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The role of philosophy in politics

This is the second excerpt from my Ramon C. Reyes lecture. In this column, invoking the thinking of philosopher Ramon C. Reyes, I reflect on how philosophy can play a good role in addressing political issues.

After the 1983 assassination of Ninoy Aquino, with the country in turmoil, Doc Reyes did not hesitate to apply philosophical thinking to what the country was facing. In “Philosophy in a Crisis Situation,” he called to arms our country’s philosophers to use our skills (I was in that audience as a young philosopher) to help our people understand what we were facing.

First, Doc Reyes reflected on the Aquino assassination, and how it transformed our consciousness: “And so, it was the Aquino event, a moment of negation, which shook us from a certain level of life we had somehow come to accept and adjust to, putting into question our very manner of existence. On the other hand, just as the Aquino event has succeeded in transforming our consciousness and our conscience, we in turn address and question as it were the text or message of Aquino’s life and death, and eventually go beyond it, negating it, as it were, going to the very questions that his life and death were answers to, and eventually exploring other possible responses that Aquino himself perhaps had not ventured into toward a more fundamental restructuring of the economic and political bases of our communal life.”

Doc Reyes then identified the three roles of philosophers in a crisis situation, namely, as critic, as poet, as one rooted and committed to his life situation. “In a sense they are the roles that each and everyone of us must assume for himself, in so far as philosophy is nothing but every man trying to get a better understanding of himself and his worldly tasks. In recapitulation, as critical reflexion, philosophy leads to a dialectic of negation and creative transformation in view of a better future world, transformation however to be effected in situ, to be fashioned out of the gleanings from his past objectivations as handed down to the present by the communal tradition. And so, KRISIS, POESIS, PHRONESIS.”

He describes this third role as follows: “to show man his historical situatedness, to show him that our task is to espouse the limitations and possibilities of our common destiny, to re-create and transfigure the world by fashioning new symbols and opening up new horizons out of the very materials and traces bequeathed to us by our communal past.” According to Doc Reyes: “In fine, man is not primarily a knower, surveying and contemplating his world from above independently of time and history, but a being-in-the-world, one who from the start, pre-reflexively, has been actively involved in a life-world of commitment and praxis, a world of work and political struggle and feeling and value-ing, never arriving at a moment of intuitive, serene, eternal self-presence, for he is ever behind; ever belated in relation to a past that is always already there preceding him, even as he is ever ahead of himself, anticipating and projecting himself in his possibilities, possibilities which, as we have seen, would have come only from his present situation.”

So yes, there is truth, and it is knowable, but it requires engagement for us to know it. The Greek word, made famous again by Martin Heidegger, in the 20th century, is Aletheia—being or reality disclosed, unconcealed. The truth does not come all at once; it requires an effort on our part to uncover what is there. We use reason, the natural and social sciences, logic, our own categories, even our passions, a combination of all of these to get to the truth. Sometimes, it takes decades to verify a hypothesis, to validate an informed guess, but even as we await that, we must already act. The world does not stop even when the truth has not yet fully emerged. And even when the truth is much clearer, there are those who will still deny it for their own interests.

Take for example climate change, a field I am familiar with, having done my doctoral studies at a time when we were only beginning to understand the enormity of the problem. In the early 1990s, we were faced with a lot of uncertainties in the science of climate change. In particular, we were not sure of the impact of global warming as the most that could be done then was to model the potential impact. That approach had inherent limitations. Attribution of those impact anthropogenic greenhouse emissions was also and remains difficult, making it challenging for governments to make policy decisions that would effectively address the problem. But over time, with billions of US dollars invested to narrow down the uncertainties, things became clearer with every assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, done every five years, getting better and more accurate with every report.

One would think that as the science got better on climate change, countries would act more decisively to deal with the challenge. But that has not been the case. In a country like the United States, politics continues to cloud the truth about climate change and prevents societal consensus to respond effectively to this most serious environmental and development concern.

When this happens, philosophers are needed to reflect on our experience and to call it for what it is: this is no longer a search for truth but its hijacking for political ends.

Applying this insight to the Dengvaxia controversy, one hopes that lessons can be learned. This lack of evidence- and science-based policy decision making, the absence of complete staff work, is not exclusive to the Aquino government. Previous administrations have been guilty of this. Currently, the Duterte administration is doing this in its war against drugs.

I say that the truth about the Dengvaxia controversy can be pinned down, but not right away and not in one instance. Our scientists will have to do the work. In the meantime, life goes on and decisions have to be made with incomplete information. Should the suspension of Dengvaxia be now lifted and the vaccine made available to at least those who have had dengue? How do you move forward on the liability questions? How can the DOH get back public trust for vaccination? How will we decide similar questions in the future?

If I delivered the Reyes lecture today, I will surely raise questions about the quo warranto decision of the Supreme Court and the premises under which that decision is made. How did we get here? How did we come to a situation where long-held interpretations of the law are questioned and perhaps could be set aside?

Again, I would say that this is not about the truth but its hijacking for political and even personal ends. You need philosophical thinking, as described by Doc Reyes, to be able to see this.

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Topics: Ramon C. Reyes , Dengvaxia , Philosophy , Politics , Opinion , Department of Health
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