Pascal’s Personality Types

Whenever the conversation turns to personality types, star signs, learning styles, left-brain vs. right brain, political labels or any kind of “pigeonholing,” my dad, with barely-concealed glee, delivers this completely original insight:

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who put people into categories and those who don’t.

I hate to ruin the joke by explaining it, but I must note that it’s funny because this very statement is a way of categorizing people. We expect another trite, possibly moralizing dichotomy that justifies the speaker’s position, and are delighted to discover that the statement contains a reflection on itself and on this practice of dividing people into black and white categories. But I wonder if the joke is even more self-aware than it first seems. Perhaps the joke is trying to show that humans simply can’t resist classifying the things around us, especially ourselves.

Sometimes this gets us into trouble; we’ve all made unfair judgments of people or ideas by relying on a category that doesn’t quite fit them, whether because we’ve misapplied the category or because the category contains more sub-categories than we thought it did. We cling to our categories because they seem to offer certainty, but how certain are they?

I hope Fr. David Maroney will forgive me for paraphrasing him: “You can look all you want, but you’ll never find a species.” There’s “really” no such “thing” as Homo Sapiens (man) or Rana Pippens (leopard frog.) A category doesn’t exist in the same way that an individual member of that category exists. I wonder how categories look to God, who is above, beyond, behind all categories, attribute and existence, and altogether impossible to circumscribe.

Although we can lean on them as a substitute for active thinking, nonetheless categories are essential to our experience as thinkers. Without basic categories like “substance” and “quantity,” life would be a mere mass of undifferentiated sense experiences. One of Adam’s very first activities was naming the animals: the inaugural act of human categorization, which every human child re-celebrates as he awakens to the world around him. Even the suspiciously irresistible activity of putting other people into categories is, I think, necessary for us to come to know them as individuals.

I’ve been thinking about all this during our first month of teaching this year at HSCA. Part of the duty and delight of teaching is getting to know the students intimately enough to determine the best way to communicate with them. In a crowd of only eleven students, it’s easy to interact with each individual’s foibles and fortes, but “labels” such as “auditory learner” or “left-brained” are still helpful hints for the teacher, whether the teacher is the same “type” as the student or not.

In his Pensées, 17th century French philosopher, mathematician, scientist, and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal ponders a pair of “personality types,” which he calls the the intuitive mind (l’esprit de finesse) and the mathematical mind (l’esprit de geometrie.) The intuitive mind is able to sweep up lots of bits of seemingly unrelated information and conclude the meaning of it all, naturally and swiftly. Pascal likens this ability to having good eyesight. The mathematical mind, on the other hand, excels in making strong arguments from abstract principles, as in geometry, and doesn’t tend to “leap to conclusions.” Pascal explains how each type is uncomfortable in the domain of the other type:

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles and being unable to see at a glance.

The “mathematician” is ridiculous in matters of intuition, because he tries to treat them like logical proofs. The “intuiter” is lost and confused when he tries to understand a conclusion that requires syllogistic reasoning. These categories help me understand a lot of my own struggles as a student! But there’s hope for both spirits:

All mathematicians would then be intuitive if they had clear sight, for they do not reason incorrectly from principles known to them; and intuitive minds would be mathematical if they could turn their eyes to the principles of mathematics to which they are unused.

This passage suggests that the categories admit of overlap, and in fact it seems desirable to achieve a balance between these two ways of thinking. Is such a balance attainable, or are we stuck with the tendencies we recognize in ourselves now? In the first passage, the word “accustomed” makes me hope that through habit, even as adults, we can overcome our natural inclinations to lean to one side or the other. Indeed, if we are to become truthful and balanced thinkers, we must develop both faculties.

Allow me to posit the following: The excessively mathematical mind is a man who has embraced the logical acumen he developed in his adolescence and has lost his childish ability to “see” finely. The excessively intuitive mind is a man who relied on the natural precocity of his childhood, and neglected to turn his sharp vision towards abstract principles. In short, the mathematician is a teenager who forgot to be a child and the intuiter is a child who never became a teenager. Neither one of them are grown-ups.

Mathematical minds must somehow acquire better eyesight. These minds are confused by fine details that cannot be ordered logically (as in “real life,”) and are unable to draw conclusions at a glance. Therefore they must practice observation. They must be taught to look for the details that they gloss over when looking for the “important” stuff. Happily, a young child is perfectly poised to become an expert in this practice. He absorbs details naturally, and if, as he matures and becomes more reasonable, he is continually asked to demonstrate his awareness of the details, his senses will remain sharp and receptive. When he embraces logical thinking, he will be able to comprehend subtler arguments than other mathematical thinkers, because he will be awake to all the possible details. He will even be able to quickly understand the application of his beloved abstract theories to disorderly matters such as real life, because he will have trained his intuition to see patterns and sympathies in the wide and wild world.

The task for intuitive minds is to “turn their attention to the principles of mathematics.” The intuitive thinker may appear to be a precocious child, judging wisely with his heart and noticing things that escape grown-ups’ eyes. In school he may answer quickly, and spend little time on his work because “it just comes naturally.” But a subject like algebra or a rule-based study of Latin brings him to a crossroads, because he must patiently build his understanding of them, brick by brick, and cannot instinctively leap to conclusions. If he is taught to “turn his attention” to abstract, logical principles, which are just out of his reach, a whole new world of thinking will open up to him, where his subtle eyesight will serve him well. But if, unaccustomed to stretching for knowledge, he shrinks away from these studies, he will always be clever, but shallow.

Of course, some people are neither intuitive nor mathematical, and Pascal says that these minds are simply dull. But I believe that dullness can easily be prevented in children, and even in adults, it can be cured with persistence. Glory to God, who has created a universe of things to be felt, seen, proven, and known, with both our hearts and our minds. May He give us the patience and purity to seek Him.

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