Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal (blĕz päskäl´), 1623–62, French scientist and religious philosopher. Studying under the direction of his father, a civil servant, Pascal showed great precocity, especially in mathematics and science. Before he was 16 he wrote a paper on conic sections which won the respect of the mathematicians of Paris; at 19 he invented a calculating machine. Credited with founding the modern theory of probability, Pascal also discovered the properties of the cycloid and contributed to the advance of differential calculus. In physics his experiments increased knowledge of atmospheric pressure through barometric measurements and of the equilibrium of fluids (see Pascal's law). As a young man, Pascal came under the influence of Jansenism, and in 1651 his sister Jacqueline, who had also embraced Jansenist beliefs, entered the convent at Port-Royal, the center of the movement. As a result of the death of his father and of his own narrow escape from death, Pascal in 1654 experienced what he called a "conversion" and thereafter turned much of his attention to religion. When Antoine Arnauld, a noted Jansenist, was attacked by the Jesuits, Pascal championed him in his Lettre escrite à un provincial (1656). Those Provincial Letters, rendered into Latin, quickly circulated throughout Europe, and they still hold a leading place in the literature of polite irony. Pascal's religious writings were posthumously published as Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets (1670). For a modern edition see Thoughts: An Apology for Christianity (tr. 1955). In the Pensées, famous both as a religious and philosophical classic, Pascal states his belief in the inadequacy of reason to solve man's difficulties or to satisfy his hopes. He preached instead the final necessity of mystic faith for true understanding of the universe and its meaning to man.

See biographies by A. J. Krailsheimer (1980), H. H. Davidson (1983); studies by E. Cailliet (1944, repr. 1973), R. Hazelton (1974), S. E. Melzer (1986), and G. Hunter (2013).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Blaise Pascal: Selected full-text books and articles

The Cambridge Companion to Pascal By Nicholas Hammond Cambridge University Press, 2003
Pensees By Roger Ariew Hackett, 2005
Pascal: The Emergence of Genius By Emile Cailliet Harper Torchbooks, 1961 (2nd edition)
Pascal: Genius in the Light of Scripture By Emile Cailliet Westminster Press, 1945
Infini Rien: Pascal's Wager and the Human Paradox By Leslie Armour Southern Illinois University Press, 1993
Studies in Self-Interest: From Descartes to La Bruyere By A. J. Krailsheimer Clarendon Press, 1962
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VI "Pascal: Lettres Provinciales," Chap. VII "Pascal: Method," and Chap. VIII "Pascal: Pensees"
The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle By Richard H. Popkin Oxford University Press, 2003 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "Some Spiritual and Religious Answers to Scepticism and Descartes: Henry More, Blaise Pascal, and Quietists"
Fiction Refracts Science: Modernist Writers from Proust to Borges By Allen Thiher University of Missouri Press, 2005
Librarian’s tip: Chap. One "What the Modernists Knew about the History of Science from Pascal to Heisenberg"
Moments of Discovery By George Schwartz; Philip W. Bishop Basic Books, vol.1, 1958
Librarian’s tip: "Blaise Pascal: 1623-1662: The Facts of Air Pressure Are Demonstrated by Experiment" begins on p. 351
FREE! Portraits of the Seventeenth Century, Historic and Literary By Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1904
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VI "Pascal"
The Columbia History of Western Philosophy By Richard H. Popkin Columbia University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Blaise Pascal" begins on p. 352
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