Gilson, Étienne Henry (1884–1978)

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Étienne Henry Gilson, the French neo-Thomist philosopher, was born in Paris. His higher education was acquired at the University of Paris. In 1907 he received his agrégé and in 1913, after several years of teaching, his doctorate, publishing both his minor and major theses, Index scolastico-cartésien and La liberté chez Descartes et la théologie. The years 19141916 saw Gilson serving France as an officer on the battlefield. Captured at Verdun, he was a prisoner of war from 1916 to 1918. He spent two years as professor of philosophy at the University of Strasbourg and in 1921 became professor of the history of medieval philosophy at the Sorbonne, in which position he served until 1932, when he accepted the chair of the history of medieval philosophy at the Collège de France, where he taught until 1951. Gilson cooperated with members of the Congregation of Priests of St. Basil of Toronto, at their invitation, to found, in 1929, the Institute of Medieval Studies, in association with Saint Michael's College in the University of Toronto. He was a professor and director of studies at the institute from its foundation until 1956.

Numerous leading universities conferred honorary degrees on Gilson, and many invited him to deliver prominent lectureships, among them the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen (19301931), published as The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy ; the William James Lectures at Harvard (19361937), published as The Unity of Philosophical Experience ; the Richard Lectures at the University of Virginia (1937), published as Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages ; the Mahlon Powell Lectures at the University of Indiana (1940), published as God and Philosophy ; and the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the fine arts (1955), published as Painting and Reality. Gilson founded and directed the famous Études de philosophie médiévale and the Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge and was a director of Medieval Studies, the annual publication of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies. Among the many academies and societies of which he was a member was the select French Academy, to which he was elected in 1947.

Philosophical Position

Gilson's main thoughts may best be appreciated in company with two parts of his own intellectual history. (1) The great Jewish scholar Lucien Lévy-Bruhl advised Gilson to study the relation between René Descartes and Scholasticism. From this research Gilson learned to read St. Thomas Aquinas and to recognize that the metaphysical conclusions of Descartes made sense only in the context of Thomas's metaphysics. (2) Further study of Thomas and other medieval thinkers from St. Augustine through William of Ockham proved for Gilson that there was no common philosophy employed within the theologies but, rather, there were different authentic philosophies.

To do the choosing, demonstrating, and judging that he considered one of the proper tasks of philosophy, Gilson gradually developed his personal philosophical position. The only philosopher, Gilson maintained, who made him clearly realize the full metaphysical implications of the major problems was Thomas, a fact that in no way lessened Gilson's intellectual freedom, for he always wanted to be free to agree with somebody when he thought that what was said was right. For him what characterized Thomism is the decision to locate the act of existence in the heart of the real as an act that can be grasped only by or in the essence whose act it is, as an act, therefore, that has primacy not over and above being but within being. Thus, Thomism as an authentic existentialism is opposed equally to the "Thomistic" essentialists, who deposit a dead essence in the mind as a quiddity without preserving its contact with the act of being, and to such existentialisms as those of Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Jean-Paul Sartre, which, although divergent from one another, commonly deal with existence only as an object of a possible phenomenology of human existence and are phenomenologies still in search of ontologies.

Gilson's personal commitment to the existentialism of Thomism was related to one of his most central philosophical doctrinesnamely, the reality and philosophical validity of what he terms Christian philosophy. In The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and in many other books and articles Gilson demonstrated that the Christian religion and its theologies have had the capacity to produce metaphysical conclusions and to transform philosophy itself. Several of its philosophical ideas the Greek philosophers never knewfor example, the existence of a unique God, the infinite, simple, supremely free Creator of the universe, as an all-powerful efficient cause, as well as the existence of man as a substantial composite of soul and body, free, made in God's image. Regarding the philosophical problem of how a speculation can be rational and philosophical if it is connected with religious beliefs, history as such is incompetent to answer, but philosophy provides the answer. History shows that the alliance of the two distinct orders of thought has produced positive philosophical results. Although Gilson recognizes, with Thomas and other medieval theologians, the distinction of philosophy and theology, he opposes their separation as practiced by Descartes and by numerous neo-Scholastics from the sixteenth century to the present day, for whom philosophy became no more than temporary and successively different alliances with any sort of currently fashionable philosophical position that could be reconciled with revelation.

As Gilson saw it, in the medieval theologians what could be philosophically demonstrated received in theological works the full benefit of rational demonstration. Such philosophical demonstrations were part of sacred doctrine and were also philosophy because they were reached by the human intellect through its own light. In the case of Thomas, who represents for Gilson the best in Christian philosophy, the philosophy is that of a theologian with the order of development required for theological ends; hence, one cannot release Thomistic philosophy from its theological moorings without running the risk of not knowing its origin and end, of altering its nature, and even of not grasping its meaning. Apart from the historical fact of the nonseparation of philosophy and theology, Gilson was convinced that the very nature of philosophy does not demand that the philosophy of Thomas be extracted from the world of faith and the influence of revelation. Philosophy has been and can be authentically philosophy and Christian at one and the same time, for the orientation of Christian philosophyto knowledge about God and manentails no a priori exclusion of any area of philosophical research because nothing in the universe is irrelevant to knowledge about God and man.

This central theme in Gilson's philosophythe nature and validity of Christian philosophyhas exasperated so-called Thomists seeking to develop a Thomism separate from theology; to rationalists it has seemed not to be philosophy at all. Gilson tirelessly re-presented the historical evidence and philosophical reasons to identify and justify Christian philosophy as the use that the Christian makes of philosophical reason when he associates religious faith and philosophical reflection. Rhetorically, Gilson asked why those who profess the Christian faith and its doctrines should see themselves excluded from philosophy simply because they prefer to philosophize about what they believe.

Other influential aspects of Gilson's philosophical doctrines concern education, social and political philosophy, the philosophy of art, and the history of modern and contemporary philosophy. In Painting and Reality, Gilson interprets the evolution of the art of painting, especially its most recent phases, in the light of his existential metaphysics. Because artistic beauty is made, not found, Gilson opposes mere imitation as artistic beauty; the function of any work of art qua art is solely to cause in us the contemplative pleasure of enjoying it. In a masterful defense Gilson analyzes the history of art from Leonardo da Vinci to the mid-twentieth century, demonstrates that representation is not of the essence of art, and argues for the legitimacy of abstraction and the necessity to sacrifice all elements of reality that do not contribute to the plastic structure of a work.

See also Art, Representation in; Augustine, St.; Descartes, René; Existentialism; Heidegger, Martin; History and Historiography of Philosophy; Jaspers, Karl; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Leonardo da Vinci; Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien; Medieval Philosophy; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Thomism; William of Ockham.


works by gilson

The Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine. Translated by Lawrence Lynch. New York: Random House, 1960.

Elements of Christian Philosophy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.

The Philosopher and Theology. New York: Random House, 1962.

Modern Philosophy, Descartes to Kant. New York: Random House, 1962. Written with Thomas Langan.

Introduction aux arts du beau. Paris: Vrin, 1963.

The Spirit of Thomism. New York: P.J. Kenedy, 1964.

Christian Philosophy: An Introduction. Toronto: Pontifical Institute, 1993.

For works published before 1960, see Callistus James Edie, ed., Mélanges offerts à Étienne Gilson (Paris: Vrin, 1959), a bibliography of all articles, monographs, books, and translations of books by Gilson.

works on gilson

McGrath, Margaret. Étienne Gilson: A Bibliography. Toronto: Pontifical Institute, 1982.

Quinn, John. The Thomism of Étienne Gilson. Villanova, PA: Villanova University Press, 1971.

Redpath, Peter A., ed. A Thomistic Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Étienne Gilson. New York: Rodopi, 2003.

Shook, Laurence. Étienne Gilson. Toronto: Pontifical Institute, 1984.

Robert G. Miller, C.S.B. (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)

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Gilson, Étienne Henry (1884–1978)

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