Pascal's modernity

Ernst Coumel, in an essay on Pascal’s contribution to the theory of probability (La théorie du hasard est-elle née par hasard ? 1970), cites a Jesuit opponent of Pascal’s, one Abbe de Villars, who, in responding to Pascal’s devastating attack on casuists in Lettres écrites à un provincial, asked a very good question about Pascal’s interest in and contribution to the theory of gaming: But I had heard that you were a very great enemy of permissive Casuists: from whence, then, does it come that you not only do not condemn gambling, but that you make religion and divinity depend on a game of heads or tails?”

Coumel, in his essay, is at pains to point out that Pascal’s interest in the theory of games must have deeper reasons than that, by chance, he was the friend of Chevalier de Méré. Coumel is combating the opinion of Cournet, who wrote that it was simply by historical chance that the problems of chance in games – for instance, the problem of dividing the stakes of a game that had been interrupted – had not fallen under the purview of some ancient Alexandrian geometer. On the contrary, Coumel writes, the growth of game theory up to Von Neumann and Morgenstern characterizes a very modern development.

Modern – the word must be underlined. Surely, on the one side, there is the fact that historical circumstances were pressing in. In the seventeenth century, the de-monetized, medieval economy, with its system of in-kind exchanges – barter – was giving way to a monetized economy. As Sasan Fayazmenesh has shown in Money and Exchange, this fact can’t be interpreted as simply the substitution of a more efficient form of barter for a diffuse form – the Walrasian interpretation of money as the representative of a barter exchange fails to comprehend the multiple affordances of money. Fayazmenesh refers to Robert Clower’s analysis of money and barter as modeled by a ‘exchange matrix’, in which their functional differences come out. Clower assumes the universal exchangeability of goods for goods in the barter economy – which is a convenient assumption when mathematizing barter, but has the disadvantage of not being the case. In the whig view of the economists, of course, the monetary system is superior because it is a universal solvent in which any and all exchanges can take place. This, too, conveniently overlooks the vast number of barter exchanges and their multiple restrictions that undergird our daily lives. If I do a favor for my mother, for instance, I can’t, under normal conditions, monetize and sell my perception that I expect her eventually to do a favor for me, even if I can predict that she will, in fact, do a favor for me in the future. Our real life – with friends, co-workers, family members, lovers – is tangled in nets of in-kind and monetary exchanges, which are simply grandly overlooked by the economist.

However, it is also the case that Pascal’s France was monetizing a great number of exchanges. Colbert’s system, with its vast number of taxes, speeded up the process. And it is at this point that speculative questions arise that had no space in an in-kind economy.

Such, then, is one approach to the modernity of Pascal’s situation. But there is another sense of the modern, which Pascal himself diagnosed in the fragmentary preface to the treatise on the Vacuum.

Which I will get to in my next post.