Pascal at the beginning of Modern Philosophy

Primary version of this post, with visual content, is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

The question of where modern philosophy begins is clearly not answerable, There’s always an earlier precedent for what someone has said, or a later really significant step beyond archaic residues, But let’s at least not just passively assume that modern philosophy began with Descartes. Even in Descartes’ time, Antoine Arnauld pointed out precedents for in Augustine for Descartes’ Cogito, in his ‘Fourth Objection’ to the Meditations on the First Philosophy (fourth of five ‘authorised’ objections to the Meditations printed with Descartes’ reply as an appendix). Of course it was Arnauld that Pascal was defending from his religious enemies, in The Provincial Letters. Søren Kierkegaard pointed out the paradoxes around saying that philosophy became modern in Descartes, as if philosophy was not claiming to be atemporal, and as if it could be reinvented again from nothing, in Johannes Climacus. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger suggested the idebtedness of Descartes to his contemporary, the late Scholastic Francisco Suárez, somewhat messing up Descartes’ claims to have put the Scholastics in their place. Kierkegaard’s point rather undermines the discussion I have proposed, but I think Kierkegaard appreciated that we have to periodise; as always he wanted to show the inherent paradoxes of knowledge, and the absurdity of some of the formulations of Descartes’ place.

It could be Suárez, it could be Francis Bacon, it could be Montaigne, no doubt there are other contenders, so why Pascal?

1. Pascal might be the first to really give a sense that the human individual grasps itself as alien to the universe.

2. Pascal might be the first to give the sense that human nature is contradictory (between passion and reason, between reason and the senses, between mind and body), and not in a way which can be resolved by balance, moderation, or the sovereignty of reason.

3. Pascal might be the first to break with Antique notions, still very present in Montaigne and Descartes, of moderation, balance, and tranquillity, as achievable and as guiding principles for ethics and rationality.

4. Pascal might be the first to give the sense that human individual grasps itself as a concrete, particular existence preceding description or any particular perception.

5. Pascal might be the first to give a really strong sense of how different the universe is after New Science from older conceptions, when he talks about infinitely large and small, for example.

6. Pascal might be the first to give a really strong sense of humans as alien to nature.

7. Pascal may have taken a big step in scepticism beyond his predecessors. There are various ways in which Pascal picks up on sceptical elements in Ancient philosophy, and in Montaigne and Descartes. But he gets beyond the sense the earlier scepticism always has of offering a cure for illusion in a healthy life style, Scepticism is traumatic in Pascal and tied in with the trauma inherent to human existence. For Descartes scepticism cannot affect actions.

8. Pascal’s Wager might be the first bit of economic reasoning about action, an account of the trade off of benefits and costs in believing in God. It’s missing the point to think this argument is about proof of God’s existence or proof of the grounds of faith. It theorises choices and actions as guided by calculations about costs and benefits, though it looks at the conscious level it hints at the power of that at the habitual level, because the wager is about how you form a habit of belief.

9. Though Pascal takes the idea of ‘mystic foundation of law’ from Montaigne, he really creates the idea that law is absolutely and inherently unjust and violent in principle, not just in application, as I suggested in Sunday’s post.

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