Malebranche and the Cartesian problem of the unconscious

Frederick Richard Ablondi, Marquette University


Nicolas Malebranche is often thought of as an ardent disciple of Cartesianism. Yet he parts ways with Descartes on a number of important points, one of the most important of which concerns the question of whether mind is able to affect body. It is clear from his letters to Elisabeth that Descartes believed that minds have it within their power to move bodies; Malebranche, on the other hand, denies this, not because mind and body are separate substances--the most frequent criticism of Descartes' dualism--but because he considered the human mind to be too weak to act as such a cause. From this view of the mind as relatively impotent follow Malebranche's anti-Cartesian views that bodies are, in a way, better known than minds, and that our sensations, as well as the mind itself, are known only confusedly. Given what Malebranche says about the limited ability of the human mind, the main focus of this dissertation concerns what we are and are not able to know about ourselves as mental substances. In the first chapter, I examine several interpretations of the Cartesian theory of will, as well as Descartes' definition of thought. In the second chapter, I briefly discuss Malebranche's occasionalism before turning to his theory of the will, which is contrasted with the Cartesian account(s) presented in the first chapter. The third chapter focuses on ideas in Malebranche, and again, I stress the contrast with the Cartesian philosophy of ideas. The final chapter begins with an account of knowledge by sentiment interieur in Malebranche; I then argue that, despite initial appearances, it is not sentiment interieur, but his theory of will, taken together with his epistemology and ontology of ideas, which in Malebranche's psychology allow for the presence of unconscious mental processes in the human mind.

Recommended Citation

Ablondi, Frederick Richard, "Malebranche and the Cartesian problem of the unconscious" (1995). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9600842.