Archive for September, 2013

September 21, 2013

Telling the Story of Philosophy: Reflections on Teaching and Research

A conversation with a friend over beer (but of course, philosophy cannot but be done in the midst of booze!) made me think of my experiences in teaching philosophy, much more with doing research on it. It also made me think of the reasons why I am still convinced that telling the story of philosophy is an essential activity (or, that “doing philosophy” is to tell its story, and “telling” can have a manifold of meanings here), and that this activity cannot but lead one to tell this story to others. So we can say, even provisionally, that part of doing philosophy is telling its story to others, and enjoining others to tell this story.

But first of all, why the story of philosophy? I am not one to essentialize but I think that one of the more fundamental human characteristics is the ability to tell stories. I was always amazed with how stories opened up vistas of lifeworlds. Trying to remember my childhood, I was never exposed to stories about knights, or about talking animals. My parents, however, would always buy me books about astronomy and the natural world, those of the D&K type. Deprived of the fantasy world, I dived in these books and was utterly amazed (I could still vividly remember the feeling of being awed at the sight of a nebula in the picture book) by the vastness of the universe. I was struggling to understand how, on the one hand, these stars hung above our foreheads, keeping everything safe and watching over all, and on the other hand, how these “gatekeepers” or “angels” as my grandfather used to call them, stand across some infinite distance, as if they themselves imposed that space between me and the stars. Of course I was not this eloquent before, and certainly I did not muse about the mystery of existence when I was a child, but I remember feeling a sense of “being enveloped” or the simple feeling of falling into silence every time I stared at the stars. They were there, and I was here, and it seemed that they were telling something important and fundamental to me.

And so I elected to want to become an astronaut, or to be one of those people in the picture books, who spent their whole day sitting by their telescopes, looking at the stars. But life (and conscious living) eventually caught up, and here I am trying to build a career in the academe, starting with philosophy.

What is it about the stars that made me think about the story of philosophy? Going back to what I said above, I was utterly amazed at how people had this craft of telling stories, and part of that is, of course, telling the story of why we are here. That was precisely the reason why every time I looked above, I could see the story of the stars, how these distances keep us alive in the first place, and how we might be able to understand this space between myself and whatever is outside myself. This was precisely the “story” that I encountered in philosophy: a story of how far humanity has come, and at the same time, a story of how far man has fallen. To speak the story of philosophy is to speak of a distance: of leaving, and of living; of starting a journey, to getting lost in medias res. For it is true, to tell a story is always done on the pretext that there is this distance between me and the listener, where somebody receives the story, i.e., listens to it. As one of my teachers put it (in epistemology class): it is a story of how we know, and how much we have yet to know.

And so I bring along this mindset whenever I teach or do research. I think conceptual learning can only go so far; one pedagogical technique that has been proven to be effective time and time again is none other than the telling of a story. People seem to remember better when people listen to stories (and I am not one to generalize; this is but an observation). As Paul Ricoeur puts it, our memories can be said to have some sort of a narrative structure, an “elusive unity” as a Thomist puts it (though he refers to another thing) – that which forms us, and that which is continually formed by an other. No wonder Ricoeur spoke of “oneself as another!” The greatest value of telling a story is that you are implicated in that telling; every narration is always an ethical decision, an event of appropriation, if you will (and here you get traces of Heidegger’s poetic thinking).

Whenever I teach, I always start with a story, present the lesson as a story, and if time and opportunity will have it, narrate my own stories and enjoin others to tell their story. As I have said, teaching philosophy is telling a story of how far humanity has come, and how far we have also fallen. Teaching in the mode of narrating “our contemporary situation,” or showing that “not everything is crystal clear,” or, as Wittgenstein puts it “how our thinking is surrounded with a haze” not only implicates me, the story-teller, in this big, heterogenous gamut of narratives we conveniently call history, but it also implicates the students. To be sure, I am certainly against the idea that to teach philosophy is to merely “see it in my own life,” or worse, “finally know how I feel or who I am,” or what have you. To teach philosophy is to implicate myself with the Other, for it is the Other that has spoken first.

And what does this implication mean? Of course it is not always a happy ending; one has to confront, for example, the Holocaust, or closer to home, the Martial Law. One has to confront that our modes of appropriating knowledge are not as “neutral” as some of us would like to think. In this sense, to teach philosophy is always being-late: I teach only in retrospect. But it also means that this implication opens one up to the working-through of myself. So as much as my students learn from me (or so I think!), the more I learn from them. To tell the story of philosophy, is in the final analysis, to be told the story myself – to be reminded of it, like that small note inscribed on the walls of Auschwitz: “never forget!” So telling a story is essentially a movement “to the Other,” because you have already been oriented toward it, by the Other. That is why I think, for instance, that one cannot do philosophy or theology without taking the Holocaust into account.

So the same goes for research. Every moment of inscription of writing is always an ethical move; one implicates the storehouses of knowledge, of possibilities still unthought of, and of course, the possibility of being-wrong. And one never writes for oneself, it is always, again, to the Other. And one will never stop writing, just as the Other never stops irrupting.

Of course you would say that we are falling into deep disquietudes, and worse, into platitudes that eventually amount to nothing. For what can words “do” in the midst of extreme suffering (in Zamboanga, for example), but assume the simple and silent act of narrating? I think this is the core of teaching: when your words do amount to something, when it pushes other people to act, and in the final analysis, pushes you to act. Teaching and research are never neutral things. A stake to the good (one can debate on it later) is what happens in teaching and research. The least one can do is to enjoin others to also speak of this story. This demonstrates, I think, the most important instance in a student’s learning, for it is in telling stories that one can even begin to think of the possibilities of action.

Even now, when I look up the sky, and see a world getting farther and farther away from those that hold us together, I still see faint stars. The overpopulation of lights and man-made stars have made it difficult to cultivate and share this wonder to other people. But there the stars remain. At the end of the day, one has to commit oneself to a memory of them. The word “remember” really brings it home, so to speak: to commit oneself to memory is to re-member, i.e., rejoin and retie and repair what has been broken, or at the very least, what has been found wanting. There is no end in sight, like the stars that populated my childhood.

As Rimbaud eloquently puts it, “[True] life is elsewhere. we are not in the world.” So long as we are in this incessant movement of leaving and of living, teaching never ends. Or should we say, our stories never end. And so that distance between I and the Other is infinitely preserved. The stars, no matter how few or how dim, still fill me with awe.

Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck the occasional thread from your train.

Soul, don’t take offense that I’ve only got you now and then.

My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once.

My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man.

I know I won’t be justified as long as I live,

since I myself stand in my own way.

Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,

then labor heavily so that they may seem light.


– Wisława Szymborska, excerpt from Under One Small Star