Étienne Henri Gilson was born into a Roman Catholic family in Paris on 13 June 1884. He was educated at a number of Roman Catholic schools in Paris before attending lycée Henri IV in 1902, where he studied philosophy. Two years later he enrolled at the Sorbonne, graduating in 1907 after having studied under many fine scholars, including Lucien Lévy Bruhl, Henri Bergson and Emile Durkheim.
Gilson taught in a number of high schools after his graduation and worked on a doctoral thesis on Descartes, which he successfully completed (Sorbonne) in 1913. On the strength of advice from his teacher, Lévy Bruhl, he began to study medieval philosophy in great depth, coming to see Déscartes as having strong connections with medieval philosophy, although often finding more merit in the medieval works he saw as connected than in Déscartes himself. He was later to be highly esteemed for his work in medieval philosophy and has been described as something of a saviour to the field.
From 1913 to 1914 Gilson taught at the University of Lille. His academic career was postponed during the First World War while he took up military service. During his time in the army he served as second lieutenant in a machine-gun regiment and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery upon relief from his duties. After the war, he returned to academic life at Lille and (also) Strasbourg, and in 1921 he took up an appointment at the Sorbonne teaching the history of medieval philosophy. He remained at the Sorbonne for eleven years prior to becoming Professor of Medieval Philosophy at the College de France in 1932. During his Sorbonne years and throughout his continuing career Gilson had the opportunity to travel extensively to North America, where he became highly influential as a historian and medievalist, demonstrating a number of previously undetermined important differences among the period’s greatest figures.
Gilson’s Gifford Lectures, delivered at Aberdeen in 1931 and 1932, titled ‘The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy’, were published in his native language (L’espirit de la philosophie medieval, 1932) before being translated into English in 1936. Gilson believed that a defining feature of medieval philosophy was that it operated within a framework endorsing a conviction to the existence of God, with a complete acceptance that Christian revelation enabled the refinement of meticulous reason. In this regard he described medieval philosophy as particularly ‘Christian’ philosophy.
Gilson married in 1908. He and his wife had three children, two daughters and one son. Sadly, his wife died of leukaemia in late 1949. In 1951 he relinquished his chair at the College de France in order to attend to responsibilities he had at the Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto, Canada, an institute he had been invited to establish in 1929. Gilson died 19 September 1978 at the age of ninety-four.
His works include: La liberté chez Descartes et la théologie (1913); Le Thomisme (1919, trans. 1924); Etudes de philosophie médiévale (1921); Saint Thomas d'Aquin (1925); Introduction a l'etude de S. Augustin (1929; trans. 1960); L’espirit de la philosophie medieval (2 vol., 1932; trans. 1936); La théologie mystique de Saint Bernard (1934; trans. 1940) Christianisme et philosophie (1936); The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937); Réalisme thomiste et critique de la connaissance (1939); God and Philosophy (1941); L’Etre et l’essence (1948; trans. 1949); La philosophie de saint Bonaventure (1953; trans. 1965); Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955); Painting and Reality (1957); Elements of Christian Philosophy (1960); Le philosophe et la théologie (1960; trans. 1962).