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

PhD Update

I always intended to use the blog to reflect on the progress of my PhD as I write it. I’ve not been good at this, but consider this me trying to make amends.

This is an opportune moment for me to reflect on how much I’ve done, since I’d just put a bow on one of my chapters and I’m shifting gears to read things for the next major section of the project.

At this point, I’ve written five chapters (of a planned seven). They’re each about 7500 words, so I’m looking at just over 50k words before I get into the introduction and conclusion, and before I get into editing. Editing invariably leads to things expanding, so I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the word count.

The thesis is a particular genre in that it is garbage. People often talk about the requirement for the thesis being “advancing knowledge in the discipline” – but this doesn’t really gel with it’s ultimate audience being my supervisors and my two examiners. I can imagine nothing worse than writing 70-80k words over three years just to impress four people. Not to mention, it’s hard to see the contribution to knowledge made by something only four people are likely to read.

For this reason, I’m gambling a bit and not writing a thesis but a monograph. Given the requirements of the degree, the aim is then to write something as far from a thesis as possible (with it’s needless literature reviews and such) while still satisfying the requirements of my degree. The hope is that at the end, I’ll be able to quickly convert the manuscript into something a publisher would be interested in, and hit the job market with a book contract in hand.

The pragmatism behind this all makes me somewhat cynical. While it’s obvious that one needs a PhD to have an academic job – a job I’d very much like to get – it’s not clear to me that the goal of getting a job after the PhD can consistently be held with the goal of advancing the discipline.

For me, the reality is that my PhD in itself isn’t worth much on the job market. Not that anyone’s is. But I’m in a mid-tier university – prestigious and well known enough in Australia, but not so much outside. All things being equal, if you had to choose between someone with a prestigious North American PhD and me, I’m not likely to win.

What will distinguish my CV from others are the publications – the more and the more prestigious the better. But churning out papers that are publishable and churning out good papers that are publishable isn’t the same thing. Wanting to actually advance the discipline in my work is much harder than merely wanting to get published.

So I’m forced to have two goals contrary to one another – publish a lot, and publish good things (a lot).

My gamble is that with my thesis project I can avoid the issue somewhat, by getting a book out quickly and making myself stand out in the job market that way.

So how’s this all going?

  • 5/7 chapters written
  • Introduction is partly drafted
  • Conclusion doesn’t exist yet
  • 1 co-authored paper is on it’s way to publication (in an edited collection – more details on this once it’s all finalised)
  • 1 paper is currently under review (it was rejected twice so far: once with feedback, once by the editor – more on this if and when it gets accepted anywhere)
  • 1 paper is drafted but just needs a few finishing touches before I submit it somewhere.

There are also two projects I’m trying to get together:

  • a response to one of the calls for papers in the Australasian Philosophical Review\
  • a paper on some issues in Stoic and Epicurean philosophy (with an, as yet, ill-defined topic).

Beyond this, I’m switching gears to write the next section of the thesis. If you follow me on twitter you’ll have seen that at least part of that will be on Malebranche. I’m slowly making my way through his The Search After Truth – trying to figure out what he takes from Descartes’ theory of the passions. I’d not had a chance to read Malebranche before, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the text – it’s much more accessible than many of his contemporaries. Though, I suppose a lot of this comes down to the translation.

Current Reading