Dr. Curtis L. Hancock, Rockhurst Jesuit University
Kansas City, Missouri, USA
Dr. Curtis L. Hancock is one of the directors of the Angelicum Academy as well as one of our online Great Books class moderators.
The teacher’s expertise combined with the example of intellectual and moral virtue provides enduring lessons. The excellent teacher, then, is a model. Though dead thirty years, Etienne Gilson still lives by his example. He continues to mentor us, earning our admiration as a champion of what he called “the Western Creed.” Several important elements of Gilson’s thought emanate out of his articulation and defense of the Western Creed. I will identify and discuss the most important of these “emanations.”
(1) The Western Creed. Before addressing the effects of the Creed, it is important to clarify what Gilson means by “the Western Creed.” His expression of this Creed appears at the end of his magisterial, The Unity of Philosophical Experience. By calling it the “Western Creed,” Gilson does not mean something exclusionary or culturally chauvinistic. On the contrary, the Western Creed rests on principles and fosters institutions that justify the democratic inclusion of all nations in the human community. Having said this, the adjective “Western” is appropriate because it recognizes the historical experience of the West in developing and fighting for these principles and institutions.
Gilson argues that there are certain core philosophical principles distinctive of Western culture. The ancient Greeks discovered these principles and gave them their original development. Since Greek times, each generation has had to apply these principles analogously to its unique cultural experiences. These principles have given western philosophy its identity. But since the seventeenth century doubt about these principles has put western philosophy into a crisis, into something of a postmodern malaise. Gilson asks: “Can a social order, begotten by a common faith in the value of certain principles, keep on living when all faith in these principles is lost?”
What is that faith and what are those principles? The Western Creed’s “most fundamental feature,” Gilson affirms, “is a firm belief in the eminent dignity of man.” In light of this, the history of philosophy is the development of a philosophy of the human person. “’Know thyself’ is not only the key to Greek culture, but to the classical culture of the Western world as well.” (p. 273.)
Christianity did not depart from this conviction. Christian wisdom agreed with the Greeks that the human person is “the most perfect of all earthly beings.” The early Church fathers accepted the Greek’s regard for the human person. “And why is man an image of God? Because, says St. Augustine, he has a mind. All the Greek philosophers would have gladly subscribed to that statement. Hence the second fundamental feature of Western culture, which is a definite conviction that reason is the specific difference of man.”
Christianity does not contradict Greek wisdom about the human person. Instead, it adopts and completes it. As St. Augustine said, the human person is in the image of God. Endowed with reason, the human person has free will. Hence, the human person becomes a partner with God co-creating his destiny, ideally cooperating with God in the drama of history. History is a record of how human persons work out their destinies. Human experience is a manifestation of the Christian doctrine that the relationship between persons is the single most significant and mysterious event in the universe. Personal relations always contain elements that are spiritual or metaphysical. Hence, the Western Creed resists reducing human beings to organic machines.
Such is the nature of the Western Creed. Keeping the Western Creed vigorous is crucial for our cultural and philosophical health. This speaks to Gilson’s relevance for us. He prescribes that we constantly work to revive and apply the Western Creed to our own generation’s cultural challenges.
So, why Gilson? Why today? My first answer is that we ought to defend the Western Creed. Gilson articulates the philosophy of the human person that makes this possible.
(2) Philosophical Realism. When we judge that someone is sane, we say that he or she “has a grasp of reality.” That truism is a philosophical principle for Gilson. Philosophy will avoid several disorders if it resolves to keep in contact with reality. In other words, philosophers should defend philosophical realism, the conviction that the human knower is aware of things existing independently and outside of the mind. Philosophical realism is the first mandate emanating, as it were, out of the Western Creed.
Of course, to defend realism the philosopher must understand skepticism, the doubt that the human mind can know anything but its own conscious states. Gilson wondered why skeptics, especially over the last few centuries, have marginalized realists among professional philosophers. Gilson lamented this state of affairs. He believed that modern skepticism had derailed the task of philosophy and confused the mind. If there were a single change that could restore the intellectual health of the modern mind, it would consist of escaping skepticism and of recovering a vigorous philosophical realism.
Gilson’s defense of realism was a personal challenge. Like his colleague, Jacques Maritain, Gilson believed that the blame for much of the philosophical disorder in modern thinking is placed on the influence of French skeptics, such as René Descartes and Michel de Montaigne. Maritain was so self-conscious of the skeptical legacy of French philosophers that he labeled skepticism “the great French sin.” Maritain assessed French skepticism in two of his books, The Dream of Descartes and Three Reformers. In this latter book, he criticizes not only Descartes but also Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Gilson takes up skepticism in several books and articles. But his most delightful and digestible discussion occurs in a brief book, titled Methodic Realism. Gilson selects the title as an alternative to Descartes’ “methodic doubt.” Gilson argues that, in spite of a prevailing philosophical culture that makes skepticism axiomatic, skepticism no more obligates the philosopher today than it did in Descartes’ time. A fair assessment of skepticism shows that it still fails to convince even the skeptic. As a result, the realist has as much right to her method as the skeptic does to his. Gilson defies the skeptic to show that realism is not an intelligent choice. If so, what right does the skeptic have to deny that realism can be a peer voice in the public square of philosophical discourse? It is arbitrary that skepticism enthrone itself as the obligatory starting point of philosophical inquiry, a presumptive obligation that has endured too long in the philosophical community.
While as a philosopher, Gilson believes that skepticism is pernicious, as a historian he recognizes that the influence of skepticism is a remarkable historical fact. A historian of philosophy must be well-versed in the vocabulary of skepticism to know what makes the modern mind “tick.” He, somewhat ironically, even commends skeptics for having rendered a service to philosophy. Skeptics have been running a thought experiment, testing whether skepticism is coherent and whether it is productive for the human knower. Gilson declares that the verdict is in. Skepticism has not succeeded on either score. Hence, the philosophical community should thank skeptics for their service; then it should move on to embrace more productive epistemologies.
To speak more precisely, Maritain asserts, and Gilson surely agrees, that philosophy should abandon epistemology altogether. Epistemology is a troubled subject built on the faulty foundation of skepticism. It is, Maritain says, a modernist pathology, reducing philosophy merely to excavate ideas, rather than to grasp real things. As Maritain puts it, epistemology gives us only “ideosophy,” not philosophy. Maritain ends with a sweeping indictment: modern philosophers are not really philosophers. They are ideosophers; the objects of their studies are only ideas, whereas philosophy must be about things.
If we abandon epistemology, what do we put in its place? Maritain and Gilson would replace epistemology with what they call “the metaphysics of knowledge.” If one approaches the problem of knowledge as a problem of reality—how the mind grasps beings in the first place—then the examination of knowledge does not stymie the philosopher’s task. Gilson insists that the philosopher has a right to this starting point. The realist could invoke Aristotle’s observation in the Physics that, in spite of the skeptic’s protest, one doesn’t have to prove the obvious. The philosopher can, from the beginning, explain knowledge by reflecting on our common-sense grasp of beings. On that basis, philosophy of knowledge can be productive. It is the science about our awareness of beings. Hence, it is more profitably called “metaphysics of knowledge” instead of “epistemology.” “Metaphysics of knowledge” is free of all the skeptical baggage attached to the word “epistemology.”
Gilson recommends this salutary change for philosophy. After all, if one starts with doubt about the external world, one can never attain knowledge of that world. No “transcendental” argument (to use Kantian language) or combination of transcendental arguments can trick the mind to grasp reality. If one starts with subjectivism, one ends with subjectivism. Skepticism, then, is a cul-de-sac. The way to avoid a dead-end road is not to travel down it in the first place.
So, I have summarized a second way that Gilson is still relevant. A defense of the Western Creed must include a defense of philosophical realism.
(3) Historical Awareness. If one were to ask Aristotle his profession, he might surprise one and reply “biologist.” Similarly, if one were to ask Gilson about his profession, he probably would not have replied “philosopher.” More likely, he would have said “historian.” But he was certainly a historian who was mainly interested in the genesis of philosophical worldviews. But his interest in the history of philosophy was not just a matter of curiosity. Gilson believed that there was a more intimate relationship between philosophy and history than meets the eye. If one recognizes this, one will not only make the philosopher a better judge of philosophy but a more astute interpreter of historical trends as well. Like Aristotle, Gilson believed that to philosophize best is to examine why philosophies come and go in history. There are lasting lessons for both historian and philosopher when one examines philosophy in historical context.
Gilson’s gifts as a historian are on display in his scholarship on medieval thought. Gilson is not only an historian, he is an historian’s historian. He is not willing to accept uncritically an historical interpretation just because it is consensus among historians. He dares to bring fresh perspectives to subjects pored over by earlier scholars. He puts forward new and sometimes radical interpretations of historical doctrines and events. A famous and controversial example is Gilson’s challenge to a long-accepted interpretation of the meaning of “Christian philosophy” in the Middle Ages. Gilson’s re-examination of the idea of Christian philosophy has implications about the nature of knowledge. These implications enable Gilson to demand a reassessment of post-medieval philosophy as well. 
If Gilson stirred controversy by criticizing the standard view of Christian wisdom in the Middle Ages, what is the consensus-view that Gilson sought to overturn? Gilson rejected the idea that the expression “Christian philosophy” has only a sociological or historical meaning. The standard view is that since philosophy originated in pre-Christian times, it is oxymoronic to speak of “Christian philosophy.” How can philosophy be intelligently qualified by the adjective Christian since that would make philosophy a kind of religion or theology? But everyone knows that philosophy in its nature is independent of Christian theology because it originated among pre-Christian Greeks. Moreover, theology reflects on doctrines given in revelation, many of which are mysteries beyond the reach of our natural intelligence. Philosophy, on the other hand, is an exercise of natural reason. It presupposes nothing about supernatural revelation. When a person who, as a matter-of-fact, is a Christian philosophizes he can be sure that his commitment to revealed mysteries and articles of faith are not involved in his philosophical methods, premises, and objects. In other words, when a Christian philosophizes he philosophizes just as a Greek pagan (someone unfamiliar with and unaffected by revelation) would philosophize. The only way theology intrudes into philosophy is when the philosopher mistakenly includes articles of faith or mysteries in his premises.
In light of these observations, is not “Christian philosophy” a contradictory expression? To resolve this contradiction, the standard or “accepted” view is that “Christian philosophy” is merely a way of talking. The expression “Christian philosophy” is merely a sociological or historical label to refer conveniently to the fact that during medieval times, thinkers would sometimes write as philosophers and sometimes (more frequently) as theologians. Philosophy and theology would sometimes occur coincidentally in the same work. In other words, “Christian philosophy,” should one use the expression at all, is just a sociological or historical device to point to the curious coincidence that one can sometimes find in a book written by the same author, two independent ways of knowing, philosophy and theology.
A common expression of this separation between natural (or philosophical) reasoning and revealed (or theological) reasoning is the idea of praeambula fidei. This expression reinforces the idea that, even though we may first hear of certain philosophical truths in a theological context, they actually exist independently of theology. They belong to a body of knowledge or propositions called “philosophy.” For example, I may first hear about the existence of God or the sin of adultery in catechism class, but those propositions themselves exist outside of theology, in a realm of independent knowledge and discourse called “philosophy.”
Gilson rejects this paradigm about Christian philosophy in the Middle Ages. He argues that the idea of Christian philosophy has cognitive content in its own right. It is not just a way of talking or a sociological or historical reference to the fact that sometimes medieval authors wrote as philosophers, sometimes as theologians. The traditional interpretation of “Christian philosophy” makes the mistake of thinking of philosophy and theology as systems of thought. A system of thought is a body of propositions, arranged according to logical principles. Since natural reason does not arrange propositions in the way revelation does, philosophy and theology are sequestered in Christian thought.
Gilson says that this view of Christian philosophy follows if one looks at ways of knowing as “bodies of knowledge” or as “logical systems.”However, if one looks at knowledge the way St. Thomas Aquinas does, as a habitus, one escapes the nominalistic tendency to regard philosophy as a “body of knowledge” or a “logical system of propositions.” As a habit, a perfection of cognitive faculties or powers by which the knower acquires information from experience of things, knowledge is always existential, as it were, always under conditions of lived experience. Knowledge is not sequestered into systems or arrangements of propositions. Knowledge is a way in which a mind deepens and penetrates its awareness of objects in experience.
Once one appreciates that knowledge is a habit, a perfecting of the cognitive faculties or powers of the whole person, Christian philosophy can be understood in a different light. Recognizing that knowledge is a habit, reminds us that when we learn, we exercise active powers involving the whole person. Once one realizes this, then one escapes the fallacy of analyzing or reducing knowledge to systems of propositions. To use a common example, if I hear a concert, it is not my ears or auditory sense that enjoys the concert. One would find it very odd if I said my ears enjoyed a Mozart sonata. You might wonder what the rest of me was doing while my ears were at a concert. Instead we must speak of the whole person engaged in cognitive activity. To make this point, Gilson quips that “a person senses with the intelligence and intellectualizes with the senses.” The human person is a unitary whole, not merely a collection of discrete faculties. I must have normally functioning auditory sense to enjoy a concert, but that is a necessary and not a sufficient condition for listening to music. It is the whole living person endowed with the power to hear and with the habituated cognitive power of appreciating classical music who experiences the concert.
Gilson applies this insight to the idea of Christian philosophy. If habituation through grace is the essence of Christian life, then grace is always operative in my life as a unitary whole person. Grace is existential, as it were. It transforms our natural human existence. In doing so, it elevates our cognitive powers. If our senses and our intellects are elevated by grace, grace is active whenever we know by these natural powers. This means that when the Christian philosophizes—when she uses natural reason—she uses it under the guidance of grace. Accordingly, the Christian, even when doing philosophy, is under the governance of theology. Hence, when Christians philosophize they are not, as a matter of existential fact philosophizing by the same light as a pre-Christian Greek philosopher.
Because it is impossible to place on a shelf the influence of grace, in order to carve out some special, privileged area for philosophy alone, Gilson suspects that philosophy, including the vaunted “Preambles of Faith,” never exists autonomously for a Christian. Theology is always operative in Christian knowing.
This is the essence of Gilson’s argument for Christian philosophy. Of course, someone might protest that Gilson’s argument really eliminates philosophy altogether from Christian knowledge. If so, why speak of “Christian philosophy” at all? Why not remove “philosophy” from the Christian’s vocabulary and speak of “theology” only? Gilson believes that that would be a mistake. It is important to recognize that Christians are philosophical, but in an analogical sense. That is to say, Christian philosophy is like the philosophy of preChristian philosophers and yet unlike them. Does this mean that Christian philosophy is deficient? No, philosophy is fully present in Christian philosophy because reason and experience are fully present. But they are not present in a way that is independent of theology. The Christian philosopher cannot think about her objects and problems in the way preChristians thought about them. Her mind being elevated by grace simply judges these objects differently. To think otherwise is to discount the significance of grace as influencing and elevating the human knower. (G.K. Chesterton illustrates the point when he notes that a Christian climbs a tree differently than a non-Christian.)
Once one escapes thinking of philosophy as a set of propositions and doctrines and begins to think of philosophy as a habitus or way of knowing that informs the living, existential active powers of the knower, one is liberated from an arbitrary separation of philosophy and theology for the Christian. The Christian philosopher thinks under the influence of grace; hence theology always operates in that sense. For Christian wisdom, philosophy has been subsumed and modulated to a higher theological key.
Why are these remarks on Christian philosophy relevant for my task today, which is to answer the questions: Why Gilson? Why now? The answer is that Gilson took pains to provide an alternative interpretation of Christian philosophy because he believed a correct understanding of Christian philosophy was crucial for defending the Western Creed. The traditional interpretation of Christian philosophy as a combination of two systems–autonomous natural reason and revealed theology—does violence to the authentic nature of knowledge. It reduces philosophy and theology to abstractions, separating them from each other by systematizing into propositions their logical assumptions and differences. But long ago Aristotle warned us that not all intellectual knowledge should be mistaken for logic. The traditional paradigm that Gilson criticizes makes that mistake, because it fails to think of philosophy and theology as habits, or living ways of knowing. Instead, it thinks of them as systems of abstractions. By refusing to reduce philosophy to a logical system, Gilson’s vision of Christian philosophy rests on a different account of human nature than those who would reduce the human person to an abstraction in a system.
Why is this judgment that Christian philosophy is not a system important? It has profound polemical value. If Christian philosophy is not a system, it can expose the failures of modernist philosophers who build systems. They build systems because, as Gilson explained earlier, they start with skepticism. They lay down a set of propositions and try to build a coherent system out of them. In modern times, this is philosophy. It seeks to deconstruct the Western Creed. In keeping with this description, postmodernism is the resulting despair that modernist systems cannot really overcome skepticism.
Hence, it is crucial that Christian philosophy, the defender of the Western Creed, not be a system. If it is just another system among many, it is ineffectual. Since systems cohere in terms of their own principles, no one system can, without begging the question (circular reasoning), justifiably condemn another system. Since Christian philosophy transcends any system, it can critique modernist systems or the postmodernist hand-wringing that systems fail.
Hence, for Gilson, Christian philosophy is the tonic for what ails us. Why? Because it appreciates (1) that genuine philosophy is non-systematic in its nature, and (2) that it can expose the failure of modernist philosophies that strive to be systems.
(4) Polemical Action. As the Polish people understand so well, courage makes all the other virtues possible. It is one thing to have a philosophy, it is still another to act on it. Gilson was like a classic Dominican: he was a man of action in a life that was contemplative. Gilson’s example inspires us today to be similarly active, courageous, and polemical.
What would constitute the essential features of a Gilson-inspired polemic? One way to put it into focus is to think of philosophy as a test for the reasonableness of worldviews. Gilson is confident that in a collision between the Western Creed and systems of thought that seek to replace it, the Western Creed will prevail. This dispute, broadly speaking, occurs on four fronts. Since a worldview involves four comprehensive judgments, one involving knowledge, and three others involving reality, the human person and morality (including political life), a Gilsonian defense of the Western Creed will recruit Christian and classical philosophy to defend the Western Creed’s commitments about knowledge, reality, the human person, and morality.
Let me close by reminding us of what the Western Creed holds regarding each of these elements of its worldview: (1) knowledge: the human intellect under its own powers and informed by sense-experience is able to know something about reality, even inferentially the existence of God. (2) Reality: in addition to the natural order, there are supernatural existents, including God and the human soul. (3) Human Nature: the human person has certain faculties or powers, namely intellect and will, that physics alone cannot explain. Hence, metaphysics, not just physics, is necessary to account for human nature. (4) Morality: human beings are morally accountable. There are objective moral standards according to which both God and human beings may judge the moral quality of human lives and behaviors. Taken together, these four principles, in my judgment, signify what Gilson means when he speaks of that worldview called the “Western Creed.”
Accordingly, Gilson believes that the challenge philosophers face in the twenty-first century is to defend these four conviction against those who oppose them. As a rule, such opposition takes the following form, a set of contrasting principles which, taken together, constitute the “Anti-Western Creed.” (1) Skepticism: there are compelling reasons to doubt whether the human mind can know anything but its own internal states. This is so regardless of how our ideas—our conscious states—are constructed, whether by our own psychology, language, culture, economics, et cetera. The human mind does not know the extramental world, things really existing outside the human mind. Secondly, there is scientific materialism: if something is knowable, it is discoverable and measurable by physical science. Associated with this claim is a more radical inference: since physical science cannot know anything non-physical, metaphysics is impossible and it is reasonable to doubt whether anything non-physical does or could exist. This last conviction is sometimes called “philosophical naturalism,” the view that only matter exists. Thirdly, the anti-Western creed embraces animalism: the human person is just another product of chance or randomness in nature; the human person is just an organic machine, not a special creation. Fourthly, moral relativism: just as there are no justifiable truth-claims, there is no objective right or wrong, just the preferences of cultures and individuals. This anti-Western worldview has spawned what is sometimes called “the postmodernist malaise,” since postmodernism shifts from looking upon the human person as noble, specially created, and existing for a purpose to looking upon the human person as hopeless, living without meaning, and caught in a Godless, silent universe.
Since ideas have consequences, Gilson does not want us to live in the postmodern world begotten by the anti-Western Creed. Gilson is relevant today because he prescribes how we can challenge these ideas. To summarize in one sentence: we must champion the Western Creed, defend philosophical realism, rightly interpret the history of philosophy, correctly comprehend Christian philosophy, and show that modernist and postmodernist systems are arbitrary. The world would be a better place, Gilson believed, if the generations that come after him have the courage to fulfill these challenges.
 Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1950), chapter 11.
 Ibid., p. 272.
 Ibid., p. 273.
 Ibid., p. 274.
 My comments on Christian philosophy rely significantly on the groundbreaking work of Peter A. Redpath and Armand Maurer on the nature of “Christian philosophy.” See Peter A. Redpath, “Philosophizing Within Faith,” in Faith and the Life of the Intellect, editors Curtis L. Hancock and Brendan Sweetman (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), pp. 93-123. See Armand A. Maurer, “The Unity of a Science: St. Thomas and the Nominalists,” in St. Thomas Aquinas 174-1974 Commemorative Studies, Vol. 2, editor-in-chief Armand A. Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies), pp. 269-292.