Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Date of this Version



1980 Mid-America Linguistics Conference papers, edited by Michael M. T. Henderson, University of Kansas, Department of Linguistics, Lawrence, Kansas (1981), pp. 58–67.


Copyright © 1981 University of Kansas Linguistics Department.


Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715) is perhaps the most important French philosopher between Descartes and the Revolution of 1789. His synthesis of Cartesian elements and Augustinianism in the last quarter of the seventeenth century had great influence on several generations of thinkers before the rationalism he represented was replaced by the new Lockian sensualism. There has been a European revival of interest in Malebranche in the last twenty years, centering around the first critical edition of his complete works, a task headed by the Belgian historian of philosophy André Robinet, and there are signs that American interest is growing as well with the recent publication of translations of two of his works, and another monograph on his philosophy.

Malebranche has not received much attention from historians of linguistics, although his only extended comments on language, dealing with how meaning is attached to words, have been treated in some detail in Robinet’s 1978 excellent survey of language theory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Literary critics, on the other hand, often refer to his attack against rhetoric but seldom analyze it at length. My own interest in Malebranche began from just such references to his ideas on communication. As I looked into them further I realized that the literary historians had emphasized such psychological elements as the imagination and emotions in his theory of rhetoric at the expense of language as language; conversely, his ideas on language took on broader interest when situated in the larger perspective of his views on various forms of communication.