The Malebranche Moment: Selections from the Letters of Étienne Gilson & Henri Gouhier (1920–1936). Tr. & edited by Richard J. Fafara


Pp. 210 , Milwaukee , Marquette University Press , 2007 , $27.00 .

This book can be read from several perspectives. Many readers of Fafara's translations will have been drawn to them because one of the correspondents is Étienne Gilson, perhaps the greatest historian of medieval philosophy. Henri Gouhier was Gilson's student and protégé at the Sorbonne and, although a dominating scholar in the interpretation of 17th century French philosophy and theology, he is, by comparison, little known to English speaking readers. Gilson was well known to scholars in the United States both for the English translations of the works of medieval theology and philosophy and for his visiting professorships at Harvard, Virginia University, the University of Toronto, and the University of California at Berkeley. In addition, he was an intellectual consultant in the formation of the United Nations and served as a French delegate at its first meeting in San Francisco in 1945. And making it all the harder for English speaking readers to learn about Gouhier, only two of his letters were found, as opposed to 29 from Gilson, for Fafara's translation. The result is that most of the time Gilson's letters are responses to letters from Gouhier that readers have not seen. Fortunately, Fafara's introduction and running footnote commentaries spare the readers the task of inferring from Gilson's letters what exactly Gouhier was writing him about.

Some will read Fafara's book out of an interest in Malebranche. This unites with the above perspective, especially with its inclusion of Gilson's student essay, ‘Malebranche's Polemic Against Aristotle and Scholastic Philosophy,’ which he wrote for Victor Delbos at the Sorbonne.

A third perspective from which to view the correspondence between Gilson and Gouhier is Malebranche's role in the drama that may prove to be the most powerful tectonic shift in the western world: the subduction of Christendom by the rise of secular culture. Courses in the history of philosophy, in the English speaking world anyway, start with Plato and Aristotle and then leap to Descartes, as if nothing of philosophical importance happened after Aristotle's death until the seventeenth century. Gilson's doctoral dissertation and later his Gifford Lectures exploded that notion by calling attention to how heavily indebted Descartes was to the Christian philosophy of the middle ages. His conception of God as the first efficient cause who created the world in a free act is a case in point. Such a God was inconceivable to the thinkers of ancient Greece whose God created from necessity. Gilson's conclusions unmasked the conceit of the Enlightenment thinkers who believed that their philosophy was entirely the product of their own unaided reason.

Gilson proposed to Gouhier that he study Malebranche as the ‘last great Augustinian scholastic.’ (Letter 2) Malebranche recoiled from the Scholastic philosophers, like Aquinas, whom he saw as embracing paganism by basing their philosophizing on the doctrines of Aristotle. It was Cartesian philosophy, with its mathematical reduction of nature to matter and extension, he maintained, that constituted the proper synthesis of Augustinian metaphysics and modern science. Malebranche could not abide the Aristotelian doctrine of substantial forms embraced by Thomas Aquinas and his followers. If natural things had their own natures and faculties that enabled them to act in the world, there was no need for an omnipotent God. Malebranche responded with his doctrine of Occasionalism: we perceive external objects only through the medium of ideas in God. Fafara relates Gilson's wonder at the fact that, although Malebranche read Greek, he never made any effort to understand Aristotle. Instead, he used him to justify his own assumptions. But Malebranche was not the only major figure fighting to save Christian culture. Across the English Channel, Bishop Berkeley, had argued, half a century earlier, against the reality of the material world in an attempt to discredit Newtonian physics and mechanistic science in general whose focus on matter would, he believed, eliminate reliance on God. And in the nineteenth century, Dostoyevsky was willing to embrace irrationalism rather than accept what he regarded as the toxic effect of materialistic science on Christianity: ‘If two plus two equals four is nice, two plus two equals five is just as nice.’ Seen in this light, the enthusiasm Gilson and Gouhier had for studying Malebranche can be explained as a desire to understand that moment –The Malebranche Moment– when a Christian philosopher expressed such scorn for Scholastic philosophy in his attempt to defend the necessity of the Christian God for the preservation of western culture.

Along with his introduction, Fafara's running footnote commentaries make a worthwhile read all on their own. The book's scholarly apparatus is excellent. The letters in the original French are included in the appendices with an extensive bibliography capped off by a thorough index.