Nigel Warburton interviews Ben Rogers on Blaise Pascal in the Philosophy Bites series of short podcasts (29th July). A good introduction, in Warburton’s normal relaxed style with apparently naive questions well pitched to get the interviewee to explain the issues in accessible terms.
The interview starts with reference to the most famous idea in Pascal’s Pensées (which means ‘Thoughts’ in English, but all the translations keep the French title), ‘Pascal’s Wager’. This is a famous argument for the existence of God, which on its own is not very strong, but as Rogers explained it belongs in a longer argumentative strategy of accumulating reasons and habits for faith in Christian God as defined by Pascal. The Wager is the argument that if we have faith in God, we will live a good life so we will still gain even if God does not exists, while if we do not have faith in God our life lacks the pleasure of faith even if Gd does not exists, and we will go to Hell if God does exist.
As Rogers rightly points out, Pascal’s arguments do not exist in isolation, they interact with each other and aim to influence habits as much as pure reflective thought. Rogers points out that Pascal establishes his position by presenting two opposing views,m such as dogmatism and scepticism. Pascal aims to avoid the extremes of dogmatic rationalism and sceptical rejection of knowledge. I certainly support Roger’s suggestion that Pascal should be better known to Anglophone philosophers.
Just two criticisms I can think of. Rogers says that Pascal is not just an ‘aphorist’ as Nietzsche is. This is a misunderstanding as Nietzsche’s ‘aphorisms’ (including passages which go on for a few pages) confront and interact with each other in order to draw the reader into a position, much as Pascal does, and Nietzsche greatly admired Pascal. Rogers could have said more important aspects of Pascal such as: ‘reasons of the heart’, which is less subjectivist than it sounds as it is concerned with those principles we need for knowledge before we can justify or test them; the combination of force and mysticism Pascal sees behind any rationalisation of law and political institutions. However, it is likely that some content will be lost in a short podcast and that may be a necessary sacrifice to accessibility.
As Rogers says, Pensées is a great philosophical and literary classic, full of references to all aspects of knowledge, formed Pascal’s own considerable achievements in science and stylist religious polemic, and possessed of great cultural and historical breadth. Pascal maybe belongs with Plato, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as a writer who combined philosophy with literature.