Gilson: The Unity of Philosophical Experience

October 19, 2009

The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937)
Etienne Gilson (Ignatius, 1999)
269 p. First reading.

In the fall of 1936 Etienne Gilson, the great historian of medieval philosophy, delivered the William James lectures at Harvard University, and this book followed shortly thereafter.  Gilson’s main purpose is to consider what the history of philosophy tells us about philosophy itself.  The history of philosophy, he says, is to the philosopher what the laboratory is to the scientist: it is where he can see a variety of experiments carried out, study the results, and from such observations draw certain conclusions.

A second, organizing theme of the book is that philosophers are frequently tempted to approach their subject as though it were another.  That is, they are tempted to adopt a certain method, or define a certain kind of rationality, as an ideal, and proceed as though it were, at last, the proper approach to philosophy.  Though the ideal varies from philosopher to philosopher, the developing philosophical projects follow a predictable pattern: inevitably the favoured approach encounters questions it is not well-suited to answering, at which point such questions are declared un-philosophical, meaningless, or otherwise inadmissible, and, when that tactic proves unacceptable (usually to the disciples of the originator), the philosophy devolves into skepticism.

Gilson illustrates this cycle — exposition, development, collapse — using three main historical examples, the “medieval experiment”, the “Cartesian experiment”, and the “modern experiment”.  In each case he traces the logical development of the philosophical projects in careful detail.  Given his expertise in medieval philosophy, one might expect the sections on later philosophical developments to be comparatively weak, but, to this untutored reader at least, he seems perfectly adept discussing Descartes, Hume, and Kant.

Though it would be a pleasure to rehearse the book’s arguments in detail, I think that I must, owing to time considerations, content myself with a high-level overview.

The Medieval Experiment. The particular stream of medieval philosophy in which he is interested was inaugurated by Peter Abelard, and his approach to philosophy Gilson calls “logicism”.  Abelard took pure logic as his ideal of rationality:

It is not easy for us to share his enthusiasm and that of his first disciples, when he discovered that human thought was submitted to necessary laws, themselves susceptible of exact definition, the knowledge of which would enable us to distinguish in all cases the true from the false. As soon as he made that wonderful discovery, Abelard decided that anything that stood in the way of the new science should be ruthlessly thrown into the scrapheap.

When Abelard, however, tried to address the favourite problem of medieval philosophers — the problem of universals — he ran into trouble. Do we have general ideas of things, or can we conceive only of individual things? What is the relationship between our ideas of things and things themselves? From pure logic, Abelard was uanble to build a bridge between his mind and the world, and consequently he ended in scepticism: concepts are empty words, unrelated to real things in the world, and what we call knowledge is merely opinion.  The cycle is complete.

A second temptation for medieval thinkers was to treat philosophy as though it were theology, an error Gilson calls “theologism”.  When defending the glory and omnipotence of God becomes the central purpose of one’s philosophy, certain unfortunate consequences seem to follow.  When it is considered impious to put limits on God’s power, and when impiety is considered worse than error, there is no way to prevent God’s power from overwhelming and crushing both the natural world and natural reason.  Muslim philosophers, for instance, argued that physical laws would place unacceptable limits on God’s capacity to act in the world, so they rejected them, arguing instead that God creates the world anew at each moment, and every aspect of each newly created world is contingent, subject to the arbitrary will of God.  The world is thereby deprived of motion, duration, and causality.  In the Christian world William of Ockham followed much the same reasoning to much the same conclusion, and finished by espousing an empiricism that bears more than a passing resemblance to Hume’s (much later) philosophy. (Ockham, incidentally, is important for understanding the transition from medieval to early modern philosophy, for he invented what Gilson calls “a new intellectual disease” that affected much of modern philosophy: psychologism, the belief that “to give a psychological analysis of human knowledge was to give a philosophical analysis of reality”.) Meanwhile St. Bonaventure, intending to place God at the centre of the inner life, argued that we know only by divine illumination of our minds, but in so doing he destroyed the very possibility of philosophy, for “If the truth of my judgements comes to me from God only, and not from my own reason, there is no natural foundation for true knowledge; the proper place for epistemology is not in philosophy, but in theology.”

The scepticism that resulted from these misconceived philosophical programs resulted in late medieval scholars turning their backs on philosophy, considering it a useless, vain enterprise.  From roughly 1400 to roughly 1600, little valuable philosophical work was done.  Instead, scholars turned to moralism and humanism, as in the work of Erasmus or Montaigne, or to mysticism, as in Thomas à Kempis or Meister Eckhart.  Scholasticism continued to be taught in the schools, but it had lost its vitality and its living interest.  It stayed that way until someone introduced a new way of doing philosophy.

The Cartesian Experiment. The purpose of Descartes’ philosophy was to provide a remedy for skepticism.  To accomplish this goal he reconceived philosophy as a branch of mathematics.  In mathematics, after all, there is none of the discord and doubt that plagues philosophers.  Cartesianism is “an experiment to see what becomes of human knowledge when molded into conformity with the pattern of mathematical evidence.”  He rejected the merely probable in favour of the strictly certain.  He attempted to develop abstract versions of the various sciences, apparently in the belief that “since the most evident of all sciences [mathematics] is also the most abstract, it would be enough to make all the other sciences as abstract as mathematics in order to make them just as evident.”  The basic abstractions had to be “clear and distinct”, so as to be evident intuitively.  He committed himself to a variant of psychologism: what can be clearly and distinctly known of a thing is the thing, and he attempted to construct the world solely on the basis of these “clear, distinct ideas”.  For instance, from the fact that his clear and distinct idea of the soul implies nothing about the body he concluded that the soul was really distinct from the body.

This way of thinking was taken up with alacrity in Europe until, in 1728, Voltaire visited London.  To his surprise, he found that Descartes was there considered “a dreamer”.  The English followed John Locke instead, a man who approached psychology not as a mathematician but as an anatomist, and confronted by this alternative approach Voltaire, and through him many others, lost faith in Cartesian philosophy.  But the damage had been done, for Descartes had succeeded in convincing his disciples that the soul and the body were distinct, and when his philosophy fell apart, so did the human person.  Some, like Le Maitre, retained the body but not the soul and proposed a materialistic philosophy, and others, like Berkeley, retained the soul but not the body, and proposed a form of idealism.  This latter was perhaps more faithful to the spirit of Cartesianism, for the concept of matter is rather unclear and indistinct, and it was a notorious problem to prove the existence of the external world from Cartesian principles.  There does seem to be such a thing as matter, but it is entirely distinct from thought.  How then is it that there seems to be a connection between the two?  Malebranche, being a disciple of Descartes, proposed the theory of occasionalism: an event, or apparent event, in the physical world does not itself cause a mental event, but is the occasion for God to cause a mental event. Thus was physical causality destroyed.  When Hume came along and removed God from the picture, the world fell apart into disconnected fragments, “a mosaic of mutually exclusive substances, that could neither act nor be acted upon, neither know, nor be known.” Metaphysics was dead, and the world either did not exist or could not be known. The cycle ended in skepticism.

The Modern Experiment. The philosophy of Kant begins with another attempt to re-imagine philosophy after the model of another science — in Kant’s case, the model was physics.  He wrote, “The true method of metaphysics is fundamentally the same as that which Newton has introduced into natural science, and which has there yielded such fruitful results.”  To which Gilson adds the wry observation: “On the very day and at the very minute in which he wrote these simple words, Kant crossed the deadline beyond which lies the waste land where no metaphysics can live.”  Kant proposed that philosophy start not with mathematical definitions, but with immediately evident perceptions and the judgements that accompany them.  His project was to identify and enumerate these judgements, which could then serve as a sure foundation for philosophy.  Gilson: “The Critique of Pure Reason is a masterly description of what the structure of the human mind should be, in order to account for the existence of a Newtonian conception of nature, and assuming that conception to be true to reality.”  A second arm of Kant’s program was moral philosophy, but Gilson contends that he never succeeded in integrating morality with the rest of his ideas, which is why Kantian philosophy presents us with the peculiar notion of the human being as both subject to the necessity of Newtonian physical law and free and morally responsible.  Gilson traces the subsequent career of Kant’s ideas through Fichte and Schelling to Hegel, but I had difficulty following this part of the argument.

Post-Kantian philosophy is something of which I am mostly ignorant, but to hear Gilson tell it, its efforts to re-found philosophy have been comparatively feeble.  Auguste Comte proposed that philosophy should be primarily concerned with the human person and the needs of society, and so proposed sociology, of all things, as the foundation upon which philosophy should be erected. To his way of thinking, mankind should be always at the center of our thinking. Thus he called astronomy a “grave scientific aberration” and argued that astronomers should study celestial bodies only in their relation to the earth!  Others, such as J.S. Mill, thought, like Kant, that scientific knowledge was an ideal, but unlike Kant they decided to reduce philosophy to science. In so doing, they subjected the human mind, and the whole human person, to nature, forsaking the vantage point from which rational criticism of science is possible.  This, says Gilson, is why his day saw certain parts of the academy promoting a kind of agnosticism with respect to science: in a philosophical tradition that has ruled out metaphysics, agnosticism remains the only means by which to protect human liberty.  It is an impasse.

Conclusion. As I said earlier, and as these examples illustrate, one of Gilson’s central claims about the history of philosophy is that attempts to do philosophy using the methods proper to another subject are doomed to eventual failure. The methods suitable for particular subjects are not adequate for the most general of all subjects.  As he puts it, “History is there to remind us that no one ever regains the whole of reality after locking himself up in one of its parts.”  Implicit in this claim is the notion that there is a properly philosophical method.  But is there?  Gilson thinks so, and in the last chapter he sketches its basic outline.  His central idea, learned at the feet of St. Thomas Aquinas, is that the most basic metaphysical reality, and therefore properly the most basic philosophical concept, is Being.  Not space, not time, not thought (which has been the strongest temptation for modern philosophers), but Being.  Only this foundation does not begin by excluding something that will be needed later.

[Virtue and knowledge]
There is an ethical problem at the root of our philosophical difficulties; for men are most anxious to find truth, but very reluctant to accept it.  We do not like to be cornered by rational evidence, and even when truth is there, in its impersonal and commanding objectivity, our greatest difficulty remains; it is for me to bow to it in spite of the fact that it is not exclusively mine, for you to accept it though it cannot be exclusively yours. In short, finding out truth is not so hard; what is hard is not to run away from truth once we have found it.

[St. Augustine anticipates Descartes]
Reason is leading the discussion with Augustine: “You, who wish to know yourself, do you know at least that you are? — I know it. — How do you know it? — I don’t know. — Are you a thing that is simple, or that is composed? — I don’t know. — Do you know whether you are moving or not? — I don’t know. — But do you know that you think? — Yes, I know that. — Consequently, that you think at least is true. — It is true. — You know therefore that you are, that you live and that you think.”  — Soliloquies, Book II, I.

[Science and philosophy]
The initial condemnation of metaphysics in the name of science, posited by such philosophies as the only type of rational knowledge, invariably culminates in the capitulation of science to some irrational element.  This is a necessary law, inferable from philosophical experience.

[The Western creed]
Its most fundamental feature is a firm belief in the eminent dignity of man.  The Greeks of classical times never wavered in their conviction, that of all the things that can be found in nature, man is by far the highest, and that of all the things important for man to know, by far the most important is man.  When Socrates, after unsuccessful attempts to deal with physical problems, made up his mind to dedicate himself to the exclusive study of man, he was making a momentous decision.  “Know thyself” is not only the key to Greek culture, but to the classical culture of the Western world as well.

[Man subject to nature]
Philosophy is the only rational knowledge by which both science and nature can be judged.  By reducing philosophy to pure science, man has not only abdicated his right to judge nature and to rule it, but he has also turned himself into a particular aspect of nature, subjected, like all the rest, to the necessary law which regulates its development.  A world where accomplished facts are unto themselves their own justification is ripe for the most reckless social adventures.  Its dictators can wantonly play havoc with human institutions and human lives, for dictatorships are facts and they also are unto themselves their own justification.

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