The place of freedom in Nicolas Malebranche's doctrine of occasionalism
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
It was in 1664, the year he was ordained at the Congrégation de l'Oratoire, that Nicolas Malebranche discovered René Descartes' posthumous Traité de l'Homme in a bookshop on the Rue Saint-Jacques. The effect of the encounter, according to Fontenelle, was dramatic. Il acheta le livre, le lut avec empressement, et, ce qu'on aura peut-être peine à croire, avec un tel transport qu'il lui en prenait des battements de coeur qui l'obligeaient quelquefois d'interrompre sa lecture. But it was on the mind of Malebranche that the book had greater and more lasting effect. Indeed, Descartes was to become one of two major influences on the formation of Malebranche's thought. The other was Saint Augustine, the great thinker championed by the Oratory since it was established by Pierre de Bérulle (later Cardinal) in 1611. It was this combination of Cartesian method and Platonic-Augustinian inspiration that was to become a marked characteristic of Malebranche's philosophy. Like the Oratorian Fathers who taught him, Malebranche saw no contradiction between questions of theology and the new science and mathematics. The two were compatible and the Cartesian method was the means of achieving this unity. This characteristic of Malebranche is seen clearly in his celebrated doctrine of Occasionalism, which was first put forward in De la Recherche de la Vérité of 1674-5. To the philosopher it is essentially a doctrine of causality, maintaining that all created objects, including humans, are causally impotent, and merely provide the "occasions" for God, the only true cause, to act. Such a doctrine immediately raises important philosophical questions, particularly as to the role played by humans within an Occasionalist Universe. It is the task of this thesis to consider one of these questions - Is Occasionalism compatible with human free-will? If humans are causally impotent, then they cannot be considered the cause of their actions or even choices. They are reduced to puppets, and puppets have no freedom if everything they do is caused by a higher authority. But the doctrine is not only of interest to the philosopher, for it raises questions important to the theologian as well. If we are not free to cause our actions, then we cannot be held morally responsible for them. And without this freedom there is no question of moral reprehensibility, for as Malebranche himself writes: Si nous n' avions point de liberté, il n'y auroit ni peines, ni récompenses futuresi car sans liberté il n'y a ni bonnes ni mauvaises actions: De sorte que la Religion seroit une illusion & un phantôme. Good and bad actions do occur, however. So does sin. But we cannot be held responsible for our sins if we are not the causes of them, so where does responsibility lie? Occasionalism upholds God as the only true cause, but to suggest that God is responsible for sin is to enter onto very dangerous theological ground indeed. The doctrine of Occasionalism is characteristic of Malebranche. He was neither a philosopher nor a theologian alone, but a highly original thinker whose mind addressed itself to the problems of both, in an attempt to construct a world-view in which such problems are resolved. The doctrine of Occasionalism is a fundamental part of this construction. The first half of this thesis will consider Occasionalism - its history, its treatment by Malebranche and some of the problems it involves. The second half will then turn to the question of human freedom, in order to determine what place, if any, is left to it within an Occasionalist framework. It will begin with Malebranche's own conception of free-will, the problems that arise from it, and examine whether the freedom it grants us is sufficient for us to be held responsible for our actions. It will conclude with the question - Is any notion of human freedom possible within Occasionalism?