Interview with Remmon Barbaza (4TU.Ethics Visiting Scholar)

Remmon Barbaza is an Associate Professor of Philosophy specializing in Heidegger and language at the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, where he also served as chair of the Department of Philosophy. He is currently working on a translation of Heidegger’s texts into Filipino and an interdisciplinary research project on human dwelling in a disaster-prone city.  His work in philosophy extends to questions of technology, the city, and the natural environment.

Barbaza was a local 4TU.Ethics visiting scholar at University of Twente in July 2017, where 4TU intern Stephen Leitheiser got a chance to sit down with him and discuss his work. The conversation focuses on what insights Heidegger and the philosophy of language can give us about the philosophy of nature and the state of the modern city.


SL: Can you tell me a bit about your academic background? Where did you start, and what has inspired you?


RB: My undergrad was in linguistics. I had an interest in language in general. Then I moved to philosophy for my masters and I wrote on Heidegger and Hölderlin. I wrote it in Filipino, and gave it the title, ‘Heidegger and Hölderlin: Homecoming and Dwelling in Language and Poetry’. For me, there has always been a link to language. From linguistics I moved to philosophy, but the focus was still language. I saw in language the link to the concepts of homecoming and dwelling. My Ph.D. is about the concept of dwelling. In my mind, there was always a connection between language, dwelling, and homecoming.

These topics have consistently interested and inspired me. My interests in Environmental Ethics, Philosophy of Technology, Philosophy of the City are, in a way, offshoots of this interest in language and dwelling.


SL:  A couple of years back, you had written an essay entitled: ‘Katapatan sa Kalikasan: On Being True to the Environment’.[1] In this essay, you write about society’s relationship with nature, and the rethinking of this relationship. To me, this is inherently somewhat spiritual; not in the traditional or institutional sense of religion, but in the sense of rethinking what it means to be human. I wanted to ask, what role (if any) does a spiritual understanding of our relationship as humans – or society – with nature impact your work on the environment?


RB: We just had a Heidegger reading workshop earlier today, and that was one of the questions: is it possible to understand Heidegger’s concept of dwelling without being religious – without a spiritual dimension? And I was made to think about that. To me, it is not as if spirituality, or the spiritual realm, is one aspect that I use in one way or another, to relate to nature. But, it is hard to think of being human without a spiritual aspect. Not in a narrow sense of institutional religion or faith. But, to be human is precisely to have this realm or dimension that is not just material.

I find it restrictive to make a distinction between material and spiritual. To me, it simply belongs to being human, to have this dimension. More so with nature. So it is not just one part of what allows me to relate to nature. It is rather essential to the experience of nature. It is unthinkable for me to view nature without a spiritual dimension – again, without being pious or religious in a narrow sense. 

My understanding of the spiritual dimension is partly influenced by Heidegger. For example, when he says, “In the age of modern technology, the earth reveals itself as one huge gas station.” Or in another essay, it is a coal mining district. Heidegger points to a realm that transcends what is merely material. If that is the way I see nature, as one huge gas station, then I relate with it in a corresponding way, which is horrible. I keep extracting and extracting resources. It is precisely this loss of a spiritual dimension, I think, that is connected to this ravaging of the Earth.

But of course all of this sounds romantic; as if we say ‘Oh, you are romanticizing the earth…’. I have a bit of a problem there. You must have heard of our president in the Philippines, for instance – President Duterte. In just about a year around nine thousand suspected drug addicts or dealers have already been killed in his drug war, which is something he had announced beforehand when he was campaigning for the presidency, and now, as the president, is even clearly instigating and even praising. He even suggested that drug addicts are not human, and that human rights activists, whom Duterte and his supporters dismiss as bleeding hearts, are just romanticizing the whole thing. To me, it is not a question of being romantic or not. The question rather is: Is it human? Does it belong to us to view nature as more than just a source of something that I can exploit?

Call it romantic, or call it whatever, but the question remains: ‘Am I more myself as a human being if I relate with nature like that?’ So, it is the same thing: is it being romantic to be concerned about human rights, as our president is saying?  He is angry at human rights activists, claiming that “human rights” is a Western concept that does not apply to the Philippines. He says he is just doing his job by eliminating these drug addicts and drug dealers. 

It is just unthinkable for me to view nature in strictly material terms. Although, I can see also the danger. One of the misconceptions of Heideggerian thinking is that I may end up being a ‘sun worshipper’ or a ‘tree-hugger’ hippie-type. But there is nothing like that in Heidegger.

If, for example, you ask the farmer, ‘What is land?’, he will not tell you that it is a symbol, or a metaphor. The land is concrete for the farmer. Yet, it is not land in the scientific sense either. His knowledge of the land that he tills is concrete. But not concrete in the materialist sense of natural sciences. Nor is it merely abstract. He will not tell you that it is a symbol, and perhaps would say: ‘I don’t want your poetry, this is just my land! I just till it!’  For the farmer, the land that he tills is concrete from the perspective of human existence.



SL: It can be said that the city is a physical manifestation of the language and meanings which are most influential in the present culture and politics. What does the modern city reveal to us about our society, and modern culture and politics?


RB: That is one of the more difficult questions for me conceptually: the relationship between the city and the province; the urban and the rural. Can we think of the city insofar as it is not the province? Can we think of the urban insofar as it is not the rural? Because the trend is, by 2050, about 60% of the world’s population will be living in cities.  And if that is the trend, is it possible to have just all cities and no province? We do associate province with nature. We say we flee the city once in a while in order to ‘go back’ to nature, right? There is this question whether the city as we know it is a necessary evil.  We can’t help but live in the cities, but flee to the provinces when life in the city becomes too much, and we want to regain our bearings.  How can we build a city that is not alienating? How can we build a city in a way that does not have to disengage us from nature? Again, without romanticizing it.

I think the University of Twente is a good example. The campus was designed in such a way that it is high-tech, without losing the human element. For example, this building where we are right now, the Cubicus, was supposed to have been designed to make people feel a bit lost in the beginning. And people think, ‘Really, why?!’ It is the most logical thing for a designer to do it in a straightforward manner. But, I like that concept. The question is not to make it easier or more efficient, but to make it more human. It is part of being human to take time, to orient oneself. They say this building was designed for people to meet; it was designed to make possible human encounters.

If you see the University of Twente as kind of a city: self-sustaining, with dormitories, a grocery store, a barbershop. They designed the campus in such a way that there is not an abrupt or radical disjoint from nature. The paths, the walks are somewhat naturally winding. That is the challenge: how to design a city in this way.

When we look at our approach to city construction, I agree with Heidegger that the correct starting point is ‘being-in-the-world’ [Dasein].  I cannot imagine really any other starting point. You can start with our being a particular animal, a rational animal, but it is not, as Heidegger would say, primordial enough. If your starting point is the political animal, you are forced to ask further: what is the animal in us? You are forced to go further back. But ‘being-in-the-world’ – there is no ‘further back’. The very fact of our conversation now rests on something like understanding. We share a world. Even the very possibility of disagreement or debate rests on the fact that we are in a world that is understandable. Not in a scientific sense, but as Heidegger says, we already live understandingly one way or another. The bus driver understands the world one way or another. So does a professor – whether in natural sciences or philosophy. All of that understanding happens within language. We can see that being in the world is interchangeable with being in language.

As I pointed out earlier, even Wittgenstein saw that: the limits of my language are the limits of my world; or the limits of my world are the limits of my language. They are co-extensive. The design of the city proceeds from language. Again, not language simply in the sense of an actual and particular language or linguistic system like Japanese, Filipino or English. Rather, language first and foremost has to do with being spoken to, and responding. I think that is how Heidegger would speak of language. But, interestingly Wittgenstein also wrote that “Language is like an ancient city”. The ancient city reminds us of narrow alleys, and so on. A people is known for the way it lives: that is a city – but, it is also known for the language that it speaks. The two are co-constitutive. The language shapes the city, and the city also shapes the language.


SL: In your discussion with the Spanish visual artist, Paloma Polo: ‘Dwelling Near in Mountains Farthest Apart: A Conversation’, you mention that artists, thinkers, and philosophers are shapers of culture. Cities have traditionally been the setting for this shaping of culture. As cities across the world become more standardized and more similar, what kind of an effect do you think this has on the production and shaping of culture? Do you see this as having a homogenizing effect across the world?


RB: Well, much has been said already about globalization. Before coming to Enschede, I was in Paris and Madrid. I observed the same pattern of gentrification and the same shops. Globalization in a way has this danger of flattening out distinctions so that the cities end up being similar. There is this danger of cities losing their identity because of the demand for uniformity brought about by globalization. Manila is a huge consumption city. The big names and companies are slowly killing locality – shoemakers and local businesses.  Here we can bring Heidegger and Marx together because here we are dealing with capitalism as well.

With regard to nature, one can see that Marx and Heidegger pointed to the same phenomenon, even as they approached it and analyzed it differently. Marx has a long chapter in Das Kapital on machinery and large scale industries. For his part, Heidegger also repeatedly mentioned the “gigantic” and the “monstrous”. We all do have the sense that if something is done in too big a proportion, it can dehumanize us. It is no wonder that the word ‘Monster’ means ‘to warn’. The Latin monere means ‘to warn’. Monstrosities are warnings.  I am aware of the direction in which cities are headed. And we see warnings everywhere. This is why I think that philosophy of the city is very important. It gives us the opportunity to question: what are we doing when we build cities? What sort of cities should we build? And, as I said: what is the relationship between ‘city’ and ‘un-city’? Is the province simply the depository of raw materials?



SL: I like the concept of urban metabolism. It involves looking at everything that makes up the city – metabolic flows that go to every corner of the world, which if looked at from this sense, means that there is really no end to the modern city. The relationships extend to the Middle East for oil; they extend to Africa for the minerals making up our smartphones; people and materials are from all over so that one cannot really draw a definite line of where the modern city ends.


RB: That is a very good analogy. We can also speak of healthy metabolism, or a problem with the metabolism. In a talk to be held tomorrow, I will raise the question of what it could mean to do things ‘in good measure’, based on Heidegger’s thinking regarding what is appropriate for us human beings, but specifically in terms of consumption and production, so I will also need to go beyond Heidegger. When do we say something is already excessive, or deficient? By what measure can one say that cities are going overboard? Is urbanization already excessive?  By what grounds – or measure – do we say so?  I do not think we can escape these questions.


SL: What do present political discourses reveal or cover up regarding the current global state of affairs; one which you have described as a crisis of political, moral and environmental proportions. What do these discourses reveal about our hope for the future, and finding a positive path forward?


RB: I would refer to Aristotle. He is the first one we know of who spoke about finding the ‘middle way’: the ‘Golden Mean’, which lies between excess and deficiency: what he called Virtue. There are several virtues that he discusses in the first few books in the Nicomachean Ethics, but he devotes an entire book to Justice. For him, justice is the virtue of all virtues. The perfect virtue. The complete virtue. I think the most urgent political question will have to do with justice. Any attempt for us to find our bearings, in terms of the ideal cycle of consumption and production, must be guided by the question of justice.  

In the Philippines, we have farmers tilling seven days a week, planting rice, harvesting rice; but they often have no rice on their tables. When farmers are hungry, when carpenters have no roof over their heads, we know that something is wrong in the whole system of production and consumption. The ones who are producing and working have nothing to consume; and the others who have all the means for consumption are not producing anything. It is thus foremost a question of justice. I agree with Aristotle that justice is the ultimate virtue, and when we think of how we will build our future cities, we need to first and foremost think of how they will bring about justice. We cannot get around this question of justice.  Moving forward, we will need social and political philosophy; we will need Marx for contestation of the economic distribution.

But, on the other hand apart from questions of justice, something that is for me very urgent and primary, is the question of language. Even as we pursue justice, it is also important for peoples – different cultures – to preserve their own languages and their own ways of living. I think language preserves that. There is a way of living that can only be expressed in a particular language. Of course here, we run against the danger of nationalism, an extreme of which we find in Nazism. This is where we can also challenge Marxism.  We know that for Marxism, nationalism is a scandal, a stumbling block, as it runs counter to the international community of human beings towards which it aspires.

We have to find a way of recognizing particular cultures without falling into the dangers of nationalism, or for that matter, racism, fundamentalism, or any form of exclusion. A healthy tension between differences can be maintained, even as we remain open to what unites us as human beings. Can I remain a Filipino in the way I think and speak but at the same time be open to other cultures? Can I do this without causing damage to either? That is the challenge.


SL: How can young people avoid cynicism in the face of some of these ominous problems lingering on the horizon like climate change, environmental destruction, and mass extinction? Many do not see our institutions as addressing these problems adequately. How can young people contribute to solutions; and, what kind of message would you give to inspire hope and optimism for the future?


RB: That is a difficult question. When Heidegger himself was interviewed in 1966, he gave the answer “Only a God can save us.” He was a fatalist.

On the one hand, the future really looks bleak. There is no sense covering this over. However, the more we look this danger in the face, the closer we get to something we can hope for. Heidegger said that optimism and pessimism are just two sides of the same coin. I agree with him there. The question is not whether one should be a pessimist or an optimist. The important thing is to see what is there. Is it bleak? Is it dangerous? Is it dark? If it is, then we have to accept it and ask: where do we go from there?

In: “The Question Concerning Technology”, Heidegger quotes Hölderlin: “Where danger is, grows the saving power also.” He says the point is not to run away from technology – cursing it as the work of the devil; it is not. Nor does it mean we need to go back to primitive ways of living. The point is to confront modern technology head on, and see what sort of danger it holds. Precisely in confronting technology lies this saving power – and therein lies the hope. In this same essay [“The Question Concerning Technology”], Heidegger links techné and poiésis. Primordially, technology is poetic. When we analyze the etymology of techné and poiésis, we will see that they both mean to bring something forth. Both techné and poiésis are a bringing-forth. In the age of modern technology, these elements have been separated. That is the danger. Everything is being flattened out, in such a way that we block the poetic way of revealing, of bringing-forth.

You do not really need Heidegger to see this, as people already speak of the commodification of everything. Education is commodified. Religious experience is commodified. Even art is commodified. Every conceivable thing is commodified. It is not just consumerism and greed, but it is really about the way we are in the world. The way that we allow things to be, or do not allow things to be. That is what Heidegger says: the danger of modern technology is that it prevents the poetic way of revealing. If the young generation is to find hope – it may sound cheap for sure, you know everyone says art will save us – but if we are to think more carefully about it, it does not just become a cheap quote that is attached to one’s email or made into an instant meme.

Consider the slogan of the University of Twente: “High-Tech” followed up with “Human Touch”. As if it says, ‘Yes, we are doing High-Tech, but we are not losing our human touch.’ That is where the poetry is. Without that, it is just High-Tech, without humanity. If the young generation were to ask: where lies the saving power? Where lies hope?  It lies in poetry. Not in the narrow sense of writing poems – but, like Heidegger says, “All art is poetry.” I think the University of Twente is doing that. It is amazing – this is primarily a technological university, but they are doing hard core philosophy. Very serious philosophy. It is wonderful to see that the more high-tech they go, the more they see the necessity for philosophy. That is one example of where hope might lie: we always make room for what is poetic. Poetry and thinking dwell in the same neighborhood. The hope will lie in the young generation’s ability to question. That is what art does: it makes us question.

It was my first time visiting Spain last week. I was in Madrid, and I saw Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. That was quite an experience, to stand before this great work of art. It really makes one think about the destruction that we as human beings are capable of. But the same work of art that disturbs us can also point precisely to the saving power, to hope. It has been said that in times of catastrophe, art arises. Developing this sensibility for the poetic, for art. This means always being open to possibilities and having a critical stance. Art is always critical. Art always questions. It can disturb us to the point of seeing things in another way. It unsettles us and allows us to become aware. It makes us have a second look at things; at the way things appear, and whether they appear on their own terms, and not in the way we want them to appear.




[1] published in Environmental Values (2015), ed. Roman Meinhold, Bangkok: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.


This interview was conducted by Stephen Leitheiser. All the photographs were taken by Remmon Barbaza during his stay at the UT campus. The text has been updated on August 23, 2017, to provide more clarity and correct some spelling mistakes.

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