Archive for December, 2012

December 29, 2012

My Journey with Philosophy: Thoughts

Suffice to say, much has changed since I’ve started graduate studies. Some of my previous posts here muse on the ideas that I would have wanted to pursue in the long run, but acknowledged that things can very well change.

Not the subject matter, of course; for philosophy and religion still lie at the heart of anything that I am committed to doing or writing in the future. Exposing oneself to the literature of the field really changes one’s perspective: for instance, some of what I’ve already read led me to deconstruction, while others have led me to more “analytic” (though I disdain the distinction, as if continental philosophy is not analytical in itself) means. Still others have also led me outside the contours of what is generally considered “conventional” philosophy, well into sociology and anthropology, specifically cultural studies, memory studies and systems theory.

Well and good, I think, so much so that I consider these excursions to be very beneficial to how I can articulate what interests me at this time. Some observations:

(1) It seems that, over and against critics pouncing on the perceived “uselessness” and the “aloofness” of it, philosophy still holds a very prominent (I daresay essential) place in any kind of thinking, whether it be “pure” philosophy or even in the social sciences. I guess tracing the contours of the philosophical core of any kind of thinking about society and social relations has to take into account the frame that philosophical discourse provides, or, to put it plainly, why we say what we say. The mere rejection of philosophy and philosophical discourse is tantamount to the very exclusivism that enlightenment-era science perpetuates. Philosophical discourse provides the frame of reference for any data, for example, that is laid out against the problematic, and how that data fits in the background theory of any problem. Philosophical discourse, simply put, is an ordering of data in a coherent manner, over against the backdrop of a larger context. I think the cardinal problem with philosophy starts when we have a preconception of philosophy (that it is “high up in the clouds,” or that it does not concern itself with the empirical), and then proceed to cast that conception of philosophy as a blanket concept, handy for criticism.

(2) Which leads me to my second point: that of the horrendous misuse of language and the forgetfulness of the context in which words are uttered. I cannot reiterate Wittgenstein’s point here more forcefully: that (philosophical) problems arise when language “goes on holiday.” This concern, I can even say obsession, with context has led me to love linguistics and language studies, which I think figures in quite well with what I want to do in the future. For I think that problems, personal and social, stem from the grave misrepresentation of language, how we use language, and ultimately, how we receive whatever is uttered to us. To be sure, contexts and background ontologies are hardly evident in ordinary discourse; what I man to say here is that in the configuration of the public space where interlocutors are able to present their stands in a way that implies communicability, people tend to forget the irreducibility of concepts and instead use words as “blanket concepts.” What I am concerned with is not the normativity of public discourse, but the awareness of the radical incommensurability of discourses that allow for the multiplicity of rationalities to come to the fore. Can discourse – especially in the realm of policy-making – allow for a space where incommensurability is safeguarded? I understand that I am broaching upon liberal multiculturalism here; I intend to avoid that pitfall by stating that what I am concerned with is the semantic construction of rationalities that are made evident in the public sphere, and how “language going on holiday” negates this semantic construction by immediately proposing a normative discourse, such as multiculturalism. This, more properly, is my “philosophical frame:” a frame that looks into the semantic construction of culture and society in order to take into account the radical alterity of our interlocutors. Thus, translation and cultural criticism arise as categories of study, how cultures and societies are constructed and reconstructed according to how they use language – that is, an endless hermeneutic.

(3) This complicates my issue even further: what about religion? To be sure, religion operates with its own “language-game,” (and I am guilty of using this as a blanket concept) with the inclusion of the category of transcendence within the frame of discourse. Accentuated by more recent debates regarding the place of religion in the public sphere, I think religion deserves its sui generis category of study. Firstly, because religion as an area of study is becoming more and more of the “in thing” with the academia; secondly, (which is why the first reason is what it is) the power that religion exerts in the public sphere – and consequently, how we use and misuse language – is phenomenal, and in itself deserves our attention and study; thirdly, and this is a simple fact, I am a believer, and that my being part of the faith community compels me to affirm that communal solidarity by committing to its precepts. Through the years it has proven itself time and time again: religion forms the human person, whether for better or for worse. I am interested in how religion exerts its power on the semantic construction of culture and society, how the extensive symbolic constellation that religion employs allows for the flourishing of a culture, or its opposite. I understand that I might be committing to a functionalist treatment of religion; but at this level, there is no choice but to commit to it. Such is the consequence, I think, of an academic environment that is largely influenced by the enlightenment ideal of “no emotions allowed.”

(4) Which leads me to my final point: that of my own faith conviction. It is sad indeed that the academic world disdains the realm of feeling and faith, as I they can both be lumped together, depriving them of any objectivity and validity. I wholeheartedly disagree with the putative treatment of the academia towards feelings: I think it is the driving force behind any academic undertaking, let alone a study on religion, as if faith conviction can be separated from religious practice. I guess this is but another consequence of our misuse of language and how we lump concepts together to form what we think is a coherent network of ontologies. Which leads me back to my first point: this is where philosophy comes in, for it allows for such preconceptions to be included within the nexus of interpretation, namely, phenomenology. And I cannot deny my own indebtedness to the education that I have received from Ateneo, which is largely (though I have reservations of calling it as such for fear of committing something I am against) phenomenological, and for it I am more than grateful: “driving home the context,” as it were. That being said, I guess what I am trying to put forward is that I am operating within my own faith conviction, with all its joys and struggles, and that I am bringing all of these in what I love doing, namely research, not only for myself but for others. Whether I have succeeded in staying true to that commitment or not, I am sure I have, on countless occasions, failed. But that that is why, I think, I still believe, for in faith lies redemption.

Simply put, philosophy allows me to study religion in a way that does justice to the totality of the religious experience (that is, including my own faith commitment), and this commitment leads me outside the realm of “academic” or “formal” philosophy, well into its more sociological, i.e., linguistic implications. And how is this possible? – Only through the primacy of experience. Which is why I think philosophy cannot but branch out into the empirical side of experience, namely, more qualitative and quantitative methods. Wittgenstein, Quine, some Japanese thinkers, Ricoeur, Marion, and Levinas (and to a certain extent Derrida) all figure in my attempt to struggle with the reality of religious experience. These form a “core” that I hope could employ research methods that are measurable. This, in turn, would hopefully lead to a more nuanced understanding of our place in this world, and how we might live with and for others in just institutions, to quote Ricoeur. In this sense, philosophy now is actually the most grounded of all disciplines, because it looks at experience in the context of the totality, which it admits can never be known fully.

Some concluding notes:

(1) I have come to appreciate the empirical side of things, as it were, as necessary data in interpreting our experience of the world. We cannot avoid it. I think that the perceived disdain of so-called “theoreticians” of the importance of empirical data only shows their lack of critical thinking, and thus, an assent to the very distinction of the enlightenment (which in itself is also wrong; a caricature of the enlightenment at its best): that philosophy does not concern itself with the world, but with ideas, and that sciences are the “way to go.” Denying the importance of the empirical is just another rebellious tendency, I think, like that of a self-entitled, unappreciated teenager. If one is committed to understanding the world, one has to be open to the different ways of understanding it. Any exclusivism forgets the dynamism of human experience. I guess I have Ricoeur to thank for this attitude.

(2) Graduate studies is an exciting time; for you get to explore the multi-faceted dimension of human experience, and how people have tried understanding it, but always falling short of the ideal, as it were. Those who think that graduate studies is about proving that their theory is rock solid and perfect are missing the point. The learning process is like learning a language: you won’t know whether you are using words right until you are told they are wrong in their appropriate context. It is, in the final analysis, all about one’s wrongness in things. And, following Wittgenstein (this time the early Wittgenstein), “only then can one see the world aright.”

———-

And I’m just in the first year of my graduate studies. Oh, what exciting times. I am more than elated in thinking about the possibility of opening up to more disciplines and approaches. There is no earthly joy compared to learning new things. Only one joy surpasses everything: following Heidegger (surprisingly), that of the joy of being loved.

And this whole philosophical journey, as I am more than willing to commit to in all its unpredictability and possibility, is a product of that love, a love that never ends. And there can be no other appropriate response to that joy but praise and thanks.

December 28, 2012

Hiking: Pico de Loro

Slide. You can do it. It only takes the guts of a feeble-minded simpleton to slide. Now is the time. The softness of the breeze around my thighs constrict the sweat that continuously pours down from god-knows-where; the clouds hover aimlessly near my cheeks, drenching it gently with minuscule raindrops that feel like a torrential downpour of saliva from your least-favorite high school teacher.

We are going down from the summit.

The sight is weak – there are still a few hundred paces before resting, and the sun, for all it cares, does not bother obscuring the horizon with its absence. High breaths, low breaths, catching breaths, long breaths. Breaths that smell like saliva and empty stomachs. Nothing but water for the last two hours. Catching up with the lost tribe up front; the darkness creeps like smoldering lava. We have lost them. Q! The leader in the distance bellows. Q! We reply. We can reach them; just traverse this last assault – a grand staircase of slippery rocks. Quickly, they said, for we do not want to be left out in the dark. Does anybody need a light? No need for it; somebody trips, crap, cramps. Hold my phone for the light. We all need light; just the one up front – me? – we trust you. Shuttles and scuffles, the pace quickens as the nightly jungle emerges out of the light into the darkness; the leaves crowd the air, the tones of cider and termite-infested wood populate the senses. The tremendous assault on the senses can be barely relished as the race against nature picks up speed. Shouts. Sighs: we are finally out.

And we cannot see the mountain. The trip is over; back to this.

——–

My friend mutters: hiking takes away all the stress of waking life – you focus yourself on the trail. I cannot but agree. The trail was magnificently laid out; packets of fresh air opening up to the vast horizon of rolling treetops sitting on the slopes of the numerous mountains that surround us, the occasional hole on the canopy, making for some quite magnificent views of the forest floor, golden brown from all the lushness of the environment.

From the trees out come a scene reserved for the eyes of the mountain gods; a grassland swaying with the sea breeze, like soldiers in a trance, as the windswept sea reaches your taste buds; yes, it is possible to taste the sea from up there. The deafening sound of wind rushing all around you enchants your feet to slow down and feel the moment – a moment of complete deference to the weight of the world, as if standing atop a mountain negates the burdens of living.

Perhaps, a glimpse into our pre-lapsarian condition: the Garden of Eden; the emptiness of space in the comfort of breathing in fresh air, looking into the horizon with no end, at the end of the world of sense, when the senses cannot take any more magnificence. The saturation of the scene is subtle enough to calm you down to silence. Truly, standing outside the margins of the discernible – transcendence.

——–

I now can tell why people fall madly in love with hiking, for they can taste the suppleness of being, even for just a moment.

December 24, 2012

The Strangeness of God: Merry Christmas!

Recently I’ve gotten a copy of Archbishop Rowan WIlliams’ book on C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” entitled “Lion’s World: A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia,” and suffice to say that I have immensely enjoyed Williams’ explication and interpretation of Lewis’s so-called “theological” themes, and I’m just in the first few pages! Though not entirely about Christmas, a lot of what WIlliams has to say in the first few pages touched a very profound insight of Lewis’s that we could somehow connect with this season’s festivities: that of the strangeness of God.

Certainly, how strange it is to reflect on the strangeness of God, when the whole point of Christmas, it seems, is the solidarity shared by God, foretold by the prophets and the oracles, in the mystery of the incarnation. In Lewis’s world, Aslan represents God (a lot of debate surrounds this representation, Williams notes, regarding the representationality of the doctrine of the Trinity) not like “one of us, in all things but sin,” but rather, as an animal; we daresay, a lesser being than the human being. So we return to the question: why reflect on strangeness?

I follow Williams’ cue, saying that Lewis’s representation of God as Aslan removes all kinds of familiarity we have of a God who went down to us, on this day, to be with us and our sinfulness. And haven’t we become too accustomed to rely on the simple but profound truth that God is with us that it loses all its luster and glory?

And certainly we see this in our representation of Christmas, where the madness of God becoming man is shielded by the pronounced reality of His shared solidarity with men and women. This is not to say that solidarity is bad; what we are saying here is that perhaps we may be leaving out an essential kernel of the Christian truth in forgetting the strangeness of God. To focus solely on solidarity forgets the madness and the strangeness of Christmas.

How can there be solidarity without the assent to the complete difference of God with man? True solidarity maintains the difference between God and woman, and this solidarity is maintained through the indifference of God to this difference. We call it simply: love. And this love is made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.

Such was this strange occurrence more than 2 000 years ago: so strange that Shepherds were drawn into the silent manger, to behold a child; so strange that all “went according to plan” according to the Scriptures, forcing Herod to a bloodbath of innocents; so strange that until now, we haven’t quite grasped the strangeness of Christmas.

Such a strangeness of the event only leads to wonder and joy. Why wonder? – for God becoming man is the surprise of all surprises, exceeding the bounds of possibility and impossibility, opening our eyes to the radical divide between God and man, and yet is transgressed, leading us to let out a cry, like Mary, saying: my soul magnifies the Lord! Why joy? – because there can be no other appropriate response to this transgression, or this “border-crossing:” just like the father who sees his Prodigal Son “who has died and has now come home.” There is no other joy than seeing one’s beloved after a long wait. Surely, nothing else comes close.

So we actually need to preserve a sense of strangeness in Christmas, for through it, “all things are new.” Wonder, joy, and love are all strange. And Christmas invites us to meditate on this madness and make them real. There can be no other substitute than to love one’s neighbor, no matter how strange it may seem.

Merry Christmas!