When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.
Here Pascal nails the crucial principle of walking in others’ shoes. If we can’t see why someone’s position is true for him or her, why it would make sense and be attractive, then we are not yet in a position to engage with it in a critical way. It is also the sound advice imparted in the Latin motto audi alteram partem (listen to the other side). Quite apart from being good academic etiquette and courtesy, a very careful and sympathetic attention paid to the arguments of those with whom one disagrees is often the very best soil for top quality scholarship to take root.
It strikes me that there are strong parallels between this pensée and the way in which Tim Keller handles 1 Corinthians 1. Engaging with the secular culture around us is not always (perhaps not mostly) a question of opposing, but of enlarging. Keller and Pascal here both start from the principle that the opponent of the Christian faith is not utterly wrong, but partial and incomplete.
This also reminds me of the thought-provoking maxim (I’ve never tested it) that all non-Christian positions (secular as well as religious) are in fact Christian heresies, taking some of the truths of scripture over others, or emphasising some over others in the wrong proportions. It seems to me a plausible hypothesis, and it would be interesting to follow up with some examples. Our task in our academic disciplines and in apologetics alike is frequently to adopt a posture not of “no!” but of “yes, but…”