In This Article Blaise Pascal

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Pascal and Other Philosophers
  • The Pensées
  • The Lettres Provinciales
  • Biographies
  • Pascal’s Wager
  • Ethics and Political Philosophy
  • Theory of Knowledge
  • Mathematics and Physics
  • Resources for Research

Philosophy Blaise Pascal
by
Desmond M. Clarke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0182

Introduction

During his relatively short life (b. 1623–d. 1662), Blaise Pascal published no works that would be classified as philosophy in the early 21st century. He did, however, publish two short tracts on the Torricelli vacuum, and, between 1656 and 1657, he circulated anonymously a series of letters about moral casuistry and grace that came to be known as the Lettres provinciales [The Provincial Letters]. Nevertheless, Pascal’s influence is almost inversely proportional to the brevity of his life and the paucity of the works that he published. His most famous composition, the Pensées [Thoughts], originated as notes that he collected with the intention of writing an explanation or justification of his religious faith. Although illness and his premature death prevented the implementation of that plan, the notes were edited and published posthumously by his family and admirers in 1670. Some of his other unpublished draft manuscripts were likewise published posthumously. Pascal is acknowledged as a trenchant critic of the lax morality called probabilism, as a defender of the theory of grace and justification associated with Jansenism, and as an acute commentator on the significance or otherwise of a human life when seen in the context of an infinite universe and the retributive justice of an angry God who punishes humankind for its universal state of sinfulness inherited from Adam. Pascal’s wide-ranging intellectual interests did not fit neatly within the disciplinary distinctions that are commonly accepted in the early 21st century. As a consequence, studies of Pascal cross the boundaries between mysticism, theology, literature, physics, mathematics, and philosophy; many classic studies of Pascal are available only in French. The focus of this article is Pascal the philosopher, although it also includes some entries that respect the fluid intellectual context in which philosophy was understood in the 17th century.

General Overviews

Pascal included many comments in the Pensées that suggest a low esteem for philosophical inquiry, such as: “Even if it were true, we do not believe the whole of philosophy to be worth one hour’s effort” (fragment S118; see Sellier 1976, cited under Primary Sources in French). Nonetheless, Pascal could not avoid confronting the ideas and opinions of philosophers, especially those who were widely read by his contemporaries, and he thus engaged in philosophical reflection with the objective of transcending its alleged limitations. Hammond 2003, Adamson 1995, Davidson 1993, Krailsheimer 1980, and Gouhier 1966 provide overviews that range across the full scope of Pascal’s interests, including his philosophy; Clarke 2012, Carraud 2007, and Brun 1992 address specifically philosophical issues in Pascal.

  • Adamson, Donald. Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicist and Thinker about God. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive review of Pascal’s life, divided into chronological periods, and of the corresponding works that he produced in each period. The text contains much more discussion of scientific, mathematical, and theological themes than of philosophy.

  • Brun, Jean. La philosophie de Pascal. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    Rejects the interpretation that Pascal is not a philosopher. Suggests that, although he did not construct a philosophical system, Pascal should be classified with philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote about the tragic features of human existence. Also contrasts Pascal with the stoicism of Epictetus and the Pyrrhonism of Michel de Montaigne.

  • Carraud, Vincent. Pascal et la philosophie. 2d ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2007.

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    This is one of the few books written primarily about Pascal as a philosopher; the work aims to situate his contributions to the discipline in the history of philosophy and, in particular, to examine his response to René Descartes and Montaigne, two influential figures in France when Pascal was drafting his essays.

  • Clarke, Desmond. “Blaise Pascal.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    A summary of Pascal’s contribution to a range of philosophical questions, including his critique of the moral casuistry that he attributed to the Jesuits and his conclusions about the Torricelli vacuum.

  • Davidson, Hugh M. Pascal and the Arts of the Mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511627620E-mail Citation »

    Studies Pascal’s adaptation of three of the traditional liberal arts—rhetoric, dialectic, and, geometry—to address intellectual problems in three areas to which he made significant contributions: mathematics and science, theology and religious experience, and the communication of his ideas in controversies with critics.

  • Gouhier, Henri. Blaise Pascal: Commentaires. Paris: Vrin, 1966.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a collection of six interrelated essays by Gouhier on central features of Pascal’s intellectual life, such as the so-called Memorial, the discussion with “M. de Sacy” (Isaac-Louis Le Maistre de Sacy), the hidden God, the wager argument, and the formulary—all of which are relevant to his apologetic objectives.

  • Hammond, Nicholas. The Cambridge Companion to Pascal. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL052180924XE-mail Citation »

    Contains fourteen essays for a student readership on a wide range of questions addressed by Pascal, from his work on probability to his theological reflections on grace and his studies of the vacuum. Also contains a bibliography of works about Pascal.

  • Krailsheimer, Alban. Pascal. Past Masters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    A very short introduction to Pascal’s life and thought. Explains the perennial attraction of Pascal, in terms of his literary style, the empathy that he shows for the experience of readers, and the fact that he is searching for meaning in life rather than dogmatically teaching it.

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