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Étienne Gilson (June 13, 1884 – September 19, 1978) was a French Catholic theologian, philosopher and historian. He is seen as one of the most important proponents of twentieth-century Thomism. In contrast to other modern Thomists (such as Jacques Maritain), Gilson's attempt to use Aquinas' thought for the sake of constructing a viable Catholic philosophical system went to lengths to emphasize the historical aspect of Aquinas' work. Gilson put much of his effort into locating the doctrines relative both to the earlier works from which Aquinas drew (chiefly, those of Aristotle), and to later critics and commentators. By revitalizing Thomism and exhibiting the continuity of thought from Medieval to Modern philosophy, Gilson decisively contributed to a modern appreciation of Medieval philosophy.
Gilson was born in Paris in 1884. Along with Maritain, he studied with the then tremendously popular Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson at the Collège de France. Gilson taught history of medieval philosophy from 1921 to 1932 at the Sorbonne, where he had previously studied, and then took the chair of medieval philosophy at the Collège de France. In 1929 he helped found the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at Toronto, Canada. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1946.
One of the major trends in philosophy after Aquinas was a concern with how it was possible to have knowledge of the external world. In its most vivid presentation, René Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy, the concern is presented on the basis of the claim that all we are immediately familiar with are our own ideas, perceptions and thoughts. This image of a 'veil of ideas' between us and the world invites skeptical worries, for it seems that the veil could remain the same regardless of the nature of the world.
One of the motivations behind Descartes' philosophy was his belief that the reason that science had lacked any certainty up to that point was that earlier philosophers had based their views too much on the senses. Descartes believed that the senses give us a misleading picture of reality, and that only by using our higher, rational faculties could we come to know the true nature of the external world.
Now, the 'earlier philosophers' Descartes had in mind were primarily Aristotelians, and the greatest synthesizer of Aristotelian thought and Catholic doctrine was Aquinas. In light of this, it was natural for Christian theologians who wanted to resist the skeptical direction pointed to by Descartes to look at the earlier position he was rejected. Gilson is a prime example of this. He took inspiration from Aquinas' Aristotelian view that our senses do put us in direct contact with the true nature of reality. As Aquinas saw it (drawing inspiration from Aristotle's De Anima), in sensing objects, our sensory organs take on the 'form' of the sensed object. This isn't to say that what we are aware of are these forms, rather, the transmission of form from the object to the sense organ just amounts to being directly aware of the object.
Even while drawing on Aquinas to address such philosophical concerns, Gilson did not view Aquinas simply as a God-inspired source of pure philosophical insight. He emphasized that Aquinas' views developed as much out of theological as out of philosophical concerns, so that work was needed in order to show how much strictly philosophical insight his views contained. Gilson adopted this same general approach with respect to other historical figures. In doing so, he helped set the tone for much of contemporary history of philosophy.
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