Étienne Gilson (French: [ʒilsɔ̃]; 13 June 1884 – 19 September 1978) was a French philosopher and historian of philosophy. A scholar of medieval philosophy, he originally specialised in the thought of Descartes, yet also philosophized in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas, although he did not consider himself a Neo-Thomist philosopher. In 1946 he attained the distinction of being elected an "Immortal" (member) of the Académie française. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
|Born||13 June 1884|
|Died||19 September 1978 (aged 94)|
|Alma mater||University of Paris|
Collège de France
|Theology, metaphysics, politics, literature, history of philosophy|
|The Thomistic distinction between being and essence|
Coining the term "mathematicism"
Born in Paris into a Roman Catholic family originally from Burgundy, Gilson attended the minor seminary at Notre-Dame-des-Champs, then finished his secondary education at the Lycée Henri IV. After finishing his military service, during which he began to read René Descartes, he studied for his licence (bachelor's degree), focusing on the influence of scholasticism on Cartesian thought. After studying at the Sorbonne under Victor Delbos (1862–1916), and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and at the Collège de France under Henri Bergson, he finished his degree in Philosophy in 1906. In 1908 he married Thérèse Ravisé of Melun, and he taught in the high schools of Bourg-en-Bresse, Rochefort, Tours, Saint-Quentin and Angers.
In 1913, while employed in teaching at the University of Lille, he defended his doctoral dissertation at the University of Paris on "Liberty in Descartes and Theology". His career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, as he was drafted into the French Army as a sergeant. He served on the front and took part in the battle of Verdun as second lieutenant. He was captured in February 1916 and spent two years in captivity. During this time he devoted himself to new areas of study, including the Russian language and St. Bonaventure. He was later awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery in action.
In 1919, he became professor of the history of Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg. From 1921 to 1932, he taught the history of medieval philosophy at the University of Paris. As an internationally renowned thinker, Gilson was first, along with Jacques Maritain, to receive an honorary doctorate in philosophy from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in 1930.
He also taught for three years at Harvard. At the invitation of the Congregation of St. Basil, he set up the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto in conjunction with St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto, which hosts an annual Étienne Gilson Lecture. He was elected to the Académie française in 1946.
With the death of his wife, Thérèse Ravisé, on 12 November 1949 Gilson endured a considerable emotional shock.
In 1951, he relinquished his chair to Martial Gueroult at the Collège de France to devote himself completely to the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies until 1968. He knew the Jesuit theologian and cardinal Henri de Lubac. Their correspondence has been published. Although Gilson was primarily a historian of philosophy, he was also at the forefront of the 20th century revival of Thomism, along with Jacques Maritain. His work has received critical praise from Richard McKeon.
Gilson undertook to analyze Thomism from a historical perspective. To Gilson, Thomism is certainly not identical with scholasticism in the pejorative sense, but indeed rather a revolt against it. Gilson considered the philosophy of his own era to be deteriorating into a science which would signal humanity's abdication of the right to judge and rule nature, humanity made a mere part of nature, which in turn would give the green light for the most reckless of social adventures to play havoc with human lives and institutions. Against "systems" of philosophy, Gilson was convinced that it was the revival of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas that opens the way out of that danger zone.
In his time Gilson was the leading scholar of the history of medieval philosophy as well as a highly regarded philosopher in his own right. His works continue to be reprinted and studied today — perhaps alone among "Thomist" philosophers, his work and reputation have not suffered from the general decline of interest in and regard for medieval philosophy since the 1960s.
Gilson's "Painting and Reality" was also published in English.