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A Thomistic Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Eienne Gilson


Reviewed by Denis Bradley

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Page 1


This memorial volume, the first in a projected series honoring the person and the scholarship, and promoting the philosophical doctrines of the late and great Étienne Gilson (b. 6/3/1884 in Paris; d. 9/19/1978 in Auxerre) is a miscellany of eleven articles, with seven pages of charming photographs, written by his former students, disciples, and admirers. This first volume is dedicated to another onetime Gilson student, subsequently a colleague at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, the Rev. Armand A. Maurer, C.S.B., in appreciation of “his masterful application of the Gilsonian method.” The eleven articles raise appropriately Gilsonian themes: (1) “The Enlightening Gloss: Gilson and the History of Philosophy” (Jorge J. E. Gracia); (2) “The Practical Nature of Philosophy” (Richard Geraghty); (3) “Philosophy's Non-Systematic Nature” (Peter A. Redpath); (4) “The Beauty of Wisdom” (Robert A. Delfino); (5) “Étienne Gilson and the San Francisco Conference” (Desmond J. FitzGerald); (6) “Maritain's Reply to Gilson's Rejection of Critical Realism” (Raymond Dennehy); (7) “On the Nature of Being and Division of the Speculative Sciences” (Joseph J. Califano); (8) “Gilson and Maritain: Battle Over the Beautiful” (Francesca Murphy); (9) “Gilson and Gouhier: Approaches to Malebranche” (Richard J. Fafara); (10) “Poinsot, Pierce, and Pegis: Knowing as a Way of Being” (James Maroosis); (11) “Possessed of Both a Reason and a Revelation” (James V. Schall).

Given the terms of the book's dedication, the first question to ask is: What is the “Gilsonian method”? Robert Delfino's article summarizes Maurer's 1983 book, About Beauty: A Thomistic Interpretation. But this book is perhaps not the best instance of Maurer applying the “Gilsonian method” of historical scholarship; in it, Maurer attempts a metaphysical synthesis and Thomistic prolongation rather than the uncovering and interpretation of the historical sources of Aquinas's scattered remarks about beauty: beauty is a transcendental property of being, differing from being only in notion; it is a pleasing intellectual vision of the claritas, consonantia, integritas “radiating” from a thing's form (cf. ST, I, q. 5, a. 4, ad 1). In The Arts of the Beautiful, Gilson, using a neologism incorporating the Greek term kalos (beauty), called this kind of metaphysics of transcendental beauty a “calology,” which he then carefully distinguished both from “aesthetics,” the theory of how artistic beauty is perceived, and the “philosophy of art,” “the theory of how works of art are made.” The distinctions were controversial. Gilson and Maritain, although presumably they agreed about the metaphysical elements of Aquinas's “calology,” had lengthy, disputatious, and rather personally embittered exchanges, so Francesca Murphy recounts, about the possibility and manner of distinguishing the other two philosophical theories about art.

Jorge Gracia, who himself has written astutely about the variant philosophical uses of the history of philosophy, irenically labels Gilson's historical method “the enlightening gloss.” According to Gracia, Gilson's primary purpose was to understand the text of an historical author by understanding the “controversies, issues and views common when it was produced” (p. 2). Typically, Gilson glosses his focal texts by (1) using a battery of philosophical concepts—that are not always sufficiently explained, so Gracia judges—to interpret them; (2) having his own explicit philosophical criterion by which to evaluate them; (3) simplifying or reducing textual and conceptual complexities to the main philosophical issue raised in the focal text(s). In short, Gilson's enlightening gloss is “an explanatory paraphrase” of the sort that so-called contemporary “analytic Thomists,” who are fond of minute logical reconstructions of Aquinas's arguments, largely eschew. Gracia contends, correctly, that Gilson narrated the history of philosophy as one longpraeparatio for and one long declinatio from Aquinas: in particular, from Aquinas's “existentialism”—linguistically marked by the Latin infinitive of the verb “to be”—the metaphysics of esse. Gilson famously opined that Aquinas, inspired by what the saint himself called (SCG, I, c. 22; Pera, 2: 33a, n. 211) “the sublime truth” that God revealed to Moses, recorded in Exodus, 3.13 (“Ego sum qui sum,” in the Latin translation familiar to Aquinas), came to a historically unique understanding of the divine name that, Gilson held, was the keystone of Thomistic metaphysics: the divine essence is identical with ipsum esse subsistens, and that the finite actus essendi which participates the divineesse is the foundational actuality of all created natures.

Gracia does not mention, however, that Gilson's narrative alleging the revealed source and the historical uniqueness of the Thomistic metaphysical insight has been plausibly challenged by Hadot and other scholars, who trace the Thomistic ipsum esse subsistens doctrine through the medieval neo-Platonist tradition—mediated to Aquinas by Pseudo-Dionysius, Boethius, and Proclus—back to an anonymous commentary (probably by Porphyry) on Plato's Parmenides. For the anonymous commentator, the first principle is not, in typical neo-Platonist fashion, “beyond being” but is pure activity (auto to enérgein) whose nature is designated by the infinitive auto to eînai. Hadot's alternative account raises many questions, which have been put in the form of a direct challenge by Wayne Hankey, about the soundness of Gilson's historical views. If Hadot and Hankey are correct, Gilson was wrong about the historical uniqueness and biblical source of Aquinas's esse metaphysics.

So too, questions about how historical method should be used and what it reveals in philosophy—Is the history of philosophy focused on the chains of essentially or necessarily connected ideas or on contingent and self-contained, radically personalized insights?—underlie the rather spun-out but worthwhile article that Richard Fafara devotes to the relationship between Gilson and his doctoral student Henri Gouhier (1898-1994). Gouhier's student thesis (La pensée religieuse de Descartes), the product of a seminar with Gilson, was published and awarded a prize by the Academie française in 1924. In his thesis, Gouhier rejected any temporally fixed or abstractly global portrait of Descartes's thought; instead, he presented Cartesian philosophy biographically as a succession of recastings which reinvented for diverse audiences Descartes's earliest themes. Gilson, while remaining unconvinced by some of Gouhier's particular claims (especially Descartes's alleged affinities with Thomism rather than, as scholarly convention held, the Augustinianism of the seventeenth century French Oratory), nonetheless, praised his student's method as Aristotelian as well as properly historical: Gouhier's interpretative focus, biographical rather than systematic, moves from Descartes's concrete actions to cautious speculations about Descartes's (for Gilson irretrievably) hidden motives. Though Gouhier became a life-long friend and eminent colleague, the erstwhile student never agreed with his former maître about the nature and end of historical method. Their disagreements conspicuously surfaced in their respective interpretations of Malebranche.


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