The use of the French word pensée (literally, thought) to designate a literary genre necessarily brings to mind the Pensées of Blaise Pascal, the only major work to have the term in its title. Pascal did not choose it himself, and was not responsible for the publication of the fragments posthumously collected, arranged, very heavily edited, and issued as the Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion, et sur quelques autres sujets (1670;
Thoughts of M.Pascal on religion, and on some other subjects). The word pensée, like portrait and maxime (maxim), then underwent a certain vogue during the decade following 1670.
In French, pensée also occurs as the title of a work of aphorisms composed by the Abbe Nicolas d’Ailly, tutor to Mme. de Longueville’s children, and published in 1678 with the maximes of Madeleine de Souvre, as Maximes et pensées diverses (Maxims and diverse thoughts). D’Ailly’s pensées were for the most part much shorter than the disjointed paragraphs which Pascal’s family had stitched together. As a genre, therefore, the pensée blended with the aphorism, although, like maxime, it had a tendency to develop into a lengthier, more speculative elaboration of a simple idea. The equivalent
English “thought” experienced a considerable popularity some decades later, appearing, for instance, in John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) and the posthumous Some Thoughts on the Conduct of the Understanding in the Search for Truth (1762). His usage was followed by Mary Wollstonecraft in her Thoughts on the
Education of Daughters (1787).
The only work known to posterity as pensées remains Pascal’s mass of fragments, heterogeneous both in form and in content. It is, essentially, no more than notes relevant to the possible redaction of a book about a series of problems concerned with human nature and its weaknesses, Christian devotion, and theology. Some of the fragments are notes for a work of religious apologetic which we are told Pascal intended to write, though this may have been planned rather as some more general religious work about the human condition. It was clearly abandoned, and the notes were never meant for publication as fragments, nor given any title by Pascal.
After his death, Pascal’s friends and family, led by his sister Gilberte, constructed a sequentially coherent work from some of the fragments more obviously conducive to devotion, containing sharp insights into the predicament of the human individual in the cosmos, with the individual seen as at once so important, because rational, yet also as physically insignificant. Pascal’s family, however, had also carefully gathered together every discoverable scrap of paper on which he had written, and a copy of the fragments, now lost, was made exactly as he left them. This copy was at least twice recopied with meticulous exactness, and the two copies made from it still exist, as do the original fragments as pasted onto a large sheet of paper and partly arranged into files by Pascal himself. Many editions of the Pensées have appeared, most based on some conjectural structure which, it is speculated, Pascal would have adopted. More recent editions have, with increasing success, reproduced the fragments as Pascal actually left them in what is known as the second of the two copies made from the lost original, but which is certainly the earlier of the two.
It is no doubt unusual for a literary genre to have been constituted virtually in its entirety by a single work; but the contents of Pascal’s fragments are so profound, disparate, and difficult, while displaying so many changes of intention and offering so many ambiguities of interpretation, that it has become inappropriate to use the term pensées to describe any lesser collection of aphorisms. Some of Pascal’s fragments are movingly lyrical, some witty and ironic, some quite polished passages of cadenced prose extended over a page or two. Some are addressed to a reader, while some are merely notes on how a projected book might, at different moments, have been composed. The overwhelming probability is that Pascal at no time envisaged the publication of a work in aphoristic form. It is, on the contrary, plain that he was tempted both by the dialogue form and by an epistolary exchange. (The forms were brilliantly combined in Pascal’s Lettres provinciales [1656–57; The Provincial Letters].)
It does, however, remain pertinent to draw attention to the meaning that the word pensée had acquired in the context of Descartes’ Discours de la méthode (1637;
Discourse on Method). Descartes memorably used the verb penser in the fourth part of the Discourse, when discussing how he could know that something existed from his awareness of his own existence—“Je pense, donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am)— going on to conclude that he knew himself to be a spiritual substance whose nature was simply to think. But he also used “pensée” in the first paragraph of the first part of the Discourse, when distinguishing between the power of judgment, the raison or bon sens equal in all human beings, and the esprit, the power of the application of thought, which distinguishes the brilliant from the less talented.
Although the Discourse was not widely disseminated, it showed that the pensée, as a form of spiritual power, was not universally equal among human beings, but could refer to a spiritual capacity of much wider significance. Pensées, for Descartes and for Pascal’s editors, were not aphorisms so much as an indication of a totality of spiritual powers, which is what made it as apposite a title as any for the diversified collection of fragments Pascal’s editors published. His contemporaries rightly saw the Pensees as containing some of the most penetrating comments on human nature and behavior known to their culture. They may have understood the fragments incorrectly, falsified and simplified their purpose, and incensed historians by the liberties they took with the text and its arrangement. But it is difficult to know what other word in the French language would more aptly have indicated the nature of its content.
Hammond, Nicholas, Playing with Truth: Language and the Human Condition in Pascal’s Pensées, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994
Jaouen, Françoise, Discours aphoristique et pensee minimaliste: Le Classicisme en petits morceaux (dissertation), Berkeley: University of California, 1991
Mesnard, Jean, Les Pensées de Pascal, Paris: Société d’fidition d’Enseignement Supérieur, 1993 (original edition, 1976)
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