......• The Desire for Philosophy and the Contemporary World
.........Alain Badiou

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I would like to begin this philosophic talk under the banner of poetry, thus recalling that ancient tie, which has existed since the Greeks, between poetry and philosophy.

Rimbaud uses a very strange expression: les révoltes logiques, "logical revolts". Philosophy is something like that: "logical revolts". Philosophy sets up thought against injustice, against the defective state of the world and life. But it sets thought up in a movement which conserves and defends argument and reason, and which ultimately always proposes a new logic.

Mallarme gives us this aphorism: "a thought begets a throw of the dice". It seems to me that this enigmatic formula also designates philosophy. Because philosophy proposes to think the universal, which is true in fact for all thinking, but philosophy does this from within a commitment which is always somehow a risk, a commitment which chance always plays a role in.

The four-dimensional desire for philosophy

Fundamentally the desire of philosophy 1 first implies a dimension of revolt, for there is no philosophy without some muted discontent of thinking as it confronts the world as it is. It also implies logic, that is the belief in the power of argument and reason. It implies universality: philosophy addresses all men as thinking beings and supposes that all men think. Finally it comprises a risk: thinking is always a decision submitted to circumstances or chance. We can say then that the desire of philosophy has four dimensions: the dimensions of revolt, of logic, of universality and of risk.

I think that the contemporary world, our world, exerts an intense pressure on these four dimensions of the desire of philosophy.

As far as the dimension of revolt is concerned, this world, our world, the "western" world (with as many inverted commas as you want), this world does not engage in thought as revolt and this for two reasons. First because this world decrees itself already free. It presents itself as "the free world", and this is even the name it gives itself, an "isle" of liberty within a planet otherwise reduced to slavery, or devastated. But at the same time, as you know, this world, our world, standardizes and commercializes the stakes of this liberty. It projects them into monetary uniformity, with such success that our world does not have to ordain the revolt to be free since it guarantees us this liberty, nor the use of this liberty, since this use is, in reality, coded, oriented or channelled by the infinite glitter of merchandise. This is why this world exerts an intense pressure against the very idea that thinking can be insubordination or revolt.

As for the dimension of logic, our world exerts a strong pressure on it too, essentially because it is submitted to the profoundly illogical regime of communication. Communication transmits to us a universe made up of disconnected images and incoherent remarks. Communication undoes all relations and all principles, transforming what happens into a confused motley excluding any reference whatever. And what is perhaps even more distressing, mass communication presents the world to us as a spectacle devoid of memory, a spectacle in which new images and new remarks appear to cover, erase and forget the very thing that has just been said and shown. A process which exerts considerable pressure on the resoluteness of thinking's fidelity to logic.

As for the universal dimension, our world is no longer suited to it because, as we know, it is an essentially specialized and fragmentary world . It is split up in response to the demands of the innumerable ramifications of the technical configuration of things, of the apparatus of production, of the distribution of salaries, of the diversity of functions and skills. And the requirements of this specialization and fragmentation make it difficult to perceive what might be given as transversal or universal, or what might be valid for all thinking.

Finally we have the dimension of risk: our world does not favor commitments or risky decisions, because, little by little, we are losing the capacity to submit our existence to the perils of chance. Existence requires a more and more elaborate calculation. Life is devoted to calculating security, and this obsession with calculating security is contrary to the Mallarmean hypothesis that a thought begets a throw of the dice, because in such a world there is infinitely too much risk in throwing the dice.

The desire for philosophy, then, encounters in our world four principal obstacles. These are the reign of merchandise, the reign of communication, the need for technical specialization and the necessity for realistic calculations about security. How then can philosophy take on this challenge? And is it capable of such a challenge? The answer must be sought in the state of philosophy. What is the state of contemporary philosophy?

The present state of Philosophy

I would like now to give you a planetary vision of philosophy, which will necessarily be an overview. What are the principal tendencies in philosophy, if we consider it from afar?

I think it can be said that in the world today, three principal currents can be distinguished, which correspond, in some measure, to three geographical situations. I will first name them and then describe them. The first can be called the hermeneutic current which goes back historically to German romanticism. The best-known names of this current are Heidegger and Gadamer, and its historical site was originally German. Then there is the analytic current, originating with the Vienna Circle. The principal names connected to it are those ofWittgenstein and Camap. Despite its Austrian origin, it now dominates English and American academic philosophy. And then we have what can be called the post-modem current, which in fact borrows from the two others. It is without doubt the most active in France, and minds as different as Jacques Derrida's or Jean-François Lyotard's can be included in it. It is equally very active among our neighbors to the south, in Spain, Italy and Latin America.

A hermeneutic current, an analytic current, and a post-modem current: these comprise the most global and the most descriptive geography of the contemporary locus of philosophy. There are, of course, innumerable intersections, mixtures and networks of circulation between these three points. But I'm speaking here within the logic of an overview.

The hermeneutic current assigns philosophy the aim of deciphering the meaning of existence, the meaning of existence-in-the-world. Its central concept is that of interpretation. There are utterances, acts, writings, configurations whose meaning is obscure, latent, hidden or forgotten. Philosophy must be provided with a method of interpretation which can serve to clarify this obscurity, and bring forth from it an authentic meaning, a meaning which is a figure of our destiny in its relation to the destiny of being itself. The clearest fundamental poles of the hermeneutic current are those of closed and open. In what is given, in the immediate word, there is something dissimulated and closed. Interpretation is intended to unfold this closure and open it to meaning. Philosophy, from this point of view, has a "vocation devoted to the open". This point marks a quarrel between the world of philosophy and the world of technique which is the accomplishment of closed nihilism.

The analytic current holds the aim of philosophy to be the strict demarcation between those utterances which have meaning and those which have not, those utterances devoid of meaning. A demarcation between what can be said and what it is impossible or illegitimate to say. The essential instrument of this current is the logical and grammatical analysis of utterances, and ultimately of the entire language. The central concept this time is not interpretation but the rule. The task of philosophy is to uncover the rules which assure an agreement about meaning. The essential distinction here is between what can be regulated and what cannot be regulated, or what conforms to a recognized law assuring an agreement about meaning, and what eludes all explicit laws, thus falling under illusion or discordance. The aim of this view of philosophy is therapeutic and critical. It is a question of curing us of illusions and the language aberrations which divide us, by isolating what has no meaning, and returning to those rules which are transparent to all.

The post-modem current holds the aim of philosophy to be the deconstruction of those evident facts that have come out of our modernism. In particular, it proposes to dissolve those great constructions generally inherited from the nineteenth century, which we were captive of and which are: the idea of the historical subject, the idea of progress, the idea of revolution and the ideal of science. Its aim is to show that these great constructions are now outdated, that we live in the multiple, that there are no great epics of history or of thought; that there is an irreducible plurality of registers of thought and action, diverse and heterogeneous registers that no great idea can totalize or reconcile. Fundamentally, the post-modem current aims at the deconstruction of the idea of totality. The post-modem current thus activates what might be called mixed practices, de-totalized practices, impure thinking practices. The post-modem current occupies the outskirts, domains which cannot be circumscribed. In particular it installs philosophic thought at the periphery of art, and proposes a sort of untotalizable mixture of the conceptual method of philosophy and the sense-oriented artistic enterprise.

The themes common to today's currents

But do these three orientations that I have so summarily described have anything in common? Does anything permit us to say that despite this diversity, features can be found in them which ascribe a unity to philosophy. I submit that there are two principal features that the three orientations: hermeneutic, analytic and post modem, have in common.

The first of these features is negative. All three orientations hold that we are at the end of metaphysics, that philosophy is no longer in a position to sustain its locus classicus , that is, the great figure of the metaphysical proposition. In a certain sense these three currents maintain then that philosophy is itself situated within the end of philosophy, or that philosophy is pronouncing a certain end of itself.

We can immediately give three examples: it is clear that for Heidegger this theme was the central block of his thinking. For Heidegger our time is characterized by the closure of the history of metaphysics, and also of an entire epoch, going back in fact to Plato, an entire epoch of the history of being and thought. And this closure is first realized in the distress and dereliction of technical injunction.

No philosophy could be farther from Heidegger's than Carnap's. Yet Carnap also announces the end of any possibility of metaphysics, because, for him, metaphysics was only made up of utterances which were non-regulated and devoid of meaning. The aim of analytic therapy is the curing of the metaphysical symptom, that is of utterances whose analysis shows that since they are really devoid of meaning, they cannot give rise to assent.

If I now take Jean-François Lyotard, one of his great themes is what he calls "the end of the great narratives". Once more we have an "end". But the end of the great narratives is the end of the great configurations that modem metaphysics has been associated with, on the theme of the subject and history.

We find then a theme common to the three currents, which is the theme of an end, of a drawing to a close, of an accomplishment, and which can be articulated in this way: the ideal of truth as it was put forth by classical philosophy has come to its end. To the idea of truth we must substitute the idea of the plurality of meanings. This opposition between the classical ideal of truth and the modem themes of the equivocalness of meaning is in my opinion, an essential opposition. We might say in a schematic, but not inexact way, that contemporary philosophy institutes the passage from a truth-oriented philosophy to a meaning-oriented philosophy.

In these three principal tendencies, contemporary philosophy brings to trial the category of truth, and with it the classical figure of philosophy. We might say that in these three tendencies there is a triple opposition of the idea of meaning and its proliferation, to the idea of truth. That is what these three tendencies have in common negatively. What they have in common positively, and this is capital, is the central place accorded to the question of language. The philosophy of this century has become principally a meditation on language, on its capacities, its rules, and on what language authorizes as far as thought is concerned. This is clear in the very definition of the currents I have been talking about: the hermeneutic current is always in a certain sense the interpretation of a speech act, the analytic current is the confrontation between utterances and the rules which govern them, post-modemity is the idea of a multiplicity of sentences, of fragments and of forms of discourse in the absence of homogeneity.

To recapitulate, I will simply say that contemporary philosophy has two fundamental axioms common to all these tendencies, and in any case, transversal to all these tendencies. The first is that the metaphysics of truth has become impossible. This axiom is negative. Philosophy can no longer pretend to be what it had for a long time decided to be, that is a search for truth. The second axiom is that language is the crucial site of thought because that is where the question of meaning is at stake. The question of meaning replaces the classical question of truth.

The flaws in contemporary philosophy

My conviction is that these two axioms represent a real danger for thinking in general and for philosophy in particular. I think that their development, their infinitely subtle, complex and brilliant formulation, such as it is found in contemporary philosophy, render philosophy incapable of sustaining that desire which is proper to it, in face of the pressure exerted by the contemporary world. It does not seem to me that these axioms can give philosophy the means to sustain its desire under the quadruple form of revolt, logic, universality and risk.

If philosophy is essentially a meditation on language, it will not succeed in removing the obstacle that the specialization and fragmentation of the world opposes to universality. Accepting the universe of language as the absolute horizon of philosophic thought, in fact amounts to accepting the fragmentation and the illusion of communication, for the truth of our world is that there are as many languages as there are communities, activities or kinds of knowledge. I am convinced that there really is a multiplicity of language games, but this forces philosophy, if it wants to preserve the desire for universality, not to establish itself within a multiplicity, and not to be exclusively subordinated to it. If not, it will become what it mostly is in one way, an infinite description of the multiplicity of language games themselves.

Or else, but that would be even worse, philosophy might elect a language, claiming it to be the only one that can save it. We know what that leads to. Heidegger explicitly upheld the thesis of the intrinsic philosophic value, first of the Greek language, and then of the German language. He said that "being speaks Greek". He said that the German language was in a way the only language where thought could sustain the challenge of its destiny. And there is an ineluctable connection between this election of a language and the political position that you know, which resulted in Heidegger's commitment to German nationalism in the criminal form that Nazism gave it.

As for analytic philosophy, it is absolutely clear that it accords a unilateral privilege to scientific language, as the language in which rules are explicit, and most adequate to its subject. This is clear in the way in which sense and non-sense are distinguished by presenting the distinction in the guise of a rule, as can be seen in mathematics and scientific language in general. But this privilege is itself philosophically dangerous because it leads directly to contempt for all the sites and spaces which are rebel to the configuration of scientific language. And the figure of rationality isolated by the privilege accorded this language, is ineluctably accompanied by disdain or contempt or the closing of one's eyes to the fact that even today the overwhelming majority of humanity are out of reach of such a language.

On the other hand, if the category of truth is ignored, if we never confront anything but the equivocalness of meaning, then philosophy will never assume the challenge that is put to it by a world subordinated to the merchandising of money and information. It is in fact a sort of anarchy of more or less regulated, more or less coded flux, where money, products and images are exchanged. If philosophy is to sustain its desire in such a world, it must propose a principle of interruption. It must be able to propose for thought something which can interrupt this endless regime of circulation. Philosophy must examine the possibility of an interruption point, not because all this must be interrupted, but because thought must at least be able to extract itself from it and take possession of itself once again as other than an object of this circulation. It is obvious that such an interruption point can only be one conditionless requirement, that is something which is submitted to thought with no other condition than itself and which is neither exchangeable nor capable of being put into circulation. That there be such an interruption point, that there be at least one conditionless requirement, is, in my opinion, a condition sine qua non for the existence of philosophy. In absence of such a point, all there is, is the general circulation of knowledge, information, merchandise, money and images. This conditionless requirement cannot, I think, be supported solely by the proposition of the equivocalness of meaning. It also needs the reconstruction or the re-emergence of the category of truth.

We are subjected to the media's inconsistency of images and commentaries. What can be opposed to that? I do not think that anything can be opposed to it except the patient search for at least one truth, without which the essential illogicism of media communication will impose what we might call its temporal carnival. Philosophy requires that we throw the dice against the obsession for security, that we interrupt the calculus of life determined by this obsession. But what chance has it to win, except in the name of a value which ordains this risk and gives to it a minimum of consistency and weight? And there again I believe it is vain to imagine that, in the absence of a principle of truth, one can oppose to the calculus of life an existential gamble, which will give rise to something that can be called a liberty.

That is really our problem. Can the four dimensions of the desire for philosophy be maintained in the world such as it is? Can we maintain the dimensions of revolt, logic, universality and risk against the four contemporary obstacles: merchandise, communication, technical division and the obsession with security? I submit that this cannot be done within the framework of the hermeneutic, analytic or post-modem options. I think these options are too strongly committed to the equivocalness of meaning and the plurality of languages. I would say that these three orientations are too compatible with our world to be able to sustain the rupture or the distance that philosophy requires.

Toward a new style of philosophy

My position then is to break with this framework of thought, to find another philosophic style, a style other than that of interpretation, other than that of logical grammarian analysis, and still other than that of equivocalness or language games.

I think that such a proposition can be supported by two ideas, both simple but in my opinion preliminary to the development of philosophy. The first idea is that language is not the absolute horizon of thought. I think what can be called the great linguistic turn of philosophy, or the absorption of philosophy into the meditation on language must be closed. You know that in Cratylus, which is concerned with language from beginning to end, Plato says, "we philosophers do not take as our point of departure words, but things". Whatever may be the difficulty and the obscurity of this statement, I am for philosophy's renewing with the idea that it does not take as its point of departure words, but things.

Needless to say, it must be acknowledged that a language always constitutes what can be called the historical matter of truth and of philosophy. A language always has to give what I would call the color of philosophy, its tonality, its inflexion, its style. All those singular figures which are those that language proposes us.

But I would also maintain that this is not the essential principle of the organization of thought. The principle that philosophy cannot renounce is that of its universal transmissibility, whatever be the prescription of style or color, of its connection to such or such a language, in the widest sense of the term. Philosophy cannot renounce that it addresses itself to everyone in principle if not in fact, and that it does, then, not exclude from this address linguistic, national, religious or racial communities. Philosophy privileges no language, not even the one it is written in. Philosophy is not enclosed within the pure formal ideal of scientific language. Its natural element is language, but within that natural element, it institutes a universal address.

The second idea is that the irreducible role of philosophy is to establish within discourse a fixed point, an interruption point, a point of discontinuity or a conditionless point. Our world, you know, is marked by its speed: the speed of historical change, the speed of technical change, the speed of communications, of transmissions, and even the speed with which human beings establish connections with one another. This speed exposes us to the danger of a very great incoherency. It is because things, images and relations circulate very quickly that we do not even have the time to measure to what extent all that is incoherent. Speed is the mask of inconsistency. Philosophy must propose a slowing down process. It must construct a time for thought, which in face of the injunction to speed which is the mask of inconsistency, will constitute a time of its own, and only this time will slow down. I would consider this as a singularity of philosophy, that its thinking is leisurely, because today revolt requires leisureliness and not speed. This thinking, slow and in consequence rebellious, is alone capable of establishing the fixed point, whatever it may be, whatever its name may be, which we need to sustain the desire of philosophy.

It is obviously a question of reconstructing philosophically, with a slowness which can insulate us from the speed of the world, the category of truth, not as it is passed down by metaphysics, but as we are able to reconstitute it, taking into consideration the world as it is. It is a question of reorganizing philosophy around this reconstruction and giving it the time and the space which are proper to it. This supposes that philosophy no longer be in pursuit of the world, that is that it stop trying to be as rapid as the world, because by wanting to be as rapid, philosophy dissolves itself at the very heart of its desire, no longer being in a state to maintain its revolt, to reconstitute its logic, to know what a universal address is, or be able to take a chance or liberate existence.

The world questions philosophy

The problem is obviously how to know it's the world as it is, there is the slightest chance for such an enterprise to flourish or be heard, or if it is simply matter for vain invocation . There is no doubt that philosophy is ill. As always, the problem is to know if this illness is mortal, to know what the diagnostic is, and if in fact the remedy proposed is not, as is often the case, the one that will finish off the patient. Truth is suffering from two illnesses. It is suffering in my opinion from linguistic relativism, from being entangled in the problematic of the disparity of meanings, and it is also suffering from historical pessimism including about itself. My hypothesis is that although philosophy is ill, it is less ill than it thinks it is, less ill than it says it is. One of the characteristics of contemporary philosophy is to elaborate page after page on its own mortal illnesses. But, you know, there is always a chance when it is the patient who says he is ill, that it is at least in part an imaginary illness. And I think that it is so, because the world itself, despite all the negative characteristics and pressures it exerts on the desire of philosophy, the world, that is the people who live in it and think in it, this world is asking something of philosophy. The problem Today is that philosophy is morose because of the morbidity of its vision of itself.

Four reasons make me believe that the world is asking something of philosophy.

The first reason is that we know today that there is no hope that human sciences will replace philosophy. The awareness of this seems to me now fairly widespread, because, as we know, human sciences have become the home of statistical sciences. They are themselves caught up in the circulation of meaning and its equivocalness, because they measure the rates of circulation. This is their purpose. Finally they are in the service of polls, election predictions, demographic averages, epidemiological rates, of tastes and distastes, and all that makes certainly for interesting labor. But this statistical and numerical information has nothing to do with what humanity is about, nor each absolutely singular being. Everyone knows that the singular is finally always the true center of a decision which counts, and that all truth has first been presented in the form of the absolutely singular, as can be seen in scientific invention, artistic creation, political innovation or the encounter that comprises the love relationship. In every place where in some way a truth is pronounced on existence, it is founded on a singularity. Averages, statistics, sociology, history, demography, or polls are not capable of teaching us what the history of a truth is. Philosophy will thus be expected to be a philosophy of singularity, to be capable of pronouncing and thinking the singular, which is what the general system of the apparatus of human sciences does not have as its vocation. That is the first reason.

The second reason is that we are witnessing the ruin of what might be called the great collective enterprises which we once might have imagined carried within themselves the seeds of emancipation and truth. We know now there are no such great emancipating forces, that there is neither progress, nor proletariat, nor any such thing. We know we are not caught up by such forces and that there is for us no hope of sustaining our desire by incorporating ourselves simply into such a force, or by being a member of such a force. What does that mean? That means that each of us, and not only the philosopher, knows that today, confronted with the inhuman, each of us is obliged to make decisions and speak in his own name. He cannot hide behind any great collective configuration, any great supposed force, any metaphysical totality which might take a position in his stead. Only, in order to take a petition in one's own name when faced with the inhuman, a fixed point is needed for he decision. A conditionless principle is needed to regulate both the decision and the assent. This is what everyone calls today the necessity for a return to ethics. But let us not be mistaken. Philosophically, the return of ethics necessarily means that there be a return of an conditionless principle. There is a moment when one must be able to say that this is right and that is wrong, in light of the evidence of this principle. There cannot be an infinite regression of quibbling and calculating on this point. There must also be utterances of which it can be said they are unconditionally true. You know very well that when a positional a given question and an agreement on that position are demanded, as a last resort it is necessary to find a position which will be unconditionally true for everyone. It is not possible then to say that, in face of the inhuman, each of us must take a position in his own name, without re-engaging philosophy in the dimension of truth. And this is required of the world as it is, and is required of philosophy. The third reason is connected to the new rise of the reactive or archaistic passions, the rise of cultural, religious, national or racist passions. These historically observable phenomena too, have given birth to this demand on philosophy.

We can see this in the world, which oscillates and hesitates, but where the great archaistic and reactive passions are once more at work. Confronted once again with these, philosophy is solicited to say where reason lies. These passions are the contemporary figures of irrational archaism, and they carry with them death and devastation. And it is required of philosophy to make a pronouncement concerning what contemporary rationality might be about. This rationality can certainly not be the repetition of classical rationalism, but we also know that we cannot do without it, if we do not want to find ourselves in a position of extreme intellectual weakness, when faced with these reactive passions. We must then forge a rational philosophy in this sense of the term, that is, in the sense that philosophy must reiterate, under the conditions of the time, what it has already resolved.

The fourth and final reason I see, is that the world we live in is a vulnerable, precarious world. It is not at all a world stabilized within the unity of its history. We must not allow the planetary acceptance of liberal economy or representative democracy to dissimulate the fact that the world is a violent and fragile world. Its material, ideological and intellectual foundations are disparate, dis-unified and largely inconsistent. This world announces not in the least the serenity of a linear development, but a series of dramatic crises and paradoxical events. Take the examples in the most recent period. Two of them, the Gulf War and the fall of bureaucratic Socialism. Add to these the war in Bosnia, the Rwandan massacres and the American invasion of Iraq. Philosophy is thus required to decodify the event without the anxiety inherent in it. We do not fundamentally need a philosophy of the structure of things. We need a philosophy open to the irreducible singularity of what happens, a philosophy that can be fed and nourished by the surprise of the unexpected. It must be a philosophy of the event and that too is required of philosophy by the world as it is.

A new doctrine of the subject

It seems to me then, that what is demanded today of the poor night watchmen is a philosophy of singularity, a philosophy of contemporary reasoning and a philosophy of the event. That is a program in itself. To accomplish this program, I think we must go beyond the three main tendencies I have just described. We need a more determined and more imperative philosophy, but one that is at the same time more modest, more remote from the world and more descriptive. A philosophy which is a rational intertwining of the singularity of the event and of truth. A philosophy open to chance then, but a chance submitted to the law of reason, a philosophy maintaining conditionless principles, conditionless but submitted to a non-theological law.

And this will enable us to propose a new doctrine on the subject (and I think this is the essential objective). We will be able to say what a subject is in other terms than those of Descartes, Kant or Hegel. This subject will be singular and not universal, and it will be singular because it is always the event which constitutes its truth.

In view of this program, it can be certainly said that the metaphysics of truth is ruined and classical rationalism is insufficient. But the deconstruction of metaphysics and the contestation of rationalism are also insufficient. The world needs philosophy to be re-founded on the combined and blended ruins of metaphysics and modern criticism of metaphysics.


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