Hugh williams
(June 2013)


1. Christian Philosophy

Gilson always advocated for the integration of faith and reason in a Christian philosophy. For this he was severely criticized in many quarters especially among many Christians who were also philosophers. A recent example from the transcendental Thomist camp is Fr. Richard Liddy's remarks in his book on Lonergan's Insight.2 Liddy, reiterating Bernard Lonergan's extensive debate with Gilson, provides a perspective on the importance, strength, and limitations of Gilson's philosophy. His commitment to the human knowing of things is strong, clear, and necessary yet Lonergan also believed there was in Gilson's position a stubborn obstruction of philosophical learning. Indeed it was seen to contribute to Catholic alienation, a tendency towards intellectual isolation, and even a Catholic ghetto. There is overstatement and harshness in this criticism from the Lonergan camp that in my view stems from a serious misunderstanding and even a profoundly mistaken interpretation of Gilson's philosophy.

The question this review will first consider is whether or not Gilson stubbornly ignores and even opposes the rising phenomena of cultural, religious, and philosophical pluralism and diversity. And we also will consider how Gilson actually treats of this issue in these last of his published lectures. In pursuing an answer for these questions I will focus closely on the first section of this little book partly because of the constraints of space and partly because the two other sections on Species and Matter serve primarily as illustrations of the type of philosophical quest Gilson is arguing for in this first section on the nature of the philosophical quest and vocation.

In certain earlier works Gilson denned Christian philosophy as a form of philosophical practice.

Thus I call Christian, every philosophy which, although keeping the two orders formally distinct, nevertheless considers the Christian revelation as an indispensable auxiliary to reason. For whoever understands it thus, the concept does not correspond to any simple essence susceptible of abstract definition; but corresponds much rather to a concrete historical reality (practice) as something calling for description.3

Gilson was prepared to concede that a unifying philosophical cosmology may no longer be possible and so we are left with the concerns of a philosophical anthropology or at least this may be where we have to begin. But even here in philosophical anthropology, for the Christian philosopher, our relationship to God remains a central theme and fixed center of reference. Gilson suggested that there simply was a weakness in the human intellect when cut off from the assistance of faith and that this results in a type of philosophical confusion and conflict that too easily breeds skepticism and cynicism in individuals and even can spread throughout an entire culture. The picture is simply not hopeful for human reason working alone in the fields of metaphysics and natural theology. He always advised following the guiding lights of Christian philosophy, St. Augustine and St. Thomas of course being the most eminent examples, while keeping in view the important and necessary formal distinction between reason and faith where philosophical truth was always owed to natural reason alone. This then was a philosophy that, according to Gilson, had been influenced in its constitution by faith, and which had provided a moral support for an important aspect of actual Christian practice. This, Gilson argued, had been the actual historical experience and practice as he attempted to show in his earlier works.4

Clearly then, for Gilson, philosophy strictly speaking has no religion, but neither is it a matter of indifference that the actual person who philosophizes should profess one. Nor is it a matter of indifference that there have been philosophers who were Christian where even in their exercise of natural reason we can discern the influence of faith. This especially shows in the choice of problems, which for the Christian philosopher most often has to do with his religious practice in some manner, as well as with his philosophical practice. Gilson's own philosophical project was to a large extent an effort to show, or at least sketch out, the influence of Christian revelation in the development of metaphysics.

Gilson continued to insist throughout his career that in the life of a person where Christian faith plays the role of a regulative principle for practice, there is the possibility of an actual Christian philosophy. He acknowledged that most liberal interpretations of this philosophy were usually in terms of an openness to the supernatural. But this was not adequate in Gilson's view, and he pointed out how this only provides the basis for the avoidance of incompatibility between Christian faith and philosophy and that it did not constitute on its own a Christian philosophy. For a philosophy to be Christian, in Gilson's eyes, the supernatural must enter into the philosophy as a constitutive element yet not into the actual texture of this philosophy. We might say it enters into the structure of the philosophy but not the content, at least not in a manner that would violate the canons of philosophical evidence and argument.5

2. Philosophical Education

For Gilson, philosophical education covers the span of a philosophical life. The process of teaching produces new opportunities to learn about philosophy. No one can say, I know philosophy. It is not primarily a science but a wisdom and no one can claim to be wise. It is something one tries to work at. What are the signs of this vocation, this life of the spirit? There are three principal kinds of life — speculation, action, and production, says Gilson. Philosophy is primarily of the first.6

It is interesting and important to compare Gilson's statements in these last lectures as to how teaching philosophy presents important new opportunities for learning for the teacher and his earlier simpler and perhaps more rigid characterization of the teaching of Thomism in particular as the communication of truth to the student, truth that the teacher has already appropriated through contemplative reflection. Teaching in his earlier work is characterized as simply the outward expression of inward contemplation.7 I would suggest this much later reference to teaching as a new opportunity for learning shows a somewhat surprising flexibility and openness in the older Gilson perhaps because of his continuing philosophical learning from some of those important contemporary philosophers whom he names in this text — Martin Heidegger, Henri Bergson, and Teilhard de Chardin. Heidegger, whom Gilson had a special respect for as perhaps the most important contemporary metaphysician or philosopher of being, especially had characterized teaching as more difficult than simply learning because the one who teaches can do so only as long as he can truly learn.8

The first sign of the philosophical vocation is in the desire to know for the pleasure of understanding truth. Everyone has this desire but not everyone wants to consecrate his life to satisfy it. The second sign of the philosophical vocation is in the nature of the knowledge that is sought. What is the nature of this knowledge? It is not so much to understand the world, but rather to consider that there is firstly a world to understand that is intelligible to the human being and that there is the intelligent human being to know this world in its very intelligibility. This is the first knowledge sought in the philosophical vocation and it is best expressed for Gilson in Leibniz's question — "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Nothing, says Gilson, is much easier to understand than something. He suggests that the nature of this more fundamental knowledge is again pointed to much earlier in Aristotle's question — "what does it mean to be?".9

For the philosopher such a fundamental question takes precedence in importance over the demonstrability of answers. And furthermore the little we know about the most noble objects by the leadings of such fundamental questioning has more value for us (philosophically) than the most perfect certainty we have (often provided by science) over less noble objects. The former area of enquiry, says Gilson, gives us the greatest joy as philosophers.

3. Modern Insights and Modern Errors

Hume and Kant in contrast, says Gilson, are essentially great scientific minds made for the methods of science and when these minds are applied to fundamental philosophy they conclude that these deeper philosophical questions have no answers because they do not lend themselves to the new mathematical-experimental methods. Thus Hume and Kant set out on paths that could not take them where they wanted to go as philosophers.10

Strangely enough, Gilson goes on to say that the basic matter of philosophical reflection is the concept. Such reflection then asks, "What it is?" This question becomes a complex problem of defining again and again the meaning of the concepts one is using — what each concept is in itself and how it is distinct from other concepts. Armand Maurer points out in his introduction that we would seriously misunderstand Gilson here, if we were to interpret him as equating philosophy with a conceptualism that somehow abandons his lifelong dogmatic realism for which he was famous. Maurer remarks how Gilson later says that philosophy only becomes really interesting when it comes to focus on reality — the real thing and the real knowledge of that thing. As a summary statement, Maurer takes this to be consistent with the Gilson he knew so well.11 Gilson in Being and Some Philosophers, for instance, identifies again his concern over the modern philosophical bent towards an idealism or anti-realism. For Gilson this is the viewpoint that sees philosophy as not concerned with what is first in things but with what is most universal in thought and this in terms of broadness of view. This has become normal and he says if a philosopher professes to believe what he teaches is true he may be hard pressed to get a job. It is a strange science where a professor can hold a job not knowing what is true in philosophy or even now believing there is no truth. The man who uses his will to let his intellect see things just as they are is now seen as a dogmatist at best and a fanatic at worst. It is the will to know that a philosopher should begin with and so his choice of first principles is so important. And the principle of principles that should be first in the mind is what also is first in the reality of things. This may not be what is most easily accessible to critical or reflective understanding, or easily expressible in com­munication yet it is rather that which all the rest of reality depends upon including especially our knowledge of concepts.12 Despite Maurer's disavowal of any significance of this reference to the importance of the 'concept' in philosophy, I will speculate in the last section of this review that the fact Gilson would consider the concept's importance in these last lectures in the manner he did is not without significance and that it may represent a tempering of Gilson's dogmatic realism. It may very well indicate a softening of his views towards what he had characterized and dismissed as critical realism's excessive concessions to Kant and idealism, and that he saw as opposed in important ways to his version of a simpler and even purer realism.13

If we may be permitted to consider for a moment a subtle and representative modern view on pluralism in philosophy and culture from the work of Charles Taylor and examine closely how it contrasts with Gilson's own viewpoint, we find an argument that can be summed up as thus — the days are over when one could consider one's own experience or the experience of one's own culture as the norm for everyone.14 This realization can threaten to result in relativism and the calling into question of the notion of truth in human affairs. What we understand as "human nature" is mediated by our own particular culture, language, and self-understanding. Now some thinkers try to ground our understanding of the human condition or human nature in something more basic than culture such as in socio-biology or as in Gilson, a metaphysics of being. But according to Taylor, we cannot discover species-wide laws for the human being because we cannot operate outside of our historically and culturally specific understanding of what it is to be human. The universality of the language of natural science simply cannot be applied to the study of human beings without serious distortion and inadequacy. Nevertheless, it is simply wrong, according to Taylor, to think this fact of cultural difference means we must abandon our allegiance to (and search for) truth. He insists that we do have a tacit sense of a shared human condition, however he cautions again that this sense of a common condition can in fact block our understanding of others. Obtaining truth then in our understanding of human affairs (or of human nature) requires patient identification and undoing of these facets of our implicit assumptions that can distort the reality of "the other". We must distinguish the peculiarities in our own perspective on the human condition/ nature as first facts about ourselves and not as firm features of this human condition/nature that we wish to understand. We must begin then to perceive without distorting corresponding features in the lives of others. Thus for Taylor some accounts will be more ethnocentric and distortive, some more superficial. But this also means that some will be closer to the truth than others. We then are acknowledging that our way of being human in our own culture is not uniquely natural for everyone, that it represents one among many possible forms but yet Taylor holds that it may still be possible that we can develop an account that is better in expressing the truth of the human condition or human nature than another account.

Now the realist position of Gilson's is not directly opposed to Taylor's viewpoint necessarily but there is clearly a different and stronger emphasis on our capacity to know the truth of things and thus to know something of the nature of the human being though it may not tell us very much. Similarly with Taylor the fact of pluralism does not involve the acceptance or tolerance of relativism as a matter of principle. But Gilson's metaphysically grounded counter-position is more systematically focused on certain important essentials. The fundamental point at issue with the anti-realists is the epistemological question of what is the object of real knowledge. Gilson's realism answers that we know things in themselves as external to our own minds, and that this knowing is simply and directly evident in our intelligible cognitive experience. This fundamental metaphysical principle of realism simply cannot be subject to much critical analysis beyond asking one's interlocutor to call to mind their own experience and assumptions or perhaps clarifying that we are not debating the quality of one's mental representations or their correctness. What is at issue is the more basic question of principle - what object is known? The realist answers that it is the thing itself as a real thing external to my own mind. This is not a claim of exhaustive knowledge or of infallibility even though it rejects the (relativist) view that a plurality of viewpoints on the nature of the human being, for example, is in principle required to overcome an alleged inadequacy and distortion in our individual knowing perspectives. Indeed it is only because we are in a knowing relationship with the truth of things that we can make sense of any error and distortion and in turn develop better interpretations of things. So Gilson the dogmatic realist who understands his position with the aid of this Thomistic metaphysical tradition, has no need of an apologetic as we find in Taylor's philosophy at times and that is always contending with those who, it is believed, sell short the human capacity to know the truth of things. This Thomism and its philosophy of being and of the human person as a knowing being as well as a reflective thinker, simply gives us the best account of our human experience that we actually live by, or can live by.15 It really is the best effort "to tell it like it is" or to say what we know in a noetic sense.16

And perhaps we can say even more — the difference here as I understand it is that Taylor sees the ontological as undeniably embedded in the phenomenological, whereas Gilson's Thomistic realism sees the existential in the sensible datum. Taylor backs away from speaking of "the thing in itself" because of Kant's pervasive influence on his thinking whereas Gilson simply begins with the existential (and noetic) judgment of the being of things as the act of existence. This is a self-evident principle of our embodied existence for him. There is this difference in that Taylor argues that the move from a concern for the good to a concern for truth only occurs effectively for the human being when we have developed a common dialogical practice to some degree — it only occurs within the conversation of the shared life world that has been brought to consciousness; whereas in Gilson we have the pursuit of a more classical-absolutist tact and discourse. This is done in the nature of Gilson's dogmatic presentation of first principles and their posited self-evidence. But on the other hand there are strong affinities in Taylor, as a contemporary Christian philosopher, in this deep and abiding concern for the reality of the human person. However, where Taylor the phenomenologist in the face of the challenges of philosophical and cultural pluralism may have the final word from a practical point of view, a view that seemingly better resonates with our times, is in the fact that for our claims regarding first principles to mean anything to our interlocutors we have had to enter into a shared dialogical practice to some degree. Thus, Taylor insists on the importance of the turn towards phenomenology and the work of a philosopher such as Merleau Ponty. In contrast, Gilson for most of his career, had turned to medieval studies and away from modernity. This, however, was not a turn away from reality or concern for the contemporary human situation. It was motivated to some extent by grave concerns regarding modernity's idealism or anti-realism as a type of intellectual deviance, and also by a stubborn realist alternative that insisted on beginning with what we know most deeply so that we do not forget who and what we are as human beings. This is a view that insists philosophically that we are not just thinkers of ideas but that we are knowers of things as well. This for Gilson is an important part of the role of the Christian philosopher who holds the question of the human situation in his focus always. This realism in Christian philosophy — has been shown by Gilson and others to be subject to a great diversity and pluralism of viewpoints and yet he argues there has always been a methodic subordination of speech to thought, and of thought to sensible things — this is the "method" of realism, a realism that always has given epistemological priority to the reality of external things.

Taylor in a recent interview says clearly that we need to learn the nature of our age in order to communicate with it. This clearly is Taylor's abiding strength, but he also says that we need to be free of too close an identification with this age in order to maintain and strengthen our religious life. It is on this particular point that I believe Gilson makes a lasting contribution as a resister to the intellectual enthrallment with modernity. Taylor contends that there definitely is a language of belief and faith that must be kept alive. This reference to language always for Taylor involves some degree and type of ontological commitment as well, though in his own philosophy it always remains undeveloped and inchoate because, in his view, it simply is extremely difficult to clearly and convincingly articulate such commitments.17 Nevertheless, we always are trying to really understand one another and so we must begin by listening to the questions that define the search people are involved in. This must be the basis of any creative interaction and genuine communication. This openness in the face of our pluralistic and secular age simply cannot be rolled back and furthermore it is no longer desirable to do so. Gilson as will be shown in what follows would be in essential agreement with at least the practical elements of Taylor's viewpoint though no doubt there would be serious theoretical differences.18

4. The Philosophical Quest and A Living Tradition

If one has a philosophical aptitude how is one to proceed? Above all one does not proceed alone for one does not philosophize alone. Philosophy is first of all a conversation between philosophers who ask ultimate questions proper to metaphysics (questions of ultimate concern). The fundamental practical question is then from whom to learn of this conversation? What will be one's philosophical formation? Again, Gilson stresses that philosophical wisdom is first of all that of our own time for us. And it has clearly broadened to new areas/places where a new type of mind poses in its name new problems and new solutions for the old ones. We communicate first with philosophy under the form it has in a given time and place (culture). Gilson gives examples of what he means by citing the names of Heidegger, Bergson, and Teilhard de Chardin. These, he says, are the voices that have overpowered us — choosing us more than we have chosen them. This is how one must begin, where one finds oneself already immersed in conversation and culture.19

But is not contemporary thought inevitably a danger to be avoided? Gilson has been misunderstood to be arguing as such.20 In many ways the publication of these last lectures of Gilson's helps to set the record straight on this point. The avoidance of one's own culture of intellectual work simply cannot be done because this is the only living culture, which causes the only living philosophy — the only living philosophy through which we can communicate with that in philosophy that is eternal. Gilson argues that the treasure of philosophical learning of the wise has a real existence only in thinkers of today and in the minds of each one of us living and participating in our present time. The wisdom of old is only accessible to us in a language that is our own and is actually occupied with resolving problems of our own time and of the state of civilization in which we are destined to live. Philosophical education then must be generously and courageously open to the present, again because one enters into the eternal only through present day activity.21

Nevertheless as clear as Gilson's position is here, it is only half the story. What do we mean by the philosophy of our time? For there is so much of it and it is beyond the powers of any one mind to assimilate. It is impossible to be exposed to it all. But we already know something of philosophical wisdom. If it has not already been discovered in some sense, it never will be. So the search is for the philosophical life itself that already exists in our time in which we seek to participate.22

There is the treasure in what exists today that we can discover too late to be of any good before our own disappearance. But even more of a concern is that the philosophy of our youth/past can keep us from perceiving the meaning of what is alive today. And it is here where others can help us; there is the help of a living tradition that is open to the intellectual culture of our times. And yet there are still leadings for this wisdom within the Christian tradition. There is a canon made for us and not by us. There is the real history of philosophy but then one cannot read all the books. We must make a choice. It will be tied to the nature of the problems/questions (of ultimate concern) one seeks to answer in one's own life and it is here on this very point that Gilson can be read as still advocating implicitly for one being involved with a living tradition of Christian philosophy that is open to the culture of our times and its problems and yet still is in continuity with the eternal wisdom of old.23

There are dominant voices and there are principal doctrines or points of view on reality — representative philosophies — an idea or type of an ultimate truth about reality. There are the examples — Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Thomas, Kant, Bergson. This philosophy of our time is incomprehensible if isolated from the past. So then where should the study of philosophy begin today? Begin with the past and that of value in the present conversation that nevertheless has roots and deployment over the whole course of the philosophical conversation. This is its wisdom of today that includes the past. Philosophical wisdom exists because of this interconnection within a living tradition overtime.24

Because of the difficulty and challenges in all this there is no getting rich quick in philosophy. There is no such thing as the young philosopher; there are instead candidates to the dignity of philosophical maturity that only comes in time. Metaphysics as the highest and deepest philosophy comes late not so much at the end of a program of study but rather as one nears the end of one's life. Philosophy is not a profession in which one's intellect grows rich quickly. And so what does one do in the meantime? One prepares for the arrival of the light.25 And how does one prepare? (And here we have what I'd argue is a somewhat unique and important proposal for philosophical formation). By acquiring positive scientific knowledge of one or several orders of reality — those of which one desires to know their first principles. Remember one knows, one wants to be a philosopher, if one has questions of ultimate concern.26

These are questions that no science as science neither wants to nor can raise for itself. But this ultimate concern can only be addressed in relation to less general ones, which in themselves are more practical and do not directly address the speculative concern. (Gilson illustrates this in his next two sections on Species and Matter respectively). It is in relation to such practical disciplines that the future philosopher will pursue the search for first principles. One prepares for metaphysics by entering into a practice, a particular discipline studied for itself and yet it also can serve as the point of entry for the speculative, for the consideration of the first principles of knowledge (and being) and the acquisition of metaphysical wisdom. This is the truth of Aristotle or Thomas on the acquisition of philosophical wisdom. A philosopher thinks about thought not in the sense of trying to philosophize about philosophy for this is to risk bringing on boredom and fatigue in one's philosophical speculations. Rather philosophy must focus on reality and yet it must lift itself above thinking about sciences, attending to what it knows as philosophy — first principles and their meaning, to consider these principles in themselves, beginning again and again with the experiences of the senses, connecting intellect and sense, first principles and sense experience.27

This requires intellectual abstraction proper to metaphysics, but one can­not remain at this level of abstraction nor is it one's destiny. It is at the end of a heroic effort to observe first principles at work in the interpretation of sen­sible reality that one truly grasps their meaning. They are wisdom as they confer meaning and intelligibility to the knowledge of which they alone are the ultimate justification. One attains this metaphysical understanding at the end of a long period of effort that begins with some science and what one comes to know of it by progressive habit, and then eventually interpreting all this knowledge in the light of first principles.

Our supreme happiness is not in the contemplation of first principles for this is of the general and universal — a knowledge of things only in a virtual way. This is abstract knowledge — real knowledge is to know real things in the light of (these) principles. One never knows these principles if one doesn't know actual things in the light of these principles. Metaphysics as the search for first principles is not content to look at them as abstractions. It rather seeks to see them at work embodied in concrete reality.

So then what are you to philosophize about? Anything you choose so long as it is about some real thing and not just philosophy itself. Begin with any given fact in your experience of the present times and ask what does metaphysical wisdom teach about it, and think about these things and the doctrines meant to interpret them.

Begin with real first hand knowledge of a real object alive in your own thought. If philosophy begins by trying to feed on itself, it can degenerate into empty verbalism. Let your metaphysics bear on the physical sensate reality as its highest elucidation. Take courage and be patient in the search for the first truth and in the elucidation of reality in the light of that truth. There is plenty of material for a life's work here — though it be not the supreme happiness, it is its earthly image, a joy flowing from truth.28

There has always been recognized by careful and sensitive readers of Gilson that there was legitimacy in his realist polemic against modern philosophy's tendency to lose sight of the original unity in our experience of thought and the real things thought about. There was a tendency for the internal images and objects of reflective thought to be turned into sorts of things operating in themselves. There was a tendency in the accounts of knowledge for a reduction to entities and instrumentalities. Gilson's ontology and metaphysics was always an effort to recover the original integrity in human knowledge and to acknowledge a non-instrumental openness of language and thought to the real world in which it was situated. The limitation in Gilson's metaphysical corpus may be conceded to be in the fact he does not clarify adequately the distinction between the copula and the act of existence of the thing.29 Perhaps this is because he believed such a distinction might again too easily reduce the significance of existential judgment to that of the mental structures of reflective thought. This always for Gilson is the great temptation in modern philosophy.

Nevertheless, without a better-developed account of this distinction, the coincidence of the act of existence of the copula and the act of existence of the thing remains accepted as only a happy accident that remains an assertion without an adequate account. Kenneth Schmitz for one believes the role of perception in knowledge and its relationship to the thing itself can be further grounded in terms that also show the possibility of truth and thereby greatly deepen the philosophical significance of the copula. Nevertheless, there remains great value in Gilson's existential-Thomism and in its insistent recovery of the concern for the concrete singular through the primacy of existential-judgment and sensible perception in knowing. This work sets us upon the most fruitful direction philosophically. Yet, this commitment and stance does not so much threaten the importance of conceptual knowledge or the importance of concepts implicitly acknowledged by Gilson in the early part of these last lectures, but instead it can serve their necessary completion and perfection.


In these final lectures it becomes very clear that Gilson fundamentally has a threefold approach to philosophical formation though most of his casual readers only see one aspect. Gilson in these final lectures clearly enunciates this threefold approach — 1) involvement in the contemporary conversation and with at least some of the dominant voices in this conversation; 2) attention to and study of the historical roots of the questions and ideas embodied in this contemporary conversation; and 3) the attention to and study of some practice (or science) that embodies metaphysical principles and indeed gives these principles sensible content so that they do not become or remain mere abstractions. Most people in their cursory reading of Gilson only see the historical aspect and often reduce him to "only a historian of philosophy" albeit an able one. But this is to miss his important engagement with contemporary thinkers and to miss his significant advocacy of philosophers having considerable involvement with matters of practice or some science as he tends to characterize this concern for practice. This I believe is somewhat unique and indeed it is also progressive and highly relevant for any discussion of the ongoing relevance of Christian philosophy as Gilson understood it. I would conclude that Gilson's standard and vision for the philosophical vocation is of the highest quality, and of continuing relevance.


End Notes

  1. Etienne GILSON, Three Quests in Philosophy, Toronto, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2008.

  2. See Richard LIDDY, Startling Strangeness: Reading Lonergan's "Insight", New York NY, University Press of America, 2007, pp. 18-23.

  3. See Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, Notre Dame IN, University of Notre Dame Press, 1991, p. 37.

4 See especially Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, Notre Dame IN, University of Notre Dame Press, 1991. This issue is crucial for the entire review (and any evaluation of Gilson as a philosopher) and so we must consider again the question "what is Christian philosophy?". This has been an issue of contention between many philosophical friends in the Christian tradition for some time and it is usually and most generally characterized as the issue of the relationship of faith and reason. In Gilson's Christian philosophy faith and reason, theology and philosophy are distinguished and yet they are not separable. Gilson's historical work spent a great deal of time and effort sifting through the cultural ambience within which thinking was undertaken during the medieval period and how this differed from our modern times. Modern rationalism has regarded philosophy to be something independent of any extraneous considerations such as faith and belief. There was also, according to Gilson, a neo-scholasticism in Christian circles, which systematically tried to deduce and formulate philosophical conclusions from purely rational premises that had nothing to do with faith or theology. This rationalism saw the truth of philosophy as completely independent of faith. Gilson was always suspicious and critical of this view of philosophy, especially when entertained by Christians. Gilson tried to show how Christian philosophy was actually intelligible only in the light of one's view of this relationship between faith and reason and for him faith was not extrinsic to reason instead it was very much intrinsic to philosophical reason in Christian philosophy.

But then we might ask if this faith is intrinsic to the essence or to the exercise of philosophy? And to answer this Gilson examined what the acceptance of faith actually did for the philosophy of the philosophers who became Christian. What is the relationship between our rational knowledge of the true and the good and revealed knowledge? There is the medieval view that there was a natural revelation of God — the Word, and through this revelation we participate in the light of Christ. And so in a sense pagans and Jews who live according to this Word were regarded as Christian. Gilson's historical studies clearly validated the claim that there is a Christian philosophy where there is an intrinsic relationship between Revelation and reason. This does not mean faith is a kind of cognition in Gilson's estimation, somehow superior to rational cognition nor does it mean that by proceeding from premises of faith one can arrive at conclusions of pure (philosophical) science. In Christian philosophy there is no effort to trans­form faith into knowledge; rather the question is whether there are truths accepted in faith that also can be known by reason to be true? If so then there is a progression from faith to knowledge (and from knowledge to faith) and the latter knowledge can be called Christian philosophy, according to Gilson, because of the origins of this truth for the believer. Thus among the truths held in faith there are also some we can come to know by natural reason as true. A Christian philosophy then, for Gilson, is more than one that is simply open to the supernatural, rather the supernatural is a constitutive element but not of its texture. This means that the two orders of faith and reason are kept formally distinct, yet Christian philosophy considers Christian faith and revelation as an indispensable aide to reason.

What is essential and constitutive in this philosophy is the source in faith of certain truths held philosophically that thus become constitutive. This then influences the questions considered by such philosophy — questions that affect the conduct of a religious life. These truths of faith from which Christian philosophy takes its rise are truths also considered necessary for salvation. It is the issues having to do with the human beings relationship to God that are so central for this philosophy. Thus the constitution of the philosophy could not be achieved without the aid of faith and revelation acting as a moral support for reason. This then is the meaning of Gilson's Christian philosophy — the Christian philosopher has a certitude that shares in the certitude of faith about some naturally knowable truths. This Gilson showed to be historical fact about how philosophy actually developed. There are notions about God and morality, person and nature, relation and separated substances, time and eternity that all have this status in Christian philosophy. The philosophical development of these notions is simply inconceivable apart from the Christian faith of the thinkers who developed these notions.

It is often argued that once these notions and truths are known philosophically the fact that they had their origins as truths of faith is philosophically irrelevant. Gilson would not accept this because he saw philosophy as a practice over the course of a life — a prolonged dialectical undertaking that cannot be reduced to a collection of propositional arguments. There is also the state of philosophy as that which characterizes one's life with all its surprises and happenstance, and it is inseparable from the moral context of the philosopher's life. The nature of philosophy can limit itself to a consideration of the essences of its propositions and discourse, i.e. its correctness as an exercise in natural reasoning. But there is also the deeper evaluation of one's engagement with it as a matter of one's life and a matter of one's moral condition as a thinker, which subtly interacts with one's success or failure as a thinker. This is an area where the moral and the strictly intellectual interpenetrate. Ralph Mclnerny points out how even Aristotle believed that the quest for intellectual virtue would be frustrated without the moral virtues (The Question of Christian Ethics, Washington DC, The Catholic University of America, 1993, p. 61).

Gilson saw in some believers who were philosophers a tendency to apologize for their faith and a strong wish to reassure their secular colleagues that this faith had no relationship to their philosophizing. In effect their faith was seen as an embarrassment to be hidden. This attitude and reality has been playing itself out in the question of the future of the Catholic university and the concern that these institutions be "real" universities despite their Catholic origins. Gilson had little patience for these concessions to secular modernity. He was convinced that the Christian philosopher was sustained in his philosophical activity by his religious faith that has deep existential and noetic roots that simply cannot be reduced to a set of logically ordered propositions epistemically appraised as points of debate. (See Ralph Mclnerny, The Question of Christian Ethics for a thorough and succinct discussion of Gilson's Christian philosophy).

5 In keeping with Gilson's view on the importance of an actual integration of faith and reason in Christian philosophy, we can cite how Vatican II's discussion of Christian Education repeated this same fundamental concern of practical principle. The Council said that the Church was and must be concerned with the whole human being and that this clearly includes our material and earthly existence. The foremost concern then was for a Christian education for Christians that was not merely an add-on to conventional secular education but an education that integrated both truth and love into its life. This statement on education however, is largely agreed by commentators to be only a holding pattern for the Church on the issue of Christian education saying little that was new or helpful for an age where Christians everywhere are now confronted by the question — "How is this to be made concrete and real in the face of a growing pluralism and diversity and the often accompanying counter claim that we as Christians simply are not the only custodians of 'true religion'?" Many now are arguing that any "resolution of this tension will involve a profound change in Christian self-understanding" (Raimundo Panikkar, "Chosenness and Universality: Can Christians Claim both?" Cross Currents 38 (1988); See also my Listening to a Pope in a Secular Age, Symposium 5 (2001), pp. 197-214 for a more extensive discussion of these issues. See also Richard Renshaw's recent Dealing with Diversity: Questions for Catholics, Montreal, Dunamis Publishers, 2009. Gilson's stubbornness or faithfulness, depending upon one's point of view, is again in his adherence to this fundamental principle enunciated again at Vatican II of the necessary integration of faith and reason in Christian education and yet, as we will see in what follows, this concern for education and Christian philosophy becomes significantly more nuanced in his later years as he does attempt face up to this problematic for both faith and reason of modern cultural pluralism. For a more recent discussion of the character of Christian philosophy see Kenneth Schmitz, The Texture of Being: Essays in First Philosophy, Washington CD, The Catholic University of America, 2007, pp. 48-49.

6 Etienne Gilson, Three Quests in Philosophy, p. 3.

7 Etienne Gilson, Thomism: The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, Toronto, Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2002, pp. 1-2.

8 Martin Heidegger, Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, David Krell, ed., New York, Harper and Row, 1977, pp. 251-252.

9 Gilson, Three Quests in Philosophy, pp. 3-4.

10 Ibid., pp. 5-7.

11 Ibid., pp. viii-ix.

12 Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, Toronto, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1949, pp. vii-ix.

13 Etienne Gilson, Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge, San Francisco CA, Ignatius Press, 1986.

14 See Charles Taylor, Sources of The Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1989; see also Taylor's more recent work, A Secular Age, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 2007.

15 See Marc Griesbach, "Truth, Realism and Philosophical Pluralism" in John Knasis (ed)., Thomistic Papers VI, Houston, Center for Thomistic Studies, University of St. Thomas Press, 1994, pp. 153-169 for a succinct version of this realist argument in the tradition of Gilson's existential-Thomism.

16 There is an important distinction between noetic and epistemic knowing recently articulated by Kenneth Schmitz, who has been very much influenced by Gilson's approach to Thomism as well as by the traditions of Kant and Hegel. In many ways Schmitz's work can be seen as a helpful development of Gilson's philosophy. Schmitz's project is characterized as a sophisticated effort to bring this older concern with "being" into dialogue with the modern concern for the "subject". This then is an example of an important distinction that could prove to be very helpful for understanding those philosophers, such as Gilson, who have always insisted that there is an important sense in which the fundamental concerns of metaphysics and ontol­ogy have a primacy over epistemology. In brief noetic knowing, according to Schmitz, is present in more or less open discourse arising within the ontological truth relation. It is saying what we know and so it is spontaneously receptive in the concrete situation and is the stuff of ordinary conversation both innocent and wise. Epistemic knowing is a special modification of noetic discourse and is the methodical description, explanation, or interpretation of the way matters stand. This theoretical use of a critical method is more than just a commitment to consistency and coherence. It involves a semantic context that involves a theory of knowledge, canons on valid argument, and preconceptions of what counts as evidence. Epistemic discourse is method­ically assertive in that it is a conceptual, rational, and argumentative effort to state veridically/ correctly just how things are. In contrast to the noetic "saying what we know", it is focused much more on "knowing what we say". According to Schmitz, noetic discourse is not opinion to be measured by epistemic discourse. It is the source of truth whereas epistemic discourse is not the source of truth. The noetic is the transcendental ontological relationship in which truth consists and out of which cognition arises. Epistemic discourse modifies discourse according to the presuppositions and restrictions of its founding project that is naturally selective and involves some degree of noetic closure. There is an implicit preference for explicit epistemo­logical decisions taken in favor of a project ordered towards methodically justified truth. Noetic discourse does not provide such foundations nor does it have them. Epistemic discourse requires its discipline, noetic discourse requires an asceticism, a self-disciplined openness to the other, an inteliectus habitus. See Kenneth Schmitz's important paper "Neither with or without Foundations", Review of Metaphysics, 42 (1988), pp. 3-25; see also his more extensive treatment of these issues in his The Recovery of Wonder: The New Freedom and the Asceticism of Power, Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005, and The Texture of Being: Essays in First Philosophy, Washington DC, The Catholic University of America, 2007.

17 See Hugh Williams, Dialogical Practice And The Ontology Of The Human Person: A Study Of The Philosophies Of Charles Taylor And Norris Clarke, Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Philosophy, Dominican University College, Ottawa, 2008. In this thesis I examine this persistent hesitancy and indefiniteness in Taylor's ontology in comparison with Norris Clarke's who works out of what I argue is a stronger philosophical tradition that can and does make more definite ontological claims.

18 Much of this elaboration on Taylor's views can be found in recent interviews with Taylor in the electronic media concerning his most recent book, A Secular Age, see

19 Gilson, Three Quests in Philosophy, pp. 11-13.

20 This certainly has been the interpretation of his somewhat polemical Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge, San Francisco CA, Ignatius Press, 1986.

21 Ibid., p. 14.

22 Ibid., p. 15.

23 Ibid., p. 16.

24 Ibid., pp. 17-18.

25 In keeping with Gilson's reading of Heidegger and his emphasis on the philosopher's involvement with some concrete thing and a "scientific" practice, this passage calls for some reflection on the fundamental relationship between the "light of truth" and "the openings of practice" [See Martin Heidegger's essay «The End of Philosophy and The Task of Thinking» in David Krell (ed)., Martin Heidegger Basic Writings, New York NY, Harper and Row, 1977, pp. 373-392; see also Reiner Schurmann, Heidegger on Being and Acting: From Principles to Anarchy, Bloomington IN, Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 235-245 on the "practical a priori" in Heidegger]. Gilson here is concerned with being prepared and open for the "light of truth". But as well with his emphasis on science and practical involvement with real things and not just derivative philosophical abstractions, he seems to be proposing an alertness and attentiveness to the occasions and openings for a deeper reasoning in actual practice. Heidegger has argued that this in a way will involve some degree of resistance to a particular historical destiny that is being played out in our culture and in our philosophy. This destiny is called "technological" by Heidegger and "monological" by Charles Taylor (Charles Taylor, A Catholic Modernity?, New York NY, Oxford University Press, 1999. Each of these contemporary philosophers, and now Gilson in his own way are proposing a type of philosophical practice that can be conceived as a form of resistance to this destiny. In doing so, Gilson is not advocating the abandonment of philosophy, which the more radical versions of this call to practice can sometimes be read and interpreted. He is instead trying to recall something in philosophy's history that has been forgotten or eclipsed because of the preoccupation with, and dominance of, something else. Because of certain leadings in Plato, philosophy has become very much concerned with the "seeing of reason" made possible by the "light of truth" ultimately best secured by theory for us as thinking beings. At its worst this line of development has consummated in a type of mono-logical objectifying philosophical thought. Much of post-modern thought can be read as a strategic reaction and resistance to this development in philosophy. It is a conception of phi­losophy that is forgetful of practice and it is this, I believe Gilson along with Heidegger and some of his contemporaries, sensed to be such a profound error in orientation and balance. It is an error because the "light of truth" presupposes and depends upon the "openings or occa­sions" of practice. There is no real light without the opening for its occurrence. We of course are speaking metaphorically but the relevance of this insight can be tested in actual practice and Gilson seems convinced of this in these last lectures. And I would further suggest these insights have particular and profound relevance for his understanding of Christian philosophy. (See note 5 above for a somewhat different but complementary perspective on this same theme).

26 Gilson, 77iree Quests in Philosophy, pp. 19-20.

27 Ibid., p. 21.

28 Gilson, Three Quests in Philosophy pp. 22-24.

29 This insight borrows much from Kenneth Schmitz's more sensitive and critical reading of Gilson and the existential-Thomist tradition in his The Texture of Being: Essays in First Philosophy, Washington DC, The Catholic University of America, 2007; see especially pp. 90, 97, 114, 115. The copula, according to Schmitz, is the "is" that connects subject and predicate in propositions. But philosophically for Thomism it is a crucial notion that has to do with the existential judgment that terminates not in a mental construction but in the thing itself known in its very act of existence. Many Thomists have argued that this question of realism has not been adequately worked out in Gilson nor in Thomism generally. [Robert Schmidt, addresses this question directly in his essay "The Evidence Grounding Judgments of Existence" in An Etienne Gilson Tribute, Milwaukee WI, The Marquette University Press, 1959, pp. 228-244. See also Fr. Norris Clarke's "The "We Are" Of Interpersonal Dialogue As The Starting Point Of Metaphysics", The Modern Schoolman, 69 (1992), pp. 357-368 and his "Interpersonal Dialogue: Key To Realism" in Robert Roth (ed)., Person and Community: A Philosophical Exploration, New York NY, Fordham University Press, 1975, pp. 141-153]. Clarke asks if the depth dimension of this immediate contact with existing being in itself can be shown phenomenologically in a way that is more helpful for a contemporary philosopher like Charles Taylor who is always struggling to say something about the way things are necessarily, especially with the human being and his/her relationship to the transcendent and yet to do so in a way that resonates effectively with our actual everyday human experience? (See Taylor, Sources of The Self: The Making of the Modern Identity). Clarke argues that there is an obvious key/clue in our direct experience and knowledge of other human beings. This direct knowledge is assumed in the actual practice of any philosopher but that this actual practice is not adequately accounted for by the dominant epistemologies of modern philosophy. Those sympathetically critical of Gilson say he in effect makes the assertion of our relationship to the thing in itself as a first principle and thereby avoids providing a more satisfactory account that these critics believe is called for. This is at least how some see it. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that Gilson in his existential Thomism points philosophy in the proper direction — and that this continues to be an invaluable contribution.


University of New Brunswick Saint John, N.B.


Ref.: Science et Esprit, 63/1 (2011), pp. 85-100.




SEDOS (Rome - 2015)