Philosophy and Phenomenology: Counter-Narratives for a Catholic Academic Identity

Current trends in academic research have placed an emphasis on the supposed universality of the scientific mindset, which have elicited a defensive reaction from the humanities. On the one hand, there are those who want to show how humanities-related questions are foundational – and so fundamental – and that this ability to articulate what is foundational makes humanities superior to the natural sciences. On the other hand, there are also those who say that the humanities are not “advanced enough” and hence are unable to keep up with how STEM-related research have been generating newer and more radical questions. There is another level that adds to this already difficult issue: the supposed identity of an academic institution – in our case, our Catholic identity, and how having a robust (and unique) Catholic identity can be one of the most powerful counter-narratives in a highly secularized academic setting. The third element is important because it somehow tries to synthesize two seemingly incommensurable perspectives: how can a Catholic academic institution remain faithful to its own identity steeped in humanities, while at the same time opening up to new and challenging ways of thinking and doing, represented by the sciences? These two concerns are inseparable, especially in light of the Second Vatican Council – if “catholic” indeed means universal, then it must also be able to engage with the wider environment. The institution’s catholicity is then judged according to the manner by which it conducts this internal debate, which undoubtedly has external consequences. The discourse of “catholic institution” is not just a matter of paying lip service to the religion it subscribes to, nor is it just about being the best kind of Catholic institution in Catholic-dominated Philippines; talking about it has ethical implications, well outside the confines of the school and well outside its image. In other words, the discourse on being a Catholic institution has implications that can challenge our commonly held assumptions and ideas on being a Catholic and an academic institution at the same time, and it matters that we talk about them in a principled manner, doing away with the usually-rabid rhetorical strategies of self-professed secularists, and avowed defenders of the faith.

The debates are, of course, too complicated and complex to be laid out here. But let me suggest a particular way by which we can give a particular shape to this debate, and a possible novel contribution the university can be proud of, which I think can also help enrich its identity: the university’s rich philosophical tradition, indebted to phenomenology.

Last March 27-29, King’s University College in Western University in London, Ontario hosted an international academic conference entitled “Breached Horizons: the Work of Jean-Luc Marion.” Professor Marion was present to provide the keynote address, along with other well-known philosophers who have had profound contributions in the field of phenomenology, such as Jeffrey Kosky, Kevin Hart, Christina Gschwandtner, Ugo Perone, and Ryan Coyne. I was honored to have participated in the conference, delivering a paper presentation on Thomas Aquinas and Marion’s appropriation of Thomistic thought. The atmosphere of collegiality and professionalism provided for a healthy working environment during the duration of the conference, and it helped that Marion himself was there to provide his thoughts on the individual papers. The other philosophers also gave their respective presentations, which was also well received. Central to the conference theme was the work of Professor Marion on phenomenological reduction, and how his distinctive phenomenology – what he and his commentators have called a phenomenology of saturated phenomenon – has profound implications beyond the field of phenomenology. Paper topics ranged from specific themes on the philosophy of religion, political philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of literature, and the history of ideas, among others.

As with most conferences, profound exchanges also occur outside the paper presentations – in the questions raised in the refreshments section, in between breaks, where scholars have nothing better to do than to ask about other people’s research, and sometimes, heated debates over cheese and wine. Being an international conference, the event also served as a space where different people of different cultural backgrounds interacted with each other. It is in these exchanges that I become convinced that the manner Ateneo conducts its philosophical training to its students is a powerful, influential, cutting-edge, and most importantly coherent way of addressing the issues I have articulated earlier. Let me limit my reflection to two points.

First, Ateneo’s phenomenological tradition, through the efforts of various persons, has helped define a distinctive phenomenology. Through the works of Roque Ferriols, S.J., Ramon Reyes, Manuel Dy, and a host of other philosophers, Ateneo has been able to articulate a distinctive style of phenomenology. Taking seriously Husserl’s dictum of zur sache Selbst, the university became a pioneer of articulating “the things themselves” from the point of departure of the Filipino language. Because of this, the university eventually helped pioneer teaching philosophy in the vernacular, which continues to this day not only in the university, but in others as well. The effects of this development have been felt beyond the classroom: the publication of articles and books on this distinctive kind of phenomenology are a testament to the still-growing pool of literature.

And second, the cultural and socio-political particularities of the Philippine experience provide a novel way of articulating the phenomenological project. One distinctive development of this phenomenological approach is the rootedness its questions to socio-political concerns. Scholars such as Agustin Rodriguez, Zosimo Lee, and Julius Mendoza, among others, have helped apply the insights of phenomenology into the most difficult socio-political questions local to the country. The Philippine experience, however, offers more than just the disclosure of new phenomena; the very act of applying a phenomenological method to analyze diverse kinds of phenomena is itself a novel contribution. The Philippine experience is steeped in a rich and complex history of oppression and colonization. Because of this, Western categories sometimes fail to capture phenomena that only show themselves when the proper questions and the proper method are raised and applied, respectively. Despite the universal scope of phenomena, Western scholars have been accused of being too limited in what they consider to be “legitimate” phenomena. The Philippine experience, and the subsequent applicability of the phenomenological method, testifies precisely to the possibilities of phenomenology still unexplored in the West. One poignant example is the debate surrounding the supposed “theological turn” of French phenomenology – specifically that of Marion’s – where thinkers like Dominique Janicaud accuse Marion of importing theological insights into a supposedly “value-free” phenomenology. In the Philippine context, analysis of religious phenomena encounter less conceptual hurdles precisely because of the different processes of secularization in the country, as opposed to countries such as France. Because of this, thinkers like Eduardo Calasanz and Mark Joseph Calano are able to apply the phenomenological method more easily, thereby yielding profound insights that are usually glossed over. It is not surprising, then, that Calano’s paper on everyday religiosity was warmly received in Germany when he presented it, because it provided novel insights that escaped the frameworks of Western scholars.

By focusing on (1) the locality and the organic nature of phenomenology as it is practiced in the Ateneo, and (2) the embeddedness of that practice in different socio-political and cultural structures, one stands to create a distinctive discourse that the institution can be proud of. In other words, Ateneo is doing something right. If the conference is any indication, then Ateneo is not only doing something right; it is doing something groundbreaking. Not only does it have a clear understanding of the phenomenological project, it also extends it, more than – in my opinion – Western scholars are willing to do. The Ateneo stands to profit not only because of the radical originality of this approach, but also because it has immense potential to contribute to the discourse of what it means to have a Catholic identity. How does this give new shape to the discourse of what it means to be a Catholic institution? – By enriching this particular tradition, the institution can provide a new dimension to what it means to be a Catholic one: to “go to the peripheries,” so to speak, in pursuit of questions others would rather circumvent, or worse, ignore. This new sense of catholicity can be best seen in the burgeoning discourse on interdisciplinarity: perhaps going to the peripheries consists in breaking past disciplinary boundaries to articulate questions that can only be addressed with other disciplines. Perhaps being a Catholic does not only mean being universal in scope, but more importantly, that this universality can only be achieved in collaboration with others.

There are, of course, challenges. Despite the immense potential for knowledge production that will undoubtedly help Ateneo in establishing itself as a premier institution, funding continues to be a contentious issue. It is not so much an issue of finding the money as it is about channeling the money to fund research projects. There is also an issue regarding the lack of incentive for young researchers to conduct research. It is not so much about the lack of researchers as it is a lack of empowerment on the part of the institution. The issues are too complicated to be discussed adequately here, but it bears to be known that fostering a Catholic identity cannot but encounter hurdles. It is a matter of addressing them honestly that matters, and only by doing so can one more deeply foster the Catholic identity of the institution. It is not an accident that one of the hallmarks of phenomenology is an honest assessment of one’s embodiment and temporality, for only by looking at where one is coming from can one describe phenomena in their saturated manifestations.

It is not that Ateneo is behind cutting-edge research, because clearly it is cutting-edge. It has a grasp of local concerns and values, and the possibilities of studying these and contributing to the larger academic community are huge. Rather, the Ateneo is behind in creating structures that allow cutting-edge research to flourish. It may be a matter of money, but at the end of the day, it is never only about money. It is a matter of investing in the social capital of courage, both from the institution, and to the researchers. If there is mutual trust between the institution and its researchers to keep asking courageous questions, and in turn helping foster a community courageous enough to stand up for each other, then perhaps Ateneo can find its academic identity as Catholic much easier to reconcile with its commitment to the advancement of knowledge.

During the closing ceremonies of the conference, the convener expressed his thanks to professor Marion and to everyone for their participation, emphasizing that it was a long time coming, and that it was the hard work of everyone involved. The conference also coincided with the 60th anniversary of King’s, which also saw the inauguration of the Center for Advanced Research in Catholic Thought. It is my fervent hope that a similar time will also come for Ateneo. It only takes hard work and a little bit of courage.


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