My senior thesis explored the notion of action under George Berkeley's system, and one claim I tried to address was that Berkeley contradicts himself when discussing will.

In his Philosophical Commentaries, Berkeley writes:

We move our Legs our selves. 'tis we that will their movement. Herein I differ from Malebranche (#548).

The specific criticism that I wanted to address somewhat hinges on exactly how Berkeley differs from Malebranche, and unfortunately Berkeley isn't explicit on the subject. I've looked through Malebranche's Wikipedia page, and it states that according to him, "both the idea in the mind and the movement in the body are caused by God." This certainly differs from Berkeley drastically, but I can't reasonably cite Wikipedia in substantiation of this claim.

So I'm wondering if there are any Malebranche scholars out there who could point me in the right direction to find some concise (read: quotable) passages that spell out the claims Wikipedia makes about his philosophy.

I would really appreciate any help in this regard; I've never studied Malebranche or even heard of him before writing this paper, and although I've already turned in my thesis, this is a question that I would still like a more definitive answer to than what I gave in my paper.

  • 1
    This is actually a really great question (despite the fact that I don't know the answer!). I particularly like the fact that it combines an expert-level discussion with a question regarding "an actual problem that you've faced" (a line from the FAQ). – Cody Gray Jun 9 '11 at 8:48
  • You're making me blush :) when I was working on my thesis, this is exactly what I envisioned using PhilSE for, and was terribly sad it didn't exist yet. I had to fall back to Reddit (reddit.com/r/AcademicPhilosophy/comments/h78sd/…) and needless to say, I didn't get any helpful responses. – dimo414 Jun 9 '11 at 8:53
  • I have no knowledge of the domain. But: 1) The Cambridge Companion to Malebranche would likely help. 2) There might be free etexts available to search for relevant terms as there are surely translations now out of copyright. 3) If nothing else, you could search in earlymoderntexts.com/f_maleb.html. This edition wouldn't be suitable for a scholarly reference, but it would help you find appropriate places to examine in a more faithful translation. – vanden Jun 11 '11 at 7:24

According to Malebranche, I do not have an idea of my soul, I only have a feeling.

"The soul, on the other hand, is that I in me which thinks, which senses, which wills—it is the substance in which are found all the modifications of which I have an inner sensation, and which subsist only in the soul that perceives them. Thus, no property other than its diverse thoughts should be attributed to the soul. I assume, then, that the soul can be distinguished from the body."

Nicolas Malebranche, The Search after Truth, I, 10, 1. ­


My internal sense of myself teaches me that I am, that I think, that I will, that I sense, that I suffer, and so on, but it doesn’t reveal to me what I am, what the nature is of my thought, my will, my sensations, my passions, my pain, or the relations these things have to one another.

Nicolas Malebranche, Dialogues on Metaphysics, III, 7

Before Berkeley, Malebranche had indeed believed the Cartesian form of cogito in its relation to feeling, in opposition to idea.

The connection between Berkeley and Malebranche is appealing especially in the description of spirit, but it’s clear that Berkeley himself forbade it from the beginning.

The decisive point is the activity and relative power that Berkeley attached to limited spirits.

We move our Legs our selves. 'tis we that will their movement. Herein I differ from Malebranche (#548).

A hasty read of this quote can make us believe that Berkeley does not understand well the thought of Malebranche, since he implicitly accuses him of having conceived that we have an idea of our soul, when we know that Malebranche opposed the inner feeling to the idea.

Malebranche means by idea a paradigm that permits us to know a thing.

Berkeley knows well, also, that Malebranche believes that we do not dispose of this paradigm by ourselves for what is our soul, and it’s in this that we make a simple sense.

If the Malebranchist feeling is not an idea in the Malebranchist sense, it stays an idea in the Berkeleian sense.

We can call this internal experience conscientia or feeling, we always conceive it as if it were some perception, even if it’s vague.

It's exactly the same motive that lead Berkeley to conceive the notion of an operation of the spirit completely different from an idea of reflection à la Locke, in spite of verbal proximity and established usage in the vocabulary of thought.


Occasionalism is the position that God is the true and "efficient" cause of all that occurs. Absolutely nothing happens, except through him, even when we appear to witnessing the demonstration of a law of nature, or indeed experience ourselves to be directly exercising agency over our activity.

God is the only entity capable of being a true and necessary cause. Nevertheless God observes "order" in creating and conserving the universe, constraining himself through certain logical and physical rules:

"a true cause … is one such that the mind perceives a necessary connection [liaison nécessaire] between it and its effects"

It should be noted that there is a moral dimension here as well: we take simple physical pleasures to be true causes of our happiness, yet in fact God is the only true cause of anything whatsoever; all creatures are completely and continuously dependent on him.

One traditional interpretation is that Malebranche advances this claim in response to Descartes' dualistic hypothesis. But occasionalism itself was already a very old doctrine (in fact even in Aquinas' day) and Malebranche seems to have been more concerned with defending occasionalism against a number of other common objections to it.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Malebranche contains an extended section discussing this point, and was very helpful in sorting out the issues surrounding him and occasionalism for me. You can read Malebranche himself making this claim in these dialogues (PDF), specifically dialogue 4, section 11.


As a thoroughgoing occasionalist, Malebranche held that all causal activity is divine. That means body-body interaction, that means mind-on-body and body-on-mind interaction, and that means causal activity within one's mind. All of that has God as its true cause. Nothing created has any real causal power, which means that what look like causes in the order of nature are really just 'occasions' for God to do causal work.

Now, this raises a huge problem when it comes to human free will and sin. For example, if my decision to commit murder is caused by God, then it seems that God is the one responsible for the murder, not me. If I have no causal power of my own, in what sense can I even be considered an agent? People disagree on how Malebranche solved this problem. I think his solution (see Elucidation One of his Search after Truth) was to say that we have a purely negative power over our will: when faced with a false good that nevertheless appears good to us, we can either give consent to it (pausing our perpetual search for good and stopping with this particular good) or decline to give consent (continuing our perpetual search for good), and either way we do not bring about anything real in ourselves. Thus God is still the cause of everything real, and we only bring about something more like an absence or privation. This is obviously very similar to Augustine's way of handling God as the cause of evil.

In any case, Berkeley wanted no part of this. Even though he was enormously influenced by Malebranche, and agreed that inanimate nature has no causal power of its own (after all, mere ideas are purely passive and thus have no causal power), he wanted to preserve human freedom. So Berkeley's 'occasionalism' was a limited one, depriving inanimate nature of causal power, but allowing all spirits (God and humans alike) to have causal power of their own.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.