Tag Archives: philosophy

In honor of Blaise Pascal’s birthday


One of the premises of this blog is a quotation from Blaise Pascal: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

He has been proven right again and again.

But I’ve made that point enough — at least until the next example hits the news.

Pascal (1623-1662) was a French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. Some might also consider him a Christian theologian, considering much of his philosophical writing dealt with religious questions.

While Pascal is considered a Christian apologist, he is also considered a forerunner of existentialist thinkers, and in his written work, he frequently sounds like “intuitive psychologists” Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, to use William Barrett’s phrase.

In honor of Pascal’s 392nd birthday, I offer some of my favorite excerpts from his unfinished book, probably his notes for a book, posthumously collected and published as Penseés (or Thoughts).
 

Greatest Hits by Pascal

“Cleopatra’s noes: had it been shorter, the whole aspect of the world would have been altered.”

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. I say that the heart naturally loves the Universal Being, and also itself naturally, according as it gives itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its will. You have rejected the one and kept the other. Is it by reason that you love yourself?”

“Reason’s last steps is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go as far as to realize that.”

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but his is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantages which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”

“It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”

“Man finds nothing so intolerable as to be in a state of complete rest, without passions, without occupation, without diversion, without effort. Then he faces is nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness. And at once there wells up from the depths of his soul boredom, gloom, depression, chagrin, resentment, despair.”

“Not to care for philosophy is to be a true philosopher.”

“We are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being. We want to lead an imaginary life in the eyes of others, and so we try to make an impression. We strive constantly to embellish and preserve our imaginary being, and neglect the real one. And if we are calm, or generous or loyal, we are anxious to have it known so that we can attach these virtues to our other existence; we prefer to detach them from our real self so as to unite them with the other. We would cheerfully be cowards if it would acquire us a reputation for bravery. How clear a sign of the nullity of our own being that we are not satisfied with one without the other and often exchange one for the other!”

“The more intelligence one has the more people one finds original. Commonplace people see no difference between men.”

“Cromwell would have ravaged the whole of Christendom; the royal family was lost, and his own family was about to become all-powerful, except for a little grain of sand that lodged in his bladder. Even Rome was about to tremble beneath him. Once this little piece of stone became lodged there, he died, his family was disgraced, peace was established all round, and the king was restored.” (Desmond Clarke includes this quotation in a discussion of Pascal’s proto-existentialist mentality. Clarke also says, “Many of Pascal’s intuitions about the contingency of human existence were a commonplace in the period, especially among Calvinist theologians.”)
 

Random Pascal Publishing Notes

  • Nobel-prize winning poet T.S. Eliot wrote an introduction to a 1931 edition of Penseés.
  • The 1952 set of Britannica Great Books includes a volume devoted to Pascal, including The Provincial Letters, Penseés, and Scientific Treatises.
  • In his classic 1958 study of existentialism, Irrational Man, William Barrett included Pascal as one of the forerunners of existentialism.
  • In 1966, Leicester University Press in England published The Rhetoric of Pascal: A Study of His Art of Persuasion in the Provinciales and the Penseés by Patricia Topliss.

 

Previous Posts about Pascal

Christian apologist Blaise Pascal had some good tips on writing

Paradoxes for Better Living, 5

The limits of knowledge

Fear of the Lord — and astonishment at his creation (Jurgen Moltmann)

As a man thinketh, so goes his health

Happy birthday, Blaise! And I have no idea how to pronounce your first name!

Cornel West as jazz man, as blues man, as ‘a Christian but not a Puritan’


This is a great interview, not only for its content (Dr. West’s responses are energizing), but also for the dynamic way in which it was filmed. Dr. West has several connections to make, touching on jazz, blues, classical music, death, literature, religion, and of course philosophers. Highly recommended!

From an interview with Michael Ruse on ‘What is it Like to be a Philosopher?’


From Cliff Sosis’s interview with Florida State University philosopher Michael Ruse (born in Britain to a Quaker family) on the blog “What is it Like to be a Philosopher?”

You recently became a citizen, correct? Do you think religious fundamentalism will always have a place in American politics?

Yes, I feel that if I am going to live here and teach students, I should make a commitment. Also by being a US citizen I can criticize without being a hypocrite. In my lifetime yes, I think these things will always be around so long as we are still fighting the Civil War – perhaps as the Hispanic vote and other immigrants get more sizable we shall see a shift – but not in a hurry.

Do you think creationism is ever going to go away? Where do you think the new atheists get things right?

Creationism isn’t going to go away in my lifetime! I don’t think a fondness for pseudoscience or irrational religion will ever go. Well, I think the New Atheists are right that Christianity is false! I think they are wrong to say that all religious believers are charlatans and fools.

You’ve worked a bit with the intelligent design guy, Bill Dembski. How did that come about?

Just meeting him at conferences or when we were on the same platform – if I were a scientist, I would hesitate about collaborating, but I think as a philosopher one ought to be open to debate – that is our job.

What are your political views?

Left wing – socialist but not Marxist – very much in the British Fabian tradition – Mill, the Webbs, that sort of thing. That said, there are days when I have a bit of a libertarian streak. I wish universities would stop being therapy units and get on with teaching and research.

Read the entire interview at what is it like to be a philosopher?

via what is it like to be a philosopher?

Preventing a repeat


FT Magazine has as regular feature entitled “The Shrink & the Sage,” written by therapist Antonia Macaro and philosopher Julian Baggini. A recent topic for their column was, “Should we ‘get over it’?

Here are two excerpts.

reasons to choose differently next time

“A big part of getting over something is learning from past events so that we can act differently in the future.” — Antonia Macaro

The Prosecution looks to the future

“Think, for example, of the friends and relatives of people who have died due to the negligence of others. They may embark on tortuous legal processes, usually with the aim that no one else should have to go through what they did. Sometimes, it might be true that their persistence is indicative of a failure simply to accept that things happen. But often this is a principled move that has real benefits for others. The fact that life might have been easier for all concerned if they had tried to move on quicker is besides the point. Justice needs to be done, more to prevent future tragedies than to try to fix what can’t be mended.” — Julian Baggini

Here’s what three Reformed / Calvinist scholars say about the variety of views within Christianity


If anything gives me a bit of hope for evangelicals and Calvinists and self-identified Reformed folks, it’s this kind of honest, clear-headed assessment from three leading scholars:

…Most of our theories of the world — philosophical, commonsensical, or even scientific — are underdetermined by the evidence that supports them. They are consistent with the facts, but the facts are not so compelling that their competitors can be shown to be logically inconsistent with the facts. When two such theories are in competition, no appeal to evidence, therefore, could determine the winner.

Biblical interpretations and theological statements are underdetermined by the biblical data. Scripture is a mix of history, myth, poetry, moral instruction, praise, hyperbole, prophecy, and so forth. Sorting through this array of genres requires some sort of hermeneutical [interpretive] method. The inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture are of themselves incapable of delivering God’s truth. Without a hermeneutical method, the inerrant or infallible biblical data cannot communicate truth claims…..

Underdetermination may account for the apparent intractability of theological disputes…. Theologians on both sides of these disputes believe their doctrines to be the only adequate explanation of the biblical data. However, if their competitors also adequately account for all of the biblical data, no appeal to the evidence could resolve the dispute.

Those are excerpts from the entry entitled “Underdetermination” in 101 Key Terms in Philosophy and Their Importance for Theology (Westminster John Knox, 2004) by Kelly James Clark and James K.A. Smith of Calvin College (at least at the time of the book’s release) and Richard Lints of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (ditto).

Reading this assessment from top-notch scholars helped me exhale. Of course, I imagine Clark, Smith, and Lints have strongly held points of view, and I don’t think they’re saying all systematic interpretations are equal. Then again, they seem to be saying the available data does not lend itself strictly to one point of view.

I’m especially appreciative of the authors’ definition of “Underdetermination” and, as I’ve noted previously, “Aesthetics.”

God and meaning on Twitter — a snapshot


Zombies take over philosophy departments!


Based on a survey of approximately 1,000 professional philosophers in 99 philosophy departments of North America, Europe, and Australasia:

ZOMBIES

Conceivable but not metaphysically possible: 36 percent

Metaphysically possible: 23 percent

Inconceivable: 16 percent

Other: 25 percent

The “other” is taxing my imagination.

Source: David Chalmers and David Bourget, “What Do Philosophers Believe?,” Philosophical Studies, quoted in The Philosophers’ Magazine, 1st Quarter 2014