Etienne Gilson


Biography of Etienne Gilson

Étienne Gilson (13 June 1884 – 19 September 1978) was a French Neo-Thomist philosopher and historian of philosophy. In 1946 he attained the distinction of being elected an "Immortal" (member) of the French Academy.

Born in Paris into a Roman-Catholic family originally from Burgundy, Gilson attended the minor seminary at Notre-Dame-des-Champs, then finished his secondary education at the Lycee Henri IV. After finishing his military service, during which he began to read René Descartes, he studied for his licence (bachelor's degree), focusing on the influence of scholasticism on Cartesian thought. After studying at the Sorbonne under Victor Delbos (1862–1916) and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and at the Collège de France under Henri Bergson, he finished his degree in Philosophy in 1906. In 1908 he married Thérèse Ravisé of Melun, and he taught in the high schools of Bourg-en-Bresse, Rochefort, Tours, Saint-Quentin and Angers.

In 1913, while employed in teaching at the University of Lille, he defended his doctoral dissertation at the University of Paris on "Liberty in Descartes and Theology". His career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, as he was drafted into the army as a sergeant. He served on the front and took part in the battle of Verdun as second lieutenant. He was captured in February 1916 and spent two years in captivity. During this time he devoted himself to new areas of study, including the Russian language and St. Bonaventure. He was later awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery in action.

In 1919, he became professor of the history of Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg. From 1921 to 1932, he taught the history of medieval philosophy at the University of Paris. Internationally renowned, he also taught for three years at Harvard. At the invitation of the Congregation of St. Basil, he set up the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto in conjunction with St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1946.

In 1951, he relinquished his chair at the Collège de France to devote himself completely to the Medieval Institute until 1968. He knew the Jesuit theologian and cardinal Henri de Lubac. Their correspondence has been published. Although primarily a historian of philosophy, he was also at the forefront of the 20th century revival of Thomism, along with Jacques Maritain. His work has received critical praise from Richard McKeon.

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