Ethics without others

In his otherwise sympathetic survey of Badiouʼs ethics in RP 100,1 Simon Critchley advances three significant arguments against Badiouʼs rather unusual position. They are likely to be fairly typical of the sort of objections we should expect from those committed, after Levinas and Derrida, to an ethics oriented around the category of the other. All three arguments are either insubstantial, misleading or both.

IFirst, Critchley suggests that Badiouʼs curt rejection of Levinasʼs explicitly religious orientation (the subordination of ʻphilosophy to theologyʼ) should at least be qualified by the inclusion of Levinasʼs name in ʻthat long line of anti-philosophes, like St Paul, Luther, Pascal, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, some of whom [Badiou] elsewhere praises. … If it is granted that religion … is anti-philosophical, then I do not see why it cannot be a condition for ethical action.ʼ [2] Like Ziek and Lecercle before him, [3] Critchley then goes on to suggest that religion should even be treated here as ʻthe paradigm of ethical actionʼ and the ʻmodelʼ for Badiouʼs peculiar conception of the ʻconditions of philosophyʼ – that is, the four types of ʻtruth-proceduresʼ Badiou classifies as politics, science, art and love.

Now it is true that Badiou believes that philosophy ʻshould always think as closely as possible to antiphilosophyʼ, and in particular to the antiphilosophy professed by Lacan. But the prefix ʻantiʼ has absolutely no seductive or subversive connotation here. Antiphilosophy simply means ʻhostility to philosophyʼ, and, as befits the author of a Manifesto for Philosophy (1989), Badiou seeks only to refute it at every turn. [4] Antiphilosophy seeks precisely to humble philosophical pretensions so as to ʻclear the mindʼ for faith in some sort of ineffable, transcendent meaning. (Unsurprisingly, Wittgensteinʼs Tractatus is for Badiou one of the great antiphilosophical texts.) Every antiphilosophy privileges a ʻsilent, supra-cognitive or mystical intuitionʼ. [5] So yes, the great antiphilosophers do provide the philosophers with their most worthy adversaries (Pascalʼs charity against the pretensions of rationality, Rousseauʼs sincerity against the science of the Encyclopédistes, Kierkegaardʼs redemptive leap against Hegelʼs synthesis, and so on) – but adversaries they remain. Badiouʼs many interventions on this point invite no ambiguity: ʻOf course I am anti antiphilosophy.ʼ [6]

As might be expected, the real model for Badiouʼs four conditions – not religion but that most antihermeneutic of disciplines, mathematics – provides the clearest demonstration of the point. For whereas the antiphilosopher looks first to the integrity or authenticity of the inspired speaker as its performative guarantee, ʻphilosophy has never been possible without accepting the possibility of an anonymous statementʼ, the production of statements which compel examination ʻon their own rightʼ. [7] Mathematics is the pre-eminent source of such statements:

The simple question, ʻis mathematics a form of thought?ʼ organizes, subterraneously, the debate between philosophy and antiphilosophy. Why?

Because if mathematical propositions are thought-ful [pensantes], this means that there exists a speaking [un dire] without any experience of an object, an a-subjective, regulated access to the intelligible.

That being is not necessarily foreclosed to all proposition. That the [self-validating] act is perhaps even of a theoretical nature. Antiphilosophy challenges all this absolutely. [8]

But, again like Ziek and Lecercle, Critchley pays virtually no attention to the foundational role of mathematics in Badiouʼs thought. In particular, although he refers to it in his article, Critchley does not take on board the decisive consequence of that axiom of infinity presumed at every stage in the development of Badiouʼs system: the ruin of any coherently inclusive conception of the One (any possible ʻset of all setsʼ) and thus – or so Badiou maintains – a definitive proof Ethics without others A reply to Critchley on Badiou’s Ethics

Peter hallward

of Godʼs ʻnon-existenceʼ. [9] The concept of one single, universal, all-embracing totality is mathematically incoherent. Badiouʼs philosophy, we might say with perfect rigour, is ontologically atheist.

Although Badiou certainly does elaborate a precise concept of fidelity, his thought is not religious in any discrete sense at all. The model for Badiouʼs fidelity, in every instance, is not religious faith but ʻmathematical deductionʼ pure and simple. [10]

Badiouʼs own definition of religion is straightforward. Religion, he says, is the endless effort to sustain a questioning confrontation with the ʻinaccessibleʼ as such: ʻGodʼs designs are impenetrable, and for this reason we can negotiate, to infinity, our being-inthe-world, interpret traces, and interpret the interpretations. To pose the Inaccessible as Inaccessible, and so to open the way to an infinite hermeneutics, is the religious position par excellence.ʼ [11] In Badiouʼs own philosophy there is simply no place for an ʻinaccessibleʼ transcendence in any sense of the word.

Working within Badiouʼs categories, we might say that theology proceeds from the assumption of a primordial inscrutability at the origin of being or creation, whereas a specifically philosophical project begins with the assertion that what there is, fundamentally, is, or will become, intelligible. This is why Plato, Spinoza, Hegel and Badiou are philosophers, whereas Levinas and Derrida (and no doubt Critchley himself) would be better classed, by these criteria, as theologians. Any discursive consolidation of a preor meta-conceptual secrecy, alterity, ambiguity, deferral (and eventually, obedience, compulsion, responsibility…) and so on, is precisely what Badiou believes every philosophy must – in the terms and conditions appropriate to its time – strive to dissolve. (This is clearly not to say that there are no arguments to be made for some sort of constitutive inaccessibility, in the configuration of ontology or intersubjectivity for instance; but it would be a mistake to attribute such arguments to Badiou.)IICritchleyʼs second argument turns on a charge of solipsism. He suggests that Badiouʼs logic of truth amounts merely to the assertion that ʻtrue = true for a subjectʼ, that ʻtrue just means true for the subjectʼ. A crippling relativism would seem to follow as a matter of course. ʻIf [my] argument is valid,ʼ Critchley concludes, ʻI donʼt see how – on the basis of Badiouʼs criteria – we could ever distinguish a true even from a false event.ʼ [12] But the argument is not valid. Badiouʼs criteria for truth are implacably clear. True = true for the subject if and only if this truth is valid for all. Every truth must be universally addressed: ʻEvery truth is both singular and universal.ʼ Every truth is singular because it proceeds from a precise event in a precise situation, but ʻno truth is solitary, or particularʼ. Badiouʼs every subject knows that ʻI am only justified [justifié] to the degree that everyone is.ʼ [13] The concept of a ʻprivate truthʼ would be still more incoherent than that of a private language.

In any case, since Badiouʼs subject is always ʻa subject deprived of all identityʼ, [14] there is no choice to be made here between the ʻsubjectiveʼ and the ʻuniversalʼ. An individual only becomes a subject in Badiouʼs sense through commitment to a truth that is universal or disinterested by definition. ʻSubjectiveʼ here means nothing other than this: indifferent to objective (and no doubt unavoidable) differences. The distinction of a true from a false event is thus perfectly obvious, at least in principle: any true political event must have universal equality as its effective (and generally explicit) goal. Nazism provides the paradigm for a ʻfalseʼ event precisely because it calls for subjective mobilization in the interests of communitarian specification and political inequality. [15]

Again, Badiouʼs work permits no equivocation on this point. He has always recognized that ʻwhen we abandon the universal, we have universal horrorʼ. [16] In the case of a political truth, for instance, any particular claim – say, the insistence that ʻwomen or AfricanAmericans must have the same rights as anyone elseʼ – is a matter of truth if and only if it is defensible within the logic of a strictly generic equality. ʻItʼs absolutely indispensable to support [this claim] on other grounds than the existence of a community of African-Americans or women. The theme of equal rights is really progressive and really political, that is, emancipatory, only if it finds its arguments in a space open to everyone, a space of universality.ʼ [17]

IIIFinally, Critchley detects a worrying note of ʻheroismʼ in Badiouʼs philosophy. Critchley is on somewhat firmer ground here. Criteria of rectitude and ʻpurityʼ certainly play an important, perhaps fundamental, role in many aspects of Badiouʼs work. A fairly compelling case can be made for the claim that the decisive components of a truth process are ultimately self-constituent and thus self-regulating, according to a logic that invites comparison – up to a point – with classical conceptions of sovereign power (from Bossuet to Rousseau). It is important, however, to distinguish this undoubtedly rigorous (indeed, almost ʻabsolutistʼ) dimension of Badiouʼs work from a merely ʻheroicʼ posture, with all its unavoidably Heideggerian overtones. Badiouʼs rigour and ʻpurityʼ are not easily interrogated with conventionally anti-existentialist tools.

So while there may be some cause for being at least a little wary of what others have called the ʻdecisionisticʼ aspect of Badiouʼs work, [18] Critchleyʼs own caution leads him to misrepresent Badiouʼs position considerably. Clearly more comfortable with less ʻdemandingʼ notions of engagement, Critchley ʻsuspect[s] in Badiou the seduction of a great politics that would, in Nietzscheʼs words, break history in twoʼ. [19] The example is unfortunate. Critchley is perhaps not aware that in 1992 Badiou adopted this very phrase as the title of an essay designed expressly to assess and reject Nietzscheʼs apocalyptic appeal. Indeed, he reads Nietzscheʼs call for the apocalyptic event – a pure ʻruptureʼ or ʻexplosionʼ, a pure ʻact without concept nor programmeʼ, destined ʻto revolutionize humanity as a wholeʼ – as an exemplary instance of that same ʻantiphilosophicalʼ temptation Critchley so profoundly misunderstands. [20] There is nothing surprising or inconsistent about Badiouʼs position here.

Badiou is not drawn to heroism so much as firmly attuned – after Lautman, after Cavaillès – to the need for rigorously ʻlogical revoltʼ. [21] Except from a perspective tacitly wedded to the legitimacy of the status quo, there is nothing particularly reckless or ʻirresponsibleʼ about such revolt. Badiou has long affirmed, rightly or wrongly, that the age of revolutions is over. For more than twenty years he has accepted the need to invent effectively post-revolutionary (post-Party) forms of organization, discipline and ʻrestraintʼ. As early as Théorie du sujet (1982), in a declaration dated November 1977, he claimed that ʻto defend Marxism is today to defend something weak [une faiblesse]ʼ.22

He has never sought to evade the implications of what he calls Marxismʼs ʻhistorical defeatʼ. [23] Without abandoning his radical political convictions, all of his work subsequent to Théorie du sujet has argued against the ʻsuturingʼ of philosophy to a single and definitive truth-process, its reduction to the consequences of one single ʻEventʼ. Far from seeking to assuage what Critchley calls an ʻempty longing for total revolutionʼ, [24] Badiou has spent much of his life engaged in the careful day-to-day organization of a whole range of effectively ʻmicroʼ political campaigns (industrial disputes, housing claims, campaigns for immigrant rights, and so on). And in often heated opposition to the Heideggerian tradition, Badiou has gone out of his way to argue against a specifically heroic posture, in particular against the disastrous thematics of subjective authenticity (the heroic resolution of a Dasein facing its being-for-death…).

That said, Badiou certainly makes no philosophical concessions to our trivially obvious needs for comfort and facility. Unlike some well-known proponents of communication and pragmatism, he offers no ʻphilosophically respectableʼ basis for compromise or the preservation of the status quo. He does not play down the need for ʻcourageʼ and ʻfidelityʼ among those committed to radical innovation. As for whether his ethics of truths calls for ʻasceticismʼ or ʻrenunciationʼ, he has good reasons for saying that this is a ʻproperly undecidable questionʼ. On the one hand, commitment to truth involves a certain degree of ʻasocialʼ isolation (the isolation of the lover, of the inventor, of the militant…). On the other hand, we cannot speak of renunciation when a truth seizes me, since this seizure manifests itself by unequalled intensities of existence. We can name them: in love, there is happiness; in science, there is joy (in Spinozaʼs sense:

intellectual beatitude); in politics, there is enthusiasm; and in art, there is pleasure. These ʻaffects of truthʼ, at the same moment that they signal the entry of some-one into a subjective composition, render vain all considerations of renunciation. Experience amply demonstrates the point, and then some. [25]

It is Critchley, after Derrida, after Levinas, who writes that ethics should be organized around the will of the other, around ʻthe decision of the other in meʼ. Badiou, by contrast, will no doubt become notorious for his claim that ʻthe whole ethical predication based upon recognition of the other should be purely and simply abandonedʼ. [26]

Which position is the more consistent, in the light of this particular philosophical encounter?


1. ^ Simon Critchley, ʻDemanding Approval: On the Ethics of Alain Badiouʼ, Radical Philosophy 100, March–April 2000.

2. ^ Critchley, ʻDemanding Approvalʼ, p. 21.

3. ^ Jean-Jacques Lecercle, ʻCantor, Lacan, Mao, Beckett, même combat: The Philosophy of Alain Badiouʼ, Radical Philosophy 93, January–February 1999, p. 11; Slavoj Ziek, The Ticklish Subject, Verso, London, 1999, pp. 141–2, 183.

4. ^ Alain Badiou, ʻPolitics and Philosophy: An Interview with Peter Hallwardʼ, Angelaki, vol. 3, no. 3, 1998, p. 124.

5. ^ Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze: ʻLa clameur de lʼÊtreʼ, Hachette, Paris, 1997, p. 31.

6. ^ ʻLʼEtre, lʼévénement et la militanceʼ, Futur antérieur 8, 1991, pp. 22–3.

7. ^ Casser en deux lʼhistoire du monde?, Le Perroquet,

Paris, 1992, p. 17.

8. ^ ʻSilence, solipsisme, sainteté: lʼantiphilosophie de Wittgensteinʼ, BARCA! Poésie, Politique, Psychanalyse 3, 1994, p. 43.

9. ^ See in particular ʻDieu est mortʼ, in Court traité dʼontologie transitoire, Seuil, Paris, 1998, pp. 9–24.

10. ^ ʻDix-neuf réponses à beaucoup plus dʼobjectionsʼ, Cahiers du Collège Internationale de Philosophie 8, 1989, p. 249.

11. ^ Letter to the author, 19 June 1996; cf. Conditions, Seuil,

Paris, 1992, p. 69; Monde contemporain et désir de philosophie, Cahier de Noria, 1, Reims, 1992, p. 16.

12. ^ Critchley, ʻDemanding Approvalʼ, p. 23. Again, Lecercle anticipated the argument (Lecercle, ʻCantor, Lacan,

Mao, Beckett, même combatʼ, p. 12).

13. ^ Conditions, p. 240; Saint-Paul et la fondation de lʼuniversalisme, Paris, PUF, 1997, p. 95; p. 103. Cf. Dʼun désastre obscure (Droit, Etat, Polique), LʼAube, Paris, 1991, p. 47.

14. ^ Badiou, Saint-Paul, p. 6.

15. ^ See LʼEthique: Essai sur la conscience du mal, Hatier,

Paris, 1993, pp. 64–9.

16. ^ Théorie du sujet, Seuil, Paris, 1982, p. 197.

17. ^ ʻBeing by Numbersʼ, Artforum, vol. 33, no. 2, 1994, p. 123.

18. ^ Jean-François Lyotard, untitled discussion of LʼEtre et lʼévénement, Cahiers du Collège Internationale de Philosophie 8, 1989, p. 242; cf. Hallward, Subject to Truth: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Alain Badiou, forthcoming, University of Minnesota Press, ch. 13.

19. ^ Critchley, ʻDemanding Approvalʼ, pp. 26–7.

20. ^ Badiou, Casser en deux lʼhistoire du monde?, pp. 10–11; cf. Saint-Paul, pp. 65,

76. ^ Lacking any sustained historical engagement, Badiou suggests, Nietzscheʼs call for an absolute break eventually merges imperceptibly with its own ʻmereʼ declaration (Casser, p. 14). Nietzscheʼs madness, by this reading, is nothing more than the effort to create a new world from scratch, turned inward upon the chosen ʻcreatorʼ. Like all purely antiphilosophical gestures, Nietzscheʼs great Event opens only onto mystical conflagration and eventual silence (pp. 15–16; cf. Saint-Paul, p. 94).

21. ^ ʻPhilosophes résistantsʼ, in Abrégé de métapolitique, Seuil, Paris, 1998, pp. 9–17.

22. ^ Théorie du sujet, p. 198.

23. ^ Peut-on penser la politique? Seuil, Paris, 1985, p. 48.

24. ^ Critchley, ʻDemanding Approvalʼ, p. 27.

25. ^ LʼEthique, pp. 48, 48–9.

26. ^ Critchley, ʻDemanding Approvalʼ, p. 24; Badiou, LʼEthique, p. 25.

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