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History as the Laboratory of Philosophy

The following paper was presented at the 2015 Telos Conference, held on February 13–15, 2015, in New York City. For additional details about the conference, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Anyone familiar with Étienne Gilson’s teachings knows he is celebrated for: being a Thomist, his criticism of “essentialism” in philosophy, emphasizing St. Thomas’s revolutionary focus upon the principle of the act of existence (esse) within the natures of things, and a shift away from ideas to existential judgments within Western philosophical thought. Odd, then, are two claims related to Gilson made by people who knew him well.

The first, from Gilson’s biographer Lawrence K. Shook, says of Gilson, “An Erasmian humanist at heart, he wanted to end all wars and to liberate men to work out their salvation in the context of personal freedom. He believed that this could be achieved through the kind of education that fostered the acquisitions of moral virtues through the writings of Cicero and Seneca.”[1]

No one knew Gilson better than Gilson. Yet what Shook says of Gilson presents a striking contrast to what, in 1937, Gilson had said in his classic The Unity of Philosophical Experience: “Though philosophical ideas can never be separated from philosophers and philosophies, . . . [p]hilosophy consists of the concepts of philosophers taken in the naked, impersonal necessity of both their contents and their relations. The history of these concepts and their relationships is the history of philosophy itself.”[2]

The claims immediately above appear to be antithetical to Gilson’s well-known teachings about the: centrality of existential judgment in St. Thomas, error of thinking of St. Thomas to be an essentialist, and need for a philosopher considered in general to avoid essentialism, and to an anti-Cartesian and anti-idealistic spirit that tended to be trademarks scholars would later often associate with Gilson.

While Gilson is clear to indicate that he does not think philosophical ideas and relations can exist apart from philosophical knowers, not easily comprehensible is the essentialistic flavor of Gilson’s above remarks regarding philosophy and history. Nonetheless, Gilson’s chief point about philosophy’s history being philosophy’s laboratory is simply that, once they leave the minds of people who call themselves “philosophers” and enter the minds of other people, philosophical teachings tend to generate like effects within those other minds and human culture that they had generated within the mind and culture from which they had been derived.

Gilson tells this tale chiefly by weaving together two principles, which he takes chiefly from history and philosophical metaphysics. From metaphysics, he takes the principle of agere sequitur esse: acts are consequent upon on the being of things; the actions of things accord with, reflect, their natures. Next, he extends and transposes this principle to human behavior and derives a more specific principle regarding human psychology: We human beings think the way we can, according to our natures, and natures that exist in our minds, not the way we wish.[3]

From this extension and transposition, Gilson makes a further extension and transposition to history, and derives the historical principle that, once we accept a specific philosophical teaching, and then attempt to apply it to reality that teaching appears to take on a nature of its own, leading, perhaps, to consequences that its author never envisioned and with which its author might vehemently disagree.[4]

As he repeatedly indicates, the net effect of this is “the first law to be inferred from philosophical experience: Philosophy always buries its undertakers.” We cannot be wrong about the nature of philosophy and the natures of things and expect to be right about the application of philosophical principles to the natures of things.

In making this last observation, the reason philosophy always buries its undertakers is not because philosophy as an essential relation among ideas buries thinkers who attempt to apply these ideas to reality. It is because we abstract philosophical ideas from philosophical judgments we make about principles contained within the natures of things, because of the truth of the metaphysical principle of agere sequitur esse. Philosophical ideas are personally caused acts born in and from the first act of habitual philosophical judgment. Prior to that, they do not exist as completely formed philosophical concepts. Yet, in writing The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Gilson appears to have been explicitly, if not implicitly, oblivious to the fact that the understanding of philosophy that he expressed in this work was not in agreement with the teaching of St. Thomas and was actually an application of this wider metaphysical principle of agere sequitur esse.

Clearly, in this work, Gilson was maintaining that philosophy is chiefly a system, or body of knowledge with its own essential logic of internal relations that somehow gets into the intellect of a philosopher. In short, while not agreeing with Descartes about the nature of ideas, Gilson was agreeing with him that philosophy is chiefly a logical system or body of knowledge existing in the intellect of a philosopher. Yet, as one of Gilson’s most famous students, Armand A. Maurer, was to observe decades later, according to St. Thomas, philosophy is chiefly an act generated by a habit of the intellectual soul, not a logically coherent system or body of natural knowledge (a philosophy) existing in, or outside of, a habit.[5]

I have taken this brief excursion into Gilson’s reflections about philosophical experience to make a major point about philosophy and its history:

(1) An art, science, or philosophical activity grows out of a human habit to which a subject known essentially relates, that the subject known helps generate and activate within a natural human knowing faculty.

(2) Every art, science, or philosophical activity grows out of the experiential relationship between the specific habit of an artist, scientist, or philosopher and a known material or subject that activates the habit.

Eliminate one of the essential parts of this relationship and the activity can no longer exist. No such subject (such as somewhat sickly bodies) known, or no habit of medicine in a physician, no art of medicine. The relation between the artist or scientist and the artistic or scientific subject known (some composite and improvable operational whole) generates the habit and act of art and science. The two are essentially connected.

While, in 1937, Gilson did not explicitly grasp the nature of philosophy considered as such as I have just expressed it, in The Unity of Philosophical Experience, he had implicitly grasped part of it. Therein he started to realize that philosophy’s first principles consist in part in composite, or organizational, wholes (which Gilson had misconceived as a system of philosophy) existing independently of human knowing faculties and their habits. What he had not yet completely grasped was that philosophy’s existence essentially depends upon human beings possessed of a human soul (or some identical, if differently named, psychological principle) that can (1) generate human knowing faculties capable of (2) possessing human habits (3) essentially capable of knowing such composite wholes in a way that (4) generates philosophy. He had not yet precisely grasped what is the subject of philosophical study (a composite whole, an organization), and how, through a habit, that subject gets into the intellect of a knower, which, then, generates philosophy.

He was starting to realize, as leading ancient Greek thinkers had realized centuries before him, that the philosophical subject is a one/many composite; but he had not realized the nature of philosophy to be a study of such a composite considered as an operational whole through qualitatively different, habitual, acts of abstraction.

As a result, Gilson mistakenly thought that, in writing about the West’s many failed attempts to philosophize that he was engaged in writing philosophical history. Strictly speaking, he was not. While his laboratory and those of the many great historians of post–ancient Greek Western thought were filled with many wondrous teachings, strictly speaking, none of these teachings was about a completely formed philosophical nature. At best, all were filled with still born, deformed, or immaturely developed natures. That laboratory still waits to be filled with philosophical specimens. It is time to start doing so.


1. Laurence K. Shook,Étienne Gilson (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, The Étienne Gilson Series 6, 1984), p. 254.

2. Étienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons [1937], 1965), p. 202.

3. Ibid., pp. 301–2.

4. Ibid., pp. 299–320.

5. Armand A. Maurer, “The Unity of a Science: St. Thomas and the Nominalists,” in St. Thomas Aquinas, 1274–1974, Commemorative Studies, 2 vols. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1974), 2:269–91. See, also, Maurer, “Introduction,” in St. Thomas Aquinas, The Divisions and Methods of the Sciences, Questions V and VI of his Commentary on the de Trinitate of Boethius, trans. with an intro. and notes Armand A. Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 3rd rev. ed., 1963), 75, fn. 15. See St. Thomas Aquinas, In I Sent. d. 19, q. 5, a. 2, ad 1; Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, lect. 12, nn. 2142–2144; and Summa theologiae, 1, 66, 2, ad 2 and 88, 2, ad 4.

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