Originally published in the Manila Bulletin, November 30, 2011
I studied Philosophy. Let me explain.
University being an institution of higher learning, I thought it ought not be so arid as a place where you go simply to take the course that meant better job prospects afterwards. I realize that few children enjoy the luxury of such sentiments, but early on I decided that my education was going to be about learning, whether or not I could make money from it later on in life. Education and livelihood, I thought, are two distinct seasons of life, and must not be confused as stages in a progression, with one necessarily leading to the other. I just wanted to know, and that must be a good enough reason to study.
I suppose it takes a child to want to study philosophy, because when people grow up they get so caught up in what works, in what is practical or useful or profitable, that they rarely ever stop and ask why. I think this is because the answers to many of the whys are very inconvenient, and very impractical, and asking the question means looking for the answer, and finding the answer means having to adjust to its implications, and sometimes the cost is too high.
People normally have a stake in any important question—Is science true? Can the law ever be unjust? Does God exist? The science-loving antireligious need science to be true; lawyers need the law to be just; believers need God to exist. They need the answer to be a certain way because their whole way of life is founded upon it. Any contrary answer would cost too much. For instance, annulment is a practice that works, but it makes no sense. It dissolves an existing marriage by denying that the marriage exists. But annulment is useful to a country like ours—it allows married couples to un-marry themselves without doing something so un-Catholic as to consider divorce, and so we stick with annulment even though any closer examination renders it senseless.
It is this obsession with pragmatism that boxes us in, that keeps us from asking the questions. Such curiosity is something you can only afford when you’re young and aren’t too settled in your ways. This is why I studied philosophy. Because I think it’s worth rethinking the ideas that I inhabit everyday. One such idea is the idea of democracy, which we think is the system of government in this country—but what democracy is it if a wealthy few only pass the power around among themselves from term to term, if the ordinary citizen whose voice it supposedly champions does not really have a say in the creation of public policy because he was not educated enough to even understand it?
But this brand of democracy, if it is a democracy at all, is all we have in this country, so we make do with it. What’s the point of asking the questions if they don’t lead to anything? Philosophy is impractical.
Of course it is. That’s why people who study it often end up becoming so detached. Of course, unless you become a philosophy professor, the job you end up in will probably have nothing to do with your degree. There are no Wanted: Philosophers on the classified ads. Philosophy won’t pay for the electric bill. (Does the electric bill exist?)
But it never promised to anyway. Philosophy arms you with questions, with a way of looking at things, with a beautiful irreverence, and that’s more than can be said about many other things you could study. And in every generation someone has to keep asking the questions, because without it we’re just rats on a treadmill working and running without ever knowing why.