“Malebranche, Monsters, and the Maternal Imagination” (1/24/18)

January 24, 2018

Katie Creel

Abstract: As a philosopher and theologian whose work is responsive to the
scientific developments of the time, Nicolas Malebranche’s use of
monsters as evidence in “De la recherche de la vérité” (The Search
After Truth) is not surprising. “Monsters,” or beings with physical
deformities, were of great interest to natural philosophers in the
17th century. For microscopists studying the mechanisms of generation,
monsters provided “natural experiments,” allowing them to examine the
limits of biological possibility. And for philosophers, monsters
provided evidence for or against the extant accounts of generation.

For Malebranche, monsters present a two part problem. First, there is
a tension in between his account of preformation by an omnipotent God
and the very existence of monsters. If God individually creates all
living beings, fully formed with infinite parts, at the beginning of
time, how does Malebranche explain why living being are not preformed
in such a way that they could never develop into monsters? Or why
does Malebranche not follow Arnauld in saying that God intended the
exact final shapes of all beings, and thus there are no true monsters?
One way to solve this puzzle would be to claim that God’s omnipotence
as applying to particular events would be in conflict with
Malebranche’s views the possibility of understanding God’s actions,
but this does not seem to accord with Malebranche’s thoughts on

Second, for human beings specifically, Malebranche seems to argue that
monsters are caused by the maternal imagination’s influence on
development. This seems to conflict with his account of the creation
of animal or plant monsters. However, both puzzles can be resolved
with a close reading of Malebranche’s discussion of human development
before the Fall: human sin is what leads to human monsters.


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