Arguably the premier Kantian scholar in the Philippines, Romualdo Abulad was highly regarded for his readings of Kant and particularly the Critique of Pure Reason.¹ Abulad’s philosophical project of postmodernism should be viewed in this light.
Despite postmodernism being a watchword in Western intellectual circles from around the mid-1970s, it was not as well known in the Philippines until relatively recently. In 2000, Abulad inaugurated its reception with his programmatic essay, ‘What is Postmodernism?’²
Prior to this, essays in the Philippines did not account for postmodernism’s structure and genesis. Abulad’s peculiar reading of postmodernism was influential in Filipino philosophical circles because he explained both. While many works on postmodernism set out from poststructuralism, Abulad began with an unusual source: Immanuel Kant. A 1998 essay already foreshadowed his philosophical trajectory:
Thus, it cannot be said that my interest in Postmodern Philosophy contradicts my ceaseless interest in Kantianism. On the contrary, there is a way to prove that the true direction of Kant’s thinking ineluctably leads to insights which belong even to our own time. I shall, therefore, endeavor to integrate the two things which nowadays never cease to occupy me: Kant and Postmodernism.³
Abulad’s reading of Kant that I explicated takes the form of binaries. These should not be read as hypostasised concepts, but as strategic devices that guide without calcifying his thought.
The overarching strategic binary in Abulad’s philosophy is that between the via negativa and via positiva, the negative and positive ways respectively. This device informs his reading of Kant and, crucially, his appropriation of it for understanding postmodernism.
Abulad’s binary emphasises two important divisions in the Critique.
It first divides the Critique between its Transcendental Doctrine of Elements on the one hand, and the Transcendental Doctrine of Method on the other. It next demarcates the former along the lines of what can and cannot be known. In the Critique, the boundary between Kant’s ‘country of truth’ and ‘stormy ocean’ falls at the end of the Transcendental Logic Analytic, before the Transcendental Logic Dialectic.⁴ Abulad considers the first general division of the Critique of Pure Reason as the via negativa, and as a necessary condition or the via positiva of the second general division. Similarly, he treated Kant’s thesis on the knowable as his via positiva, and his thesis on what is unknowable as his via negativa.
Building on these divisions, Abulad’s reading of Kant established two important premises in his thought.
The first premise was the importance of making a critique as radical as Kant’s to wipe the slate clean and of building a new consciousness on this foundation. The second concerned the necessity of evaluating the faculty of reason to establish the limits of knowledge, which should inform action. Abulad would later apply these premises, drawn from his reading of Kant, to postmodernism.⁵
Paolo Bolaños observed that Abulad’s essays tended to take readers with him on ‘a journey back to the history of philosophy of his own peculiar telling, that is, his own philosophical Denkbild, often a fusion of horizons between the East and the West, but always Abulad’s own constellation of concepts borrowed from the history of thought.’⁶
This ‘peculiar telling’ was the foam from which his theory of postmodernism arose. One also finds therein Abulad’s two peculiar premises based on his binary of the via negativa and via positiva. Thus, Abulad replicated the structure of his reading of Kant in his reading of what he called postmodernism. That is, Abulad’s account of postmodernism is also structured along the lines of the via negativa and via positiva.
Abulad’s postmodernism sprouted from the rubble in the aftermath of Kant’s devastating critique. In 2011, going beyond describing the German professor as its pioneer,⁷ Abulad finally presented Kant as the father of postmodernism, just as Descartes was the father of modern philosophy.⁸ Abulad’s contributions to Filipino philosophy can be assessed using the conditions he set out in his own writings on this topic. It must be a conscious, original, authentically Filipino attempt at academic philosophy. ‘Filipino philosophy is Filipino,’ as he put it tersely.⁹
By his own criteria, Abulad’s work on continental philosophy, his idiosyncratic reading of Kant’s postmodernism, and his life-long commitment to his country mark him out as a distinguished Filipino philosopher. Born in the province of Quezon, Philippines, Romualdo E. Abulad was a teacher’s teacher who taught at numerous universities over five decades and who never left his home country for opportunities abroad, even when these were offered to him.
Abulad was a teacher and mentor who saw in philosophy not only a profession or vocation, but a way of life. But if he has taught us anything, it is that even the example of his own philosophical method and conclusions should be purged completely and without reserve.
Daryl Mendoza, ‘Abulad’s postmodern reading of Kant’, in Synkrētic №1 (Feb. 2022): 119-122.