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Dizon, Michael Christian G.

Synthesis Paper
061192
Ph110

In Defense of Context: Philosophy as Positive Uncertainty

Defining the terms. This is perhaps the most important first step in any
human discourse and yet, this is usually the first thing that we take for
granted. We take it for granted not because it is not important, but because
we have a shared assumption that we know what we are talking about, that
we are able to talk about it. Perhaps this is the way we should start talking
about philosophy.
When we ask the question “what is philosophy?” we are dealing with
the assumption that we are talking about something that exists, to even be
able to be talked about. One might bring up the topic of pink unicorns as a
quick and peremptory rebuttal to this assertion, but one can contend that we
can talk about pink unicorns, and therefore have a conception of what a
unicorn that is pink is. It is helpful to think first and foremost of philosophy as
just that: a conception. This is partly because a conception can be anything
at all, not bound to any strict definition at the outset, even if it will accrue
meaning of its own, on its own. If there is one thing that is impressed
explicitly on a fledgling philosophical mind, it is the danger of boxing
philosophy into definitions, because no single definition will be able to
capture what philosophy is in its entirety; thus, our reliance on conceptions
of philosophy.
The use of the plural “conceptions” is a conscious decision in as far as
there is an incontrovertible plurality of possible philosophies. The history of
philosophy can attest to this fact. In such a history we can see broad
movements and systems of thought as much as we can see the minutiae
that comprise them. The importance of a historical overview of philosophy
lies not so much on the piecemeal understanding of particular thinkers, but
rather more on the contexts that these philosophers belonged to, the times
that they moved in, and the particular problems presented to them. In a way
we can say that all philosophy is born of a particular set of circumstances
impressed upon a particular thinker, who then manufactures a philosophy
that he/she might suppose is the best possible interpretation of the times.
One trained in philosophical inquiry might immediately point one’s
attention to a glaring (and very important) problem with the statement
above. It seems to be saying that all of philosophy is, as it were, a “product
of its time”. The difficulty with this is that if one follows that line of thinking,
then a particular philosophy loses its relevance (by which I mean the reason
why it is still being talked about) and meaning (by which I mean the unique
way and sense in which it interprets the world) outside of its own context: for
example, strictly speaking there is no sense in talking about an Aristotelian
physics, because recent developments in the field of science have proven
Aristotle’s conception of the laws that govern nature to be outdated, or even
absurd. On the one hand it seems reasonable to junk Aristotle’s physics
entirely (if one were of a rigidly scientific bent), because we children of the
twentieth century already know that the air does not somehow push along
an object that had been thrown to act as its motive force when it has left the
hand of its initial mover (the thrower). On the other hand, and here lies the
importance of the historical view of philosophy, learning about this particular
understanding of physics from the olden times enabled one to view it
critically, and thus in the first place discover that there is something amiss
about it. To take a viewing stance outside of history (a dubious possibility at
best) is to divorce oneself from a view of philosophy as sequential and
reactive to itself.
To say that philosophy is sequential and reactive to itself suggests a
flux of meaning that would be inherently dangerous to any attempts to
identify what philosophy is, however. It is easy to see how it would be so: is
this description of philosophy a moving one, in a sense capable of dodging
an individual’s attempts to capture it? It would also be easy to argue for this:
one only needs to look at the different ways of doing philosophy (i.e., its
branches) to have an indication that there are about as many interpretations
of what philosophy is as there are philosophers. Obviously, there must be
some central, unifying description of philosophy that accommodates all of its
potential interpretations, lest philosophy run the risk of being dissolved into
a cacophonous mess of (possibly) discordant definitions.
The very difficulty of finding that one description of philosophy that
works for every occasion finds a mirror in the study of metaphysics. From the
very etymological meaning of the word, “beyond physics”, we get a sense
that this is a study that involves something that is possibly outside of the
realm of human perception. In a sense, the object of study of metaphysics,
which includes, but is not limited to, being as being, being in itself, or being
as existence/existing (which are, by the way, not interchangeable; they are
here side by side only in order to highlight the similarities they have in
presentation), is as hard to pin down as that one description of philosophy.
When we talk about metaphysics, we are talking about the underlying
principle behind everything in existence, even the ones that are merely
conjecturally or logically believed to be in existence (arguably, for example,
a Supreme Being). When we talk about an underlying principle for everything
in existence, then, we invariably arrive at the conclusion that this principle is
existence itself. It is the problematic of metaphysics how to provide
principles and explanations for and about this existence. This problematic is
the reason why one can then say that the difficulty of doing metaphysics is
inherently similar to the difficulty of describing philosophy.
The problem with doing any one metaphysics is that a metaphysical
system is always already hermetically sealed; that is, if one presupposes that
this particular metaphysics is true, then it is to the exclusion of all other
ways of doing metaphysics. One might see the difficulty in this when one
thinks about the huge scale of everything that is encompassed in existence,
both what we do and don’t already know. When one reduces everything in
existence to a set of principles (manufactured by a finite human mind, at
that), one makes a dangerous commitment: the commitment to a particular
understanding of everything based on this set of principles. It is dangerous
because it can so very easily be wrong, and that it cannot possibly be
verified by human experience. The transcendental nature of the topics of
discussion of metaphysics leaves no possible room for empirical proof. It
would, for example, be impossible to physically ascertain the quiddity, the
what-ness, of Being (as verb) itself. All we can say for certain about it is, for
example, that it might be what one could call the state of… something-ness,
rather than nothingness, and even then it would be a matter of deduction
and not direct experience. It would seem that the realm of metaphysics
relies on logic in order to formulate its primary principles, by which I mean it
has to construct scenarios using premises that are in logical contradiction in
order for it to negatively arrive at a certainty. But what if the premise is
wrong?
Inherent to the discussion of metaphysics is the transcendental, and a
member of this family of transcendentals is the concept of One. This is
basically the metaphysical concept concerned with what is universal among
all existence, the main shared underlying property that makes all existence
similar (therefore, “one”). Another reason why existence can be called one
as such is that all of existence can be explained to have a singular “source”;
in Greek, it would be called arche. Exactly why this is important is rooted in
the fact that after the ancient era, medieval philosophy centered its search
for this source, as it were, in the notion of a God. In this turn, all of what is in
existence is creation which looks up to a Creator that, through various
circumlocutions, has been called omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and
so on. The belief tradition that stems from faith in a particular
God/gods/whatever principle that works in the same way could be called a
religion. The philosophical discussion of religion is unique in that it presents a
certain paradox: do we or do we not think about it when we talk about it?
One can say this because of the dialectic between faith and reason inherent
in any kind of belief system. To what extent are we capable of talking about
a supreme being without us falling into the trap of assuming we know too
much about it? We are for example presented, at least in the case of the
Judeo-Christian belief systems (which is the context this writer belongs to),
with a particular dilemma: are we to take Sacred Scripture as truth, and
should we do so, how are we certain that is so? Faith had been quite firmly
impressed upon the minds of its adherents to be something that is quite
apart from reason, and yet philosophical thought demands this rational
thinking. It remains that one can seemingly find the justification for the
divine truth-claim of any biblical source only through a hermeneutical
interpretation, which would say that one may only find the truth if one
believes. But we can notice immediately just how subjective this
hermeneutic is. For the truth of a particular divinely inspired text to manifest
itself only to those who choose to or can believe in it suggests that there is
something particular and special about the human being and their capacity
to believe. This divine truth then takes an entirely anthropocentric tune when
taken in that regard.
The experience of faith, as a matter of fact, is another problematic in
the philosophy of religion in that it is precisely that: an experience, as
filtered through particular individuals. As such, the primary asking of what a
religion is supposed to be like as a whole properly belongs to a
phenomenological study. It would be human beings that can talk about their
experience of a supreme being, not the other way around; of course, this is
unless we believe that the supreme beings have directly interacted with
particular persons as provided in Scripture, but this discussion, as had
already been said, belongs to a hermeneutic, the path to which this paper is
not equipped to take. But what is the human being?
The first questions about what it means to be part of humanity came
from the first people who first raised all the other questions (that we know
of): the Greeks. True to form, the questions they asked were interested in
the nature of human beings: to use an Aristotelian vocabulary, what causes
us, what makes us what we are. It had been established very early on that
human beings are physically of the same nature as animals, with one very
important distinction: human being have the capacity to think, but more
importantly, human beings have the capacity to come to the realization that
they are thinking. This self-awareness of thought distinguishes us from all
other existences. We must mark the fact that the ancients were the first
ones to put the primacy on the human being’s capacity for rational thought
above all else, because this is the trend by which all subsequent
understandings of humanity would abide. Medieval scholarship, as we have
seen, suborned the discussion of what it means to be human under the
discussion of what it means to be a creature of God: the question became,
therefore, what it meant to be human in the face of a supreme being, what it
meant for human beings to still exist when there is a power greater than can
even be imagined by existences locked in the finitude of being creatures,
what it meant for humanity to live with the knowledge of the notion of a God.
Modern humanity would have none of this wishy-washy dependence on
the notion of truth as parceled out by magisterial authority (because the
architecture of society by then had the Catholic church as supreme arbiter of
truths, even “scientific” ones). Modern rationality put a premium on reason
never there before: whereas at first reason was at most a tool or a device by
which human beings can understand and observe the world, modern
philosophy seemed to be saying that reason enables one to affect the world.
No longer was the human being a passive entity in the world, trapped in
what amounted to a wait-and-see attitude. Modern rationality took matters
into its own hands and shaped the world according to the dictates of its own
categories. This mighty appreciation of reason came to a head with the
Cartesian affirmation of the foundation of truth as found in the self, as is said
by his famous Cogito. However, Descartes also represented the beginning of
the cracks in modern rationality when he had to divorce the mind from its
bodily shell. The implications of this act, and the resultant transcendental
ego which is capable of standing on top of the world and observing it from
there, as it were, will set in motion a series of revolutions in thought that
question the primacy of an individual reason.
The Cartesian separation of the mind and the body would lead to the
implication that reason is capable of fully separating itself from the influence
of the world that it lives in (an influence that can, of course, merely act upon
the body). The problem with this in a philosophy of humanity is that we are
existing in this world. We know for certain that we, as existences, can be
affected by external factors: we die, we love, we experience. To assert the
separation between the mind and the body is to assert the invalidity of all
experiential evidence as foundation for a coherent system of thought, by
virtue of Descartes’ conviction that bodily, physical, worldly things can “lie”
to our reason. Thus does Cartesian thought represent the pinnacle of a
rationalistic philosophy, where only a priori principles can ever be held as
certain and unquestionable. This will be combated by an empiricist strand of
philosophy, where the reverse is true: the only certain things are those that
can be found in experience. It has its own difficulties as well: due to its rigid
upholding of empirical evidence as inputted via senses, it would have
difficulty tackling the more abstract concepts of philosophy; love, justice,
freedom, for example, would have to be explained in physical terms. It is in
Kant that one can find the first true synthesis of these two strands of
thought, so important in the understanding of a philosophy of humanity in
the modern era. Kant posits transcendental idealism, which in a nutshell is
stating that there are things that are appear to us (which he calls
phenomena) and then there are things about which we cannot even know
anything about (which are the noumena).
Postmodern humanistic philosophy begins by humbling the modern
philosophical understanding: there is no such thing as a transcendental ego
that is capable of looking at the world as a whole. We are always already, in
Heideggerian terms, beings-in-the-world. We are, as had been mentioned
before, children of our context, and thus all of our thoughts are already
shaped by what we can know, and what we can know is what exists in the
world that we are moving in. The emergence of phenomenology is a
response to this. By its very etymology we comprehend that it is a study of
what is phenomenon, what appears to us, what we can experience. It is a
novel field in that it makes no assumptions about metaphysical concepts,
talking only of concepts that the human being, as living in the world, can
reach via their own experience. In a very real sense, phenomenology is one
of the more practical (if we mean by practical that which we can have
primary knowledge of through experience) fields of philosophy, the other one
fitting this category being ethics.
Ethics is, at its core, a system of prescriptions. There is a general
structure to ethics, a structure that begins firstly by taking a particular
understanding of what a human being is, humanity being its only possible
prescriptee. Having established such a foundation, it then posits that based
on this particular understanding of humanity, this or that is “good” or “bad”.
It would then go on to assert certain prescriptions regarding these
conceptions of goodness or badness; it might be something proscriptive, or it
might be something prohibitive, or both. Finally, it will then talk about
principles of application, or something akin to that. We talk here about the
structure of ethics because to talk about the different traditions of ethics
would be too protracted for a synthesis of philosophy as a course. It would
suffice to say that, since as was mentioned earlier any ethics is automatically
a response to a particular understanding of human being as such, it stands
to say that there are about as many strands of ethics as there are
understandings of human nature. If one were to say, for example, that man
is a creature of God, then an ethics based on this human nature would be
founded on divine inspiration and/or the nature of human as a created being,
and therefore possibly owing a debt of obligation to God, which one can
repay through acting in a manner befitting his status (which would be a good
description of the Aquinatian conception of natural law).
As in all prescriptive systems, there is a danger when one assumes
that one system holds precedence above all the others: the danger of it
being not quite able to provide apt prescriptions for the human beings of a
different context. Again, ethics as based on a particular human nature must
take into consideration the context by which that particular human nature
was adjudged. The trouble with an immediate assumption that an ethics is
transhistorical is that it forgets the spirit by which those original laws were
formulated. On the other hand, assuming that an ethics is applicable only on
a case-to-case basis, as it is with utilitarian ethics for example, where the
“happiness of the most people” is the primary principle, is that such an
ethics would then be relativistic, and lose its particular power to compel by
virtue of it being an ethical “high ground”.
As we have seen, the common trend between these analyses is that it
would seem that the plurality of philosophical traditions gives one the image
of a buffet, where there is a “pick what you want” sort of mentality. One
might then look for a determining ground by which one can, to follow the
metaphor, “choose” a particular philosophy that one thinks best suits the
context. In the final summation, one can ask of all philosophy whether it is
“true” or not, and this question belongs to the realm of epistemology.
Epistemology is literally the study of knowledge, knowledge by which one
can assume the truth and/or validity of a proposition. An epistemological
reading of the certainty of philosophical tenets, for example, would then
have to rely on knowledge as such (however arrived at) in order to say
whether a claim is true or valid. Indeed, there is a difference between what
“truth” is, and what “validity” is. Truth as such of any proposition, at least
from the correspondence theory of epistemology, is saying what a thing is
that it is.1 Validity on the other hand is a function of the proposition being
grammatically correct and semantically meaningful.2 But of what we have
seen so far from the discussion of the history of philosophy all the way up to
how ethics can fall into relativity is that a plurality does not meld well with a

1
Antonette Angeles, "Truth," (class lecture, Ateneo de Manila University, November 26,
2009).
2
Vincent Potter, On Understanding Understanding (New York: Fordham University Press,
1994), 3.
correspondence theory of truth, which would have been very helpful in
determining which philosophy to choose, which philosophy to believe in. All
we are left with is at least the knowledge that all of these philosophical
systems are valid based on the criteria provided above.
We see, therefore, that this portrait of philosophy as a whole suggests
a discomfiting notion: there is no one answer to the question of what
philosophy is even to this day. In this era, it seems, it is much more
comfortable to suggest that there might be an “end” to philosophy, or that
philosophy is an obsolete lame duck when compared to other academic
disciplines, which, though they may have competing interpretations of
reality, still at least would not disagree with each other so strongly that an
espousal of one strand of interpretation means the complete disavowal of
another. So if we cannot even name philosophy properly, cannot even
properly talk about that one definition as such that encapsulate everything
within it, how and why are we still able to talk about it; in fact, why must
philosophy then still be talked about?
The answer to this question, one may contend, lies in the assertion
that one must do away with the belief that there has to be only one
definition of philosophy. The tendency is for one to shy away from a so-called
relativistic attitude towards philosophy. One would observe, however, that
this problem seems to arise every time a call for metaphysical certainty is
raised.
This is the heart of the problem of this “relativistic” view of
philosophy. When one makes a stand about a particular philosophical
system, one is inevitably assailed with the question of whether such a
system is true, whether it would hold for all instances, all the time. There
seems to be a radical forgetfulness of the fact that whereas the concept of
oneness is a metaphysical one, and is next to impossible to attain to, the
concept of a plurality is a phenomenologically available one. To begin the
asking of what philosophy is from the stance of one seeking to catch the
whole reality of it suggests a trace of hubris: the very asking of what
philosophy is, in fact, implies that one is, in fact, able to answer the question.
An understanding of context, and where it properly applies, does not
constitute what would be called a relativistic attitude at all. The importance
of talking about this lies in the apparent disdain for a relativistic view of
philosophy (or anything) on the grounds that it seems to not be able to take
a stand for anything. The problem with this notion of “stand”, however, is
that it is another one of those closed systems, whereby the assumption that
everything must abide by this or else it is wrong is made. The inherent
danger in this is that there is always new data to be had, and interpreted. To
take a stand despite context is akin to standing in the middle of a highway
no matter what, even if the “no matter” is a trailer truck hurtling towards it
at a hundred miles per hour.
In the end, then, one may contend that philosophy is not a closed
system, hence the impossibility of being able to talk about it in wholistic
terms. One would contend, however, that the question needs to be asked
still, if only to demonstrate the inherently dangerous hubris behind it, and
replace that hubris instead with an openness to discourse. Philosophy will die
a natural death indeed when it becomes no longer capable of looking at itself
critically, and assessing if it is still true to the spirit of its time. In the final
analysis, all of philosophy is contextual, and it is only open discourse,
through both space and time, that saves philosophy from finally becoming
the ivory tower that the people at its periphery believe it to be. There can be
no answer to the question of the relevance of philosophy unless philosophy
becomes relevant to itself. Philosophy without the capacity for internal
discourse will be without the capacity for external discourse: philosophy
would then end up becoming nothing so much as roadkill.

Works Cited
Angeles, Antonette. “Truth.” Class lecture, Ateneo de Manila University, November
26, 2009.

Potter, Vincent. On Understanding Understanding. New York: Fordham University


Press, 1994.