Whitehead and Étienne Gilson

When we received Whitehead’s grading notebook from Harvard University Archives last July, one of the names that caught my eye was that of Étienne Gilson, the famed medievalist philosopher. He was listed on page 53 of the notebook as a “frequent visitor” for Whitehead’s seminary in metaphysics for the Fall 1928 term.

This list of “frequent visitors” is itself a bit of an anomaly in the notebook; Whitehead typically only listed surnames and initials for students who were taking the course for credit, or who were officially auditing. But there are a few other indications that there were frequently many others in Whitehead’s classes who had not officially registered for them. The most striking example of this is on page 3, which lists Whitehead’s students for his very first lecture course in Fall 1924. He lists only seven names, but then writes a note at the bottom that says “Total attending course: plus-or-minus 30.”

In any case, as the notebook is roughly three hundred pages long, I did not stop at the time to investigate the connection further. But earlier this week, in the process of verifying George P. Conger’s notes for the 1926-27 academic year, I ran across Gilson’s name once again, though it was not immediately clear whether he was in the room or Whitehead was merely referencing him. This time I decided to look more closely at Gilson’s connection with Harvard, and with Whitehead in particular. As it turns out, I did not need to look too far: Laurence K. Shook’s 1984 biography of Gilson, entitled simply Etienne Gilson, provided the details I had hoped for. Page references and quotations below are to this biography.

It appears that Whitehead and Gilson first met at the Oxford Congress of Philosophy from 24 to 27 September 1921, which also included such luminaries as Henri Bergson, Bertrand Russell, and Friedrich von Hügel (117). Shook notes that Gilson became especially friendly with both Edward Bullough and the Whiteheads.

The two would meet again when Gilson came to Harvard to attend the International Congress of Philosophy in Boston in 1926:

Another close friendship that was quickly renewed was with Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher whom Gilson never ceased to admire. He was also very fond of Mrs Whitehead who, though raised in France, was nonetheless very English. On 13 September, the third day of the congress, Gilson wrote home to Therese:
I have been invited to tea at the home of Professor Whitehead. … His wife was raised in France up to the age of twenty-one. Whitehead himself is a delicious old gentleman. I have a standing invitation to call on him every Sunday, and at any other time I feel like doing so. (26.10.13; tr.) (156)

Following the Congress, Gilson stayed on at Harvard to teach a couple of classes, at which Whitehead was apparently a frequent attendee:

Gilson’s courses were on “Descartes and French Philosophy” and “Medieval Scholasticism.” His regular schedule consisted of nine hours a week. He taught French philosophy at noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and taught scholasticism on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at nine o’clock in Harvard and at noon in Radcliffe. His classes were highly successful, both as instruction and as entertainment – the students loved listening to Gilson and he loved talking to them. A number of professors also began attending, Whitehead among them. In October, as interest in the classes began to grow, Gilson found:
Students seem to be more and more interested and remain after class to discuss things that have arisen. The professors present get into the fray, including Whitehead, who is to a large extent an English-speaking [Léon] Brunschvicg. You can see how easy this makes things. (EG to Therese [Gilson’s wife], 26.10.18; tr.) (149)

Whitehead, as it turns out, thought very highly of Gilson’s work:

Whitehead became one of the several professors who regularly attended Gilson’s Harvard lectures. And after New Year’s, when Gilson had just given the first of four well-attended special lectures, Whitehead said to him: “You have done more for France here than all your predecessors taken together.” Gilson called this “a kindly exaggeration, but pleasant nevertheless!” (27.1.3; tr.) (157)

Like Whitehead, Gilson also apparently became quite close with the Greenes (i.e. Henry Copley Greene). There is reference to Gilson and Whitehead being driven together “in a big car to the Greenes’ farm in Ipswich” (158).

Shook also notes a funny story about Evelyn:

One of Gilson’s best Harvard anecdotes concerned Mrs Whitehead. It was told to him by James H. Woods, Harvard professor of philosophy:
The other day. Woods asked Mrs Whitehead, who is English, this question: “What do you think of this statement of Erasmus: ‘the English are charming – they always treat you as an equal, provided you acknowledge their superiority’?” (Entre-nous, c’est bien joli!) Mrs Whitehead reflected, then after a pause said: “No, I think not. We are not proud. We are not arrogant. Only, you see, it’s that we have had in our affairs so often to deal with inferior races.” Incroyable, mais vrai! (26.10.22; tr.) (157)

At the end of the Fall 1926 term, Gilson was offered a full professorship in the philosophy department for as many years as he would like, but he turned it down (150-51). As a kind of compromise, he agreed to return as a visiting professor at Harvard for the Fall 1927 and Fall 1928 terms.

Lastly, Shook points out that Gilson made oblique reference to Whitehead at the end of one of his books, Réalisme thomiste et critique de la connaissance (1939):

Finally he focuses sharply, from his own point of view, on both object and subject in relation to the apprehension of existence. He concludes wittily with his own version of the formula of his friend A. N. Whitehead: any philosophy which excludes the real from the object of the act of knowing commits “the sophism of the misplaced existence” (p. 229). Like Yves Simon, Gilson stands by an “ontology of knowing”; he accepts through epistemology the possibility of an act of knowing and leads it into metaphysics, its natural term. (222)

Although Whitehead and Gilson obviously shared a mutual admiration, not to mention spent three semesters as colleagues from 1926-28, it is unclear exactly how much they influenced one another in their scholarly work. Perhaps some intrepid scholar will some day take up the comparison.

We are presently investigating if there are any Gilson archival materials related to Whitehead; thus far we have located one letter at the University of St. Michael’s College Archives from Whitehead to Gilson dated March 20, 1940, which we hope to receive a scan of next week.

How to cite this blog: Petek, Joseph. “Whitehead and Étienne Gilson.”

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