Some students regard philosophy as the most irrelevant of subjects. This is probably so because the ideas we teach them are foreign ideas which are alien to our Filipino experience.
One prevalent theory for this general feeling of the irrelevance of philosophy to our practical lives is that, in the over two thousand years that men have philosophised, philosophers have not agreed on any definitive answers to the philosophical questions. There appear to be as many answers to the questions as there are philosophers who have proposed answers to them. Hence, to many a common man, philosophy seems to be an exercise in futility. I do not agree with this thesis.
Many of the original problems of philosophy have in fact already been answered—or the way to their answers has in fact already been given. Note that the ancients asked themselves, ‘What is the world made of?’, and gave various answers to this question.
‘Water’, said Thales.¹ ‘The Boundless’, said Anaximander.² ‘Fire’, according to Heraclitus.³ ‘The atoms and the void’, answered Leucippus and Democritus.⁴ And yet today, almost all—if not all—physics textbooks are in agreement as to the ultimate, or at least the penultimate, constituents of matter.
But it may be remarked that it was physics, not philosophy, which answered that question. In reply, we can only say that, formerly, physics was a branch of philosophy. It was then called natural philosophy. It just happens that when a philosophical problem is answered—or nearly answered—it ceases to be a philosophical problem. The discipline is taken over by a new-born science.
Who now thinks that the sun, the stars, and the planets are carried in their heavenly courses by intelligences? Science tells us it is gravity—or some curvature in the Space-Time continuum—that is responsible for the motions of the heavenly bodies. People once thought that diseases were caused by demons and angry spirits. Today, practically everyone believes that they are caused by germs or other physical malfunctioning. It used to be thought that earthquakes were caused by giant animals moving under the earth. Now we know they are caused by movements of the earth’s crust. Storms and lightning, as well as wars and pestilences, used to be blamed on the gods. Today, we are wont to explain them in terms of natural causes. The question of the origin of man has been answered to the satisfaction of most scientists and philosophers as due to the mechanism of evolution theorised by Darwin,⁵ Mendel,⁶ and others.
Even the beginning of the universe is no longer regarded as unanswerable in principle and the consensus among scientists and philosophers appears to be that the world did not begin according to the literal account given by the first chapters of Genesis.⁷ Much of the human psyche and man’s consequent behaviour have been explained and mapped by psychology, and a great deal of our social behaviour has been clarified by sociology.
The problem of the nature of Space and Time and their relation to the physical world have been greatly enlightened by the General Theory of Relativity, which, incidentally, I believe decisively—that is, as decisively as is possible at this point, at any rate—answers the question of whether the world is mind-dependent or possesses a reality outside of the perceiving mind; whether causal laws are happenstances, as Hume claimed,⁸ or proceed from a category of the mind, as Kant believed,⁹ or are due to the geometrical structure of Space-Time as Relativity itself suggests,¹⁰ and are, therefore, objective.
Philosophy is relevant and not a waste of time provided we take care to make it relevant to the student’s personal concerns. There has to be a balance between objective lessons and student response. We must allow the students some leeway for discussions, even if we disagree with the opinions they express. We must, if possible, situate the lessons and examples in terms of the students’ personal experiences—especially their experiences as Filipinos.
Nevertheless, a national philosophy must not be the ultimate goal of Filipino philosophising. We must graduate from nationalism to a more global approach. The next great step is humanism: to think from the viewpoint of humanity. We should no longer think merely as Filipinos, as Frenchmen, Germans, or Americans. But, although this is important, this also cannot be the sole purpose of philosophy.
For philosophy must also transcend the exclusive concentration on man. Philosophy must still step forward and, I think, throw its light on being itself. Being is Plato’s Form of the Good which, like the sun,¹¹ enlightens all things and gives us understanding of all around us.
This, I think, is the course that Filipino philosophy ought to take.
Claro R. Ceniza, ‘Philosophy must transcend man’, in Synkrētic №1 (Feb. 2022): 111-114.