At 12:40am on 17 September 2017, Emerita Quito,¹ one of the Philippines’ greatest philosophers, finally got her wish.² The 88-year-old former De La Salle University dean and author of more than 20 books died of respiratory failure in Manila. She was a trailblazing scholar, a prolific writer, and a sought-after lecturer. She was also my grand aunt.

Once at the apex of Asian philosophy circles, Quito passed away in near obscurity, quietly whiling away her last years watching reruns of her favourite French game show, Des chiffres et des lettres. ‘I have one prayer to God when I wake up every morning: Take me. I’m ready,’ she said when I last visited her in June 2016. ‘I don’t only feel old,’ she told me without a hint of nostalgia, ‘I feel ancient.’

Quito dedicated her life to the realm of ideas. Educated at the Université de Fribourg in Switzerland and the Sorbonne in Paris, she garnered the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, France’s highest academic decoration in 1984. She was honoured as the Philippines’ most outstanding educator a year later. She mastered six languages (including Urdu) and was a superb writer who chewed, challenged and interpreted Western philosophy for the Asian context with great insight and precision. Her 1969 dissertation, The Notion of Participatory Freedom in the Philosophy of Louis Lavelle, was the first work by a Filipino that the Université de Fribourg published.

Philosophy isn’t very popular in the Philippines. Culture usually means pop culture there—Beyoncé will trump Barthes any day. Philosophy is even linguistically associated with foolishness in the national language. ‘On the popular or grassroots level, the term “pilosopo” (Filipino word for “philosopher”) is a pejorative name for anyone who argues lengthily, whether rightly or wrongly,’ as Quito wrote in a 1983 essay analysing the Filipinos’ cultural aversion to rigorous thinking.³

Perhaps that is why one of the Philippines’ most decorated intellectuals—and mould-breaking female professionals—never gained a larger following outside the classroom. Or maybe it was because she was an uncompromising personality who refused to preen for the celebrity-obsessed media.

Quito rarely broke out of her serious, no-nonsense demeanour while on campus. She wore an ascetic’s uniform for years—straight black skirt and simple, short-sleeved blouse—recalling the nun’s habit she wore as Sister Mary Paul when she briefly joined the Catholic convent of Assumption Sisters in Paris.

Quito’s students remember her as a brilliant but stern scholar who had no tolerance for laziness. ‘We were afraid of her. But we wanted to like her. So we tried. All we needed to do was read around 2,000 books,’ says her former student, Milette Zamora. ‘She never really gave us the answers, she made us get them on our own,’ she recalls.

‘She has no patience for bullshit,’ adds Laureen Velasco, another of Quito’s students. ‘She would have made a very bad politician.’  

Her former secretary Gabi Bongales recalls how popular her classes were despite her reputation. ‘[Students knew that] if Dr Quito gave them a failing grade, they deserved it, so no one complained.’

Those who breached Quito’s stern veneer saw her generous and nurturing side. ‘I was struck by her sincere professional interest in my work in creative writing and my feminist advocacy to expose and eradicate insidious practices of sexism,’ recalls fellow De La Salle University professor Marjorie Evasco-Pernia.

Among my fondest memories of Lola Emy, as we called her, is of sitting on her chequered living room floor for French language lessons with my cousins. Fresh from a trip from Paris, she rewarded each child who managed to twist their tongue to utter a perfect bonjour or croissant. The prize that day was a retractable ballpoint pen printed with the words je ne suis pas un stylo. It was an existential joke, my dad later explained. I cherished the gag gift from my usually impassive grand aunt.

After she retired at age 59, Lola Emy continued to travel and give occasional lectures abroad. She collected paintings and lived on the royalties of her books. The last time we were together, I watched her divide her money among her nephews and nieces, gleefully distributing banknotes like cards from a deck. Never married and with no children, she was determined to give it all away before she died.

Unsentimental till the end, she refused a wake and asked to be cremated right away.

Late in her career, she was consumed by the task of defining philosophy for the masses. ‘I grasped at Asian philosophy as a solution, like a drowning man would clutch a floating log in turbulent waters,’ she wrote in her 1991 book The Merging Philosophy of East & West. ‘I believe in giving Asia its due, and will try to express Asian thought in simple, lucid and readable terms, intelligible to anyone.’⁴