The Language of Truth

December 19, 2013
Nadine Y. Ramos
reposted from The Guidon


 The Guidon Editor’s note: This is the original text of ‘Ang wika ng katotohanan, published in the December 2013 issue of The GUIDON

The first room in the Lucas Infirmary is innocuous: A bed, a TV, a crucifix. In the middle of it all is the hunched figure who, without a doubt, revolutionized the way philosophy is discussed in the Ateneo.

Since his return to the Ateneo de Manila campus in 1966 as the chair of the Department of Philosophy, Father Roque Ferriols, SJ has become a legend to generations of Ateneans.

Now, the newly retired Ferriols resides in the infirmary, where, every Thursday, Assistant Professor Mark Calano and teaching assistant Earl Valdez come to visit and talk about whatever topic they deem interesting. Today, they bring him his favorite ice cream flavor (chocolate), and two guests.

“Upo ka dito malapit kay Padre (Sit here beside father),” Calano says to me, and for an hour or so, I get to be one of Ferriols’ last students.


I start the interview with the question, “Why did you start teaching philosophy in Filipino?” Ferriols’ answer is sharp: “That’s the wrong question. The question should be why did some people not use Filipino when doing philosophy?” He adds, “Why is it that so many teachers did not teach in Filipino?”

Though it would be heartwarming to say that the Filipinization of education in the Ateneo was accepted joyfully, instructor Roy Tolentino says otherwise. He says that the approval of Ferriols’ experimental philosophy in Filipino class in 1969 was “praised in public but regarded with disdain in private.”

According to Tolentino, the class was given “weird hours”—early morning, noon and late at night. However, Tolentino says that the first batch of students “took to it,” and did not find it as difficult as they initially thought. The real difficulty was not in having to read texts in English and discuss in Filipino, but in the actual philosophizing.

When I ask Ferriols for his answer about why Ateneo teachers did not teach in Filipino, he says, “No, I asked the question, so now you must answer why.” And though I was never in one of Ferriols’ philosophy classes, I understood what Tolentino meant. I say, “Maybe because [English] was the language it was written or taught in?”

He pauses. “That’s an estimate to the answer of the question.”

Visions and traditions

According to Philosophy Department Assistant Professor Eduardo Calasanz, Ferriols’ greatest contribution was to “start philosophizing in our language.” Prior to Ferriols’ experimental class, was taught in the Ateneo in the scholastic tradition. Meaning, it was taught in English or Latin and followed seminary formation style.

Calano says that the scholars that returned from Europe “brought a different type of phenomenalizing that brought [the discussion of] philosophy to where it is now.” He adds that the approach of the Department of Philosophy department is different from a Thomistic system.

The Thomistic system, Calano says, is “theistic, God-centered.” The Ateneo, on the other hand, adopts a phenomenological system. “Every day life is the concern of philosophy [in the Ateneo]. This is different from everywhere else in the Philippines,” Calano explains. But he adds, “We still talk about God. The experience of God is also emphasized.”

The curriculum of the Ateneo requires each student to take at least 12 units of Philosophy, which Calano says is integral to the shaping of an Atenean. “The goal of philosophy is the formation of the human person. It’s not just a matter of logical thinking and analysis, but a matter of living well.” However, Calano adds that there is no one who has a monopoly on philosophizing. “We all come from specific traditions,” he says.

Under Ferriols, the Department of Philosophy began its tradition of phenomenology. Calano describes this tradition as “experiential, going back to basics.” But by teaching philosophy in Filipino, Ferriols did not have a grand scheme. Ferriols says that he did not envision anything, he merely tried to do what a philosophy teacher should do: Teach.

“[Ferriols] didn’t want a peculiarly Filipino philosophy. That was never his goal. For him, we should begin precisely in the fact that we can think using our language,” Calano says.

Tolentino adds, “[Ferriols] was concerned with bringing philosophy down from its ivory tower.” Philosophy, for Ferriols, was meant to be understood in the everyday and should be accessible to everyone.

Philosophy instructor Precious de Joya, who had Ferriols as her dissertation advisor, adds to our discussion. “Natatandaan mo pa ba po ‘yung nag-usap tayo, nabanggit niyo na ang pinangarap po niyo sa katunayan ay isang pamantasang Filipino, gawing Filipino university ang Ateneo (Do you remember when we talked, you mentioned that you wished to make Ateneo into a Filipino university)?”

“Well, that never happened,” Ferriols says.

“The call of meron”

“If you study in England you study in English and have to learn English; in France, French; in Spain, Spanish. And if you study in the Philippines, you have to learn English.” Ferriols says. This isn’t anything we don’t already know, but does point out the strangeness of the fact that education in the Philippines is not in the national language.

Ferriols adds, “You can discuss philosophy in any language but I think it should be done in Filipino in a place where Filipino is [the language]. If you ride the bus, [people] talk in Filipino, if you turn on the television and you want to hear what the Filipino media is thinking they are still talking in Filipino.”

“When Filipinos think philosophically in their language, something inextricably Filipino enters into their philosophizing and eventually strikes them in a way that they can no longer ignore the call of meron,” Calano says.

Meron is the main tenet of Ferriols’ contribution to the discussion of philosophy in the Philippines. However, Tolentino says, it is often misunderstood and many scholars have disagreed with Ferriols’ discussion of ‘meron.’ “But I think they’re missing the point,” he says. “It is a philosophy that springs from the concrete everyday experience of Filipinos, and it can speak to that experience.”

Ferriols clarifies, “’Yung sinasabi ko yung meron, hindi ko sinasabi na kailangan kong isalin ang isang pagtingin sa Filipino. Sinabi ko na mayroon akong naranasan. [Halimbawa], ang isang aso. Iniisip ko ang isang aso pero pagkatapos no’n may asong pumasok sa kuwarto. Anong kaibahan sa pag-iisip ko sa aso at sa aking pakikitagpo sa aso? Ano kaibahan sa dalawa? Iniisip ko ang isang aso at may aso akong natagpo. Anong kaibahan nilang dalawa? Tapos sabi ko, ‘meron’ yung isa. (When I talked about ‘meron,’ I didn’t mean to translate a word into Filipino. I meant that there is an experience–for example, a dog. I was thinking of a dog and then after, a dog went into the room. What was different between the dog I was thinking of and the dog that went into the room? What was the difference? I thought of a dog and there was a dog that went in the room. What was the difference between the two? Then I said, one has ‘meron’).”
Ferriols tells us a story of a time that a seminarian read his writings and wrote a thesis about it. “Ang ‘meron’ ay hindi isang translation, ang meron ay isang pagbikas sa karanasan mo (‘Meron’ is not a translation, ‘meron’ is speaking about your experience),” the seminarian told Ferriols.

Ferriols replied, “Tama! Ikaw sa isa sa mga tao na nakaintindi sa sinulat ko. ‘Yung ibang mga tao iniisip nila na mayroon akong sinasalin, na inisalin ko ang ‘being’ sa ‘meron,’ pero ang ‘meron’ ay hindi pagsalin sa ‘being.’ (You’re right! You’re one who has understood what I wrote. Other people think that I translated something, that I translated ‘being’ into ‘meron’ but ‘meron’ is not a translation of ‘being.’)”

Continuing education

This is his second retirement—Ferriols also retired when he turned 60, but chose to continue part-time—but this time, it’s for good.

“I think that Fr. Ferriols would be the first to say that his retirement should not mean anything,” Tolentino says. “I think that if teachers of philosophy do their work properly, there will be other people to take up the task.” Ferriols’ retirement leaves a challenge for the faculty in the Department of Philosophy to continue to philosophize in Filipino.

According to Calano, the Department of Philosophy plays an important role not only in the discussion of philosophy on campus, but in the Philippines as well. “Philosophy in the Philippines is very poor,” he says. But because certain faculty members hold “key positions in different associations, [they] play a very influential role in what philosophy can become [but] we may not be able to save philosophy,” Calano adds.

Calano describes two problems that plague the discussion of philosophy in the Philippines. The first stems from the philosophical training in the seminaries, where seminarians are treated “not with rigor, but with compassion.” It becomes more problematic when error is taught to a seminarian, then he becomes a teacher and multiplies the wrong.

Second is that “Philosophy in the Philippines most of the time were preparatory courses for law or for other advanced studies. While serious scholarship is necessary, so much has to be done.”

“I don’t know who needs saving, philosophy or the Filipino,” Calasanz says with a laugh. He explains that the Philippines is mostly market-driven, and “Philippine society is not so open to philosophy or to the humanities in general.”

There are two factors for this. First is the cultural factor. Calasanz says that in the Philippines, we have the term “pilosopo,” which is negative. For example, “In popular culture the well-behaved child is the docile one, it doesn’t encourage critical thinking.”

The second factor is economic. “Liberal studies are a luxury, it doesn’t generate [as much] income.” Calasanz says, however, that philosophy is important because “a free nation stands on its critical thinkers.”

For Tolentino, “Even among the humanities, [philosophy] is sort of the black sheep because philosophers are strange, and we talk about things that are so abstract that they seem not to matter.” But this understanding of needing to be able to think critically is key to confronting problems of today, Tolentino says.


Calano gets up from his chair to fix the jacket draped over Ferriols. They speak in Ilocano about the temperature of the room. It is in the ensuing discussion about the semantics on the Ilocano words for “bad,” Ferriols finds out that I speak some Cebuano. Ferriols tells me that he taught philosophy in Berchman’s College in Cebu prior to his return to the Ateneo.

“Now I ask you the question,” Ferriols says to me after our discussion on language and teaching in Filipino. “Why are we talking in English?” The others laugh as I bow my head, slightly shamed.

After spending nearly an hour with Ferriols, I get ready to leave the room. For the first time, he turns to me. He says in Visayan, “Ayaw ug kalimti ang imong pagsulti sa Cebuano. Ayaw ug kalimti ang imong kaugalingung sinultihan. (Don’t forget how to speak Cebuano. Don’t forget your language.)”

Then, switching to Tagalog, he says: “Kasi ang salita mo ‘yun ang salita ng Diyos sa ‘yo. Pag kinakausap ka ng Diyos ginagamit niya ang sarili mong wika. (Because your language is God’s language. When God speaks to you, He uses your language.)”

*photos courtesy of The Guidon, Henson Wongaiham, and Earl Valdez