Gilson’s Reassesses Christian Thought Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Étienne Gilson’s research in medieval history and his insistence that the Middle Ages played an important role in modern philosophy’s development brought about major changes in the study of the Middle Ages and in attitudes about the roles of religion and philosophy.

Summary of Event

Étienne Gilson, who was to become one of the most important and influential medieval scholars and neo-Thomist philosophers of the twentieth century, received his early education in France’s Roman Catholic schools and later in secular lycées. He then pursued a philosophy degree at the Sorbonne, where he became particularly interested in Cartesian and post-Cartesian philosophy; he wrote his dissertation on René Descartes. Descartes, René On the advice of his professor Lucien Levy-Bruhl, Gilson narrowed his topic to a study of the scholastic origins of Descartes’s thought. In 1913, he completed his dissertation titled “La Liberté chez Descartes et la Théologie” (freedom in Descartes and theology). [kw]Gilson’s Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Reassesses Christian Thought (1932)[Gilsons Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Reassesses Christian Thought (1932)] [kw]Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Reassesses Christian Thought, Gilson’s (1932) [kw]Christian Thought, Gilson’s Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Reassesses (1932) Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, The (Gilson) Philosophy;medieval Medieval philosophy [g]France;1932: Gilson’s Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Reassesses Christian Thought[07930] [c]Philosophy;1932: Gilson’s Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Reassesses Christian Thought[07930] [c]Historiography;1932: Gilson’s Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Reassesses Christian Thought[07930] [c]Publishing and journalism;1932: Gilson’s Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Reassesses Christian Thought[07930] Gilson, Étienne Bréhier, Émile Maritain, Jacques

While he was researching and writing his dissertation, Gilson developed new research interests: medieval philosophy and theology. Through study of the texts written by Saints Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure, Gilson became convinced that the theologians of the Middle Ages (which lasted from 500 to 1500 c.e.) had made significant contributions to the field of philosophy by combining it with theology to create Christian philosophy.

In 1921, Gilson became a professor of medieval history at the Sorbonne. A devout Catholic, Gilson was also an independent thinker, and he introduced his ideas about medieval philosophers and the importance of studying original texts into his teaching, lectures, and publications. He soon gained a reputation as one of the best medieval scholars and historians of his time; medieval scholars considered his work on Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and Bonaventure to be one of the field’s standard reference works.

Gilson also gained an international reputation as a philosopher. In 1927, he received an invitation to be a guest lecturer at Harvard University; while he was there, he was asked to go to Toronto to establish an institute for medieval studies. In 1929, he founded the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies at Saint Michael’s College of the University of Toronto; the institute was instrumental in disseminating Gilson’s methods and approaches to medieval scholarship. The following school year (1930-1931), Gilson was invited to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where he gave a series of talks known as the Gifford Lectures. These were published as The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy in 1932.

As early as 1929, several important French philosophers, including Émile Bréhier, had begun to take issue with the idea of a Christian philosophy. Philosophers, historians of philosophy, and medievalists had generally accepted that the Middle Ages had been devoid of real philosophical thought, at least compared to the times of the Greeks and Romans. Bréhier insisted that philosophy slumbered during the Middle Ages and that it had been revived only when René Descartes began writing in the seventeenth century. Bréhier also insisted that it was absurd to talk about a Christian philosophy: Such a philosophy is no more possible than a Christian mathematics or a Christian physics. Philosophy, like mathematics or physics, requires the use of reason; revelation and faith belong to the discipline of theology. Maurice Blondel, Fernand van Steenberghen, Étienne Gilson, and Jacques Maritain all debated the issue with Bréhier, but Gilson was the chief spokesman for those opposing Bréhier.

The Gifford Lectures began Gilson’s response to Bréhier. The first two lectures, which would become the first two chapters of The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, dealt with Christian philosophy. The first lecture addressed the problem of Christian philosophy, and the second one dealt with the concept of Christian philosophy. In his first lecture, Gilson examined and refuted each objection to the idea of a Christian philosophy. He concluded that historical facts, the original works of the medieval theologian-philosophers, and the premises on which modern philosophers such as Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz elaborated their philosophies all supported the idea of a Christian philosophy. In his second lecture, he proposed a definition of Christian philosophy based on a close examination of the medieval thinkers who accepted Christian revelation and yet viewed reason as a way to understanding. He argued that for these scholars, faith served as an aid to reason. The rest of the Gifford Lectures examined original philosophical texts and their treatments of religion and philosophy.

During the years that followed, Gilson published many books and articles in which he continued to demonstrate the importance of the medieval thinkers and their influence on the development of philosophy in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. In many of his writings, Gilson sought to correct what he saw as errors in the research methods used to evaluate the medieval writers’ works, and his contributions to medieval scholarship and to philosophical thought earned him election to the French Academy in 1946.


Étienne Gilson had a major impact on medieval history and philosophy. His lack of formal training in medieval philosophy helped him develop an original way of viewing medieval writers, and he found that study of the original texts revealed aspects of the authors that were different from those revealed by most critics. He revitalized medievalists’ research methods by insisting on the use of original texts, and in the courses he taught he stressed that the Middle Ages were in fact times of significant intellectual activity. Through his founding and subsequent work with the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Gilson continued to encourage and facilitate research on the significant contributions made by medieval thinkers to the understanding of being and of moral philosophy. Gilson also created and developed the concept of Christian philosophy, and in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and later works he developed a convincing argument that theology and philosophy—faith and reason—are not mutually exclusive. His insistence that the medieval thinkers were philosophers as well as theologians and that their works created a Christian philosophy resulted in debates that reignited interest in these scholars and in philosophy in general. Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, The (Gilson) Philosophy;medieval Medieval philosophy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dulles, Avery. “Can Philosophy Be Christian?” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, April, 2000, 24-29. Definition and program of Gilson’s philosophy. Links his ideas to Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilson, Étienne. The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy. Translated by A. H. C. Downes. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991. Gilson’s explanation of Christian philosophy as it was developed in the Middle Ages. This is the publication of his Gifford Lectures, which were given in 1930 and 1931.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grogin, R. C. The Bergsonian Controversy in France, 1900-1914. Calgary, Alta.: University of Calgary Press, 1988. Examines philosophical controversy about being, especially at the Sorbonne. Many quotes from Gilson on the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCool, Gerald A. From Unity to Pluralism: The Internal Evolution of Thomism. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999. Deals with four major Thomists. Chapter 8 discusses Gilson’s work on the theologian philosophers of the Middle Ages in terms of Christian philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. The Neo-Thomists. Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Press, 1994. Places Gilson among the Neo-Thomists and discusses the importance of his research and his creation of “existential Thomism.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Redpath, Peter A., ed. A Thomist Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Étienne Gilson. New York: Éditions Rodopi, 2003. Written by Gilson’s students. Good survey of Gilson’s method of philosophy and his scholarship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shook, Laurence K. Étienne Gilson. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984. Provides accurate and complete biographical information on Gilson.

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