A few excerpts from Malebranche’s *the Search After Truth*

The current chapter I’m writing is focused on Nicolas Malebranche and his English follower John Norris. They’re both a lot of fun to read, but Malebranche in particular has a fun since he doesn’t spare any words to attack those he thinks are not thinking clearly, distracting others from true knowledge, or whose ideas he considers bad.

Portrait of Nicolas Malebranche

So here are a few of the passages I’d enjoyed for reasons other than their scholarly value for my PhD. For a start, here’s Malebranche having a go at the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca:

All this shows that few errors are more dangerous, or more easily communicable, than those with which Seneca’s books are filled. For these errors are refined, suited to man’s nature, and similar to that in which the demon engaged our first parents. They are clad in these books with pompous and splendid ornaments, which gain entry for them into most minds. They enter, grasp, stun, and blind them. But they blind them with a proud blindness, a dazzling blindness, a blindness accompanied by glimmering lights, not a humiliating blindness full of shadows that make one aware that one is blind and force one to admit it to others. When one is struck by this proud blindness, one places oneself among the noble and powerful minds. Even others include us in this class and admire us. Thus, nothing is more contagious than this blindness, because the vanity and sensibility of men, the corruption of their senses and passions, dispose them to search after it, to be struck by it, and excite them to impress others with it.

I do not believe then that one can find an author more appropriate than Seneca for exemplifying the nature of this contagion in an infinity of men whom we call noble and powerful minds, and for showing how strong and vigorous imaginations dominate weak and unenlightened minds – not by the strength or evidence of arguments, which are products of the mind – but by the turn and vivid manner of expression, which depend on strength of imagination. (181)

This is just one of many lengthy attacks against the Stoics (and Seneca in particular). But others don’t escape Malebranche’s ire either. Here are two short passages against Michel de Montaigne:

He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so. And so he became a gentlemanly pedant of quite singular species, rather than a reasonable, judicious, and honest man.

Montaigne’s book contains such obvious proofs of the vanity and pride of its author that it might seem useless to note them here, for one must be quite conceited in order to imagine, as he does, that people would wish to read such a thick book to have some acquaintance with our humors. He must necessarily set himself apart from the common man and regard himself as a quite extraordinary person. (186)

He goes on:

If it is a defect to speak of oneself often, it is an affront, rather a kind of stupidity, to praise oneself all the time as Montaigne does, for this is not only a sin against Christian humility but also an insult to reason. (187)

Part of the text presents an argument against wasting your time with focusing on the wrong kinds of knowledge, since they pollute your mind and take you further away from the kind of knowledge that is really valuable. Among those we should we worry about in particular are some scholars:

The rarest and most ancient histories are the ones that they glory in knowing. They do not know the genealogy of currently reigning princes, but they carefully research those of men who have been dead for four thousand years. They neglect to learn the most common histories of their own time, but they seek a perfect understanding of the fables and fictions of poets. They do not even know their own relatives, but if you wish, they will present many authorities to prove that some Roman citizen was allied with some emperor, or such other things. (297-8)

To be clear, he doesn’t think these things are entirely useless – only if they take us away from those kinds of knowledge that improve us.

Finally though, he thinks we should be weary of those who try to read too much, and read without properly understanding what they read. In particular, I think he’d dislike the kind of requirements contemporary grad students often face. Consider these this short passage for instance:

There are people thirty years of age who quote more evil books for you in their works than they could have read in several centuries, and nevertheless they hope to convince others that they have read them very closely. But most books of certain scholars are fabricated only with the help of dictionaries, and they have hardly read the indexes of the books they quote and some commonplaces gathered together from different authors.

In fairness to grad students, I think this passage is even more an indictment of the poor scholarship presented by some super popular “public intellectuals.”

The Search After Truth is a really rich work, so while I know I’ve picked out some passages that are amusing to me because Malebranche is having a go at someone, I’d not like you to think that the whole book or his way of doing philosophy relies on him being a jerk to other thinkers. In many ways he is trying to synthesise Augustinian and Cartesian philosophy. What he takes from Descartes, in particular, is a kind of moral epistemology. He thinks that if we avoid error in our thinking, we can be closer to the absolute good, that is, to God.

All quotations are from Nicolas Malebranche, 1997, The Search After Truth, trans. and ed. Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Review of Susanna Berger’s *The Art of Philosophy*

Berger - Book Cover

I was tidying up some files in my PhD folder when I found this review I’d written of Susanna Berger’s wonderful book, The Art of Philosophy. Re-reading it now, I think it’s still a neat précis of her book. As I recall, I wrote it for a student-run journal, and by the time I’d written it a new editorial team took over and wasn’t keen any more. I thought I’d share!


Susanna Berger’s The Art of Philosophy is an examination of the tradition of visual representations of philosophy common between the late sixteenth- and early eighteenth centuries. The tradition produced many large-scale tableau representations of entire philosophical systems, with the aim of exhibiting complex ideas in a more accessible form. Her central argument is that such representations, what she calls “plural images”, were not merely instruments for presenting philosophical systems, but that their production in itself was a form of philosophical thought. In so doing, Berger addresses an oft-neglected aspect of the study of early modern philosophy, namely, the visual culture which accompanied it. On her view, such representations formed a visual commentary, which emphasized that they were not just illustrating concepts, but offering in themselves new and enriching additions to philosophical ideas (p.3). As such, by studying the early modern visual depictions of Aristotelian philosophy, on which her book focuses, we can gleam an interesting insight into the way in which the key texts of the 17th century philosophical education were introduced to students. By doing so we can come to gauge their reception with more sensitivity to the context in which they were taken up.

The first chapter of The Art of Philosophy focuses on Siegmund Jacob Apin’s Dissertatio de variis discendi methodis memoria causa inventis earumque usu et abusu (1725). Berger uses Apin’s text to introduce several of the central arguments of her book. Though the treatise itself is unillustrated, it offers a view of a diverse group of didactic and mnemonic images, and it orients the reader towards the idea that visual representations of philosophy could not merely aid the study of the subject, but in themselves be works of philosophy. This chapter argues that the kinds of representation described by Apin were designed to integrate them with the lived activities of the viewer (p.42). In this way, such images could be used to make the acquisition of knowledge easier. This argument is picked up and illustrated in the second chapter by an analysis of several plural images, such as Meurisse and Gaultier’s Artificiosa Totius Logices Descriptio (1614) or Marshall and Meurisse’s An artificiall description of logick (1637).

The third chapter turns away from text embedded within images, to images embedded within text. In this discussion, Berger focuses on images contained within student notebooks, to argue that the ubiquity and variety of pictorial representations of philosophical concepts reveals that such images and the activity of drawing them were an important component of early modern philosophical education and thinking (p.145). Her contention is that these images were not merely used as study aids (as would be the case if these images were merely used to help with committing the material to memory), but that the drawings were crucial in the development of new philosophical ideas.

Berger continues the discussion of student notebooks in the fourth chapter which explores the way in which images in manuscript sources served as tools by which students and scholars could come to grips with difficult theories. One such example is the representation of the Square of Opposition – a diagram used to illustrate simple logical statements and the way they relate to each other (p.148). What emerges from this and the previous chapter is the ubiquity of the use of visual representations as study aims. Students found them useful in clarifying their thinking – and in so doing, showed that these representations were crucial to the way in which their own thinking developed and occurred.

The fifth chapter concludes the book with the argument that visual representations played a double role. That is, that beyond being essential tools for the transmission of knowledge, they also became dominant metaphors for understanding the activities of the mind (p.173). This is to say, that there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between the production of visual representations of knowledge and the production of knowledge.

Finally, the book ought to be praised for its extensive scholarly apparatus, and in particular the two appendices, which catalogue the surviving impressions of philosophical plural images, and offer transcriptions of the text inscribed into them. The Art of Philosophy is a book rich in examples and arguments. Berger shows persuasively that the visual culture arising from philosophy was crucial in the way in which the early moderns thought of the discipline. This book will thus be of interest not just to scholars of early modern visual culture, but also to teachers interested in presenting philosophy in an alternative format. It stands as a significant achievement in scholarship that is both rigorous and accessible.


Beyond my review, you might also want to check out this excerpt adapted from the book – with a tonne of images courtesy of the author!

Reading this week: Roy and Pessoa

This week I finished Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and started Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. The two texts are very different in many ways. Roy’s book is extremely political while Pessoa’s is introspective. The both made me pause in different ways, and while I’d usually avoid talking about a text I’m still reading, the The Book of Disquiet is having such an effect on me that I’m finding it hard to stop talking about it.

I was excited to pick up Roy’s book since I’d read her previous novel, The God of Small Things (1997), and thought it was extraordinary. I thought the new one was also very good, but I’m more reluctant to talk about it.

It’s not only a very political work, but a very timely one. The novel is set against the background of the complex history of Kashmir as a semi-autonomous, or even independent territory between India and Pakistan, and considers the lives of the people stuck in what seems like a perpetual conflict. I’m reluctant to have too strong an opinion about it because it demands a grasp of context that is beyond mind. And I worry that for many readers the book will be the only context – and given the complexity of the situation, that’s likely not a good thing.

The current troubles in Kashmir aren’t new, but a continuation of a long history that I’m not very close to.

Being familiar mostly with Roy’s fiction and only broadly conscious of her political works and leanings I’d consider her well placed to write a book enmeshed in the history of this particular conflict. And perhaps she has done that well. The success of the book, however, lays in showing the deep roots of the relationship Kashmir has to its neighbours. The intersection of geopolitics, religion, nationalism, and culture forms an abyss the bottom of which is invisible to casual onlookers. Maybe the abyss itself is invisible, given how little attention Western media has given to the current wave of trouble in the region?

In any case, it is this abyss of context that stands before me as a wall over which I can peer, but which stops me from giving in to my tendency to have an opinion. I could climb over it – but the one thing Roy’s book has succeeded at is showing me just how little I understand of the context, so that would be futile.

I mention all of this because I read the book at a point where I’d begun forcing myself to articulate my thoughts on what I read a bit more explicitly (which is also one of the occasions of me reviving the blog as a place to think out loud in public). It’s just my luck then that the first book I pick up is one on which I think articulating my thoughts might be irresponsible.

But it did make me think about the responsibility one has as critic, to bring out the context and to help the reader grasp it. A responsibility I myself hadn’t always been very conscious of, and which I think it is increasingly important to uphold.

Not all works demand such context, perhaps.

This is why Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is a fortunate choice of reading to follow Roy’s book with.

I imagine what I think will change several more times as I read the book and I hope to write some thoughts about it another time. But one thing that I am struck with immediately is how well it sets out its own context. The fragments collected here let us into a world that belonged entirely to Pessoa in his lifetime.

The edition I own (trans. Margaret Jull Costa, ed. Maria José de Lancastre) is a masterwork of literary translation. I could pause on each sentence and try forever to articulate what it is that makes it genius. The words aren’t even Pessoa’s any more – they’re the translator’s. But they leave openings to interpretation, and ultimately here the context isn’t so necessary. The fragmentary nature of the work, the fact most of the fragments are undated and thus impossible to order (no that there is much of a discernible narrative anyhow). This removes all context and lets the reader get lost within the work itself, on its own terms.