Course in Ancient Philosophy

What is Philosophy? part 1by virgilio aquino rivas 

Without having to start this discussion using a semantic definition of the subject at hand, let us rather begin with a curious premise of philosophy, namely, the condition in which thinking may be considered to be philosophical. 

What does it take to be philosophical? What does it take thinking to be philosophical? What does it take philosophy to be able to affect thinking?



We will be going about these three initial questions in pursuit of our fundamental question on philosophy which we have formulated earlier, namely, What is Philosophy?


1.  I suggest that we start off with an ideal premise—that there is no singular most (some are inclined to say) illustrious way of thinking than to think philosophically.  To think philosophically: this subsequently proposes that there must be in ‘thinking that way’ that gives thinking a peculiar quality. 


Curiously enough, thinking is not generally predisposed to this quality ahead of a conscious will to take up philosophy as a concern of thought.  There is thinking already when the individual manages, at least, to entertain an interest.  This taking an interest in something already indicates that this ‘something’ must be involved in the process in the sense of a simultaneous apprehension of the object of thought and the ‘clearing in thought’, an opening in a vision that splits the object and the visioning work into curious entities capable of inducing amazement or wonder on the part of the individual. Anthropologically speaking, we would never know ‘when’ this had happened since the emergence of the first individuals that walked on earth.  What we can best achieve is a reconstructive analysis employing a reflexive method of accounting for the possible conditions that set thinking to a position of intelligibility as a concrete event both individually and collectively speaking. 

Incidentally, the way we have proposed ‘taking an interest in something’ which we associate with thinking in its simplest sense seems not at all too simple as I am wont to suggest.  Yes and no.  Thinking must be an easy way to live out an individual existence, otherwise we would have to agree that thinking is difficult in nature, something not readily accessible to humans born of normal dispositions.  Humans acquire their formal status as legitimate beings within a  symbolic universe or field of language that strategically determines when an individual could claim an entitlement to formally belong in society.  By strategic determination we  mean the observance and implementation of the arbitrary rules of formation of individuals who are expected to perform accordingly as part of the social whole.  This strategic condition also implicates those who have claimed of themselves in the right position to evaluate and determine individuals in society. 


What we can gain so far from the initial (so far, short) progress of our discussion is the reflexive notion of reconstructing the conditions of possibility of being able to think at all.  How thinking could take up a philosophic concern we have somehow left untapped by having to force a clarification in the middle of an inquiry which could not be helped to extend to other nuances which are as equally weighty as the primary concern of our discussion.    Perhaps, it is in the complex nature of thinking to digress.  Or perhaps, thinking is really a difficult undertaking that we can only hope to achieve a permanent unvarying focus. 

Thinking is learned, developed, and observed.  There is no natural standpoint from which we can adopt a genetic principle which will assign a definitive clear-cut point to thinking as the threshold of becoming a part of the human species.  Anthropologically, thinking is not apart from the natural process known as evolutionary selection.  There can be no doubt that thinking is one decisive feature of our ability to survive and transcend even the most difficult limitations of existence unlike those species which had become extinct across time.  What we say of thinking is that it is a strategic limit within which to become human is concretely inscribed.  Beyond thinking there is no human to speak of.  Much less, before thinking arrives at the scene of the evolution of the species.  This limit is a strategic point because it is not a permanent limit which means to say it is not an absolute guarantee that humans will always become humans across time.  Our civilization must see to it that this limit will always be permanent, so to speak.  Humans have to protect (hence, the strategic nature of) this limit from being washed away by the unpredictability of time.  As far as civilization is concerned, this threshold or limit must be secured against time, if not for eternity.  Which is another way of saying:  there is much to be gained in believing that we can become immortal. 


Incidentally, this desire to become immortal has strongly insinuated itself in human language, most specially, in the most reflexive enterprises of thinking, which in the ancient, had claimed to possess a superior amount of intellectual vision ahead and/or over the rest of other forms of thinking that, by virtue of their being too involved in the actual material chaotic condition of physical existence, had deprived themselves of ‘quality moments’ to be able to reflect deeply on thinking, and therefore, to preserve an ideal quality identified with purely contemplative activity.  This activity is known as philosophic.  The ideal was already inscribed as the highest potential there is in thinking or in becoming too immersed in thinking within the desire to keep the ‘threshold or limit of becoming human’ permanent.  Until such time when humans decided to keep this limit at arm’s length, thinking was undifferentiated, meaning, thinking was not bothered by any notion of limit.  It is not strange to suppose though that as soon as death intervened in this set up, thinking started to differentiate itself.  Death started to become an absolute  terminal limit, a limit that was enough to deprive our desire to immortalize the threshold of even a naïve amount of confidence.  The differentiation that began to affect thinking must have started as visceral, then implicating the whole individual composure of the human being that had finally reached a point where its strategic relation to the limit was decisively broken, indicating an irreparable damage.   Death shamed the complacent humans; it, however, helped to form in them a notion of care, of resiliency, and of an effective denial of death in some defiant forms of thinking (which, incidentally, had curiously been identified with the image of Socrates). 


The differentiation that thinking had undergone also contained a strategic differentiation of thinking and em-body-ing, of mind and body, of thought and object, of life and death, etc.  To situate thinking in a position distinct from physical existence offered a consolation to the individual already shamed and aroused to fear by the awareness of death.  The consolation would have to be supposed as closely representing an idea that thinking would be able to endure even the absolute limit of death, that it is only the body that dies.  Subsequently, also: it is only the object that stood open to the risk of decomposition, of the wear and tear of time, not the concept that could render material things permanent in thought.  From then on (although we must stress the reconstructive nature of our exposition here), the individual had learned to habituate itself in the thought that death could be ignored, and so the threshold of becoming human could still be permanent.  It is also not strange to indicate that as long as death could not be realistically experienced except in dying, as long as death is purely an individual experience even if juxtaposed with other individual experiences of dying in the same space and time, (the quality of death as individual is not displaced by the quantity of deaths happening at the same time, precisely because simultaneous deaths are univocal deaths, each does not add further meaning to the common quality of any human death as an individuated range of experiencing an absolute limit), living present individuals have the right to claim that death would not come to them.  Needless to say, what this signifies strikes at the root of this new better informed complacency, namely, the individuality of death because it is univocal and not equivocal is adjudged as a non-experience when inscribed in a collective dispositional strategy of immortalizing the threshold of the human .  It goes to show further that a legitimate experience is equivocal, that is, open to more interpretative nuances, to a wide range of possibilities.  That claim to ‘legimate experience’, unfortunately, is close to a type of thinking that believes itself capable of transcending death itself.


You will notice that thinking, as it is presented here in undulating fashion (not without some, I should say, sensible digressions), is no longer a simple type of thinking that we have earlier proposed to be constitutive of the whole notion of what it is to be human. We have learned the strategic condition under which thinking is allowed to imagine this threshold of the human to be something close to eternity, as need be evoked, when existence is faced with the brutal and horrendous  threat of, say, mass extinction, genocide, ethnocide, etc.  But, really—what does it take to be philosophical?  I believe I have already advanced a tentative answer to this question in the way we have already inscribed the question within the strategic decision to immortalize the threshold of the human against the unpredictability of time.  To immortalize: perhaps, I have posed it too aggressively.  I should mean to say, to render as constant the threshold of the critical location where humans stand the risk of being washed away by the unpredictability of time. Needless to say, it is but incumbent upon humans to shelter this constant against the random nature of time, of life. To be philosophical is thus a disposition.


Our next discussion will attempt to bring to bear this injunction of sheltering the constant in the historical permutations that thinking had gone through via the question “What does it take thinking to be philosophical?”

(end of part 1)

November 12, 2006

Quezon City



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