Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gilson on the Essence-Existence Distinction

I don't normally like to rag on Gilson since he was unquestionably a great scholar, but I can't pass up the following comment on De ente et essentia where Gilson gives the essence-existence distinction the status of a first principle, which, conveniently enough, can't be proven but only seen. Tough luck for those less subtle and impure minds like Scotus, Henry and the myriads who foolishly wanted proof of the disitnction.

Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, 82:

The large number of Christian philosophers and theologians, even among the so-called Thomists, who have rejected the distinction of essence and existence understood in its Thomistic meaning, clearly shows that no demonstration is here at stake. Above all, the careful procedure of Thomas Aquinas himself in handling the notion invites us to consider it less as the conclusion of some dialetical argument than as a prime source of intelligibility whose existence is known by the very light it sheds upon all the problems in metaphysics. So Thomas Aquinas will not attempt to prove it, but we shall see him progressively leading us to it, stating from the very demonstrations of the existence of God, as if it were for him a question of purifying our sight until it becomes able to stand the light of the first principle.


Edward Ockham said...

I don't know much about Gilson, apart from the obvious things, namely his unquestionably benign influence on the study of medieval philosophy.

How much outside of Thomas' thought did he actually study?

Michael Sullivan said...


Gilson was familiar first-hand with a vast amount of medieval literature. He wrote good books on Bonaventure, Augustine, Bernard, Dante, and the Heloise-Abelard story, among others, based on a thorough reading of the primary sources. Faber tells us his book on Scotus - never translated from the French - is still one of the best guides (I haven't read it). His History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages shows an extremely wide-ranging reading. I'm constantly surprised at how much he published and on what a range of materials. Just last night I was paging through Bocaccio's Genealogiae deorum gentilium and noticed in the introduction a reference to a longish article by Gilson on it!

As to the matter at hand, Msgr Wippel at least thinks that Thomas has arguments for the essence-existence distinction, including in the De ente, and devotes a great many pages to covering them. I think this is a temptation that many Thomists unfortunately fall into: some of Thomas' arguments don't stand up to close scrutiny, so he must not have meant them as arguments at all!

A couple of weeks ago I picked up Gilson's L'ĂȘtre et L'essence, another book not, I think, available in English. One of these days (months) I'll take a look at it. I've never regretted reading one of Gilson's books, despite his Thomacentrism. They're all worth reading, and some of them are very, very good indeed. The Unity of Philosophical Experience is a book I'd like to get every philosopher to read.

Lee Faber said...

I never said that. As is well known, in the preface to his book on Scotus Gilson essentially repudiated the volume. He had written it (partially by rehashing his old articles on Scotus) before the advent of the critical edition but got the critical edition before his book went to press. So everything is a comparison to Aquinas, rather than Henry.

Michael Sullivan said...

But haven't I seen you recommend it many times?

Michael Sullivan said...

I mean, I'm aware of these facts, of course, but I had understood you to say that despite this definite handicap it's still overall a good book and better than many other interpretations of Scotus. Did I get this wrong?

Lee Faber said...

I've never read the book. For a paper, I read the very brief section on univocity once. It was accurate, but not especially memorable.

Lee Faber said...

If by "many other" you mean 19th cen. Thomist accounts that make Scotus out to be a Spinozoan pantheist, then sure.

I'm not sure a whole lot of people read that particular book of Gilson. I rarely see it cited, at least.

Plus, it's expensive.

Michael Sullivan said...

Well, no doubt I've misremembered or misinterpreted your past remarks.