Learning Western Philosophy at the University of Santo Tomas

As we know, philosophy is Greek by origin.  The word philosophy itself is of Greek pedigree.  The whole Western civilization was born and cradled in Greece and much of the things we now know and see are part of this Greek legacy which the Philippines received by virtue of the Western expansion into our shores in 1521.  We know from our basic world history that Spanish culture, like others in most parts of Europe, was a by-product of Latin culture which is itself a progeny of the Greek culture. Jose Rizal himself, our national hero, was a huge fan of Greek poetry and literature as shown in his winning play El Consejo de los Dioses written in 1879 and awarded grand prize in the 1880-1881 literary contest sponsored by the Liceo Artistico Literario de Manila to commemorate the death of Cervantes.  The said piece, we should remember, was written when Rizal was still student of Ateneo, a school’s name which was taken from the Greek term athenaion (or atheneum in Latin), a temple of Athena, where Greek poets used to gather and read their works in her honor. Other schools which identify themselves as academy or liceo (lyceum) are also using names of Greek vintage.  Academy is a school associated with the Greek philosopher Plato and lyceum takes from the learning hub put up by another Greek philosopher and Plato’s student, Aristotle.  Even the Catholic church to which the majority of Filipinos belong is a beneficiary of Greek thinking.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the scholarly patron of the university, nourished himself from the genius of the ancient Greek intellectual giants.

When we use the term philosophy therefore, we have in mind Western philosophy, the kind of philosophy we inherited from the Greeks.  We need to use the qualification “western” in order to distinguish it from another breed of philosophy called “eastern” philosophy which is a way of thinking that germinate not from the West but in places like Asia, India and the Middle East.  Unlike its counterpart in the West, Eastern philosophy developed through closer kinship to religion and ethical life. It does not rely on heavy intellectualization and is given more to poetry and cultivation of a life lived according to an enlightened way.  The Western tradition however banks strongly on abstraction and chasing after ideas, which invariably are also referred to as form, theory, concept, or first principle or universals. Whereas the West emphasizes “grasping” of an idea, the East underscores “surrender.”  While the West puts premium on the mind, the East pays more attention to the heart. The West takes pride in being logical; the East finds pleasure in being spiritual. It may even be said that while for the West philosophy is love of wisdom, for the East it is more like the wisdom of love.

This is not to say that philosophy can be dissected into regions or geographic locations. In a school setting, the distinction between East and West is suggested merely as guide for academic discussion.  One thing we must emphasize about philosophy is its being universal, that is, it is something that is common and shared by all.  The desire to know belongs to us all as human persons , says Aristotle. That is one thing that binds us as members of one human community.  To promote philosophy therefore is to enhance appreciation of this natural patrimony of our common humanity.  The line drawn between the East and the West is purely a pedagogical tool.  Deep down, whether the person is Eastern or Western, as long as there is genuine desire to know and dialogue, there is philosophy in action.

The decision to begin our study of philosophy from the Western tradition is not arbitrary.  It is not even a decision for us to make. As suggested earlier, by virtue of our conquest, we were annexed by the Western powers around 1521 and since then, became more kindred to their influence instead of our Oriental and Malayan roots. Western philosophy is part of our endowment as members of a University founded on humanistic aspirations.  The figures that stand on the precipice of the Main Building testify to this.  The goal of studying philosophy is not really to make us philosophers or philosophy majors much less clones of the leading figures of Western philosophy but to make us philosophical, that is, to make us active shareholders and able participants in the creation, protection and cultivation of the common heritage of values, attitudes and beliefs that affirm our common humanity.  Such common heritage is what we call wisdom.  At the end of the day, it does not really matter whether one begins from the East or from the West because genuine philosophy always leads one to a path that meets the other. We seek and name it in different ways but deep down, true wisdom is one.


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