‘objective,’ or representational, being. Formal being is
the kind of being or reality that ideas have in virtue of being modes
or modifications of one’s mind. As such, they all have the same degree
of finite reality. Whether I am thinking of the sun, my own mind, or
an infinite substance, my ideas in this case are all finite, formally
speaking. However, insofar as they represent different things to my
mind, my ideas have different degrees of what he calls
‘objective reality,’ exploiting a notion prevalent among
scholastic philosophers. The idea of myself as a thinking thing, for
example, has a finite degree of objective reality, while the idea of
God has an infinite degree of such reality. The level of objective
reality of an idea is determined by the level of reality that the
object it represents has formally. So Descartes thought that as a
finite being, my ideas must all have a finite degree of formal
reality, but they can have varying degrees of objective reality all
the way up to the infinite level. He would thus reject Malebranche’s
claim that insofar as my ideas represent something infinite, they must
reside in God.

One should not suppose that Malebranche was unaware of Descartes’
distinction between formal and objective reality. On the contrary, he
casts the distinction in even starker terms: the mind’s perceptions
have formal reality, and only formal reality, for they do not
represent anything beyond themselves. Objective reality is reserved
for ideas in God, the only representative beings. But why can’t ideas
be perceptions in finite minds? In particular, why can’t our mind
have an idea with infinite objective reality? As faithful Cartesians,
Arnauld and Régis both raise this objection against
Malebranche, though using slightly different technical
vocabulary. Instead of speaking of formal and objective reality, they
speak of something being finite or infinite in essendo as
opposed to finite or infinite in repraesentando,
respectively. Addressing Malebranche directly, Arnauld writes:

[I]t is not true that a modality of our soul, which is finite, cannot
represent an infinite thing; and it is true, on the contrary, that
however finite our perceptions may be, there are some which must pass
for infinite in this sense, that they represent the infinite. This is
what M. Régis correctly maintained to you, and what he meant by
these terms, that they are finite in essendo, and infinite
in repraesentando. You are not happy with this
distinction. Too bad for you (OA 40:88–9; also see Régis SG

Malebranche responds:

[S]ince [the modalities of our soul] are finite, we cannot find the
infinite there, since nothingness is not visible, and one cannot
perceive in the soul what is not there. Similarly, from the fact that
I perceive in a circle an infinity of equal diameters, or rather, from
the fact that there are equal diameters therein in
, I must concede that they are really there in
. For, in effect, a circle contains the reality of an
infinity of diameters. In order, then for a reality to be present to
the mind, for it to affect the mind, for the mind to perceive or
receive it, it necessarily must really be there (OC 9:954).

Malebranche’s reply is subtle and lends itself to multiple
interpretations (see e.g., Nadler 1992, 41f; Radner 1978, 107–8, 110–18
and Schmaltz 2000, 73). One way to understand it is to compare it to a
causal principle that Descartes invokes in his argument for God’s
existence in the Third Meditation. He claims that the objective
reality of an idea (such as that of God) must have a cause with at
least as much formalreality. Using this principle, he
concludes that only a being with infinite formal reality can be the
cause of the (infinite) objective reality of my idea of such
being. Now, Malebranche is not concerned with causes in this context
but with what is required for something to be present to the mind;
nevertheless, he is making the same general point: something cannot
give what reality it does not have. In perceiving a general idea, such
as a circle, we are able to perceive an infinite number of possible
diameters (and thus an infinity of possible particular circles). Thus,
the general idea of circle contains an infinite degree of reality. If
this idea were a modification of my mind, my mind itself would have to
be infinite, which it clearly is not.

How should we assess Malebranche’s reply? To the contemporary reader,
the suggestion that ideas and things can have different levels of
reality or being sounds bizarre, but to his seventeenth-century
readers, especially his Cartesian adversaries, this was a common
view. Evaluated from that perspective, Malebranche’s response holds up

Let us now consider a second objection, related to the first. A good
general source of objections to Vision in God is Malebranche’s own
Elucidations, which was first appended to the Search
in 1678, only four years after the original edition. There he faces
objections that had already been raised against the doctrine, but also
anticipates criticisms that were to be developed later, such as
Arnauld’s worry that Vision in God reduces to Vision of God,
which we have already discussed. One of the objections canvassed there
raises a cluster of difficulties. Malebranche claims that God is the
locus of intelligibility, but why couldn’t this ‘intelligible
world’ (monde intelligible) reside in our own mind? God
supposedly sees all possible creatures in his own perfections, but why
couldn’t the mind see extension at least in its own being?
Malebranche subscribes to what might be called a ‘cognitive
resemblance thesis,’ which holds that the immediate object of
cognition must have the same nature as the mind, which is immaterial
or spiritual. According to this principle, in order for the mind to
see material things in themselves, it would have to be material. But
how is God any better off here, as he too is immaterial? ‘The
soul is not material, admitted. But God, though he is a pure spirit,
sees bodies in himself; why could not the soul, then, see them by
considering itself, even though it itself is spiritual?’ (OC
3:147, LO 624).

To answer this objection, Malebranche stresses the distinction between
infinite and finite natures, as he understands it: whereas the mind is
a limited, particular being, God is ‘universal being’ or
‘being without restriction’ that consists of an infinity
of perfections. Because he is infinite and indeterminate, God can
contain the perfections of materials things in an
‘eminent’ or higher sense, without thereby becoming
extended. ‘But as the soul is a particular being, a limited
being, it cannot have extension in it without becoming material,
without being composed of two substances’ (OC 3:148, ibid.). The
thesis that God contains the perfections of created beings
‘eminently,’ as opposed to ‘formally’ or
literally, is one that Malebranche borrows from Descartes, but he puts
his own spin on it by conceiving God as a general being. Recall that
Malebranche appropriates this conception from St. Thomas Aquinas and,
indeed, invokes the saint’s name here:

God’s ideas of creatures are, as Saint Thomas says, only his essence,
insofar as it is participable or imperfectly imitable, for God
contains every creaturely perfection, though in a divine and infinite
way; he is one and he is all…. But the soul… is a
particular being, a very limited and imperfect being. Certainly it
cannot see in itself what is not there in any way at all. How could we
see in one species of being all species of being, or in a finite and
particular being a triangle in general and infinite triangles? (OC
3:149, LO 625).

The claim that God is ‘being in general,’ however, invites
further objections, both theological and philosophical. The God of
Christianity is supposed to be a personal savior who hears our prayers
and absolves us of sin, not an abstract
It may be difficult to save Malebranche (or Aquinas) from this
objection, but one should note that the ‘God of the
philosophers,’ conceived of in purely intellectual terms as an
infinite and all perfect being, is already removed from the more
churchly conception. To add that God is universal being takes us even
further from that conception, though the Christian philosopher can
always insist that scripture need not be taken literally. Malebranche
himself maintains that his view of God follows from divine infinity,
which of course has a scriptural basis.

The conception of God as being in general also offended the
philosophical sensibilities of the seventeenth century, which tended
to favor a nominalist or conceptualist account of universals.
According to this anti-Platonistic view, which had adherents among
rationalists (e.g., Descartes) and empiricists (e.g., Locke) alike,
the only things that exist are particulars, and so-called universals
such as numbers or geometric objects are merely concepts or names. To
conceive God as a universal violates this creed and, in the view of
Locke specifically, makes God a bare abstraction (McCracken 1983,
139). Malebranche, however, maintains that the existence of God or
being in general is necessary to explain the very possibility of
abstract thought:

the mind would be incapable of representing universal ideas of genus,
species, and so on, to itself had it not seen all beings contained in
one…. [S]ense can be made of the way the mind knows certain
abstract and general truths only through the presence of Him who can
enlighten the mind in an infinity of different ways (Search
3.2.6, OC 1:441; LO 232).

It is not clear, however, that the possibility of abstract cognition
demands Vision in God. Some rival theories of abstract
cognition, prevalent in the period, did not require a Platonistic
ontology, and arguably were more philosophically satisfying.

This brings us to yet another objection, concerning the ontology of
ideas in God. Following Descartes, Malebranche proclaims throughout
his work that everything that exists is either a substance or a
modification of a substance. Thus, it would seem that if ideas are in
God then they too must be either substances in their own right or
divine modifications. Malebranche explicitly denies the latter, for
God is immutable and thus ‘incapable of modifications’
(Elucidation 10, OC 3:149; LO 625). But they cannot be substances
either for that would violate the theological doctrine that God is
perfectly simple (more on this below). Malebranche, it would appear,
is forced to abandon his substance-mode ontology: ‘I believe
that intelligible extension is neither a substance nor a modification
of substance, notwithstanding the axiom of the Philosophers [that
everything is a either a substance or a mode]’ (OC 6:245). One
must be careful, however, not to read this remark as conceding defeat,
for in the continuation of this reply to Arnauld and in the passage
above, he identifies ideas with God’s substance: ‘God’s ideas of
creatures are…only His essence, insofar as it is participable
or imperfectly imitable’ (Elucidation 10, OC 3:149; LO
625). Perhaps Malebranche is not inconsistent after all for, as it
turns out, ideas are substances, just not distinct substances. They
are God’s substance conceived of in a certain way. The problem,
unfortunately, goes beyond the issue of whether Malebranche is
inconsistent. We are never given a clear account of the ontology of
ideas; even in identifying them with God he must rely on the Platonic
metaphor of participation.

There is also considerable pressure in Malebranche’s philosophy
against identifying ideas with God (even with all of the
qualifications that identification usually assumes). In holding that
God creates via archetypes, Malebranche seems committed to the
position that ideas are discrete, and not just as we perceive them but
for God himself. This may only require one idea of extension, but
there also must be an idea of the mind. This again raises the problem
of reconciling the theory of ideas with divine simplicity, a doctrine
to which Malebranche is strongly committed and, ironically, to which
he appeals in arguing for Vision in God (see section 4). Even two
discrete ideas in God would be sufficient to violate his simplicity,
and sometimes Malebranche speaks as if there are more. He recognizes
that there is a problem here: ‘there is a great deal of
difficulty in reconciling the Divine Being’s simplicity with this
variety of intelligible ideas that He contains in His wisdom’
(ibid., OC 3:137, LO 618). But his only solution is to appeal to
divine incomprehensibility. ‘[T]he divine substance in its
simplicity…is beyond our reach….’ (Dialogue 2, OC
12:52; JS 22).

Far from trying to reconcile divine simplicity with his theory of
ideas, Malebranche seems to exacerbate the problem in some of the ways
he characterizes ideas. In Elucidation 10 and elsewhere, for example,
he speaks of the ‘parts’ of intelligible extension (see
e.g., Elucidation 10, OC 3:152–3; LO 627). This locution led Arnauld
and others to worry not just about divine simplicity but whether
Malebranche was a Spinozistic pantheist who identified God with
extension. Malebranche replied that by ‘parts’ he meant
intelligible parts, not spatial ones (Dialogue 4, OC 12:95,
JS 58), but it is not clear how this solves the problem, especially
since these so-called intelligible parts continue to function like
spatial ones within his theory, becoming larger or smaller depending
on the object we are perceiving and our perspective on it (Radner
1978, 117f). The charge of Spinozism would continue to haunt
Malebranche throughout his career and was developed with even greater
zeal by a former student named Dortuous de Mairan toward the end of
his life.

One recent commentator has tried to make sense of Malebranche’s talk
of intelligible parts, in a way that preserves God’s simplicity and
avoids the dangers of pantheism, by conceiving intelligible extension
as a set of “point-like entities” that correspond to
material extension. Jasper Reid stresses that the former are not real
points and that the relation between them is not one of actual
distance. Indeed, he maintains that these intelligible points are
points only in relation to the intellect that conceives intelligible
extension in a partial manner. One virtue of this interpretation, he
argues, is that it establishes an isomorphism or identity of structure
between intelligible extension and the corporeal world without making
the former materially extended (2003, 600). Reid’s view is motivated
in part by the conviction that Malebranche conceived representation in
terms of resemblance. Intelligible extension can represent the
material world only if it resembles it in some way. He sees
Malebranche’s talk of intelligible parts as gesturing at the
aforementioned structural resemblance. Reid’s view is very ingenious
but it suffers from philosophical and textual shortcomings. Although
one other commentator (Watson 1966) has argued that Malebranche
conceived representation in terms of resemblance, the textual basis
for such a claim is rather dubious (see Nadler 1992, 46f). More
fatally, Reid’s view requires that one conceive of material extension as
consisting of a system of extensionless points, but, like other
mathematical objects, points are abstractions or idealizations that do
not exist in nature. As Malebranche notes in the Search,
“Nature is not abstract: the levers and balls of mechanics are
not the lines and circles of mathematics” (OC 2:277; LO 428).
In short, Reid’s view works only if one idealizes material extension,
something Malebranche refuses to do.

Recent commentators have developed some of the traditional criticisms
of the doctrine of Vision in God and proposed new ones of their
own. These days many commentators are impressed by the link between
Malebranchean ideas and logical concepts (e.g., Jolley 1990, McCracken
1983, Nadler 1992, Pyle 2003). Whereas Cartesian ideas were
psychological entities or modes of finite minds, Malebranchean ideas
are abstract, logical entities residing in a third realm (over and
above minds and bodies). The virtue of this conception is that it
explains how two or more people can be said to be thinking of the same
abstract object, such as the number ‘two,’ and how various
properties, such as the Pythagorean Theorem, can be said to follow
logically from the idea of a right triangle. It also pushes
Malebranche closer to Frege, Kant, and other more recent philosophical
heroes, and makes him appear prescient with respect to certain
insights characteristic of contemporary analytic philosophy.

On the other hand, it also resurrects with renewed vigor some of the
problems considered above. Most notably, if ideas are abstract,
logical entities, then they are even more difficult to reconcile with
Malebranche’s substance-mode ontology. Indeed, one commentator has
argued that, to avoid inconsistency, Malebranche ought to have made a
clean break with the Cartesian assumption that everything is either a
substance or a mode in favor of a more ‘trialistic’ view
that grants that ideas, qua third realm entities, are sui
(Jolley 1990, 79). As abstract entities, it is also
difficult to understand how ideas can have causal powers, in keeping
with the doctrine of efficacious ideas, or how they can be identical
with God’s substance (Jolley 1990, 76f). In Malebranche’s defense, one
might note that the latter problem arises only from regarding ideas as
logical entities. Perhaps ideas in God should not be conceived in this
manner (Pepper-Bates 2005, 93).

Among recent objections to Vision in God, one of the most important
concerns the relation of intelligible extension to sensations. As we
have seen, Malebranche draws an important distinction between these
but also thinks that sense perception combines elements of each. To
the sensory component Malebranche accords a crucial role in explaining
how intelligible extension is ‘particularized’ or
individuated, so as to represent a material object in the
world. Sensations of color and light, he says, are
‘projected’ or ‘painted’ onto intelligible
extension as if it were an artist’s canvas. The problem, however, is
in understanding how these radically disparate entities — ideas
and sensations — can have any commerce with each other. Even if
we reject the reading that ideas are logical entities, they are
nevertheless general and pure, and thus different in kind from

One proposed solution to this difficulty involves the notion of
‘seeing as’ (see Nolan 2012, 27–32). Malebranche’s
painting analogy is merely a metaphor. Sensations of course are not
literally painted onto intelligible extension. In fact, intelligible
extension is not altered by our perception of it since, like all
things in God, it is immutable. Rather, we see intelligible
extension as a particular object, such as a tree or a
mountain, even though its intrinsic nature is very different. These
different ways of perceiving nevertheless qualify as cases of seeing
intelligible extension because, according to the doctrine of
efficacious ideas, it causes us to perceive it in these different
ways. In fact, when intelligible extension affects our mind with one
set of sensations, we see it as a mountain; when it produces another
set of sensations in us, we see it as a white-winged bird flying
against a blue sky, etc. Malebranche writes:

there need be in God no sensible bodies or real figures in
intelligible extension in order for us to see them in God or for God
to see them in Himself. It is enough that His substance, insofar as
the corporeal creature can participate in it, should be able to be
perceived in different ways
(Elucidation 10, OC 3:152; LO 626;
emphasis added).

Later in the same work he adds: “we see all things in God
through the efficacy of his substance, and particularly sensible
things, through God’s applying intelligible extension to our mind in a
thousand different ways” (OC 3:154, LO 628).

One attraction of this interpretation is that it also provides a
satisfying reply to de Mairan’s objection, considered above, that
Malebranche succumbs to Spinozism by ascribing parts to intelligible
extension. Once again, Malebranche could avail himself of the notion
of seeing as: we see intelligible extension as having parts even
though it lacks real parts because it causes us to do so. Given
Malebranche’s representationalism, seeing intelligible extension in
this way explains how we see the material world as divided into
discrete bodies (see Nolan 2012, 35–37).

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