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The Unity of Philosophical Experience Paperback – Abridged, October 1, 1999
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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About the Author
Etienne Gilson was a professor of Medieval Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, and director of the Institute of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.
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Like an ersatz pope, Gilson speaks ex cathedra, knows all the philosophical answers (imagine that!) and attacks everyone else, including fellow Catholics such as St. Bonaventure, Thomas à Kempis or Meister Eckhart. Brother Etienne hath spoken, the matter is settled?
When finished, our knight-errant have valiantly defeated the Platonists, Nominalists, Cartesians, Kantians, Hegelians, Marxists and one Giovanni Gentile. Despite this, we are not any wiser than when we started the journey.
Besides, what on earth is the *point* of philosophy, if all important issues are known only through revelation, anyway?
The problem propelling the cycle is essentially a category error, in which philosophers attempt to "do" philosophy according to the rules of some other discipline. As C.S. Lewis put it in The Discarded Image, "Aristotle had impressed on all who followed him the distinction between disciplines and the propriety of following in each its appropriate method." Failure to do so inevitably leads to a "breakdown," resulting in skepticism.
So, for instance, as Gilson first examines "The Medieval Experiment" he shows how Abelard and Ockham undermined the philosophy revived by Aquinas and led to the skepticism of the late Middle Ages/Renaissance. Against that skepticism came mysticism like that of Thomas a Kempis or "the moralism of the Humanists," like Erasmus. With philosophy mired in skepticism, the cycle was set to begin again, and Descartes was there to begin it. Descartes's own cycle ended in the skepticism of Hume, and Kant began the latest rotation, "The Modern Experiment," which had still not concluded in Gilson's day but was leading quite clearly to disaster. In each case, the philosophers in question forced philosophy into the mold of some other discipline. So Ockham with logic, Bonaventure with theology, Descartes with mathematics, Kant with science, and Comte with sociology. They found that philosophy simply didn't fit, and so jettisoned vital parts of philosophy, like metaphysics.
Gilson ends the book with a summary and analysis of the cycle and adds seven conclusions drawn from this history. I found it remarkably moving to read this book, published in 1936, in which Gilson makes it clear that the world is heading toward disaster on the basis of false philosophical premises.
I have to concur with a few other reviewers that though this book is excellent, it is not for beginners. Even with a background in medieval philosophy the book was still tough going in places. After all, this book began as a series of lectures to university-level philosophy students, so a certain familiarity with philosophy and the history of philosophy is assumed. That said, though the ideas are sometimes difficult the book is briskly written and immensely rewarding.
There's a pattern in the history of philosophy. A pattern of error. One philosopher's enthusiastic and idealistic doctrine will be taken by his followers to its ultimate conclusions, which then leads invariably to skepticism. The way out of skepticism has been mysticism or moralism. The book lays out how this happens in Medieval times, with Descartes, and in Modern philosophy after Descartes. He does not focus much on mysticism because that pertains to religion more than philosophy.
He concludes his book by telling us how all these philosophers have erred- repeatedly. And in doing so he gives us the guidelines, the principles, of what a philosopher would have to do in order to avoid repeating the same error again. Such a philosophy would not be devoid of metaphysics, on the contrary, it would be a metaphysics that does not begin by trying to emulate an external method of one of the sciences and thus is not subject to the inexorable reductive degeneration into that science--a degeneration that often not just destroys philosophy, but the science as well.
There's a lot here to be learned. The book is very clear and concise and gets to the main ideas of the thinkers it discusses. And it is also very readable. It is a quick read that can be easily accomplished, no preparation--mental or otherwise--is needed. It is at times humorous. It is not very thought-provoking though. Despite dealing with metaphysics, it's not deep, and you won't get lost in it due to overconcentration.
Some criticisms: most philosophers are rather parochial. Gilson is no exception. For the most part, his philosophical universe is populated by Frenchmen. His positive teachings occupy perhaps 7 pages or so. I would have been interested in reading more about it. Aquinas is notoriously absent, unless it was assumed that his audience knew him already. Gilson mentiones him often and in glowing terms but he never tells us what Aquinas is all about.
Etienne Gilson was one of the greatest historians of philosophy in the 20th century. His brilliance shows throughout this work and so much could be quoted. For example: "As soon as Descartes published it, it became apparent that, like Caesar's wife, the existence of the world should be above suspicion . . . . Descartes had endeavored to prove something that could not be proved, not beacause it is not true, but on the contrary, beacause it is evident." (p. 146.)
If you are new to the study of philosophy, get this book for an introduction; if you are familiar with philosophy, this is a great "refresher course."