Gilson, Étienne Henri
GILSON, ÉTIENNE HENRI
Historian of philosophy, Christian philosopher, Thomist; b. Paris, June 13, 1884; d. Cravant, Sept. 19, 1978. The third son of five boys born to Paul Anthelme Gilson, a Parisian shopkeeper, and Caroline Juliette Rainaud, the daughter of a Burgundian (Cravant) innkeeper, Étienne was educated in the parish school of Sainte-Clotilde, in the classical Collège de Notre-Dame-des-Champs and in Lycée Henri IV.
After a year of military service, during which he began to read R. descartes, he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne under Victor Delbos (1862–1916) and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857–1939) and at the Collège de France under H. bergson, obtaining the Diplôme in philosophy in 1906. In 1907 he married Thérèse Ravisé of Melun.
Academic Career. From 1907 to 1913 Gilson taught philosophy at lycées in Bourg-en-Bresse, Rochefort-sur-Mer, Tours, Saint-Quentin, and Angers. In 1913 he received the Doctorat-ès-Lettres from the University of Paris and taught at the University of Lille. During World War I, Gilson was mobilized in a Lille regiment and assigned to instructing recruits in central France. A year later, qualified as a machine gunner, he was sent to the Verdun front where he became a lieutenant. He was taken prisoner at Verdun in 1916 and awarded the Croix de Guerre. In 1919 he taught at the University of Strasbourg, and in 1921 he was appointed professor of medieval philosophy at the Sorbonne. The same year he became director of studies for medieval philosophy at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. In 1922 he was on a relief mission in Russia. In 1926 a chair in medieval philosophy was created specifically for Gilson at the Sorbonne. Also in 1926 he made the first of his many trips to America, lecturing at Harvard University and the University of Virginia. In 1929 he was cofounder of the Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, Canada, and became its director of studies. In 1932 he was appointed professor of the history of medieval philosophy at the Collège de France. In 1942 he was annoyed to learn that Père chenu's brochure on Saulchoir methods had been placed on the Roman Index. He was soon to be equally disturbed at attempts to have de lubac's Surnaturel condemned. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1947, and the same year he was appointed Conseiller de la République. After resigning from the Collège de France in 1951, he became full-time professor at the institute in Toronto, a position he retained until 1968. Gilson retired to Cravant in 1971.
Gilson's reputation during his lifetime was nonpareil: unsurpassed respect for and trust in advanced scholarly research and commitment to the primacy of the oldest materials, read always in the language in which they were written down, in view of what the original author intended to say, and with critical distrust of intervening interpretations. He wanted medieval studies to make a fresh start, functioning primarily at the post-graduate level, rediscovering the riches of a neglected and only too-often despised Christian civilization between late classical times and the early Renaissance.
Christian Philosophy. Gilson came to medieval philosophy and to Thomism in particular through his study of cartesianism. While examining the vocabulary and ideas borrowed from scholasticism by Descartes, he discovered in the medieval schoolmen an unsuspected wealth of philosophy, the knowledge of which is essential for the understanding of modern philosophy. After this discovery Gilson devoted much of his life to the study of medieval philosophy. His voluminous writings cover the whole range of philosophy in the Middle Ages, and he expounded with objectivity and sympathy the ideas of its leading thinkers, from St. Augustine to Duns Scotus. He also wrote extensively on facets of medieval humanism and modern philosophy.
In his Gifford Lectures of 1930–31, entitled The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, Gilson showed that during the Middle Ages, under the influence of Christianity, new philosophical ideas were created that passed into modern philosophy. Hence he called philosophy in the Middle Ages "Christian philosophy," which he defined as "every philosophy which, although keeping the two orders [of faith and reason] formally distinct, nevertheless considers the Christian revelation as an indispensable auxiliary to reason."
Gilson rejected the notion of a common philosophical synthesis, or "scholasticism," in the Middle Ages. In his view there were several scholastic syntheses in the 13th century, each of which was highly original and often in opposition to the others. The doctrinal syntheses of masters such as St. bonaventure, St. thomas aquinas, duns scotus, and william of ockham were not primarily philosophical but theological. They philosophized as theologians and within the context of their theologies.
Gilson was a philosophical historian, seeking truth through the history of philosophy. His historical studies led him to the truth of Thomism. In Thomism he found a metaphysics of existence that conceives God as the very act of being (ipsum esse ) and creatures as beings whose center is an act of existing (esse ). He refused to modernize Thomism by treating its rational content as a philosophy independent of theology or by expounding it according to a philosophical order. He also distinguished between the Thomism of St. Thomas and that of his followers, such as Tommaso de Vio cajetan, who sometimes distorted Aquinas's doctrine. He opposed attempts to synthesize Thomism with philosophies contrary to its spirit, such as Cartesianism and kantianism. In his view Thomistic realism is irreconcilable with the methodic doubt of Descartes and the critique of I. Kant.
While seeking to understand Thomism in its medieval setting, Gilson called for the revival of its creative spirit. He championed a living Thomism that will interpret, criticize, and put into order, in the light of the Thomistic metaphysics of being, the enormous data accumulated since the Middle Ages (The Spirit of Thomism, 96). Among Gilson's outstanding contributions to living Thomism are his philosophical analyses of the fine arts.
See Also: christian philosophy; existential metaphysics; scholasticism, 3; theology, natural.
Bibliography: Works. A complete bibliography of Gilson's writings up to 1958 is contained in Mélanges offerts à Étienne Gilson de l'Academie française (Toronto 1959) 15–58. m. mcgrath, Étienne Gilson, A Bibliography (Toronto 1982). Among his works are: La Liberté chez Decartes et la théologie (Paris 1913); Le Thomisme (Strasbourg 1919; 6th ed. Paris 1965), Eng. The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, tr. l. k. shook (New York 1956); La Philosophie au moyen âge, 2 v. (Paris 1922; 2d ed., 1v. 1944); La Philosophie de s. Bonaventure (Paris 1924; 2d ed. 1942), Eng. tr. i. trethowan (New York 1938); Introduction à l'étude de s. Augustin (Paris 1929; 2d ed. 1943), Eng., The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, tr. l. e. m. lynch (New York 1960); Études sur le rôle de la pensée médiévale dans la formation du système cartésien (Paris 1930); The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, tr. a. h. c. downes (New York 1936). Les Idées et les lettres (Paris 1932); La Théologie mystique de s. Bernard (Paris 1934), Eng. tr. a. h. c. downes (New York 1940); Le Réalisme méthodique (Paris 1935); Christianity and Philosophy, tr. r. macdonald (New York 1939); The Unity of Philosophical Experience (New York 1937); Héloise and Abelard, tr. l. k. shook (Chicago 1951); Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (New York 1938); Dante et la philosophie (Paris 1939), Eng. tr. d. moore (New York 1949); Réalisme thomiste et critique de la connaissance (Paris 1939); God and Philosophy (New Haven 1941); L'Être et l'essence (2d ed. Paris 1962); Being and Some Philosophers (2d ed. Toronto 1952); L'École des muses (Paris 1951), Eng.; Choir of Muses, tr. m. ward (London 1953); Jean Duns Scot (Paris 1952); Les Métamorphoses de la cité de Dieu (Louvain 1952); History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, (New York 1955); Painting and Reality (Bollingen Ser. 35; New York 1957); Peinture et réalité (Paris 1958); Elements of Christian Philosophy (New York 1960); Le Philosophe et la théologie (Paris 1960), Eng. tr. c. gilson (New York 1962); Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Kant (with t. langan) (New York 1963); Les Arts du Beau (Paris 1963); Matières et formes (Paris 1964); The Spirit of Thomism (New York 1964); The Art of the Beautiful (New York 1965); Dante et Béatrice: Études dantesques (Paris 1974); Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge, tr. m. a. wauk, foreword by f. d. wilhemsen (San Francisco 1986). Literature. l. k. shook, Étienne Gilson (Toronto, Ont. 1984). c. j. edie, The Philosophy of Étienne Gilson, 3 v. (Doctoral diss. unpub., Institut Supérieur de Philosophie, Louvain 1958). j. maritain et al., Étienne Gilson: Philosophe de la chrétienté (Paris 1949). a. c. pegis, "G. and Thomism," Thought 21 (1946) 435–454. A Gilson Reader, ed. a. c. pegis (New York 1957) 7–20. h. de lubac, Lettres de M. Étienne Gilson au père Henri de Lubac et commentaire par celui-ci (1986), l. a. kennedy and j. c. marler, eds., Thomistic Papers II (Houston 1986).
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