How is Knowledge of the World Possible?

  • John W. Yolton
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series in Philosophy book series (PSSP, volume 15)


In writing against Malebranche’s doctrine of ideas, Antoine Arnauld accused Malebranche of confusing cognitive withspatial presence.1Malebranche accepted a common seventeenth-century principle that we can know only what is intimately united to our mind. Since material objects differ in kind from minds, they obviously cannot be united with the mind. Malebranche even used a rather vivid, though somewhat bizarre illustration to make his point: the mind does not walk in space to get near to the objects, nor do objects leave their position in space and come to the mind. It is necessary, therefore, for there to be other things which are present with the mind, by means of which we can know material objects. For Malebranche, these intermediary objects were ideas, whose natural home was with God.2Upon the occasion of specific sensations in nerves and brain, God reveals the relevant ideas to us. These ideas are not copies of objects, they are rather the essential features of objects. In fact, the particularity of objects does not seem to be caught by Malebranche’s ideas: they are universals which render bodies intelligible to us. Thus, the access to the world provided by Malebranche’s ideas is indirect (through God’s intervention, not through any causal activity of objects) and schematic (essentialist knowledge, rather than specific, particular information about the world).


Material Object Knowledge Claim Correspondence Theory Conceptual Idealism Natural Home 
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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1979

Authors and Affiliations

  • John W. Yolton
    • 1
  1. 1.Rutgers CollegeRutgers UniversityUSA

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