Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


Toward the end of the seventeenth century almost every French writer of note evinced a more or less decided tendency towards Cartesianism. Bossuet (1627-1704) and Fénelon (1651-1715) presented the traditional religious philosophy of St. Thomas and St. Augustine, in a form which bears unmistakable marks of the influence of Descartes' teachings. Among the Port-Royalists Cartesianism found ardent defenders in Arnauld (1612-1694) and Nicole (1625- 1695). Pascal, too, while he, no doubt, included Cartesianism in his condemnation of all purely rational philosophy, represents in his own doctrines a development of ideas which were germinally contained in the philosophy of Descartes. Finally Geulincx and Malebranche gave to Descartes' philosophy a more complete and definite form, and brought to light the elements of occasionalism and ontologism latent in it.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was born at Clermont, in Auvergne, and was educated at Paris. He became one of the most conspicuous figures in the Jansenist movement, and contributed to the literature of the Jansenist controversy the famous Provincial Letters (Lettres provinciales). He made several important discoveries in mathematics and physics, and it was a treatise of his that formed the basis of The Port-Royal Logic (L'art de penser), which appeared in 1662. The work entitled Pensées, published in 1669, consists of fragmentary reflections intended to form part of a system of Christian philosophy. Some of these fragments are utterly sceptical in tone, while others breathe the spirit of dogmatic Stoicism. And, in point of fact, the fundamental thought in Pascal's mind reconciled both these extremes; for while he depreciates reason and condemns all purely rational philosophy, at the same time he exalts faith and insists that "the heart has reasons of which reason itself knows nothing." From the point of view of reason and philosophy, man is an eternal enigma, truly great, yet no less truly miserable. "Man knows that he is miserable: he is therefore miserable, since he is so; but he is very great, since he knows it . . . If he exalts himself, I abase him: if he abases himself, I exalt him, and perpetually contradict him till he comprehends that he is an incomprehensible monster." Reason, therefore, cannot solve the mystery of man's state, nor can it discover the cause of his present condition, which is that of a king deposed. Faith alone, by means of the doctrine of original sin, answers the questions which reason can merely ask, and solves the riddle of human destiny. On regeneration by the redemption of Jesus Christ is the whole fabric of morality to be based. Consequently, faith, or as Pascal commonly expresses it, feeling, sentiment, the heart, is the supreme criterion of the highest truths in the speculative order, and of all moral truth.


Life. Arnold Geulincx was born at Antwerp in the year 1625. After having studied and taught philosophy at Louvain, he went to Leyden, where he joined the Calvinists. At the University of Leyden he was appointed successively lector (1662) and professor extraordinary (1665) in the department of philosophy. He died at Leyden in the year 1669.


Geulincx{1} developed the ontologism and occasionalism which were latent in the Cartesian separation of mind and matter, and in the Cartesian principle that matter is essentially inert.

Ontologism. Unless I know how an event happens I am not its cause: quod nescis quomodo fiat, id non facis. Now, I am ignorant of the manner in which a sense-stimulus passes into, or becomes a sensation in, the mind. Therefore I do not cause the sensation. Neither does the body cause it; for the body is essentially inert, unconscious, non-rational. Consequently, the sensation -- and what is true of sensation is true of all knowledge -- is caused by God Himself, the body and the bodily stimulus being merely the occasions of the conscious act.

Occasionalism. Similarly, I have no consciousness of the manner in which my volitions effect movements of my own body or of external things. It is not I, therefore, who produce these movements, but God, Who by divine decree (instituto quodam decretoque divino) ordained that material things should be the occasions of effects which He alone produces.

Ethical Doctrines. From these speculative principles Geulinex deduces certain ethical doctrines. He assumes that where I can do nothing I ought not to will anything (ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis). It is my duty, therefore, to renounce the world and all worldly motives of action, to retire within myself and cultivate, in humility and patience, the supreme virtue which is love of God and of reason (amor Dei ac rationis). In this system of conduct the hierarchical idea is not happiness, but duty.


Life. Nicolas Malebranche was born at Paris in 1638. In 1660 he entered the Paris house of the Oratory founded by St. Philip Neri. Four years later, the reading of Descartes' Traité de l'homme{2} decided his philosophical vocation, and during the rest of his life he devoted himself as strenuously as his feeble health would permit to the elucidation and development of the Cartesian philosophy. He died in 1725. His most important work is Recherche de la vérité, which appeared in 1675.{3}


Malebranche begins his search for truth by an inquiry into the causes of error. The principal source of error he finds to be belief in the trustworthiness of the senses; for the senses were given us to serve practical needs, and not for the purpose of revealing the natures of things. The external senses err in representing bodies as colored, etc., extension being the only quality which bodies possess. Similarly, the imagination deceives us; for its impressions come through the body. There is nothing left, then, but to trust in our ideas as representations of reality. But whence come our ideas? Not from external things; because no finite thing can produce anything, causal efficacy being the prerogative of the Deity (occasionalism). Indeed, all true philosophy, Malebranche observes, must teach that there is but one cause, just as all true religion must teach that there is but one God. Now, if finite being can produce nothing, and if God is the only cause, the conclusion is obvious that it is God Himself Who produces our ideas. In Him we see all things (ontologism): "nous voyons toutes choses en Dieu." He is the locus of our ideas; He is, therefore, in immediate relation with every thinking soul. What, then, one asks, has become of the soul itself? It is reduced to a mere thought; the soul always thinks, and thought is its being and its life.

Historical Position. Pascal, Geulincx, and Malebranche brought to the surface the elements of mysticism which lay hidden in Descartes' system of thought. The latter two developed also the latent ontologism and occasionalism of the Cartesian philosophy, and revealed the logical nexus between Cartesianism and pantheism. For, although Malebranche protested against the pantheism of "le misérable Spinoza," posterity has rightly pronounced his occasionalism to be Spinozism in the stage of arrested development -- pantheism held in check by faith in Christian revelation.

{1} On Geulincx and Malebranche, cf. Damiron, Essai sur l'histoire de la philosophie en France au 17me siècle (Paris, 1846). Recent edition of Geulincx' works by J. P. N. Land (The Hague, 1891-1893).

{2} La traité de l'homme ou de la formation du foetus (Paris, 1664).

{3} Cf. Henri Joly, Malebranche (Grands philosophes series, Paris, 1901). Recent edition of Malebranche's works by Jules Simon (Paris, 1871).

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