Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


Étienne Gilson



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

The future master of Whitehead’s text reviews the autobiography of a master of the Thomistic tradition.  Review of Etienne Gilson, The Philosopher and Theology. Translated by Cecile Gilson.  New York: Random House, 1962. 236 pages.  From Journal of Bible and Religion, 31:2 April 1963, 152. 154-55.


A Review of Étienne Gilson's Intellectual Autobiography

Lewis S. Ford

Pausing in the midst of a very productive life in Thomistic scholarship, Gilson offers us a reflective account of his own involvement in French philosophy during the past fifty years. The book begins as an engrossing intellectual autobiography, recapturing the atmosphere of the Sorbonne in the early 1900’s and what it meant to a reflective Catholic student.

Almost imperceptibly, however, and still using autobiographical anecdotes, Gilson leads us into the consideration of more weighty issues: the nature of Christian philosophy, the genius of Thomistic thought, the interaction between Thomists and Bergson, and the proper relationship between philosophy and theology.  All the key themes of Gilson’s views of scholastic philosophy are expressed here—less completely and less technically perhaps than in his other writings, but in more concrete and personal fashion. The reader is clearly apprised of how Gilson himself has been driven to accept these views, even if he is not convinced of their universal validity. Gilson is here concerned, not with metaphysical rigor, but with fundamental issues as they have confronted him personally. For this reason, the book serves as an excellent introduction to the author’s Thomistic perspective.

Gilson had always been a Catholic, though not always a Thomist.  Unlike Bergson, he was not a man in search of a faith, but one who sought to deepen his understanding of his faith.  He is not conscious of any alteration of the faith he received as a child.  “The Creed of the catechism of Paris has held all the key positions that have dominated, since early childhood, my interpretation of the world” (p. 11). 

Philosophically, however, Gilson had been trained in contemporary French thought, which culminated in the creative evolutionism of Bergson. When in 1905 Levy-Bruhl suggested “Descartes and Scholasticism” as a research project for the young student, Gilson had not read a line of Thomas Aquinas.  At that time, prevailing opinion had found nothing original in the philosophy of Scholasticism; it was regarded simply as the theological adaptation of Aristotelianism.

After a long interval of philosophical slumber, Descartes had picked up where the Greeks had left off.  But Gilson’s researches forced him to abandon this view.  For one thing, he found a “frightening” loss of metaphysical substance in the transition from Scholasticism to Descartes.  

Further, Descartes’ rejection of Scholasticism had been selective; he had turned his back on the Aristotelian elements, but not the Christian conclusions.  Because these conclusions presented themselves in full philosophical dress in Descartes, but were not found in Aristotle, they must represent the original contribution of medieval theologians to philosophy.

Here is the germ of Gilson’s concept of Christian philosophy.  The Christian faith of the scholastic philosophers had oriented their philosophical endeavors toward the discovery of original philosophical principles not anticipated by the Greeks.  In their faith these thinkers already had the conclusions they were seeking to establish.  Since in faith the Christian participates in divine truth, he is able to see the errors and shortcomings of those engaged in the purely philosophical struggle, and to devise the means for correcting and perfecting philosophical principles so that they may become fit vehicles for the expression of ultimate truth. Philosophy achieves its highest form within this theological matrix, retaining its autonomy in that it reasons on rational grounds, and does not use the doctrines of faith as its starting-point (as in theology), but only as its final conclusion.

The combination in Gilson of a scrupulous concern for the rigor of philosophical justification with an unshakable conviction that all the important conclusions are already known beforehand is nowhere better illustrated than in his account of Bergson.  

He is enthusiastically sympathetic with Bergson’s philosophical method, endorsing the latter’s discovery of an empiricism which broke through positivistic limitations.  But he is very skeptical of Bergson’s achievements in the philosophy of religion. He defends the censure of those Catholics who sought to turn Scholasticism into something Bergsonian.  

For Gilson, Bergson’s thought is pagan, not Christian.  But, like Aristotle, Bergson’s thought can be perfected by Christian principles.  Unfortunately, it was Bergson’s fate not to have a Thomas Aquinas who could show him how to extend and revise his principles in order to express ultimate truth.  He had only theological critics who simply condemned his views on doctrinal grounds or, worse yet, on purely Aristotelian grounds.

Aristotle had seen that God must be unchangeable, but he had failed to grasp the essential creativity of God.  Bergson had grasped this, only to lose sight of God’s immutability.  In the Thomistic notion of pure act, Gilson urges, we have the means for unifying creativity and immutability in a seamless whole.

Gilson credits Bergson with enabling Thomists to recover the true meaning of the metaphysics of being of Aquinas.  St. Thomas had been read as too much of an Aristotelian; little had been done to conserve the originality of his philosophy, and the distinctive, dynamic thrust of his understanding of the act of being had been lost.  This thrust could be recovered by those who read him through the eyes of Bergson, who strayed too far in the direction of pure dynamism, but at least corrected the overly static view of being and God which Scholasticism had professed.

This book also affords an excellent introduction to the mind of the Catholic intellectual.  More than in most of Gilson’s writings, one is impressed here with the rejection of theological innovation.  Gilson offers a variety of plausible reasons for this, but they are the sort which Aristotelians offered in opposition to the scientific innovations of Copernicus and Galileo.  Innovation runs the risk of error and false doctrine, leading others astray; one must play it safe with matters so vital as to affect our salvation. Protestants accept the risk more readily because they believe that an ultimate formulation of the faith can only be achieved through innovation with all its attendant risks.  Gilson’s faith has already found its decisive propositional formulation in the dogmas of the Church.  “The Church invincibly opposes any philosophical change that would oblige her to modify the received formulation of dogma.

And in this the Church is right, for any change in words would entail a change in meaning, and propositions that have for centuries stood the test of councils cannot be altered without religious truth itself being put in jeopardy” (pp. 13f.).  With this in mind, we can understand how the Catholic point of view should find its official philosophical expression in the Christian reinterpretation of Aristotle.

Posted February 14, 2007

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