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.

Foucault on Knowledge, Discourse and Phenomenology

Some thoughts on Foucault arising from the Methodology course I give to Political Science MA Students.

Foucault: Phenomenology not Constructivism
My main thoughts are that Foucault is not the kind of social constructivist he is often taken to be; and that his epistemology can be better understood if it is interpreted in a Phenomenological context. The Phenomenological aspect of Foucault should orientate understanding away from intellectual construction to embodiment, the extended mind, and perceptibility. All the discussion of archeology, genealogy, the order of discourse and so on, can be better understood as bringing perception into the conceptual than as conceptual construction.

Throughout the phases of his work, there is a constant underlying concern with Phenomenological themes. If he’s talking about abstract discourse or about punishment of criminals, Foucault is always concerned with the revelation of truth. Truth is appearing, there is a coming into light. The last phrase is very reminiscient of Heidegger. Heidegger turned Husserl’s abstract transcendental forms of Phenomenology into Being-in-the-world. Being-in-the-world is a big thought in Heidegger, but here we can say it includes the concrete experience of always existing in a world of care, concern and Being-with.

Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Cognitive Science
Heidegger’s approach to Phenomenology leads the way to Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty used psychological science and aesthetic references in order to explain consciousness as what is always orientated as a whole to the world, as a part of the way that the body is not just in the world, it is always orientated to the word in the perceptions of time and space, and the experience of the body. Merleau-Ponty introduces a strongly naturalistic element into Phenomenology, which is part of what has made his so influential now that the connections between cognitive science and philoosphy are such a big area. Heidegger has also been taken up in this context by Andy Clarke (his website which is very good for downloads of his work is on a list of links with philosophers, on this blog, who post their work on their website), Michael Wheeler and others.

Merleau-Ponty is dealing with the extended mind, because the mind is entangled with the body in its physical relations with the world. All ideas of isolated consciousness are abandoned. Consciousness and perception exists in the body’s relation with the world. Discourse about the world and our relations with forces in the world extend ‘consciousness’ beyond private experience.

Phenomenology: Naturalistic and Poetic
In later Merleau-Ponty, particularly in The Visible and the Invisible is more concerned with the philosophical discussion of subjective experience than with the naturalistic discussion of the world. It is still concerned with the idea of ‘flesh’ at what arises where consciousness finds contradiction and uncertainty. This links back to Heidegger and sideways to Maurice Blanchot.

In a very provisional way, we could distinguish between Phenomenology as a Naturalistic account of perception, and Phenomenology as the poetic discussion of the subjective experience of the limits of consciousness. We do not have to see them as contradictory. It is Blanchot’s discussion of the experience of writing and of poetry which seems to be indirectly invoked by Foucault sometimes. He sometimes refers to the absence, nothingness from which visible objects emerge. It is discourse which enables objects to emerge against the background of nothingness, and silence

Power, Forces and Nominalism
All of Foucault’s discussions of the construction of discourse or knowledge, the order of things, power-knowledge and so on, are concerned with how to make the invisible visible. It is the staging of punishment, its physicality which draws attention to the idea of a truth in the social world. Foucault is not a constructivist when he refers to the way truth appears in the relations of forces which make up power. Power is understood in a slight naturalistic way as the relations between forces, it is which introduces war into social relations; forces and war are always already there in the social world. Discourse shapes this but is also shaped by it, and we can only understand discourse as the making visible of the invisible. The discontinuities of knowledge, the places where theories and concepts break down and give way to new ones, are the product of this relation between the visible and the invisible. Knowledge exists in the difference between them, as what stands out from a blank background.

The assumption by critics and defenders of Foucault that he has a theory of constructed reality is a flawed one. Our knowledge of objects must be constructed in some way and that interacts with objects themselves in a grasp of reality which brings structure and order. We should consdier the widespread misconception that Foucault thinks sexual desire is produced by the prohibitions of law, prohibition produces the excitement necessary to desire. In History of Sexuality, Foucault is very clear that sexuality is shaped by discourse, prohibition and law but in an interactive way with the body, with psychology, with the inherent nature of sexuality. Like objects, sexuality could never exist in a purely inherent form before it is conditioned by discourse, but ıt is not the product of discourse. Something like Putnam or Davidson’s or McDowell’s mediation between Internalism and Externalism in the meaning of words and the content of beliefs would be an appropriate comparison here, but not one that we can develop right now.

If we adhere to a very rigid direct realism, every word we use, every belief content, refers directly to a real object. In that case Foucault may seem constructivist in a very socially relativistic way. But when Foucault links power and knowledge, he is stating what he considers to be a historical reality, that objects of power become objects of knowledge. That does not deny validity to knowledge, it does not deny some independence of science from social conditions, it does deny an absolute separation. Power is nominalistic in Foucault, it is a term which brings together many situations of conflicts of forces. There is no great abstraction which can be called power in general. There is no abstract discursive shaping of reality in a radically constructivist manner, there is a discussion of the multiplicity of forces, including the forces behind the emergence of psychological or social science. It should be taken as a discussion of how truths appear, how knowledge emerges, not as an attack on knowledge or truth. For Foucault, we are always struggling to bring the dark and obscured things into light as knowledge and truth, we are struggling to make the world perceptible.