Jacques Maritain

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Aside from the Thomistic community and scholars of medieval philosophy, the names of Etienne Gilson (1884-1978) and Jacques Maritain (1882-1973; his photo is the one posted) may not be familiar to contemporary philosophers. Perhaps their names were mentioned in graduate school a few times, or perhaps students encountered them when studying for comprehensive exams. Yet despite a philosophical climate in the United States largely divided along analytic/Continental lines, Gilson and Maritain are well worth reading even if they are out of current philosophical fashion.

Gilson was one of the great historians of medieval philosophy; his History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages and his classic book on Aquinas’ philosophy, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, are well worth reading today. Readers will not only find writing of beautiful clarity, something missing from so much philosophy, both analytic and Continental, today, but also an excellent survey of both medieval philosophy as a whole and of Aquinas’ philosophy in particular. Gilson’s greatest contribution to general philosophy is probably his book on epistemology, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, which, in attacking Transcendental Thomism, presents a strong case for direct realism. He also wrote books on St. Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, aesthetics, and the relationship between Abelard and Heloise. Whether or not a person accepts his arguments, reading Gilson’s writings is a pleasure, something to be done over a cup of Earl Gray on a rainy day. His arguments may not be in symbolic form, but they are careful, thorough, and beautiful—I know of no other word that is fitting. If truth and beauty are Transcendentals that ultimately have the same extension in God, this may bode well for the soundness of Gilson’s arguments. Gilson also has a book, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, that is relevant to contemporary debates over whether there is teleology in the evolutionary process.

Maritain is less clear, but he is a deep thinker who will reward the patience of the reader. His classic work on epistemology is The Degrees of Knowledge, a book that argues for different epistemological approaches to science, philosophy, art, and revealed religion. Although I disagree with his (and Gilson’s) sharp separation between metaphysics and the physical and social sciences (both were, ironically, close to positivism in their philosophy of science), the idea that different disciplines require different ways of knowing preserves the ability of science, metaphysics, art, and religion to present different aspects of the truth about reality.

Maritain’s work on metaphysics focuses on the “intuition of being,” the sense of utter contingency when we realize that we are held out of nothingness as if by a thread. This intuition of our radical contingency and of the radical contingency of all things is the beginning of the road toward the noncontingent, necessary being, God.

Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry is the finest book on aesthetics I have ever read. Maritain’s connection of Aquinas’ notion of “connaturality,” a “knowledge by love” (person-person, person-animal, person-plant, person-thing) with the artist’s intuition of the fullness of reality is profound. It is similar to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “inscape” and “instress” as well as with Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship. Maritain was also more open than Gilson to abstraction in art.

Maritain’s ethics and political philosophy were based on natural law theory, which puts it in tension with both classical liberalism and social democratic liberalism in contemporary American. Some forms of classical liberalism would accept “natural rights”—how close that idea is to “natural law” is widely disputed among political philosophers. Maritain used natural law to defend the inherent dignity and worth of the individual (rather than use rationality alone, as Kant did). He helped draft the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Good philosophy is never out of date. Although the works of Gilson and Maritain are older works, philosophers should be open to reading them. Better yet, they should read and study them—both philosophers leave much food for thought.