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The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy

Gilsons Overview
Etienne Gilson provides a useful overview and typology of the positions opposed to the possibility of Christian philosophy, distinguishing three main stances: theologism (now more generally called fideism), rationalism and certain types of Neo-Scholasticism. Gilson had originally singled out certain doctors of the Middle Ages as representatives of theologism, for whom the Christian religion excludes philosophy, because Christianity is a doctrine of salvation, because one can be saved without philosophy, and even because it is more difficult to be saved with philosophy than without it. . . . Medieval philosophy was the negation of this obscurantism, but still it did exist. For men of that type, the very notion of Christian philosophy could only rest on an equivocation. It signifies that where Christianity is, it is useless or dangerous that philosophy be. (Bulletin de la Socit franaise de Philosophie, p. 41) Gilsons later works (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and Christianity and Philosophy ) expand this position, engaging the thought of Luther, Calvin and their later interpreters. Gilson also criticizes another position regarding theologism (The Unity of Philosophical Experience, p.31-60): this is one where the term Christian philosophy signifies Christian revelation or Christian theology, disregarding the distinct role, discipline and methods of philosophy. In certain respects the rationalist position mirrors the theologist one: [W]here philosophy is, it is dangerous that Christianity should be. This is the position of pure rationalism, i.e., of those who do not accept a limited role for rationalism. Whatever the content may be of the diverse philosophies reason elaborates, it is insofar as rational that they are philosophies. To want to subordinate them to a dogma or to a faith is to destroy philosophys essence.[T]heology bases itself on faith, which is something irrational. To make philosophy the servant of theology is therefore to make the rational depend on the irrational, i.e, to suppress its very rationality. (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 41) At their root, rationalist positions on Christian philosophy, on one ground or another, eliminate or exclude from the field of philosophy any philosophical system, doctrine or author who brings reason, the instrument of philosophy, into contaminating contact with religious faith, practice, or thought, which would vitiate the philosophys rational and autonomous development. Numerous philosophical positions, schools, or even environments of basic cultural and philosophical presuppositions developed during or in the wake of the European Enlightenment fit rationalisms profile. Arguably, even philosophies critical of the Enlightenment but devotedly committed to a necessarily secularist view of philosophy can, on the issue of Christian philosophy, be regarded as analogues of rationalism. From rationalist perspectives, Patristic and Medieval thought, as well as those of their modern interpreters, would not legitimately deserve the title of philosophy. Gilson notes, however, holding that everything that either directly or indirectly undergoes the influence of a religious faith ceases, ipso facto, to retain any philosophical value, really stems from and

represents a mere rationalist postulate, directly opposed to reason. (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, p. 406) Despite their differences, Neo-Thomist or neo-Scholastic opponents of Christian philosophy also shared several key similarities with rationalists. As Gilson points out, neo-Scholastics retain some role for Christian faith, but one extrinsic to their philosophical activity: [A]ll of them agree with Saint Thomas that truth cannot contradict truth and that, consequently, what faith finds agrees substantially with what reason proves. They would even go further, for if faith agrees with reason, if not in its method, at least in its content, all factual disagreement between the two is an indication of an error in the philosophical order and a warning that one has to reexamine the problem. Still, all of the neo-Scholastic philosophers add that, insofar as philosophy, philosophy is the exclusive work of reason. (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 42) The philosophy of the Christian, in their view, ought not to incorporate anything deriving from Christianity into itself, for then it passes over into theology. The neo-Scholastic position in effect adopts wholesale rationalist assumptions about human reason, philosophy and Christian faith, with the consequence that [a]ccording to these neo-Scholastic philosophers, there cannot be Christian philosophy any more than there can be for a pure rationalist, because within the philosophical order, grasped with precision and insofar as philosophical, their rationalism is a pure one. (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 42)

Etienne Gilsons Position

Etienne Gilson argued for Christian philosophys legitimacy and observable historical reality, and explored particular achievements of Medieval Christian philosophies in depth. Contrary to Henri Gouhiers critique in his work that the dossier of the notion of Christian philosophy does not appear to present any change, any evolution (p. 66), Gilson continued to revise his assessment of significant authors during the Debates. Early on in the Debates, bringing up Saint Augustines credo ut intelligam and Saint Anselms fides quaerens intellectum, he considered these two formulasthe true definition of Christian philosophy (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 48). He would later revise his assessment, narrowing the scope of Christian philosophy primarily to Thomism, construing Augustinianism as reflecting a primacy of faith over reason (Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, p. 17-33) and explicitly rejecting the Anselmian fides quaerens intellectum, now seeing in that formula, an exclusive ambition and limitation, which forbids us from seeing in the definition of the attitude of a Christian philosopher (Sens et nature de largument de Saint Anselme, p. 49, note 2). Gilson grabbed Brhiers dilemma by its horns: I will say that in my view the Christian philosophy he thinks is not interesting at all but does exist, does not exist, whereas the one he deems that it would be interesting but does not exist, does exist (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 52). Historical examination indicates that the Catholic magisterium (in Christianity and Philosophy, Gilson extends his purview to Reformed and Lutheran positions) addresses philosophy in a more complex manner than Brhiers simplistic interpretation, so that there never has been a philosophy simply dictated by a religious magisterium. Whether Christianity has in fact made any positive contributions to philosophy remains an open question requiring

thorough historical study, which directed Gilson to the existence of Christian philosophies, particularly in the Middle Ages. What I seek in the notion of Christian philosophy is therefore a conceptual translation of what I believe to be a historically observable object: philosophy in its Christian state (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 73). He also criticized Neo-Scholastic opponents of Christian philosophy for unnecessarily adopt[ing] the position of their opponents, but also for assuming that [i]n Thomism alone we have a system in which philosophic conclusions are deduced from purely rational premises.Philosophy, doubtless, is subordinate to theology, but, as philosophy, it depends on nothing but its own proper method; based on human reason, owing all of its truth to the self-evidence of its principles and the accuracy of its deduction, it reaches an accord spontaneously and without having to deviate in any way from its own proper path. (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, p. 6) Any relation between philosophy and Christianity, however, becomes merely fortuitous and extrinsic. Once reason, as regards its exercise, has been divorced from faith, all intrinsic relation between Christianity and philosophy becomes a contradiction (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, p. 7). What the Neo-Thomists had forgotten was that faith and reason are rooted in the unity of the concrete subject. (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 45-6) Gilson also criticized another position, philosophy of the concrete, rightly identifying this with Bergson and wrongly with Blondel. In his view (and Maritains, who would make similar criticisms) these philosophies bore strong affinities with Augustinian positions and were favorable to Christian philosophy, but as they were hostile to conceptual articulation, they were liable to stray into theology or apologetics. He also argues against a plausibly Blondelian position: [a] philosophy open to the supernatural would certainly be compatible with Christianity, but it would not necessarily be a Christian philosophy. In order to defend the notion of Christian philosophy, simply noting the existence of philosophies in which Christianity had made some contribution was not sufficient, and Gilson was particularly concerned to clarify Christian philosophys nature, providing several definitions of Christian philosophy: I call Christian every philosophy which, although keeping the two orders formally distinct, nevertheless considers the Christian revelation as an indispensable auxiliary to reason.[T]he concept does not correspond to any simple essence susceptible of abstract definition; but corresponds much rather to a concrete historical reality as something calling for description.[It] includes in its extension all those philosophical systems which were in fact what they were because a Christian religion existed and because they were ready to submit to its influence. (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, p. 37) If philosophical systems exist, purely rational in their principles and in their methods, whose existence is not explained without the existence of the Christian religion, the philosophies that they define merit the name of Christian philosophies. This notion does not correspond to a concept of a pure essence, that of the philosopher or that of the Christian, but to the possibility of a complex historical reality: that of a revelation generative of reason. (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 39)

If there have been philosophies, i.e., systems of rational truths, whose existence cannot be explained historically without taking account of Christianitys existence, these philosophies should bear the name of Christian philosophies. For the relation between both concepts to be intrinsic, it is not enough that a philosophy be compatible with Christianity; it is necessary that Christianity have played an active role in the very establishment of that philosophy. (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 46) He also characterized the range, objects, and condition of Christian philosophy: [T]he content of Christian philosophy is that body of rational truths discovered, explored, or simply safeguarded, thanks to the help that reason receives from revelation (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, p. 35) [T]he essential domain of Christian philosophy corresponds exactly to the limits of natural theology, but accidentally, it exerts an influence on almost the whole of philosophy (Christianity and Philosophy, p. 131) [E]very Christian philosophy will be traversed, impregnated, nourished by Christianity as by a blood that circulates in it, or rather, like a life that animates it. One will never be able to say that here the philosophical ends and the Christian begins; it will be integrally Christian and integrally philosophical or it will not be. (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 46) Gilsons position made three additional contributions to understanding the nature and the problem of Christian philosophy. First, he repeatedly stresses that an aspect central to the problem of Christian philosophy was the problem of the relations between faith and reason. Second, he specifies that in the use of their reason and in the course of their philosophical activity, past Christian philosophers drew upon resources offered them by the Christian faith and revelation. One way this took place was by ideas, e.g. those of creation ex nihilo, of God as being, of personality, derived originally from the non-rational religious source, then appropriated by Christian (as well as Jewish and Muslim) thinkers, who fruitfully brought them into their philosophical activity and systems. Christian philosophy represents the philosophical activity of reason working on, and bringing rationality to data derived originally from non-rational religious sources. [O]nce this philosopher is also a Christian, his reasons exercise will be that of a Christians reason, i.e., not a reason of a different type than that of non-Christian philosophers, but a reason that labors under different conditions.[I]t is true that his reason is that of a subject in which there is something non-rational, his religious faith.I ask especially whether the philosophical life is not precisely a constant effort to bring what is irrational in us to the state of rationality.What is peculiar to the Christian is being convinced of the rational fertility of his faith and being sure that this fertility is inexhaustible. (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 47) Third, he redirects focus from abstract ways of framing this problem towards concrete philosophizing human subjects, in whom faith and reason coexist, and who both engage in and are formed by philosophy and Christianity. Gilson guardedly accepts the Augustinian position: He knows that faith is faith and reason is reason, but he adds that a mans faith and a mans reason are not two uncoordinated accidents of the same substance. In his view, the real is the man himself, a profound unity, not dissociable into juxtaposed elements as fragments of a

mosaic would be, a unity in which nature and grace, reason and faith, cannot function each one on its own, like in a mechanism whose pieces would have been purchased at the store as separate parts. If therefore a Christian man philosophizes, and if he expresses himself truly in his philosophy, this cannot fail to be a Christian philosophy. (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 45) Gilson argues that this correctly reflects the real unity of the elements of the concrete in the subject where they are realized.If there were a faith and a reason in us, whose being was radically distinct from that of a thinking substance to which they belong, we could not say of any of us that he was a man (Bul. Soc fr. Phil., p. 45-6).