Life of The Mind

At the University of Santo Tomas, Logic is offered to freshmen as their preparatory, if not their only, course in Philosophy. Logic is one of the legacies of Aristotle to the humanities and during the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, in his works like Summa Theologiae and Summa Contra Gentiles, adopted it and displayed how it can help promote discourse rather than discord.  Where he disagreed with his interlocutors, Aquinas remained steadfast in his position but he was ready to understand theirs. In the contest of their ideas, a meeting point is reached and from such encounter, a new idea is born.

This appreciation of Logic is lost on our students today. They think that Logic sounds like “magic” and breeds moods that are “toxic” and  “lethargic.”  A minute after they are told that Logic introduces them into the life of the mind, they drift away into impenetrable regions.  Their bodies are present; their eyes locked on the professor but nothing simply registers. Like passengers waiting for their flight, the classroom for them is simply a waiting lounge.

Students no longer get excited by the matters of the mind unless they come with visuals.  They have grown dependent on colors and animation to jump-start their brain.  They have zero appetite and below zero tolerance for pure discourse. Lecture for them is just “talk” without realizing that “talk” is what the school is for.  Talk is a privilege of the academe, particularly the discipline of humanities for which talk is not mere trade of words but an exchange of minds. In ancient Greek, young people go to the Lyceum or the Academy for a talk fest. Plato himself built his reputation as a philosopher through a book on talk, the Dialogues, where he immortalized Socrates’ legacy of talking about philosophy in the streets and households of Athens. John Henry Newman, author of the classic The Idea Of A University, said that given a choice between a school where students routinely take exams and another where students can freely talk, he would gladly choose the latter.  When people talk, they take a journey together. Such journey is the itinerary of new ideas. It is this kind of talk that our students miss.

Observers think that media and internet technology are partly to blame for this intellectual decadence .  Not only do they diminish what is left of our students’ fragile attention span, they have also made them averse to anything that requires mental work.  The general interests of the young are things and faces because they lend themselves out easily. They steer clear of issues and when pressed to comment about them, they would mouth the same opinions peddled by the broadcast, print and electronic media.  They expend little effort in sourcing and sorting out facts; Google will do that for them.  They think with and follow the lead of their fingers. The world has truly become digital – it is a world run by digits.  The word “digit” stems from the Latin term digitus which means finger, the most powerful part of human anatomy today.  With few finger actions, people can trot the globe, devise and revise identities, play hoops with NBA stars, wage war and conquer a whole army aided by the most compact weapon of mass distraction – the mouse.

The catchwords of the present generation are control and speed.  Control is an illusion supplied by computer technology.  With the help of computer applications, their users acquire illusory mastery when they complete a task with the slightest effort and minimal time.  Mastery in the sense of excellence through repetitive and rigorous work has been relegated to a few movements of fingers. With the advent of recent innovations, even these finger motions have been minimized to more minor actions of tapping of or touching the screen. With the curtailment of human engagement and increasing dependence on gadgets, this sense of mastery becomes all the more deceitful. “Smart” and “intelligent” are descriptions that are used now for gadgets rather their users. People buy and use them to compensate in areas where  they deem themselves inadequate.

Speed is kin to control; it is the illusory mastery in full action. People get a certain high when they are able to manipulate or as they say, manage time. They try to multiply, compress, slice time in order to “have” more time. Ironically, the more people try to take over time, the more they feel there is little of it. There are those who text while driving and all the while, are thinking of chores waiting at home. And when they are at it, their minds migrate to other tasks in the office on to another schedule for the next weekend.  They are obsessed with catching up with the time they wish they have at the expense of the time already theirs. Maybe because we  really cannot “have” time; time is not a commodity we can possess. We can only experience time when we slow down and dwell on it  – by paying attention, by keeping still, by living the moment.

Thinking provides us the occasion for this. We need to think because, to paraphrase Plato, life, if unexamined, is a life in fragments.  What we see we see more clearly when they are given a thought. That is how we become more human and our life, to quote Plato again, worth living. People who have been used to living life in the fast lane are merely skimming through life’s outer layer.  They are bound to miss the best things which, like the best sights, are tucked away in secret places. Contrary to popular view, thinking is not an idle work nor is it a misuse of time.  Thomas Aquinas showed us how thinking can be a pious engagement.   There is indeed a certain degree of piety in thinking, the kind of piety that comes with seeing the interconnectedness of things. The ancient Greeks referred to this as kosmos, that is, the order and harmony that brings the world together. It should be said that such interconnectedness does not exhibit itself easily like a red ribbon on a white box.  It is something that comes to us only when engaged with the mind. Unlike the interconnectivity of technology that fuels the illusion of speed and control, such interconnectedness moves as though in play in a slow dance of thought. Kosmos inspires wonder whose glimmer, even the faintest, animates the life of the mind.


Philosophers’ Valentine

The conventional image of a philosopher projects him as an anti-amorous type, his vocabulary too bland for pick-up lines, his build a structure mourned by testosterone. The public mind thinks of  him as an old man given to lonely afternoon walks (Kant) or an absent-minded fellow prone to accidental fall (Thales) or a nonchalant easily swept by flights of abstraction even over a royal dinner (Aquinas). Philosophers too have been subjects of  sour romantic tales.  Socrates never hid his unhappy marriage. Kierkegaard’s engagement with Regina Olsen was a classic case of failure to launch. Abelard won Heloise’s heart but lost his vital part. Heidegger and Arendt found union in Being  but had to endure the anxiety of  thrownness in lives they had to live separately. De Beauvior and Sartre declared their union open and found themselves walled in by the free spaces of an affair that has no borders nor territories.

Despite such calamitous love stories, it is unfair to think of philosophers as strangers to love.  The sweet irony is that love is one thing that philosophers know most. To begin with, theirs alone is the craft that gives the privilege over the title lover.  Think of  Thales and the mornings and afternoons he might have spent in the coasts of Miletus and how he soaked up the saline breeze  and the expanse of the sea, leading him to think that everything begins and ends with water.  It was love at first sight: the vista of the Aegean that shines in blue and how it can be both familiar and strange, known and unknown at the same time.  Philosophy, as we interpret Thales,  is to plunge into the sea and rip its surface only to realize that it is what holds us, its depth and breadth beyond us. Such experience opens up to love, not the mushy, saccharine type but the one that grants us fresh eyes to look at the same differently.  As TS Eliot wrote in Little Gidding: We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.  Philosophy was born from the bosom of love – love in the mode of yearning, love in the act of searching, love in the flow of wanting more.  Boethius would turn to this kind of love for consolation in the cold and dark isolation of  his prison cell, the love which he and Dante much later would call Lady Philosophy.  In the words of Dante: Here we must recall what was said above, namely, that love is the form of Philosophy, and therefore is here called her soul.

A philosopher always finds himself in medias res, somewhere between the memory and anticipation of what is loved. He is a pilgrim, a wanderer in search of home but home for him is not a permanent residence nor a location with fixed address.  Home, for a philosopher, is the event of getting there where there is not a stationary destination but, in the words of  Hemingway, a moveable feast.  The philosopher’s homecoming is always marked by a sorrow-blended joy and a joy-blended sorrow because home is always somewhere else. It has vanished from where it was just when the philosopher thought he has arrived.  Home is the constant departing to the philosopher’s constant coming, hence the enduring space between the two. Such space is the continuum of desire and philosophy is its language.  Like the gap between rain drops or the chasm between islands, that space is not meant to be extinguished because the distance that sets the philosopher apart from home is the only path that will bring him near it.

This distance is the site of movement towards the loved.  In the dialogue Lysis, Plato equates distance with desire, a kind of emptiness which engenders the philosopher. “And therefore we say that those who are already wise, whether Gods or men, are no longer lovers of wisdom; nor can they be lovers of wisdom who are ignorant to the extent of being evil, for no evil or ignorant person is a lover of wisdom. There remain those who have the misfortune to be ignorant, but are not yet hardened in their ignorance, or void of understanding, and do not as yet fancy that they know what they do not know: and therefore those who are the lovers of wisdom are as yet neither good nor bad.”

Love known to philosophers is a rapture of desire, a desire that does not sit still in waiting but one that keeps watch during the night and braves the heat of noontime in pursuit of the loved.    It is a love that feeds on desiring but whose fulfillment is always deferred because the object of desire cannot be held nor seized with certainty; one can only come near it in the act of desiring.  Within a philosopher is a vast universe where desire extends to boundaries undefined.  It is the cradle of his imaginings, his meanderings, his peregrinations. In desire, what is loved is seen as constantly on its way, always a step closer but ever farther away and in each moment, desire rises in degrees.  And so the philosopher moves on and journeys through its course: to ancient caves, to dark caverns, to market places, to temple areas, to country homes, to inner rooms.  There is never a place nor  a time where the philosopher takes a day off from desire. In his heart, love of wisdom is a lifetime valentine.

Philosophy and the University of Santo Tomas

(The following is an excerpt of a paper delivered at a colloquium at the University of Santo Tomas.)

The academia and pursuit of wealth are strange bedfellows and stranger still is the situation where wealth dictates the university agenda. While the university fosters “life of the mind” and shared understanding through research, instruction and symposia,  pursuit of wealth engenders individualism and alienation. There should be then  that space to protect the university against the tendencies to turn it into a “professional school”, that is, as a preparatory institution for feeding the needs of the professions.  Hans-Georg Gadamer explains: “The word, education, signified a distancing from everything profitable and useful.  In its elevated sense, the ‘science, which has not yet been completely discovered’, means, ‘living with ideas.’  This should unify the youth at the university and is intended to disclose through knowledge the horizon for all of reality and thereby also to open the possibility of surpassing this reality.”  In other words, the purpose of the university is not just to create doctors, lawyers and architects but to imbue the same doctors, lawyers and architects with the spirit and the mind that will enable them to take on complex issues, to engage in constructive deliberation of pressing matters, to critique their own positions and be respectful of others’, to make their own prudent judgment.  University education is meant, in other words, to transform the individual in those future doctors, lawyers and architects into members of society who can work well with teachers, engineers, clergy, jeepney drivers, market vendors and other members of the polis for the sake of the common good. The world of practical life is inherently fragmented, a perpetual “state of war” to use the description of Thomas Hobbes. The university therefore cannot concede its “solitude and freedom” to this state of affairs by becoming its mere subsystem.  The university cannot afford to disintegrate into an institution of “many specialties” all in the name of the profitable.

The task of breeding this solidarity, this sense of community, this spirit of universality belongs to philosophy particularly in an age when the former is becoming more and more a rarity. One cannot overemphasize the teaching of philosophy in all levels of formal education.  To begin with, philosophy belongs to our nature as human beings.  Aristotle introduced his monumental work Metaphysics by saying that “all animals except man live by what they perceive and by memories but have little experience; whereas the human race lives also by art and reasoning.” This led Newman to remark that we are all “Aristotelians” by nature. By this Newman means that the very fact of our humanity compels us to think correctly and it is this natural rational inclination that must be enhanced by formal education at the university level. The recent UNESCO publication entitled Philosophy: A School of Freedom, discusses the necessity and significance of teaching philosophy in all levels of education, from basic, to secondary, to the university level.  UNESCO, in the said document, tells us that teaching of philosophy in the university level ought not to be seen as mere “doctrinal training” on any philosophical system. A genuine philosophical education “aims to help individuals understand the complexity of experience.  It also teaches us to critically consider established opinions, whether ours or those of others, and to criticize the motivations and intentions behind them and their effects.  A philosophical education is a fundamental communication mechanism, because it is precisely by virtue of its critical range that we learn to see in another’s world view not the expression of a particular and foreign subjectivity but a partner in a shared human interaction, with whom it is possible to have productive exchanges and dialogue.” Teaching philosophy therefore is not just teaching another discipline; it is teaching rather a discipline of the mind that will enable an individual to navigate his way through the labyrinthine paths of human life simulated in the university.  If life is a game, it can compare probably with a giant connect-the-dots and philosophy is that instrument that helps us trace and see what otherwise are dots in disarray hiding the intricate yet intimate pattern of our human existence.

What does it mean to be a university in the global age? And how can the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas help University of Santo Tomas assert its identity?, I then say that to be a university in the global age is to be that sphere whose members freely engage in their common pursuit for a shared search and understanding of truth.  Thomas himself would say in De Magistro, we are able to “discover” truth only if we allow others to help us. This commonality which the university fosters is an important element for the transformation of its students into responsible global citizens, that is, as individuals who see each other as members of the same human community, aspirants of the same fulfilling end and partakers of the same human experience that characterize our common finitude. The university, therefore, cannot dispense with the humanities in general and philosophy in particular, if it wishes to assert its identity in the global age for these are the very disciplines that will help its students discover what defines them as human persons.  It is through the cultivation of sympathy and the nurturing of philosophical mind that the university can help deter the alienation engendered by unhampered consumerist culture and uncritical utilization of science and technology characteristic of the global age. In its celebration of its fourth centenary, the University of Santo Tomas defines its birthright and destiny in terms of building the church, the nation and family.  This is to say that to be a university means to be a living summa, a place that gathers fellow pilgrims in search of that common fiber woven through the layers of differences in our individual lives.  As a university, UST is our alma mater, the breeding ground from which our sense of humanity acquires its soul.


First Philosophy

Philosophy is a government-mandated course in Brazil.  Not only is it a mandated course, the law requires it for all high school students.  So even before they take up philosophy in college, Brazilian high school students have had three-years worth of studying philosophy.

I read this interesting fact from Carlos Fraenkel’s article “Citizen Philosophers: Teaching Justice in Brazil” published in the January/February 2012 online issue of the Boston Review. The webpage said that the article will be part of  Fraenkel’s forthcoming book entitled Teaching Plato in Palestine. The bottomline, as written by Fraenkel, is that the government believes philosophy is crucial in propagating citizenship education. Brazil believes that its citizens will be better off when they are able to think critically, to form well-reasoned judgments, to be conversant in social and political issues and to be engaged in the pursuit of justice through the discipline that philosophy provides them. The program has had its own of critics but one cannot deny the overwhelming support it enjoys particularly from the economically-challenged sector of Brazilian society.

Those among us who grew up in the 80’s will probably remember how it was for Brazil during those years.  Like the Philippines, it also suffered under an oppressive regime, the economy was bankcrupt, poverty rate was at rock bottom and peace and order situation always threatened the country with collapse.  Like the Philippines, Brazil was also able to shake off the dictatorship which used to rule it but unlike the Philippines, it has outgrown by lightyears the poverty and instability of the past. Brazil is part now of the so-called G20, an informal alignment of the top 20 economies worldwide.  Global rankings have always given Brazil the highest rating in terms of human development, governance, education and employment. As an exclaimation point to what it has achieved, Brazil was recently likewise bestowed  the honor of hosting of two major global events: the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.

This is Brazil.  What we find at the other side of the continent, in Northern America, is exactly the opposite.  In the same Boston Review, published on its April 5, 2011 issue, Todd Edwin Jones, Chair of the Department of Philosophy of  University of  Las Vegas, Nevada, decried in his article “Budgetary Hemlock: Nevada Seeks To Eliminate Philosophy” the university decision to phase out the entire philosophy deparment of  ULVN due to budget cuts.  This is no isolated event. British philosopher AC Grayling of University of London and Oxford University established his own College of Humanities in the face of the same funding reduction for humanities imposed by the administration of David Cameron.  We find here a rather curious juxtaposition between philosophy and economy.  Societies on the rise are more friendly with philosophy. Societies in decline are the ones who think it is superflous. Have they lost love of wisdom due to societal decline? Or does the society decline because it has ceased loving wisdom long ago? We must remember that Athens fell not because of Socrates’ death.  Socrates died because Athens has lost her moorings and the only tragic consolation it could afford was the death of the one who cared for her the most.

These things come to mind in the light of K+12 being contemplated by the Philippine government and its possible repercussions on university education  in general and philosophy in particular.  The UST Department of Philosophy is optimistic that the first university in Asia which created the first ever philosophy program the same year it was founded will not be the first to turn its back on philosophy.

First Word

After a long episode of self-restraint and denial,  I finally give in to the lure of blogging.  The decision is inspired as it is deliberate.  For some time now, I’ve been looking for a medium to help me fashion and refashion ideas, the bright and the misfit alike,  with the hope of making myself and half a dozen bored strangers who might wander off this site  become a better student of  life, a keener reader of the world  or to put it simply,  become an apprentice of philosophy.  Philosophy is a frightful term and as an activity can even be more frightening to many.  This is probably why somewhere in the mind of  a devotee like myself, one finds a lurking desire to dispel that myth by dressing her down a bit,  by placing her in some familiar juncture or by putting on her tags that are easy to recall.  In that respect, I admire the likes of Terry Eagleton, AC Grayling or Umberto Eco who in their newspaper columns employ philosophy as conveniently as a gourmand uses salt and pepper on his favorite meal.  I am not saying I can match such feat; I know I have neither the skills nor the guts.  What I am saying is a feat similar to it is worth doing: to wrap philosophy in colored garments, to season it with flavor, to make it writhe in pain, scream with joy or shriek like an angry bird – anything to make philosophy as familiar as a friend’s name.

The blog’s title aklatpanulat speaks of the two basic regimens of doing philosophy: reading and writing. Those two words do not exactly sound like “Party! Party!” or “Teach me how to Dougie”  but philosophy can’t help it; it is a craft whose main tool is words.  Words can launch wars but they can likewise bridge worlds.  Words can wound but they too can weave wonders. Philosophy deals with words because they are the labels of the feelings, dreams, ideas, meanings that forever elude us. Thanks to philosophy and its concern with words, somehow we are able to discover and identify them, no matter how fleeting, and help ourselves make sense of reality in all its strange familiarity.

The point is to make philosophy visible in its invisibility.  Ooops….that’s me backsliding to philosophy’s old habits.  To say it another way, the point is to give philosophy a face one can see so that in seeing it, one finds not just philosophy but one’s self in a different light.  That’s the kind of experience we get when we stand before a mirror; when it is clear, the mirror shows not only itself but ourselves. Philosophy does better; it discloses not only us but a better understanding of who we are.

Today, February 4, 2012, is my birthday as a netizen. After some struggle and dillydallying, I finally let myself  in the blogosphere. I wonder what it took the ancients to start with their cave walls, papyrus and sheepskins.