The legacy of Ramon Castillo Reyes

Last February 7, 2018, I had the honor, with Professor Randy David, of delivering the Ramon C. Reyes memorial lecture. The topic we were given was the relationship between truth and politics. In this and subsequent columns, I share excerpts from my lecture, entitled “Listening through philosophy: an ethical lens for the discourse on truth and politics”, as they could shed light to many of our political and governance challenges today.

One of the most fulfilling and pleasurable experiences in the 1970s and 1980s of being a philosophy student and teacher in Ateneo de Manila was to spend hours talking to Dr. Ramon Reyes. Two or three times a week, we would have conversations about everything, but especially politics, in the room we shared in the old philosophy department. I was a lost young man then, seriously thinking of joining the armed struggle against the Marcos dictatorship, and Doc Reyes was a good listener. He gave good advice – that why I ended up in Diliman and not in the mountains, but he listened first. I can still see that smile in his face, a quizzical look, expressing both fondness and skepticism at what you were saying, but open and never judgmental.

Yes, what made Ramon Reyes a good teacher and philosopher was that he was a good listener. He listened to his students and their questions. He listened to the great philosophers, and that is why he was so successful in bringing  them to life in his classrooms.  So this is where I began my reflections on truth and politics in a post-truth era – the importance of listening, and in particular, listening through philosophy.

To cut to the chase, the main problem we face today is our failure to listen – to each other, to nature, to our history, to the demands of our time, and even to ourselves. The post-truth world is characterized by that failure, which in turn has resulted in political anomie – a state where disregard of rules and institutions is extolled as needed for positive social change. The response then is obvious: we must begin to listen to each other again, create physical and online spaces for conversations, agree on processes that will bring us nearer to the truth, and find consensus in shared values and aspirations so we can move forward even if our politics are radically different and opposed.

To step back from this post-truth world – by the way, the phrase gives me a lot of discomfort but I will give it a philosophical nuance that might give it a better sense – I propose  that we reflect on three questions, and listen to how Doc Reyes, and by necessity given that Ramon was the master historian of the history of philosophy, other thinkers, grappled with them. These questions are: (1) What is the truth? And related to this, how do we know the truth? (2) In the world of politics, is truth always subordinate to political ends? (3) What is the role of ethics in the interplay of truth and politics?

In my lecture, I reflected on several writings of Doc Reyes on philosophy as an enterprise, the nature of politics, and the role of ethics. More personally, providing context for my understanding and interpretation of the Reyes writing was my experience of being a Reyes student in several philosophy undergraduate and graduate courses – modern philosophy, contemporary philosophy, philosophy of the state, advanced ethics, and an elective on Husserl.

Coincidentally, being on transition to retirement and sorting boxes of documents and giving away books and materials, as I was able to recover my notes from Doc Reyes’ classes, including the notes I took on the day Dr. Carmen Alcuaz-Reyes,  Maam Nena as we call her, gave birth to their first born, Javier, when Doc Reyes came to our contemporary philosophy class still dazed but more inspired and animated than usual to teach us  Hegelian dialectic in action. I also have the notes from the philosophy of state course I took with Doc Reyes when he introduced us to the political philosophy of Eric Weil, which he framed as a reconciliation of Kant and Hegel.  I remember distinctly that class as we were just four students there – Dr. Tonette Palma Angeles who was still finishing her masters in philosophy, Dean Sed Candelaria who was taking it as an elective for his political science degree, an American graduate student whose name I don’t recall, and myself. I mention this course because if there was any academic subject in my undergraduate years that would shape my thinking on politics, it was this course and it was this not very well known philosopher Eric Weil that would have the most influence on my thinking for a couple of decades.

A final introductory note on this series: As I reflect on the three questions: what is and how to know the truth, the dynamic between truth and politics, and grounding this dynamic in ethics, I will cite concrete examples to illustrate my points. Among others, I will point to the controversy on the uncertainties around climate change, the controversy surrounding the  Dengvaxia vaccine,  the fake news debate and how to counter it, and finally human rights and the illegitimacy of the justifications for its disregard and derogation.

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