Why Philosophy

It would seem very likely that many persons who were present at the last commencement ceremonies of the University of the Philippines were unaware of it; but on April 27, 2014, the UP made history. For the first time in its one hundred six years of existence it gave its first doctoral degree in Philosophy. This event is also historical in another way: the graduate is a woman and this makes her the first woman Doctor of Philosophy of UP. She happens to be my sister.

To appreciate the significance of this event, one must know that the oldest universities in the world, like that of Paris and Oxford have been giving doctoral degrees in Philosophy almost since their inception in the 13th century and they have been granting them even up to our present day. Compared to those venerable universities, the UP is very young, but with this step, it is maturing and developing to reach the ranks of these top universities as far as Philosophy is concerned.

To further appreciate what this development means one must also know what Philosophy is and what its role is in university studies and in one’s life. Unfortunately many ordinary persons do not know what Philosophy is about. They may ask: “What can you do with Philosophy?” or “Can you earn money with that?” It seems that the people who take up Philosophy are mostly those preparing to become priests. We do not value this subject matter very much. But in reality, it has been Philosophy that has shaped any culture and philosophical ideas were the prime movers behind the great events of world history.

What is Philosophy? It is a kind of knowledge but it is a special kind of knowledge. The ancient Greeks thought that a person who knew Philosophy deserved the attribute “wise”. In fact, the word “philosophy” comes from two Greek words: philo meaning love and sophia meaning wisdom. So it means love of wisdom.

Philosophy is the inquiry that seeks to answer the big questions that men pose. What does “to be” mean? What is man? What is a person? What is life? What is human life? Is there any meaning to life? What is love? What is a family? What is society? What is law? What is good? What is evil? What is virtue? What is knowledge? What is truth? What is science? What is work? What is justice? And so many other big questions.

With such questions, one can observe that the scope of philosophy is very wide: it encompasses all of reality and all of knowledge. In fact it gives us the intellectual tools to evaluate any other domain of knowledge. And so there is Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Man, Philosophy of the Good (Ethics), Philosophy of the Beautiful (Aesthetics), Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Knowledge (Gnoseology or Epistemology), Philosophy of Law and so forth.

In the study of any branch of knowledge one cannot avoid having to begin that study with certain presuppositions and assumptions. A physicist, for example, will begin his study of natural things assuming the meaning of concepts like substance, quantity, qualities, number, magnitude, force, motion, lines, cause and effect. Any field of study requires starting points that are not disputed anymore because they are the principles and axioms of that investigation. But these are the sort of things that a philosopher would analyze. In the end everybody studying anything needs philosophy and everyone is in some way a philosopher.

It is interesting to note that our modern sciences, that seem to be so different in method and scope from Philosophy, have emerged from it. The first publication that is considered an empirical work that follows the method of modern science is the book Isaac Newton wrote entitled: Mathematical Principles of the Philosophy of Nature. He considered what he was studying as part of the Philosophy of Nature, concretely its mathematical aspects.

As regards Philosophy’s relationship to the lives of men, there is a significant link. Something we can observe is that any nation that has developed has done so by the practice of works and deeds which are deemed good and beneficial. Developed countries have risen to that status by dint of hard work, justice, law and order, truth and other values their culture holds dear. The way a nation acts depends on the way its people think: it depends on their philosophy. Man acts based on what he knows. To act well, a man needs a good philosophy. He needs wisdom. We need wisdom.

Could it be that we Filipinos have neglected philosophy? Or perhaps we live according to a philosophy that is not adequate for our development? Or do we even have one? It took our State University a century to produce its first doctorate in Philosophy. This is indeed a welcome and a historic event. It’s a first step in a long journey and we must make many more.


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