Blaise Pascal, Adam Smith and Dialectic

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

I’ve already mentioned the idea that Adam Smith belongs with Clausewitz as a ‘dialectical’ thinker, that is a thinker concerned with the relation between opposite, and differing , ideas and material forces, and how they are transformed when combined. That is dialectic in a rather general sense. The idea if dialectic was for sometime clouded by a few issues: association with Hegel and the belief that Hegel was an incomprehensible charlatan who was somehow responsible for Fascism and Marxism-Leninism (though if he was incomprehensible it’s difficult to see how he could have been responsible for anything; association with the dismal official ideology of Marxism-Leninism in the communist countries, and distinctly philosophical sub-prime manuals of dialectical materialism; Kant’s attacks on dialectic, by which he meant doctrines of concepts taken beyond the limits of experience, this is sometimes regarded as a refutation of Hegel before he got going, but that most Hegel scholars regard his ‘dialectic’ as a reconstruction of experience.

The situation for dialectic has improved. The inadequacies of state sponsored Marxism-Leninism is not a living issue; Hegel’s reputation as a constitutional thinker has been rehabilitated; Hegel’s method has been understood as something different from what Kant was attacking (a rather big subject I can’t begin to tackle here).

It’s widely recognised that Smith was a dialectical thinker. It’s widely recognised that Pascal was a dialectical thinker. However, the relationship between Pascal and Smith has only be looked at with regard to ideas of self-interest (self-love in Smith and amour-propre in Pascal) and notions of virtue. I haven’t even seen a detailed comparison on that issue, but there is some understanding of the connection. What I have not seen is an account of the connection between Smith and Pascal, with regard to dialectic. There may be some work out there, but it’s not easy to find.

Pascal’s sense of the dialectic is more contradictory than Smith, but they have the following in common.

The difficulty of combining a global and particularistic point of view, which would be necessary to real knowledge.

The sense that self-interest serves collective interests, at least under an effective sovereign authority

A sense of the limitlessness of human desire combined with the finite possibilities than can be grasped.

Pascal’s thought contains a sense of interaction of parts and wholes, which Smith finds in the world and which must be present in the structure of his thought. Smith does not reflection on his own thought, but he does reflect on the way that individuals find it difficult to grasp the consequences parts coming together. He quotes the community in Britain which tried to reject a road because it thought that would allow competition to drive local producers out of business. The real effect is that some producers lose out, but the community gains overall from lower prices and greater competition, and the chance to invest a bigger surplus in new businesses. This seems removed from Pascal’s concerns, but Pascal was aware of the rise of commercial society, though in less articulate terms than Smith, This informs Pascal consciousness of self-love and limitless desire in humanity.

Smith seems more optimistic and social, Pascal seems more pessimistic and inward looking. Both are concerned with a restlessness in human spirit where extremes of moral elevation and depravity become very close. Both look at how the human individual reacts to a world of infinite divisibility: atoms for Pascal, division of labour for Smith. Both look at a world of infinite scope: ever growing markets with ever more intense production in Smith, infinite spaces in the universe, and the infinity of God, for Pascal. Both are concerned with how those must interact in a way which never produces a final comprehensible moment of unity and stasis.

I don’t suggest a direct link, both knew about the history of philosophy, modern science, and were sensitive to the the development of the social world towards the paradoxocal looking combination of greater complexity and integration. Pascal talks of gambling, and uses it as a way of thinking about how we have faith in God, in ‘Pascal’ Wager’; Smith talk about a world of calculation of economic factors and risk taking by economic agents.


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