The French academic, Étienne Henri Gilson (1884-1973), was an important historian of medieval philosophy and one of the leading twentieth-century Catholic thinkers. A devout Catholic his entire life, he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne under Victor Delbos and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and at the Collège de France under Henri Bergson. His doctoral research on the scholastic sources of Descartes inducted him into the study of medieval philosophy. After serving in World War I, he taught at the universities of Lille, Strasbourg, Paris, and Harvard, before founding the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto. Following World War II, he became a member of the Académie Française, served briefly as a member of the French Senate, was a technical consultor of the French Delegation to the San Francisco Conference, which instituted the United Nations, and was a delegate to the conference that led to the establishment of UNESCO. In his numerous books and articles, he not only surveyed the history of Western thought but made the case for Christian philosophy, particularly that of St. Thomas Aquinas.

In this interview Dr. James G. Colbert will discuss Gilson and his pick of some of the author’s works.

James G. Colbert is Professor Emeritus of philosophy at Fichtberg State University He has translated several of Étienne Gilson's works: Greco-Arabic Sources of Avicennist Augustinism, Medieval Essays, Theology and the Cartesian Doctrine of Freedom, John Duns Scotus: Introduction to His Fundamental Positions, Studies in Medieval Philosophy, Metamorphoses of the City of God, and The Tribulations of Sophia. He has also translated Florian Michel's Étienne Gilson: An Intellectual and Political Biography.

  1. Mass Society and its Culture
    by Étienne Gilson
  2. Metamorphoses of the City of God
    by Étienne Gilson
  3. The Tribulations of Sophia
    by Étienne Gilson
  4. The Philosopher and Theology
    by Étienne Gilson
  5. The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy
    by Étienne Gilson
    ...and some supplementary recommendations...
  6. Being and Some Philosophers
    by Étienne Gilson
  7. The Unity of Philosophical Experience
    by Étienne Gilson
  8. John Duns Scotus: Introduction to His Fundamental Positions
    by Étienne Gilson
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What are the main events in Gilson’s life that the reader should take into account?
Gilson was born into a Catholic family and went to a Catholic school, indeed one that doubled as a minor seminary. He did his university work and taught at public institutions in France. 

We might single out Gilson's eminently readable doctoral thesis on Descartes (Theology and the Cartesian Doctrine of Freedom) where he discovered that Descartes had roots in medieval philosophy. This reversed a widely accepted view that philosophy disappeared after the Greeks and was reborn with Descartes. Gilson, by the way, in 1925, published an edition of Descartes' Discourse on Method intended for use as a secondary school textbook. 

Gilson submitted his first scholarly articles from a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. Beside writing, Gilson put his time in the camp to use studying languages, notably Russian. After World War I, he was an envoy to Ukraine during the famine. 

Subsequently, Gilson became friendly with Joseph Vrin in Paris, who facilitated publication of Gilson's research and that of other medievalists, and whose successors are now publishing Gilson's complete works. 

During the period between world wars and while Gilson was a professor at the Sorbonne, he crossed the Atlantic regularly to teach and lecture in Canada and the United States. The first book by Gilson that I read was his Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, originally given as the Richard Lectures at the University of Virginia in 1937. Gilson left his family in France during these trips, which were understood as cultural missions. He was a devoted family man and had to leave them with great distress. Immediately before World War II, when the U.S. still maintained its neutrality, Gilson was asked to conduct speaking tours around the U.S. trying to win support for the Allied cause. 

To the academic community's surprise, but making clear where his priorities lay, Gilson turned down the offer of a permanent position at Harvard because of his encounter with the Basilian Fathers who persuaded him to come to Toronto to found the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. 

Gilson's single most important theme is 'Christian philosophy.' Very roughly, there were themes that would not be treated in the way they are without Christianity, but they are not axioms, not givens, as they would be in theology. They are the core of Christian philosophy.

Has Gilson had an enduring influence on modern Catholic thought?
Not only do scholars associated with Vrin Publishing in Paris re-edit his works and collect his articles and correspondence. Even more importantly, his successors carry on his work in North America, notably at the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies. He is not, however, as widely read as he deserves. 

Is Gilson a writer of dry, technical philosophical prose or are his works interesting and accessible?
Gilson is an exquisitely clear writer in a field where murkiness is rampant! For instance, there are numerous editions with improvements of Le Thomisme (English Edition). His older friend, Henri Bergson, got a Nobel Prize in Literature. (There is none in philosophy.) I frequently tell myself that Gilson deserved the same.

Why is Gilson still worth reading today?
Gilson himself makes a good case for re-reading great thinkers. The Unity of Philosophical Experience presents a kind of study with three experiments, medieval, Cartesian, and modern thought.  Philosophy is not like pharmaceuticals or even physics where earlier work is left behind. Real philosophical issues are perennial. The history of philosophy can be used as a laboratory. 

Let me hasten to add that Gilson also participated in writing histories of philosophy pure and simple: by himself History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages; Modern Philosophy, Descartes to Kant; with Thomas Langan and Armand Maurer, Recent Philosophy, Hegel to the Present.

Is there a central idea running throughout Gilson’s works?
Probably, Gilson's single most important theme is "Christian philosophy." Very roughly, there were themes that would not be treated in the way they are without Christianity, but they are not axioms, not givens, as they would be in theology. They are the core of Christian philosophy. The most important is surely the insight obtained when we reflect on the name God gives himself: I Am Who Am. 

More technically, Gilson also teaches that we know being not as we know dogs, cats, dirt, and cabbage in concepts. We grasp it when we make judgments about things that are. See the last two chapters in Being and Some Philosophers. Warning: reading this can be habit forming. 

What led to your own interest in Gilson and activity as a translator of his works?
During my student years I bumped into people who liked Gilson. As I tried to figure out why, I became an enthusiast myself. He was clear, well informed and made me think about many questions and some answers.

At a period of commotion in the Church, Gilson seemed to be worried about the same things that worried me. See The Tribulations of Sophia. 


The first book you have recommended is not only one of Gilson’s least well-known ones, but also on one of his least-known areas of specialization, the philosophy of art. What makes this book a good entry point into the writings of Gilson?
The first book I recommended consists of two smaller books, one of which contains an essay on Christian philosophy as well as another on art. ("Christian philosophy" was a very controversial notion among Catholic intellectuals when Gilson began to advocate it. Critics of the notion felt that at best it meant theology.) I wanted to pre-empt any suspicion that Gilson was not a real philosopher. This presentation of "Christian Philosophy" is the work of Henri Gouhier, Gilson's first doctoral student, who became a lifelong friend and succeeded him as the holder of chair 23 in the Acadèmie française.

In the second little book by Gilson himself, we are presented with a discussion of culture in mass society, our society.

Gilson’s analysis of mass society’s impact of culture may be even more relevant today, the digital age. What are the chief points of his assessment of mass society?
A quick (and inadequate) answer that I hope will catch readers is that while a mass produced book is a book the photo of a painting or a recording of a concert are not works of art, even if they have the merit of bringing joy to vast sectors of society. (Gilson loved music and theatre.) A surprising challenge connected with Gilson's reflections is that the Church has an obligation to have a liturgy for a mass society.

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