Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.3, 183-188
Published Online August 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 183
The Giants of Doubt: A Comparison between Epistemological
Aspects of Descartes and Pascal
Cody Franchetti
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia Universit y, New York, USA
Received May 8th, 2012 ; revised June 10th, 2012; ac c ep ted June 24th, 2012
The essay is a comparative look at Descartes’ and Pascal’s epistemology. For so vast a topic, I shall con-
fine myself to comparing three crucial epistemological topics, through which I hope to evince Descartes’
and Pascal’s differences and points of contact. Firstly, I will concentrate on the philosophers’ engagement
with skepticism, which, for each, had different functions and motivations. Secondly, the thinkers’ relation
to Reason shall be examined, since it is the fulcrum of their thought—and the main aspect that separates
them. Lastly, I will examine each philosopher’s theist epistemology; this section, of course, will focus on
how and by what means Descartes and Pascal set out to prove God’s existence. The latter aspect shall take
us back to each philosopher’s relationship to Doubt: the title, “The Giants of Doubt”, in fact, implies a
fundamental link between Descartes and Pascal through Doubt. In addition, and most importantly, the
contrast between the two thinkers’ epistemology inaugurates a decisive scission in modern thought of
enormous repercussion: Descartes’ sturdy rationalism initiated the great branch of modern scientific en-
quiry, while Pascal’s appeal to the power of intuition and feelings would eventually be the precursor of
the reaction to the enlightenment that invested Europe by the second half of the eighteenth century. This
departure of thought, which in my view may be traced back to them, has not been the common conceit of
the history of philosophy: the reaction to the enlightenment has customarily been regarded as stemming
from its internal contradictions or at best from its more radical doctrines. The essay shall show that these
strands of thought were both parallel and born out of the antithetical epistemologies of Descartes and
Keywords: Epistemology; Descartes; Meditations; Discourse On Method; “The Method of Doubt”; “Truth
Rule”; Pascal, Pensées; Skepticism; Reason; Doubt; Theism; Modern Thought; Modern Man
It is the task of this essay to examine a few aspects of the
thought of René Descartes and Blaise Pascal and to compare
their differences and points of contact. Descartes and Pascal—
the two greatest European minds of the first half of the seven-
teenth century—were both French and roughly contemporary,
yet had very little contact1, despite having many common in-
terlocutors. Their lack of intercourse is a suggestive detail that
has not been duly noted, since both thinkers also had a shared
point of departure, though Descartes’ main preoccupation was
to shatter Scholastic philosophy, and Pascal’s to gleefully ridi-
cule Jesuit hypocrisy. That common point of departure was
Montaigne—his skepticism and his language. Montaigne was a
looming figure for the succeeding generation in France2 both
philosophically and linguistically. After Montaigne, who was
like an eye in the storm during the fractious times of the Wars
of Religion which ravaged France in the second half of the
sixteenth century, the French language had to be purified from
spurious influences, disparate dialects, and various abuses that
it picked up during those fraught times. The expurgation that
the language underwent under able linguists—but second-rate
poets—such as Malherbe, Racan, Maynard created a unique
tool, that “machine à penser”3, the language that powered the
great cogitations from Descartes to Voltaire.
Comparing the two thinkers is a thorny endeavor: Descartes
was a systematic philosopher who produced a serried meta-
physical structure, while Pascal was never as systematic a
thinker; he left disparate works out of which his readers must
infer his philosophy; yet, glimmering through his immortal
aphorisms, which are but the torso of his unfinished apology for
Christianity—the Pensées—it is indeed possible to ferret a
theory of knowledge of his own, and it is thus possible to com-
pare Pascal with Descartes. Because of the unmethodical nature
of Pascal’s philosophy, he has remained for the most part a
literary and moral figure—as a thinker, unruly and enigmatic.
So his influence on “mainstream” Western philosophy is some-
what peripheral, though by no means of less thrust. As to Des-
cartes, he inaugurated modern thought and his influence in
philosophy is incalculable. So the significance of both men’s
thought, and especially their fascinating points of departure, is
such that a comparative look is of serious import even from a
strictly philosophical perspective, and, I think that by engaging
in a comparative look at Descartes and Pascal we may be able
to trace as far back as them the great scission in modern
thought—that cardinal departure between what eventually was
1They met only once in 1647 to discuss Pascal’s experiments on vacuum
2And in England too: Bacon’s Essays are clearly modeled after Montai gne’s
3“(French)particularly delights in perspicuity, and in expressing things as
much as possible, in the most natural and least intricate order; though at the
same time it yields to none in elegance and beauty”. Arna u ld, 1753: p. 154.
to become the enlightenment, an arrant confidence in reason,
and its reaction, Romanticism, a yearn toward infinitude driven
by the senses’ supremacy.
Montaigne’s skepticism is an ideal entry-point for comparing
the thought of Descartes and Pascal, since it was a common
influence with which both thinkers deeply engaged. Descartes
engaged with skepticism for epistemological motivations: skep-
tical arguments are not falsifiers, but underminers; they do not
oppose a belief, but merely cast a belief into doubt by under-
mining the principle behind it, by calling into question the
processes by which the belief is formed. Now in order to pave
the way for his own, new thought-order Descartes had first to
undermine the dominating Aristotelian philosophy, which the
Scholastic tradition had merely Christianized. And so, skepti-
cism is a useful tool for Descartes, because it casts beliefs into
doubt. In Meditation One Descartes speaks of the meditator’s
assumed beliefs and hurls skeptical arguments at her in order to
undo her thinking—most flagrantly, the old confidence in the
senses. Descartes structures his first Meditation with various
arguments that may induce the meditator to err: “The Madness
Argument”, “The Dream Argument”, “The Mistakes of Others”,
and “Chance”; these skeptical arguments are crucial for Des-
cartes’ program of eradicating two millennia of credence in the
senses and planting “la raison” as the root for truth. Skepticism
is therefore an effective epistemic instrument in Cartesian
thought, because it permits doubt; and doubt is what Descartes
shall use to demolish the old philosophical structures and erect
a new, solid edifice, which can only be laid on a solid bedrock:
“I kept uprooting from my mind any errors that might previ-
ously have slipped into it. In doing this I was not copying the
skeptics, who doubt only for the sake of doubting and pretend
to be always undecided; on the contrary, my whole aim was to
reach certainty—to cast aside the loose earth and sand so as to
come upon rock or clay”4. Despite his engagement with ske pti-
cism, this quote shows Descartes’ wish to differentiate himself
from the skeptics whose doubt is an end in itself; in fact, Des-
cartes integrates doubt in his larger program of reforming—
re-erecting, in effect—the structure of knowledge for which
doubt is but a step. But doubt is also the very cement with
which he shall construct his new edifice—his metaphysical
system: “Anything which admits of the slightest doubt I will set
aside just as if I had found it to be wholly false”5. Notwith-
standing all sorts of later criticisms to his thought, especially by
the English empiricists, Descartes’ doubt heralds the age of the
“Method of Doubt”—a new age which shall be the basis for
scientific enquiry until the present day.
There is another use that Descartes has for skepticism. Later
in the Meditations, when Descartes shall have established the
“Truth Rule”, which holds that all “clear and distinct percep-
tions” are guaranteed to be true, he will find use for the skepti-
cal argument one more time: now that the meditator is armed
with the Truth Rule, a reliable source of truth, and is accord-
ingly thinking correctly, she shall be immune to the skeptical
challenge and shall not succumb to doubt. Unlike in Meditation
One, when the callow meditator still attached to Scholasticism
was prey to Pyrrhonism, the knowledge attained in Meditation
Four, which is founded on adamantine reason shall be beyond
contestation. This application of skepticism is primarily a
means for Descartes to sanction the solidity of his theory.
Pascal’s engagement with skepticism, on the other hand, is
quite different. To him, skeptical doubt is useful inasmuch as it
shoulders man—counter intuitively—to the best possible ori-
entation toward the religiou s experience:
The main strengths of the skeptics (…) are that we have
absolutely no certainty in the truth of these principles, aside
from faith and revelation, except for the fact that we feel them
naturally within ourselves. But this natural sentiment is not a
convincing proof of their truth, since there is no certitude out-
side of faith that man was created by a good God or an evil
demon or by pure chance it is doubtful that these principles,
depending on our origin, are true, false, or uncertain. (…) Let
us therefore concede to the skeptics that which they have much
bawled: that the truth is not within our reach, nor in our
game-bag; that it does not reside in this world; that it has affin-
ity with the heavens; that it lives in Gods bosom; and that we
cannot know it if not to the degree that God fancies to reveal it
to us6.
Contrary to Descartes, doubt is not overcome in any way
whatsoever; no rational principle can resist the skeptical chal-
lenge according to Pascal: the only real certainty is that of
Pascal also sees the Pyrrhonist refrain from laying claims of
truth as advantageous for religious revelation:
“Pyrrhonism is true. Because in the end men before Jesus
Christ did not know their own condition or whether they were
great or small. And those who have affirmed one thing or an-
other did not know a thing about it and tired to guess without
motive and haphazardly. And still they always erred by ex-
cluding either one or the other. Quod ergo ignorantes quaeritis,
religio annuntiat vobis”. (Thus by ignoring it, religion an-
nounces to you that which you seek). (The Latin quote is a
non-literal citation from Acts: 17, 23)8.
There is clearly a fundamental difference in the way the two
6Pascal II, 1998: pp. 579-580 (Pensée 122) (Les principales forces des
pyrrhoniens (…)sont que nous n’avons aucune certitude de la vérité de ces
principles, hors la foi et la révélation, sinon en que nous les sentons
naturellement en nous. Or ce sentiment naturel n’est pas une prevue con-
vaincante de leur vérité, puisque, n’y ayany point de certitude hors la foi si
l’homme est créé par un Dieu bon, par un demon méchant ou à l’aventure il
est en doute si ces principes nous sont donnés veritables, ou faux, ou incer-
tains selon notre origine. (…) Qu’on accorde donc aux pyrrhoniens ce
qu’ils ont tant crié, que la vérité n’est pas de notre portée ni de notre gibier,
qu’elle ne demeure pas en terre, quelle est domestique du ciel, qu’elle loge
dans le sein de Dieu, et que l’on ne la peut connaître qu’à mesure qu’il lui
plait de révéler).
7An alternative reading of Pascal, which may be more encompassing of his
thought, as we read on, is that faith is not the only grounds for certainty;
rather, we should abandon the quest for certainty altogether, and with it our
trust in reason, acquiescing instead in the devotions of faith: what faith
provides in not the rational security of a purified mind, but a comfort and
fulfillment that is felt in the heart. (See be l ow, on page 12: Penseé 101).
8Pascal II, 1998: p. 785 (Pensée 585) (Le pyrrhonisme est le vrai. Car après
tout les homes avant Jésus-Christ ne savaient où ils en étaient, ni s’ils
étaient grands ou perits. Et ceux qui ont dit l’un ou l’autre n’en savaie nt rien
et devinaient sans raison et par hazard. Et même ils erraient toujours en
excluant l’un ou l’autre. Quod ergo ignorantes quaeritis, religio annuntia
4CSM I 125, AT VI 29, All the quotations from Descartes in English follow
the 3-volume translation by John Cottingham, Robert Stoohoff, and Dugald
Murdoch (see References) and shall be cited henceforth as CSM followed
by the corresponding volume (in Roman numeral) and pa g e number; as well
as the Adam &Tannery edition abbreviated as AT, its corresponding vol-
ume, and page number.
5CSM II 16, AT VII 24.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
thinkers relate with skepticism: while Descartes uses it to estab-
lish his philosophical system and the dominion of reason, Pas-
cal sees in the skeptical withholding of truth-claims an uninten-
tional, ironic course to opening man to being receptive to
proper religious experience, and, opposed to Descartes, if any-
thing, skepticism is a substantiation of reason’s fragility (“there
is no truth outside faith”, etc.). This very different stance to-
ward reason leads us to the next aspect, which distances Des-
cartes and Pascal crucially.
It is fascinating to behold two great mathematical minds—
among the greatest of all time9—exhibiting antipodal positions
toward reason. Already the Discourse on Method evinces Des-
cartes’ view that man, in his entirety, may be encompassed in
thinking, “(…) I knew I was a substance whose whole essence
or nature is simply to think, and which does not require any
place, or depend on any material thing in order to exist”10. It is
this abstraction of the mind from man that Pascal simply could
not accept. Sainte-Beuve has synthesized this departure su-
Descartes places himself inmethodicdoubt; he relin-
quishes any knowledge, habitude, and belief with an abstrac-
tion; he reduces his thought to its own self and yearns to extract
from itand from it onlyevery thing that this unadulterated
thought is able to give him.
Thus, the whole of Pascals enterprise and method is like a
protest against this essentially speculative and independent
rationalism. Pascal could not forgive that Descartes estab-
lished reason as sovereign, in isolation and with an abstraction
that were impossible according to Pascal11.
Sainte-Beuve’s reading of Descartes’ “methodic doubt” is
quite correct. Descartes wished to give the power and compe-
tence to “isolated” thought in “its own self” (compare with
Pascal’s Pensées n. 512 on p. 9) to reconstruct nothing short of
the world through deduction once unimpeachable truths have
been established and are indubitable. But the idea that a “single
system of knowledge embracing all provinces and answering all
questions, could be established by unbreakable chains of logical
argument from universally valid axioms”12 was refuted by the
empiricists—especially Hume—who demonstrated that “no
logical links existed between truths of fact and such a priori
truths as those of logic or mathematics”13. Pascal’s reaction to
Descartes’ overconfidence in the mind was quickest to arrive:
starting with his De lEsprit Géométrique, which was written in
1657, three years after his religious conversion, we can trace
the progressive refutation of science’s—and therefore rea-
son’s—superior claim for universal knowledge, which mean-
ingfully proceeds specifically by means of skeptical arguments:
“But since nature itself provides for everything that this science
can’t, then its sense of order, which is claimed to be found in
the truth, cannot achieve a perfection superior to that of humans,
although it does indeed achieve the perfection within humans’
reach”14. As he writes about the limits of science, under the
treatise’s sub-heading, “Pourquoi la géométrie ne peut pas
définir certaines choses” (Why geometry cannot define certain
things), Pascal casts the limit of mathematics as that of a disci-
pline of man’s invention, which is thus incapable of defining or
even declaring anything about what is outside its pertinence,
even despite the fact that mathematics is an instrument of un-
disputed perfection for its province. This curiously prefigures
GiambattistaVico’s argument a generation later: “Vico main-
tained that the Cartesians were profoundly mistaken about the
role of mathematics as the science of sciences, that mathe-
matics was certain only because it was a human invention. It
did not, as they supposed, correspond to an objective structure
of reality; it was a method and not a body of truths; with its
help we could plot regularities—the occurrence of phenomena
in the external world—but not why they occurred as they did,
or to what end”15.
Pascal’s charge against reason is directed exactly to those
who use it as a lantern for seeking everything—even that which
according to Pascal is outside the realm of reason—and it is
toward such arrant faith in reason that his scathing vein, which
he used as a humorist in his Provinciales, but which here are a
solemn indictment:
“I do not speak here of divine truths, which I shall take care
not to comprise under the art of persuasion, because they are
infinitely superior to nature: God alone can place them in the
soul and in such a way as it pleases him. I know that he has
desired that they should enter from the heart into the mind, and
not from the mind into the heart, to humiliate that proud power
of reasoning that pretends to have the right to be the judge of
the things that the will chooses; and to cure this infirm will
which is wholly corrupted by its filt hy attachments”16.
That knowledge enters through the heart to the mind rather
than conversely shall be a point on which Pascal shall insist
increasingly, especially in his Pensées concerning God and
man’s way of apprehending him (we shall look at this funda-
mental opposition with Descartes in a moment).
Pascal’s arraignment against reason is intensified in the Pen-
sées. There are numerous remarks throughout directed against
reason—reason upheld as the sole source of knowledge. From
declarations such as “those who would only want to follow
reason, according to the judgment of the majority of men,
would be completely crazy”17. to pronouncements like “write
9If it is unnecessary to overstate the importance of the Cartesian plane,
which is only one of Descartes’s countless contributions to mathematics, it
is equally impossible to overstate Pascal’s prodigious scientific mind: at
twelve years old, without the aid of any mathematical concepts or books or
tutoring—his father, a celebrated magistrate, had ridden the family library
of all math books to ensure that his son be a magistrate like him—had
rediscovered, on his own, Euclid’s first thirty-two geometric propositions;
at sixteen , h e wr ote a treatise o n conical secti o n s , whi ch s tup ef i ed Des car t es
who refused to believe that a child had redacted such work; at twenty, he
invented the first calcul ating machine and soon after, again by himself and
without any knowledge of Torricelli’s work ten years earlier, Pascal con-
ducted identical experiments on vacuum measurem ents.
10CSM I 127, A T VI 33.
11Sainte-Beuve I, 200 4: p. 1049.
12Berlin, 1979: p. 2 .
13Berlin, 1979: p. 3 .
14Pascal II, 1998: p. 161 (Mais comme la nature fournit tout ce que cette
science ne donnes pas, son ordre à la vérité ne donne pas une perfection
plus qu’humaine, mais ils a toute celle où les h o mes peuvent arriver).
15Berlin 197 9: p. 4.
16Pascal II, 1998: p. 171 (Je ne parle pas ici des vérités divines que je
n’aurais garde de faire tomber sous l’art de persuader, car elles sont infini-
ment au-dessus de la nature. Dieu seul peut mettre dans l’âme, et par la
manière qu’il lui plait. Je sais qu’il; a voulu qu’elles entrent du Coeur dans
l’esprit, et non pas de l’esprit dans le Coeur, pour humilier cette su
uissance du raisonnement, qui pretend devoir être juge des choses que la
volonté choisit, et pour guérir cette volonté infirme, qui s’est toute corrom-
pue par ses sales attachements).
17Pascal II, 1998: p. 553 (Pensée 41) (Qui voudrait ne suivre que la raison
sarait fou prouve au jugement de la plus grande partie des homes du
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 185
against those who entertain too deeply the study of the sciences.
Descartes”18. The inference against reason is obvious. But none
exemplifies Pascal’s dissent from reason’s epistemic failure
more than his Pensées n. 512. “The corruption of reason mani-
fests itself in many different and extravagant ways. It took the
truth to appear so that man stop living enclosed within him-
self”19. The danger, and hubris of reason is such, according to
Pascal, that if man were to follow reason exclusively, he would
be closed to the fundamental experience of living in the world,
the God-ordained totality of the world, which is essential to
man’s cognizance of himself and the fullness of his existence.
Henceforth, a scission in thought occurred: on the one hand
rationalism and its predominance, the “scientific understanding
which Descartes himself so successfully inaugurated”20 domi-
nated thought for a century through the enlightenment as the
prevailing, orthodox perspective; on the other, the persuasion in
the p riority of intuitiveness and feeling flowed quietly yet inexo-
rably everywhere in Europe—Pietism being an early example of
the subterraneous revolt against reason. When the latter stance
surfaced irresistibly, most notably in France with a Rousseau and
in Germany with a Hamann, harbingers of Romanticism, the two
positions remained in open conflict constantly, without secrecy,
battling in almost every field of human action to this day. And
yet, I think we can trace the beginning of thi s perpetual, elemen-
tary struggle with Descartes’ pr onounce ment of the supre macy of
reason and Pascal’s challenge to it.
According to Descartes, the perception of God is the exclu-
sive domain of the mind through the aid of reason: “Whatever
we can know of God in this life, short of a miracle, is the result
of reasoning and discursive inquiry”21.
We shall see that not only this position is antithetical to Pas-
cal’s, but it is also heretical, according to the Roman Catholic
doctrine, which, despite recognizing Augustine’s assertion that
the illumination of reason is indeed furnished by God himself,
centers the good Christian’s enterprise around faith. Descartes’
position on faith is ambiguous; in principle, according to him
faith is important but must be aided by reason, especially con-
cerning non-believers. “(…) since faith is the gift of God, he
who gives us the gift to believe other things can also give us
grace to believe that he exists. But this argument cannot be put
to unbelievers because they would judge it to be circular. (…)
the existence of God is capable of proof by natural reason
(…)”22. It is likely that Descartes, who wrote this in the Medita-
tions’ dedicatory letter to the Sorbonne took a diplomatic stance
towards faith—for which I suspect he had little regard—be-
cause he knew that his audience might include very strict theo-
logians that could find an unmitigated partiality against pure
reason objectionable.
Thus Descartes’ proof for God’s existence is entirely lodged
in the mind. In Meditation Three, Descartes presents a proof for
God which begins with the “I am, I exist” premise and through
a fairly long chain of reasoning, ends with a deductive proof of
God that is essentially innatist23. By Meditation Five, however,
the meditator’s empowered mind has no need for the comfort
provided by the deductive process; and so, Descartes’ argume nt
for God’s existence is achieved in a quick, bold stroke:
Certainly, the idea of God, or a supremely perfect being, is
one which I find within me just as surely as the idea of any
shape or number. And my understanding that it belongs to his
nature that he always exists is no less clear and distinct than is
the case when I prove of any shape or number that some prop-
erty belongs to its nature24.
This time, the proof for God’s existence is not born out of
deduction, rather, it is reached through modal intuition, that is,
seeing an eternal truth directly through the light of reason.
Descartes’ outlook could not be further from Pascal’s view
on the way man perceives and understands God, as the famous
Pensées 101 unequivocally states: “It is the heart that senses
God and not reason”25. And further, “That is what faith is: the
heart sensitive to God”26. If we compare this with Descartes’
statement from his Rules for the Direction of the Mind that “faith
has a basis in our intellect”27 the antithesis between Descartes and
Pascal is complete. “It is not through the risky and arduous path
of metaphysical certainty that Pascal thought man should experi-
ence God, rather, he ought to do so in terms of the common mo-
rality: Pascal addresses man through his own, everyday reality”28.
Sainte-Beuve once again synthesizes admirably the difference
between Descartes’ and Pascal’s advance toward God as well as
each philosopher’s view on how man should endeavor himself i n
the discovery of God; and there is no need for further evidence to
be given to discern the gulf separating the two thinkers on mat-
ters of reason and God as boundless.
I should like to chronicle an interesting aspect, which reveals
that Pascal’s dismissive opinion of Descartes (“inutile et incer-
tain”29) was due in part to a genuine misunderstanding. Sainte-
Beuve reports of a highly critical passage against Descartes in a
letter Pascal’s wrote, which as Sainte-Beuve rightly points out,
was unusual since “Pascal writes very little about Descartes, but
thinks constantly about him”30. Pascal wrote: “I cannot forgive
to Descartes that in all his philosophy he would have liked to
dispense with God, but he did not accomplish to contrive to
forbear God’s hand in giving ever so slight a push to set the
world in motion. After that, Descartes had no use for God”31.
Pascal’s contention is understandable: he could not stand Des-
cartes’ placing God exclusively in the mind. But Pascal is mis-
taken in his estimation of the paucity of Descartes’ need for
God in his philosophical system, for his judgment of Descartes’
epistemology is summary; Descartes stated clearly that the
all-important Truth Rule only really arms theists, and, though
he accepts that truth may also be perceived by atheists, the lat-
23(…)the mere fact that I exist and have within me an idea of a most perfec t
being, that is, God, provides a very clear proof that God indeed exists. It
only remains for me to examine how I received this idea from God. For I
did not acquire it from the senses (…) And it was not invented by me either
(…) The only remaining alternative is that it is innate in me, just as the idea
of myself is innate in me. CSM II 35, AT VII 51.
24CSM II 45, AT VII 65.
25Pascal II, 1998: p. 573 (Pensée 101) (C’est le coeur qui sent Dieu, et non
la raison).
26Pascal II, 1998: p. 573 (Pensée 122) (Voilà ce que c’est la foi: Dieu sensi-
ble au Coeur).
27CSM I 15, AT X 370.
28Sainte-Beuve I, 200 4: p. 1052.
29Pascal II, 1998: p. 56 6 ( Pensée 77).
30Sainte-Beuve I, 200 4: p. 1050.
31Sainte-Beuve I, 200 4: p. 1051.
18Pascal II, 1998: (Pensée 476) (Écrire contre ceux qui approfondissent trop
les sciences. Descartes).
19Pascal II, 1998: (Pensée 512) (La corruption de la raison paraît par tant de
différentes et extr avagantes moeurs. Il a fallu q ue la vérité soit venue, afin
que l’homme ne véquît p lus en soi-même).
20Cottingham, 1995: p . 191.
21CSM III 331, AT V 137.
22CSM II 3, AT VII 2.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
ter can only ascribe the cognition of truth to chance, which is
prey to all sorts of deceptions; their cognition is an inferior
form of truth-apprehension, because by lying outside the Truth
Rule it shall always be prey to Retrospective Doubt—until they
have admitted God.
The fact that an atheist can be clearly aware that the three
angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles is something I
cannot dispute. But I maintain that this awareness of his is not
true knowledge, since no act of awareness that can be rendered
doubtful seems fit to be called knowledge. Now since we are
supposing that this individual is an atheist, he cannot be certain
that he is not being deceived on matters which seem to him to
be very evident (...) And although this doubt may not occur to
him, it can still crop up if someone else raises the point or if he
looks into the matter himself. So he will never be free of this
doubt until he acknowledges that God exists32.
Clearly then, Descartes had more use for God than Pascal
thought, though we have seen that they diverge indisputably
over the epistemic means by which man apprehends God as
well as the course to take for the proof of God.
And yet, there are points of contact between Pascal and Des-
cartes; the former reveals two key, corresponding epistemo-
logical aspects with Descartes. Firstly, Pascal, in defining axi-
oms in his De lArt de Persuader, which is an appendage to his
De lEsprit Géométrique, determined “not to demand, in axi-
oms, any but things that are perfectly evident of themselves”33.
In his definition—or as he labeled it “règle pour les axi-
oms”—Pascal implies that these principles can only be per-
ceived through intuition exactly like Descartes’ “clear and dis-
tinct perceptions”, which include mathematical axioms. The
similarity is explicit. Secondly, and more importantly, Pascal
gives Descartes full credit for the “Cogito”:
I would inquire of reasonable persons whether this princi-
ple: Matter is naturally wholly incapable of thought, and this
other: I think, therefore I am, are in fact the same in the mind of
Descartes, and in that of St. Augustine, who said the same thing
twelve hundred years before. In truth, I am far from affirming
that Descartes is not the real author of it, even though he may
have learned it only in reading this distinguished saint; for I
know how much difference there is between writing a word by
chance without making a longer and more extended reflection
on it, and perceiving in this word an admirable series of con-
clusions, which prove the distinction between material and
spiritual natures, and making of it a firm and sustained princi-
ple of a complete metaphysical system, as Descartes has pre-
tended to do. For without examining whether he has effectively
succeeded in his pretension, I assume that he has done so, and
it is on this supposition that I say that this expression is as dif-
ferent in his writings from the same saying in others who have
said it by chance, as is a man full of life and strength from a
Pascal wrote tellingly, “as Descartes has pretended to do”
(my italics); and the annotators of the Gallimard edition of his
complete works justly note that “his reservation is of impor-
tance: Pascal does not adhere to Cartesianism nor does he in-
terest himself in it”35. Nevertheless, Pascal acknowledges Des-
cartes as the first to have sanctioned the Cogito as “a principle
of a complete metaphysical system”. Understandably Pascal
follows Descartes only to a point—matters of pure mathemat-
ics—but when the question of man’s apprehension and under-
standing of God rises, he completely diverges from Descartes.
This is manifested in the quotation above, since to say “I am”
unavoidably puts God into the argument, and we have clearly
seen how much Descartes and Pascal differ in matters concern-
ing the epistemology of God.
The Giants of Doubt
I have entitled this essay “The Giants of Doubt” referring to
Descartes and Pascal, because doubt represents a fundamental
characteristic of their thought and because both philosophers
have elevated doubt, each in his own way, to hitherto unthought
importance. Just as their thought radically diverges, so does their
relationship to doubt. And yet, counter-intuitively , this difference
also unites them: both Descartes and Pascal con fro nted doubt and
quashed its hazards. Descartes brandished doubt to destroy the
old-order and establish modern thought—self-sufficient reason
and rational thought dispossessed from the world. Furthermore,
Descartes elevated doubt to a method—the Method of Doubt—
and such method became an epistemic principle that had incalcu-
lable consequences for science and logic; for example, Descartes’
Method of Doubt was i mmediately inducted into the enor mously
influential Port-Royal Logique: “(…) what M. Descartes pro-
poses in his Method may be useful for preserving us f rom e rror ,
when seeking the truth in human sciences, although, indeed, it
applies generally to all kinds of method (…)”36.
Pascal reacted against this, and, recognizing the perils of
reason, of absolute certainty, felt doubt increasingly mounting
in him. In his supreme aphorism, “You would not seek me, if
you had not found me”37, his affrighting, fertile uncertainty
releases from within us a prodigious moral force: Pascal’s
doubt is the result of the all-embracing grasp of the contrast
between man’s greatness and his wretchedness, the contradic-
tion that is at the root of our essence: “All [our] miseries prove
[our] greatness. They are the miseries of a noble soul—miseries
of a dispossessed king”38. The answer to this anguish, to this
enigma, to this incongruent nature, is in God:
32CSM II 101, AT VII 141.
33Pascal II. 1998: p. 17 6 .
34Pascal II, 1998: pp. 179-180 (Je voudrais demander à des personnes équi-
tables s i ce principe: La matière est dans une incapacité naturelle, invinci-
ble de penser, et celui-ci: Je pense, donc je suis, soit en effect une même
chose dans l’esprit de Descartes et dans l’esprit de saint Augustin, qui a dit
la même chose douze cents ans auparavant. En vérité, je suis bien éloigné
de dire que Descartes n’en soit pas le véritable auteur, quand même il ne
l’aurait appris que dans la lecture de ce grand saint. Car je sais combien il y
a de différence entre écrire un mot à l’aventure, sans y faire une réfléxion
lus longue et plus éntendue, et apercevoir dans ce mot une suite admirable
de consequences, qui prouve la distinction des natures matérielle et spiri-
tuelle, et en faire un principe ferme et soutenu d’une physique entière,
comme Descartes a prétendu faire. Car, sans examiner s’il a réussi effica-
cement dans sa prétension, je suppose qu’il l’ait fait, et c’est dans cette
supposition que je dis que ce mot est aussi different dans ses é crits d’avec la
même mot dans les autres qui l’ont dit en passant, qu’un homme mort
d’avec un homme plein de vie et de force) .
35Pascal II, 1998: p. 11 98.
36Arnauld, 1861: p. 31 5.
37Pascal II, 1998: p. 615 (Pensée 187) (Tu ne me chercherais pas, sittu ne
m’avais t ro u vé).
38Pascal II, 1998: p. 575 (Pensée 107) (Toutes ces misères-là mêmes prou-
vent sa grandeur. Ce sont misères de grand seigneur, misères d’un roi dé-
39Pascal II, 1998: p. 582 (Pensée 122) (II paraît que Dieu, voulant nous
render la difficulté de notre être intelligible à nous-mêmes, en a caché le
noeud si haut, ou pour mieux dire si bas, que nous étions bien incapables
d’y arriver. De sorte que ce n’est point par les superbes agitations de notre
raison, mai par la simple soumission de la raison, que nous pouvons véri-
tablement nous connaître).
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 187
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
It seems that God, wanting to make incomprehensible to us
the paradox of our own nature, has hidden its solution by plac-
ing it so high up, or better, so below, that we are unable to
reach it. So it is not with the haughty gestures of our reason, but
with its simple submission that we can truly know ourselves39.
Blaise Pascal’s Pensées are a dramatic act—the struggle of
faith against doubt; René Descartes’ Meditations elevate doubt
to a propaedeutic act. Pascal’s restless, disquiet temperament is
a stormy peak of doubt and faith, an assimilation of our frac-
tious character; Descartes’ serene intransigence, born out of the
first metaphysical system in two millennia and based on the
certitude emerging from this inauguration, is its complementing
And they, together, represent modern man in his fullest ex-
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