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Malebranche, Nicolas

1. Dates
Born: Paris, 5 Aug. 1638
Died: Paris, 13 Oct. 1715
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 77
2. Father
Occupation: Government Official
His family had modest wealth. His father was a royal counsellor, from the rural bourgeoisie. He was the treasurer of five large farms. His mother belonged to the minor nobility. His brother-in-law was governor of Canada. His maternal uncle was a canon at Notre Dame.
I accept the information that they were wealthy. Note that Malebranche apparently lived on the family wealth.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: French
Death: French
4. Education
Schooling: Paris, M.A.
He entered the Collège de la Marche of the University of Paris in 1654, and received an M.A. in 1656. Then he studied theology at the Sorbonne for three years. He attended the lectures of the renowned peripatetic, M. Rouillard. He entered the Congregation of the Oratory in 1660.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
He entered the Congregation of the Oratory in 1660. He completed his novitiate at fauborg St. Jacques. From April-October 1661 he was at the house of Saumur where the focus was on intense philosophical and theological studies. In October he returned to the mother house in Paris. He was ordained priest in 1664.
His family assured the money to support Malebranche. Yet, when Malebranche died he bequeathed his library, furniture, and some money to pay the rest of his board due.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Natural Philosophy
Subordinate: Mathematics, Physics, Optics
His work De la recherche de la verité (1668), six editions of which were published during his lifetime, was made possible by the materials made available to him by the group surrounding Clerselier. With the Traité de la nature et de la grace (Amsterdam, 1680), he emerged as the creator of a new system of the world. The book's immediate goal was to refute Jansenist ideas concerning grace and predestination. The Traité was placed on the Index in 1690 while Malebranche was preparing the third edition.
Malebranche was the mainspring for the spread and development of Cartesian mathematics. He insisted on a need for reform and fostered the introduction of Leibnizian mathematics. Though he holds no place in the history of mathematics for any discovery, most of the mathematics done at the end of the seventeenth century was due to Malebranche.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means
Secondary: Church Life, Government
He was ordained priest in 1664.
In 1674 he officially took on teaching duties in mathematics at the Congregation. He had students before this time. It is likely that his duties as a professor of mathematics lasted only a short time. In any case there is no further trace. By 1680, it had been several years since he had been assigned any specific duties. He devoted all his time to writing and to his role as mediator between theology and Cartesian natural philosophy. Every indication is that Malebranche lived on his inherited personal means.
He became a member of the Académie in 1699.
8. Patronage
Type: Unknown
By 1680, he had no official duties and was allowed to spend his time on his writing and research. In view of the fact that his family was supplying his support, I cannot see this as patronage.
However, someone had to have stood behind the appointment to the Académie.
There does not appear to have been any influential patron behind Malebranche. We are nearing the end of the age of patronage, and it appears that he operated without a patron for the most part.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: None
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Académie Royal des Sciences 1699-1715
In reaction to Mariotte's Traité (1673), Malebranche wrote Mémoire sur la lumière which won him membership to the Académie. Although he was surpassed in ability even by his student, Preset, Malebranche encouraged others of greater ability to continue new research: Leibniz, Louis Carré, Reyneau among many others.
  1. A. Robinet, Malebranche, de l'Académie des Sciences, (Paris, 1970). B1897.G93 G. Rodis-Lewis, Nicolas Malebranche, (Paris, 1963). B1897.R68
  2. Yves Marie André, La vie du R. P. Malebranche, (Paris, 1886; reprint 1970). B1896.A47
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

©1995 Al Van Helden
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