Posts filed under ‘Thoreau’
I was reading Wittgenstein’s On Certainty to wind down after working on my biology presentation, and hit proposition 100: “The truths which Moore says he knows, are such as, roughly speaking, all of us know, if he knows them.” It struck me that this was a good definition of transcendental truths (on which, up to this point in OC, Wittgenstein has been critical). It then struck me that my previous posts on Pascal and Thoreau were even more confused than I had previously thought.
Some of my background in understanding transcendentalism comes from reading Thoreau. This reading has been done outside of an academic setting and unfortunately largely in a vacuum. Some of my background in understanding transcendentalism comes from reading Kant. Most of that consisted in reading his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals in my Ethics class last year. It was the Kantian component (both in my background, and in terms of completeness of idea) that was missing from my thinking on Pascal.
Of course Pascal was a transcendentalist. He was a christian apologist! He believed in a transcendent higher power, with truths that, roughly speaking, all of us (could) know. In a very Kantian sense, Pascal was a transcendentalist. At least part of my confusion came about because of a definitional issue.
At least my view was confused in an interesting way. I think the root of of my difficulty was in trying to link Pascal’s (and Kant’s) transcendentalism to Thoreau’s. Thoreau’s transcendentalism carries with it a lot of cultural baggage, to which I may be particularly susceptible. I haven’t had the opportunity to have this baggage exposed to me in a conversational setting, and it now seems to have lurked in the background, obfuscatory. If I ever get back to linking Pascal to Thoreau, I’ll need to more closely examine what differences there may be between his transcendentalism and Kant’s as well as why I think those differences exist.
After reading more of the Pensees, I suppose my idea of Pascal as a would-be transcendentalist if it weren’t for dominant social factors of the sixteenth century is more of a stretch than is realistic. Or at least, that’s what I was thinking for most of the night. Then, I found another passage which hinted at a transcendentalist thought and I’m right back into thinking it a feasible project.
The first glimmerings of my idea that Pascal and Thoreau could be compared came about, as I mentioned before, because of the similarity in style between the Pensees and Thoreau’s journals. But the idea that Pascal might have been a transcendentalist came about in reading the early sections of the Pensees, when Pascal focuses on distraction and wretchedness. Pascal argues that, if man is so wretched that he must distract himself from the present, then he would be the worst kind of fool not to accept the divine.
It is that focus on the moment which first gave me the idea that Pascal might be a transcendentalist. Thoreau has a similar focus on the moment, and I think a similar attitude towards the things Pascal deems “distraction”. But where Pascal sees living in the moment as revealing how wretched man is, Thoreau sees it (in true, founding transcendentalist style) as the only way to link his subjective experience with a universal truth.
Why not claim that the time was right for one to think the way he did and not the other?
Pascal’s Pensees and Thoreau’s journals are easy things to compare. They have a similar style (the editor of The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals, Odell Shephard, remarks in the introduction that Thoureau could be considered the American master of the Pensee), and they were both largely written by scientists/naturalists on philosophical topics.
I plan to do more work on this, but Pascal also seems to waver between transcendentalist thought and empirical thought in a way similar to Thoreau. Thoreau’s transcendentalism was more explicit because it wasn’t tied to religion, but the worldview of Thoreau’s time was increasingly acceptant of attitudes critical of religion. Pascal’s world was largely governed by the Catholic church, and his heavy involvement in religion may have made his views on transcendentalism more difficult to vocalize.