The youngest child of Nicolas Malebranche, secretary to King Louis XIII of France, and Catherine de Lauzon, sister of a viceroy of Canada, was born at Paris. Deformed and frail, he received his elementary education from a tutor, and left home only when ready to enter upon a course of philosophy at the College de la Marche, and subsequently to study theology at the Sorbonne. He had resolved to take holy orders, but his academic disposition led him to decline a stall in Notre Dame, and in 1660 he joined the congregation of the Oratory. He was first advised by Phre Lecointe to devote himself to ecclesiastical history, and laboriously studied Eusebius of Caesarea, Socrates, Sozomen and Theodoret, but "the facts refused to arrange themselves in his mind, and mutually effaced one another." Richard Simon attempted unsuccessfully to teach him Hebrew and Biblical criticism .
At last in 1664 he happened to read Descartes's Traité de l'homme (de homine), which moved him so deeply that he claimed to be repeatedly compelled by palpitations of the heart to lay aside his reading. Malebranche was from that hour consecrated to philosophy, and after ten years' study of the works of Descartes he produced the famous De la rechérche de la verité, followed at intervals by other works, both speculative and controversial. Like most of the great metaphysicians of the 17th century, Malebranche interested himself also in questions of mathematics and natural philosophy, and in 1699 was admitted an honorary member of the Academy of Sciences.
During his later years his society was much courted, and he received many visits from foreigners of distinction. His death was said to have been hastened by a metaphysical argument into which he had been drawn in the course of an interview with Bishop George Berkeley.
A convenient edition of his works in two volumes, with an introduction, was published by Jules Simon in 1842. A full account by Mrs Norman Smith of his theory of vision, in which he unquestionably anticipated and in some respects surpassed the subsequent work of Berkeley, will be found in the British Journal of Psychology (Jan. 1905). For later criticism see H Joly, in the series Les Grands philosophes (Paris, 1901); Laprune, La Philosophie de Malebranche (1870); M Novaro, De Philosophie des Nicolaus Malebranche (1893).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.