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.
A Review of Étienne Gilson's
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
February 14, 2007
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