Étienne Gilson, in full Étienne-Henry Gilson, (born June 13, 1884, Paris, France—died September 19, 1978, Cravant), French Christian philosopher and historian of medieval thought, one of the most eminent international scholars of the 20th century.
Gilson was born into a Roman Catholic family and owed his early education to Catholic schools in Paris. He began the study of philosophy in 1902 at the Lycée Henri IV and received his baccalaureate in 1906 from the Sorbonne (the University of Paris). For the next six years he taught philosophy in various lycées. In 1913 he took his doctoral degree, for which he had investigated René Descartes and Scholasticism, the subject that first led him to the study of medieval thought.
In 1916, at the Battle of Verdun, he was wounded and taken prisoner. During the two years of his imprisonment, he devoted himself to, among other things, the study of the Russian language and of the thought of St. Bonaventure. He was later awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery in action.
From 1919 Gilson was professor of the history of philosophy at the University of Strasbourg; in 1921 he returned to the University of Paris as professor of the history of medieval philosophy, a post he continued to hold until 1932, when he inaugurated the first chair in the history of medieval philosophy at the Collège de France. In 1926 he made the first of what later became his annual visits to the United States and Canada, lecturing at the universities of Montreal, Harvard, and Virginia. Three years later, at the invitation of the Congregation of the Priests of St. Basil, he established the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in conjunction with St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. From then on he divided his academic year between Paris and Toronto, a practice that was interrupted only by the war years, during which he remained in Paris. In 1951 he relinquished his chair at the Collège de France to devote all of his time to his post at Toronto, a position he retained until 1968.
Gilson soon came to profess himself a disciple of St. Thomas Aquinas, but, as he freely acknowledged, his own understanding of Aquinas’s thought underwent considerable development. He taught his first course on Thomism in 1914, and his first book on the subject was Le Thomisme: introduction au systéme de saint Thomas d’Aquin (1919; The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas). Many of his best-known books resulted from lectureships. Among these are L’Esprit de la philosophie médiévale (1932; The Spirit of Mediæval Philosophy), his exposition and defense of the idea of a Christian philosophy; The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937) and Being and Some Philosophers (1949), perhaps the best examples of his use of the history of philosophy as though it were a laboratory for investigating ideas; and Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (1938).
Gilson made important studies of all the great medieval thinkers, including St. Bernard de Clairvaux and St. Bonaventure, the results of which were summed up in History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955). Among his most charming books is L’École des muses (1951; The Choir of Muses), a study of writers whose works were inspired by love for a woman.
Gilson was a lover and collector of painting, on which he wrote Painting and Reality (1957) and The Art of the Beautiful (1965). His last published book was Dante et Béatrice: études dantesques (1974; “Dante and Beatrice: Dantesque Studies”).
Christian Philosophy, Etienne Gilson, and Fides et ratioBy Steven Baldner
Thomistic Institute, July 16-23, 1999
University of Notre Dame
We naturally expect an encyclical on philosophy called Faith and Reason to tell us something important about the proper relationship between theology and philosophy, and we are not disappointed in this expectation when we read Pope John Paul II's magnificent letter to the Bishops. In fact, the sixth chapter of the encyclical is devoted entirely to this topic. In the first part of chapter six, we see how theology has need of philosophy; in the second part, we see the relationship from the standpoint of philosophy. Philosophy can have, we find, three different stances toward theology. And it is just here that the term "Christian philosophy" occurs in the encyclical, for the second of the three stances is that of Christian philosophy. John Paul II approves of the term, although he does so with certain qualifications, and he seems to approve of it in terms that have come from the two great French Thomists of this century, Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. It is in particular the Gilsonian background to the encyclical that raises a problem which I would like to solve in this paper. Briefly the problem is that Gilson proposes both a description of and a program for Christian philosophy. The description is an excellent one, but the program has certain weaknesses. The encyclical might appear to be endorsing both the description and the program, but I hope to show that it really only endorses the description and not the program.
First, however, let me say that I agree with Henry Veatch that the old debate about Christian philosophy, a debate begun some 70 years ago between Gilson and Bréhier, is over.1 Prof. Veatch is right to say that everyone agrees that that debate has been settled, but then, too, the war of 1812 between Canada and the United States is also, as everyone agrees, well over and settled, but the answer to the question of who won the war rather depends upon whether you read American or Canadian historians. So, for example, Fernand Van Steenberghen would have agreed with Veatch that the debate is over, but the Louvain Canon and the Hoosier Professor would each give the victor's palm to his own side of the debate.2 Nevertheless, something important was settled by the debate, and it is this. Philosophy, whether it is called Christian or not, can only be philosophy if its principles and arguments are not dependent upon the assent of Christian faith. Everyone agrees that every philosophical principle and every philosophical argument must be fully accessible to any man, whether he is a believer or not. On the other hand, everyone also agrees that philosophers bring certain experiences, opinions, views of the world, and so forth, to the study of philosophy. A philosopher's faith is surely a part of his general understanding of the world, and it is natural and good that such faith should help to direct and to inform the philosopher's thinking, about philosophy as about many other things. On this, too, there is general agreement that the Cartesian attempt to sanitize the philosophical embryo from all non-philosophical contaminants resulted in an abortive philosophy.
To put the problem of this old debate in other terms, we could say that there is general agreement to adopt the distinction that Jacques Maritain brought to this problem long ago: the distinction between the essence or nature of philosophy and the state or practice of philosophy.3 In its essence or nature, philosophy cannot be designated as either Christian or non-Christian, for philosophy formally considered "hinges entirely on its formal object, and since this object is wholly of the rational order, philosophy considered in itself -- whether in a pagan or a Christian mind -- depends on the same strictly natural or rational intrinsic criteria." (15) On the other hand, in the exercise of philosophy, in the concrete working out of any particular philosophical position, we find the work, not of an abstract essence, but of a flesh-and-blood, human individual. "To philosophize man must put his whole soul into play, in much the same manner that to run he must use his heart and lungs." (17) In putting one's whole soul into the doing of philosophy, one must give philosophical attention to what one knows to be most important; hence, one must give philosophical prominence to such questions as the existence of God, the creation of the world, the immortality of the soul, and so forth. In the working out of individual philosophical positions, as we can see in the history of philosophy, there are philosophies characterized by their focus on philosophical problems directly relevant to the faith. In this sense, it is useful to speak of Christian philosophy.
Let us turn now to Gilson's description of Christian philosophy. I quote from L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale.
I call "Christian philosophy" any philosophy which, keeping well distinct the two formal orders [of revelation and of reason], considers Christian revelation as an indispensable aid to reason. Understood thus, this notion does not correspond to a simple essence that can be given an abstract definition; rather it corresponds to a concrete historical reality of which it indicates a description. It is but one kind within the genus of philosophy and denotes those systems of philosophy which would not have been what they were but for the fact that there existed a Christian religion and for the fact that they willingly submitted to its influence. Insofar as they are concrete historical realities, these systems distinguish themselves one from another by their individual differences; insofar as they form one kind, they show common characteristics which justifies the grouping of them under one category.4Here we have Gilson's description of Christian philosophy. There are three things to note about it. First, the order of reason is to be kept distinct from the order of revelation; formally, philosophy is always distinct from theology. Second, the term does not indicate a formal nature but is rather a term to designate concrete historical realities; it is a description rather than a definition. Third, the term indicates the sort of philosophy that results from the influence of Christianity; a philosophy that would not be what it is except for the influence of Christianity is a Christian philosophy. I underline these three points, because they anticipate rather closely what is said in Faith and Reason. Let me quote now John Paul II.
A second stance adopted by philosophy is often designated as Christian philosophy. In itself, the term is valid, but it should not be misunderstood: it in no way intends to suggest that there is an official philosophy of the Church, since the faith as such is not a philosophy [Gilson's first point]. The term seeks rather to indicate a Christian way of philosophizing, a philosophical speculation conceived in dynamic union with faith [Gilson's second point]. It does not therefore refer simply to a philosophy developed by Christian philosophers who have striven in their research not to contradict the faith. The term Christian philosophy includes those important developments of philosophical thinking which would not have happened without the direct or indirect contributions of Christian faith 5 [Gilson's third point].The Pope's description of Christian philosophy is the same as Gilson's. Both the Holy Father and the historian of mediaeval philosophy see the same three elements in the description. It is not a coincident, I think, that, just before the description of Christian philosophy in the encyclical, the name of Etienne Gilson was recommended to us, among several others, as an excellent modern example of a philosopher who understood the fruitful relationship of philosophy to the word of God.6 It is not too much to say that John Paul II describes Christian philosophy ad mentem Etienne Gilson.
But it would be too much to say that John Paul II adopts what I call Gilson's program of Christian philosophy. I return to Gilson's L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, just after the description of Christian philosophy.
In the first place, and this is perhaps the most apparent trait of his attitude, the Christian philosopher is a man who makes a choice among philosophical problems. By rights, he is capable of applying himself to the totality of philosophical problems just as well as any other philosopher; in fact, he applies himself uniquely or especially to those problems the solution of which bears on the conduct of his religious life. The other problems, indifferent in themselves, become that which Saint Augustine, Saint, Bernard, and Saint Bonaventure stigmatized with the name curiosity: vana curiositas, turpis curiositas. Even Christian philosophers like Saint Thomas whose interest did extend to the whole of philosophy only did their creative work in a relatively restrained field. Nothing could be more natural. Because Christian revelation only teaches us about the truths that are necessary for salvation, its influence can only extend to the parts of philosophy that concern the existence of God, His nature, the origin of our soul, its nature, and its destiny. É In a word, among all the Christian philosophers who really deserve the name, the faith exercises a simplifying influence such that their originality manifests itself especially in the area directly under the influence of the faith: the doctrine of God, of man, and of his relations to God.7This passage expresses what I call Gilson's program of Christian philosophy, that is, it recommends a course of action to the philosopher who wishes to pursue Christian philosophy. In several of his works, such as Le thomisme, Elements of Christian Philosophy, and Christian Philosophy: An Introduction, Gilson gives us examples of this program. Consider the recently translated Christian Philosophy: An Introduction (Introduction à la philosophie chrétienne). The topics treated in this introduction to Christian philosophy make the Gilsonian program clear: the certitude of faith as compared to the certitude of knowledge; creation; the meaning of Exodus 3:14, "I am who I am"; the unknowability to us of God's nature; how being is known by us; the distinction between essence and being; participation; the relation of metaphysics to the sciences of nature.
From this list of topics and from Gilson's own remarks, we can see that the Gilsonian program of Christian philosophy has four elements, which I will summarize as follows.
First, Christian philosophy is restricted to a narrow range of problems. These are the problems, as we have seen, that bear directly on the faith: the existence of God, the creation of the world, the immortality of the soul, and so forth. If a Christian philosopher (such as Thomas Aquinas) does philosophize on topics that do not bear on the faith, we can be sure that this philosophical work is not work in Christian philosophy.
Second, Christian philosophy takes first philosophy to be metaphysics in somewhat the same way as Descartes does. By this I mean that the philosophical point of departure is in metaphysics, and in metaphysics at a rather high level. Gilson does not deny the importance of other areas of philosophy,8 but he does insist that the correct starting point -- even the way to introduce beginners -- is through the metaphysical consideration of being. At the end of his Christian Philosophy: An Introduction, Gilson explains the purpose of the little book and in so doing explains the priority of metaphysics to the other areas of philosophy.
These thoughts represent neither the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas nor his metaphysics, even less all the conclusions he held as true in the area of the philosophy of nature. We have said nothing here about the human person, nothing about ethics or politics. But it was not our intention to speak of them. Our only wish was to elucidate as clearly as possible a small number of literally capital truths that must be grasped if the rest of the doctrine is to be understood.Like Descartes, Gilson regards first philosophy as pedagogically and foundationally first: once we correctly understand being, we can correctly understand substance, matter and form, causality, human nature, etc. Gilson is well aware of the Aristotelian objection that metaphysics is not to be studied by the young, and we are young until we are 50, but he counters this by arguing that the Christian philosopher has the advantage of faith.10 The abstract intelligibility of metaphysics is rendered more concretely accessible to believers, so that, for them, it is quite appropriate to start their Christian philosophy with metaphysical problems such as the proofs of God's existence.
All these truths depend on a certain notion of being, which was that of St. Thomas, and without which there is no Thomism truly worthy of the name.9
Third, Christian philosophy, according to Gilson, requires not just any metaphysics but specifically the metaphysics of esse. The doctrine of esse, understood as the doctrine that being in creatures is both distinct from essence and the first actuality, explains the fundamental fact of creation, the nature of God, the immortality of the soul, how it is that we can know that God exists, and so on. It is the one key that opens up the door to all of Christian philosophy, as Gilson understands it.
Fourth, Gilson's program of Christian philosophy requires a philosophy directed by theology.11 The proper order of doing Christian philosophy is the theological order.12 If, then, the Summa theologiae begins with a discussion of the nature of theology, with proofs for the existence of God, and with a discussion of God's nature, then that is just the way that Christian philosophy should proceed, also. A Christian philosophy remains a distinctly philosophical venture, according to Gilson, but its order, structure, and set of problems is given by theology, not by independent philosophical considerations.
Such is Gilson's program of Christian philosophy. Can we find any endorsement of this program in the encyclical Faith and Reason?
There are, according to John Paul II, three legitimate "stances" of philosophy toward the faith. First there is the stance of philosophy that is completely independent of the faith. This is the stance of any philosophy that has not in fact been exposed to Christian revelation. So, for example, the philosophy of Plato or of Aristotle is such a non-Christian philosophy. It is philosophy developed on the resources of human reason alone and without the guidance that could come from revelation. This stance of philosophy is not that of the so-called "separate" philosophy, that is, of a philosophy worked out in such a way as to reject the truth of Christian revelation. The existentialism of Jean- Paul Sartre would be an example, and there are other examples in contemporary analytic philosophy. Consider some remarks made by John Searle, who is in other respects an excellent philosopher.
Our problem is not that somehow we have failed to come up with a convincing proof of the existence of God or that the hypothesis of an afterlife remains in serious doubt, it is rather that in our deepest reflections we cannot take such opinions seriously. When we encounter people who claim to believe such things, we may envy them the comfort and security they claim to derive from these beliefs, but at bottom we remain convinced that either they have not heard the news or they are in the grip of faith.13Notice Searle's language: those who hold that God exists or that the soul is immortal have not heard the news, although we Christians thought that we had heard the good news, and we are in the grip of faith -- a grip from which contemporary science can liberate us. Searle's position is an example of scientism, and it can be philosophically refuted, but John Paul II is alerting us to the fact that the philosophical stance represented by Searle's words is not a non-Christian stance but an anti-Christian stance.
The second stance is that of Christian philosophy. The Holy Father grants that this term is legitimate, but he urges us to use the term carefully. As we have seen, the term indicates no one kind of philosophy, for the Church endorses no one concrete philosophy as an official philosophy, but rather a way of philosophizing that is in concert with the faith. Christian philosophy refers to the developments in philosophy that would not have taken place but for the influence of the faith.14 This John Paul II elaborates upon in two ways.
Subjectively, the Christian philosopher's faith perfects his intellect insofar as it gives him both humility and courage. Faith gives humility to free the philosopher from the presumption that is the besetting temptation of his discipline; it also gives him the courage to attempt to solve the largest and most important of philosophical questions. Subjectively, faith keeps the philosopher in a healthy mean: the Christian philosopher will avoid the presumption and folly of thinking that his philosophy can explain everything, but he will also avoid the timidity and parsimony that would restrict the practice of philosophy to narrow, technical problems.15
Objectively, the faith reveals certain truths which the philosopher can aim at in his philosophizing. On revelation, for example, we know that God exists, that He is providential, that man is immortal and freely responsible for his acts, that happiness is something transcendent, and so forth. To some degree, the philosopher can understand these same truths, and he should try to do so. But no one way of understanding these truths is endorsed by the Church. In this respect, I like the image which is favored by Father Owens. The faith is a "friendly star", which shows us the destination but does not specify a way of going there.16 We know on faith that human beings are free, volitional moral agents, but this human freedom can be explained in many ways, as one can learn by reading Augustine, Anselm, Thomas, Scotus, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Whitehead, or even Searle. These accounts are not all philosophically equal, but their philosophical strengths and deficiencies are just that -- philosophical -- for the Church does not adjudicate in philosophical disputes.
The objective sense of Christian philosophy seems, according to the encyclical, to have two parts. Some truths, such as the truth about human free will, are solutions to problems which, once introduced into the domain of philosophy, become philosophical problems simpliciter. Augustine's reasons for raising the problem of free will were surely theological, but from the time of Augustine to the present the problem of free will has been a problem that can be treated in a purely and simply philosophical way. Philosophy would not have had this problem as a philosophical problem but for the faith, but once raised the problem can be solved (or not) without regard to the original theological source of the problem. On the other hand, John Paul II is also recommending problems to philosophers that will not ever be disengaged from their theological setting, for they are fundamentally theological not philosophical problems, but yet philosophers are to make philosophical, not theological, contributions to the solution of these problems. Two examples he gives are the supernatural end for man and original sin. A philosopher might be able to show, for example, the inadequacy or the imperfection of human happiness in this life, and, while maintaining the full legitimacy of a philosophical ethics, show also that philosophy prepares the way for the fuller account in theology. I can recommend no better example of the sort of thinking that the Pope wishes on this topic than Prof. McInerny's excellent lectures, The Question of Christian Ethics.17 On original sin, philosophers might pursue the sort of analysis that Cardinal Newman gives in his Apologia pro vita sua, where Newman argues that an objective, philosophical appraisal of the many follies in human history and society, leads one to a hard disjunction: either there is no God, or the human race has suffered some "terrible aboriginal calamity."18
Finally, on the objective sense of Christian philosophy, the encyclical makes one more point. "It could be said that a good part of modern and contemporary philosophy would not exist without this stimulus of the word of God. This conclusion retains all of its relevance, despite the disappointing fact that many thinkers in recent centuries have abandoned Christian orthodoxy." (§ 76, p. 112) Christian philosophy can be found in philosophers who are rather clearly not Christian. Let me again use the example of John Searle. He has done more than anyone in analytic philosophy to advance a credible view of human nature on such questions as the mind-body problem, materialism, dualism, consciousness, human intelligence, intentionality, and free will. On the problem of free will, and perhaps also on the general problem of reductionism, we could say that Searle malgré lui is making a contribution to Christian philosophy in just the sense that the Holy Father has specified.
The third stance of philosophy toward theology is that of philosophy in the service of theology. In order for theology to pursue its ends, it needs a philosophical preparation and specific philosophical doctrines. Theologians cannot begin the study of theology without prior training in philosophy, and when theologians elaborate particular doctrines they naturally have recourse to philosophical truth. The theological doctrine of creation or of the Trinity, for example, cannot be elaborated in theology without some philosophical contribution on the problem of relation. When theologians fail to call upon genuine philosophy, they "run the risk of doing philosophy unwittingly and locking themselves within thought-structures poorly adapted to the understanding of the faith." (§ 77, p. 114) A good example of the problem to which the Pope alludes is, in my opinion, the attractiveness of process philosophy to theologians who are ill prepared to see its philosophical weaknesses. The active service of philosophy to theology, which as John Paul II points out, involves a recognition by philosophers of the authority of the Magisterium, used to be expressed by the term ancilla theologiae. The term is no longer suitable, because it might suggest that philosophy loses its autonomy, but the important fact remains that theology needs the service of philosophy and that Christian philosophers should recognize the authority of the Magisterium.19
Having seen the scheme proposed for us by the encyclical, let us return to our question. John Paul II has adopted the Gilsonian description of Christian philosophy, but has he also endorsed the Gilsonian program of Christian philosophy? The answer to this question is no. First, Gilson thinks that Christian philosophy is restricted to those problems that bear upon the faith, such as the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Second, Gilson regards these problems as fundamentally metaphysical. Christian philosophy is metaphysics; to begin to do Christian philosophy is to begin to do metaphysics. Third, Gilson holds that the metaphysics which must serve as Christian philosophy is the metaphysics of esse. Only Thomas' understanding of being will serve to explain the fact that all things other than God are created by God out of nothing, that God is subsistent being, that the human soul can be subsistent and still the form of the human body, and so forth. In the end, Christian philosophy becomes a very restricted thing for Gilson: it is nothing more or less than Thomistic metaphysics.20
This, as I have said, is not what the encyclical is recommending to us. There is in the document the recommendation that a philosophy which takes profit from the scriptures is a philosophy with a truly metaphysical range (§ 83-84). In sections 83 to 84, John Paul II is forcefully insistent upon the importance of metaphysics in philosophy. But what is he trying to combat? He is trying to combat the philosophical position that would exclude metaphysics from philosophy. If a philosopher reduces philosophy to hermeneutics or to the study of language such that transcendent, spiritual, or immaterial reality is in principle excluded, then, the Pope is telling us, we have not heeded the call manifest in scripture for a truly sapiential philosophy which naturally would culminate in metaphysical reflection. There is nothing here, however, to suggest that philosophy or Christian philosophy is metaphysics. Surely a danger of some contemporary philosophy has been the exclusion of the non-empirical or the immaterial. Such an exclusion is ipso facto an exclusion of metaphysics. John Paul II so forcefully recommends the inclusion of metaphysics precisely to combat its exclusion. There is nothing in the encyclical to endorse the Gilsonian program of reducing Christian philosophy to metaphysics.
After the discussion of the term Christian philosophy, and after the discussion of various errors that would be incompatible with a Christian philosophy, the Pope explains various problems that theology should solve with the help of philosophy. At this point there might seem to be a recommendation of the Gilsonian program of a Christian philosophy of esse.
If the intellectus fidei wishes to integrate all the wealth of the theological tradition, it must turn to the philosophy of being, which should be able to propose anew the problem of being -- and this in harmony with the demands and insights of the entire philosophical tradition, including philosophy of more recent times, without lapsing into sterile repetition of antiquated formulas. Set within the Christian metaphysical tradition, the philosophy of being is a dynamic philosophy which views reality in its ontological, causal and communicative structures. It is strong and enduring because it is based upon the very act of being itself, which allows a full and comprehensive openness to reality as a whole, surpassing every limit in order to reach the One who brings all things to fulfillment. In theology, which draws its principles from Revelation as a new source of knowledge, this perspective is confirmed by the intimate relationship which exists between faith and metaphysical reasoning. (§ 97, pp. 141-142)There is much in this passage to warm the heart of any Gilsonian. There is commendation here of the "Christian metaphysical" tradition, clearly a metaphysics based on the act of being is recommended, and there is a suggestion of a theme very dear to Gilson: the theological setting of metaphysical problems. I expect that we shall see this passage used in disputes to come between Thomists who come to philosophy from natural philosophy and the Gilsonians.
But what are we really being told in this passage? The immediate context of this passage makes it clear that the Pope is warning theologians against the temptation to reduce the truths of faith to a moral doctrine. He is concerned to combat a pragmatism in theology, and he does so by pointing out that revelation is given not only to elicit a moral response from us but also, and fundamentally, to tell us about certain realities. Christology is fundamentally about Christ, who is God and man; it is not merely a story told to encourage a certain sort of behaviour. A theology that makes use of a philosophy founded in the real is a theology that can avoid such a pragmatism. A philosophy founded in the real is one that includes a metaphysics based upon the act of being. The Pope wants a philosophy that allows "a full and comprehensive openness to reality as a whole" and one which will reach "the One who brings all things to fulfillment." The Holy Father is calling for realism in philosophy;21 he is not demanding the Thomistic doctrine of esse. As has been made clear several times in the encyclical, "the Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others." (§ 49, p. 75)
My conclusion, then, is straightforward. In Faith and Reason, the discussion of Christian philosophy owes much to the thought of Gilson. The description of Christian philosophy -- as distinctly philosophical rather than theological, as a way of philosophizing rather than as a particular, concrete philosophy, and as philosophical developments that would not have taken place but for the influence of the faith -- is a description that the encyclical adopts and recommends to us. Gilson's program of Christian philosophy, an attempt to create a philosophy that is a metaphysics of esse, is Gilson's own creation and is not endorsed by John Paul II. I do not for a minute wish to imply that the Pope is critical of Gilson's program but only that he does not endorse or recommend it by adopting this Gilsonian description of Christian philosophy.22
As an epilogue to my argument, I shall make some observations. Part of me agrees with Van Steenberghen: we would be better off if we could banish the term "Christian philosophy". The usefulness of the term is at best "in house"; among Christian philosophers the term can have some usefulness in characterizing a proper stance of philosophy with regard to the faith. The term, however, is sure to be misleading to non-Christian philosophers. I cannot imagine that analytic philosophers will make haste to buy and to read books with the words "Christian philosophy" or "Christian metaphysics" in the title. Such terms will only serve to make the discussion that John Haldane has urged us Thomists to undertake all the harder to initiate.23 We should, by all means, adopt the stance that the Pope has described as the stance of Christian philosophy, but there is no need for us to call what we are doing "Christian philosophy". Furthermore, I think that even among Christian philosophers, the term has been misleading. In being committed to the idea of a Christian philosophy, philosophers have been inclined to think that there is such a thing as a complete Christian philosophy. Just as Platonic philosophy or Aristotelian philosophy or Cartesian philosophy might be described as complete philosophical systems, so Christian philosophy has been thought, at least by Gilsonians, as a kind of complete philosophical system. But this is a big mistake, I think. To take Thomas as an example, his "Christian philosophy" was just his developing or improving Aristotle's philosophy. Aristotle's philosophy is not as such a Christian philosophy, but it certainly can be used as a Christian philosophy insofar as its principles can be used to demonstrate the existence of God, the creation of the world, or the immortality of the soul, which is just what Thomas did with it. In this sense, one might consider Aristotelian philosophy to be a Christian philosophy, but, really, it is nothing but Aristotle's philosophy being completed and perfected by Christian philosophers. If I am right in understanding Thomas' philosophy as Aristotle's -- and it is here, of course, that the principal divide occurs between Gilsonian and natural philosophy Thomists -- then Thomas would not have thought of his philosophy as a Christian philosophy. Thomas' philosophy was philosophy simpliciter; Thomas might have regarded it as misleading to call his philosophy Christian.
In fact, if one wishes to attribute the term "Christian" to a philosophy in the middle ages, it might suit a philosophy such as Bonaventure's better than Thomas'. In Bonaventure there is a limitation of philosophy to those problems immediately relevant to the faith and a focus on metaphysics and epistemology that might accord with Gilson's program. Of course, it is a matter of debate as to whether Bonaventure succeeds in developing a complete philosophy, but on the hypothesis that he does, his philosophy would seem to suit Gilson's program better than does Thomas'.
The encyclical, Faith and Reason, is not so much recommending the name "Christian philosophy" as allowing its use. Surely the stance indicated by the name has been recommended to us, and I think it highly desirable that all Christian philosophers pursue Christian philosophy in the sense that they adopt the recommended stance. But I wonder whether, after all, we could do just as well without the name?
1 Henry B. Veatch, "The Problems and the Prospects of a Christian Philosophy -- Then and Now," The Monist 75 (1992) 384. For the most extensive history of the debate, see Maurice Nédoncelle, Is There a Christian Philosophy? , tr. Illtyd Trethowan (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1960). See also Joseph Owens, Towards a Christian Philosophy (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990) pp. 1-23.
2 Fernand Van Steenberghen, "Philosophie et christianisme: Épilogue d'un débat ancien," Revue philosophique de Louvain 86 (1988) 180-191, argues that, although it is true that philosophers have been helpfully influenced by their Christian faith, there is no such thing as a Christian philosophy. Henry Veatch, in the article cited in note one, argues that Christian philosophy is alive and well in contemporary philosophical realism.
3 Jacques Maritain (trans. Edward H. Flannery), An Essay on Christian Philosophy (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955) pp. 11-18.
4 Etienne Gilson, L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale (Paris: Vrin, 1944) pp. 32-33.
5Faith and Reason: Encyclical Letter FIDES ET RATIO of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on the Relationship between Faith and Reason , (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998) § 76, p. 110.
6 "We see the same fruitful relationship between philosophy and the word of God in the courageous research pursued by more recent thinkers, among whom I gladly mention, in a Western context, figures such as John Henry Newman, Antonio Rosmini, Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson and Edith Stein and, in an Eastern context, eminent scholars such as Vladimir S. Soloviev, Pavel A. Florensky, Petr Chaadaev and Vladimir N. Lossky." Faith and Reason , § 74, p. 108.
7 Gilson, L'esprit, pp. 33-34.
8 Gilson, however, might not allow much room for natural philosophy in his program of Christian philosophy. One of the mistakes Catholic philosophers made, according to Gilson, was to combat the materialism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the discredited science of Aristotle, rather than with the deep metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas. It is metaphysics, not natural philosophy, that is used to respond to errors about nature. See "What is Christian Philosophy" in A Gilson Reader , ed. Anton Pegis (Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1957) pp. 177-191, especially p. 185.
9 Gilson, Christian Philosophy: An Introduction , tr. Armand Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1993) pp. 132-133.
10 In "Thomas Aquinas and our Colleagues," in A Gilson Reader , pp. 278-297, Gilson sets out to solve the following problem in interpreting Thomas. Thomas holds that ethics (including political science) and metaphysics should not be studied by youths, and the period of iuventus reaches until the late 40s. No one should study metaphysics, then, until the age of 50, but Thomas himself was not only studying metaphysics but teaching it in his 20s. How to explain this inconsistency in deeds and words? Thomas, according to Gilson, could do what he would not recommend to a philosopher because he was a theologian and not a philosopher. The theologian can handle metaphysical and ethical questions earlier than can the philosopher, but, note, he can do so in a philosophical way. Theology, thus, makes the Christian philosopher philosophically precocious.
11 The dispute between Gilson and Van Steenberghen on Christian philosophy can be expressed rather neatly on just this point. Gilson's position, as Van Steenberghen puts it, is, "Plus un maître est grand théologien, plus il est grand philosophe." Van Steenberghen's position, by contrast, is, "les bons philosophes font les bons théologiens et non pas l'inverse." Van Steenberghen, "Philosophie et christianisme", pp 184, 187.
12 John Wipple, although he may be counted as a Gilsonian, has been critical of this point in Gilson's work. Wipple seems to agree that Thomas' Christian philosophy is fundamentally the metaphysics of esse, but Wipple argues that Thomas allows for a properly philosophical order of doing metaphysics. Briefly, Wipple argues, in metaphysics we recognize esse by judgement and by separatio and then we argue to God as the cause of being. Metaphysics starts with ens commune but proceeds to demonstrate God as the cause of being. Theology, and the natural theology that follows the same order) starts with God and argues about His nature and works thereafter. See "Thomas Aquinas and the Problem of and Christian Philosophy" in John Wipple, Metaphysical Themes in Thomas Aquinas (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984) pp. 2-33.
13 John Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994) p. 90.
14 One might say that the expression here is too strong: both the Pope and Gilson characterize Christian philosophy as the sort of philosophy that would not have occurred without the influence of the faith. They might have made the weaker claim that, as a matter of historical fact, Christianity has raised certain problems for philosophers to solve. I think that it is fair, especially for Gilson, to say that the stronger claim is intended. Without the revelation of Exodus 3:14, philosophers just would not have come to the doctrine of being that is needed for a Christian philosophy. "Since God has revealed himself as He Who Is, the philosopher knows that at the origin and very heart of beings it is necessary to place the pure act of existing. The divine word absolutely transcends the philosophical notions conceived in its light; that is also why they could not be deduced from it. We do not say: Since scripture says so, the philosophical notions of being and God are in the last analysis identical with that of the act of being. In fact, scripture itself does not say this; but it does say that the proper name of God is He Who Is. Because it says this I believe it. While I thus cling to the object of faith, the intellect, made fruitful by this contact, makes deeper progress in the understanding of the primary notion of being. With one and the same movement it discovers an unforeseen depth in the philosophical meaning of the first principle and gains a kind of imperfect but true knowledge of the object of faith." Etienne Gilson, Christian Philosophy: An Introduction , pp. 31-32.
15 Ralph McInerny has considered this subjective aspect of Christian philosophy in a different way. He draws our attention to the moral life of the philosopher himself. Without moral virtue, the philosopher renders himself incapable of apprehending the real. The attempt to excise the moral from the intellectual life has resulted, McInerny points out, in a notion of the philosophical act as something completely foreign to the life that philosophers actually live. From Aristophanes to Kierkegaard, this monstrosity of a "pure" or "separated" philosophy has been rightly ridiculed. See Ralph McInerny, "Reflections on Christian Philosophy," in One Hundred Years of Thomism: Aeterni Patris and Afterwards (Houston, Center for Thomistic Studies, 1981) pp. 63-73.
16 Joseph Owens, Towards a Christian Philosophy p. 26.
17 Ralph McInerny, The Question of Christian Ethics (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1993).
18 John Henry Newman, Apologia pro vita sua (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1956) pp. 278-279.
19 We must be dealing here with Christian philosophers. The Christian philosopher welcomes the service that he can provide to theology and is willingly guided by the Magisterium. There is nothing here to suggest any loss of the genuine autonomy of philosophy.
20 At the end of the encyclical, John Paul II again recommends metaphysics. "I appeal also to philosophers, and to all teachers of philosophy , asking them to have the courage to recover, in the flow of an enduringly valid philosophical tradition, the range of authentic wisdom and truth -- metaphysical truth included -- which is proper to philosophical enquiry." (§ 106, p. 151) Again, the point is that metaphysics be included; the point is not to reduce Christian philosophy to metaphysics.
21 I should point out, again, that Henry Veatch has argued that philosophical realism is just what Christian philosophy should mean. See note one.
22 My conclusion is in accord, I think, with the position of Jude P. Dougherty, who has argued that the term "Christian philosophy" is best taken as a term to describe historical or sociological realities rather than a term to indicate the intrinsic or essential nature of philosophy. Like me, Dougherty is appreciative of Gilson's vast contributions to the historical understanding of Christian philosophy. Jude P. Dougherty, "Christian Philosophy: Sociological Category or Oxymoron?" The Monist 75 (1992) 283-290.
23 John Haldane, "What Future Has Catholic Philosophy?" Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 71 (1997) 79-90.