His father was John Wilhelm Eberhard Philippi and his mother Mary Anne Krumwiede. In 1818 the family moved to Switzerland, where Rodolph and his brother Bernhard entered the school of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Their brother Federico Philippi studied natural sciences and languages. Bernhard Philippi continued his education at the Technical College of Berlin between 1822 and 1830. He did nautical studies on a fellowship at the port of Danzig from 1831 to 1835.