Always Be Careful When Arguing with Idealists

CaptureI just finished reading Thomas Bartlett’s Memoirs of the Life, Character, and Writings of Joseph Butler (published in 1830 and, so, available for free via Google Books) and ran into an interesting account of Malebranche and Berkeley.

According to Bartlett, sometime during the fall of 1715 Bishop Berkeley went to meet Malebranche in Paris and that “Malebranche had the pleasure of beholding the idea of Berkeley in the Divinity, and Berkeley was presented by the Divinity with the idea of Malebranche” (original emphasis that, if you’re familiar with their respective philosophies, makes the phrasing quite clever). Unfortunately, the wide-ranging differences between their systems had quite the negative impact on Malebranche.

Bartlett recounts the exchange between the two famous philosophers as follows:

[Berkeley] found [Malebranche] in his cell, cooking, in a small pipkin, a medicine for a disorder with which he was then troubled, an inflammation of the lungs. The conversation naturally turned on [Berkeley’s] system, of which the other had received some knowledge, from a translation just published. But the issue of this debate proved tragical to poor Malebranche. In the heat of disputation, he raised his voice so high, and gave way so freely to the natural impetuosity of a man of parts, and a Frenchmen, that he brought on himself a violent increase of his disorder, which carried him off a few days after (Bartlett, 257–258).

I guess one could say that, according to Bartlett, Berkeley’s idealism is what killed Malebranche! So, what does that the tell you and me? Always be careful when arguing with idealists.

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2 comments on “Always Be Careful When Arguing with Idealists

  1. Hugh H. says:

    It’s such a great story, especially as it makes Berkeley the occasional cause of Malebranche’s death. Unfortunately it’s not true. The two did meet, but Malebranche died years later. The story seems to have been started by Berkeley’s first biographer.

    Anyway, this post took a surprising turn. You’re only saying that arguing with an idealist could kill you, whereas I thought you were going to say that arguing with an idealist could turn you into an idealist, which many philosophers would say is much worse.

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