Alain Badiou
translated by Bruno Bosteels
Verso ($24.95)

by Jeremy Butman

After a century of what some might call abuse—beginning with Nietzsche’s anti-Platonism and ending with Derrida’s deconstruction—in the figure of Alain Badiou philosophy has found a beneficent, avuncular spokesperson. His advocacy ranges from the polemical to the invocative, and his celebrated, grounding text, Being and Event(1988), is itself a testament to the powers still left to philosophy.

In his latest monograph, Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, we are reminded, however, that Badiou’s definition of philosophy is limited. Indeed, for Badiou, much of what is called “philosophy” would be better called “antiphilosophy.” Antiphilosophy, Badiou says, aims to “situate the philosophical desire in its entirety in the register of the erroneous and the harmful,” and he refers us to Derrida, to Wittgenstein, to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Pascal, St. Paul, and even Heraclitus, as examples of antiphilosophers.

What makes the thought of these figures anti-philosophical is their rejection of what Badiou considers the dominant thesis of philosophy: that Ideas, and truth, exist outside of “sense”; that is, that truth is not circumstantial or contingent.

To be sure, Plato’s life’s work was dedicated to the argument that the sensible realm is founded on the realm of Ideas, and not visa-versa—and Kant and Hegel largely affirm this. Antiphilosophers, according to Badiou, hold the opposite opinion: truth, to what extent it exists, arises from “sense.” As he says, “philosophy . . . holds that truths have no sense whatsoever, that they make a ‘hole’ in sense. It is the antiphilosopher who requires, for all truth, the previous condition of sense.” Most pernicious in the antiphilosophical position, Badiou maintains, is the “ability to despise mathematics, reducing it, in regard to what is morally serious and existentially intense, to a mere child’s game.” Given that the thesis ofBeing and Event is “ontology is mathematics,” Badiou has much at stake in this argument.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein argues that metaphysical propositions are inherently “nonsensical.” For Wittgenstein, linguistic statements express truths only when they represent objects, or facts, in the world. A statement has meaning only if the names it employs refer to actual facts in the world. Thus, the statement, “the chair is on the floor,” is sensical because its names—“floor,” “chair”—refer to real objects, and the relation expressed (the one being-on the other) is testable against real “states of affairs.” On the other hand, a “philosophical” statement such as, “The Good is insensible,” is, for Wittgenstein, nonsensical—because “the Good” has no referent in the world. Mathematics is a similar play of names without referents (numbers have no real object they represent).

Badiou’s objection to the Tractatus rests on Wittgenstein’s assertion that the act of naming is not an act ofthinking. (Wittgenstein avers that mathematics and logic are not forms of thinking either.) In a characteristically interdisciplinary move, Badiou argues that Wittgenstein’s theory fails because it cannot account for the truth of, not mathematics, but poetry. If naming is not thinking, then poetry is not thinking, for poetry “is the creation of a name-of-being.” For Badiou, this certainly counts as thinking. And, if naming is included in thought, then so should mathematics be.

At least two things leap out at the reader of Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy. The first: that Badiou’s definition of the antiphilosopher is incomplete, and at times feels arbitrary or agenda-driven. The second: that Badiou fails to give a thorough defense of mathematics on the philosophical grounds that Wittgenstein’s attacks upon it demand.

On the first point, we might quibble that the entire philosophical tradition consists of the debate concerning the relation between the sensible and intelligible realms—between Parmenidean Being and Heraclitean Flux, Plato’s Transcendence and Aristotle’s Immanence, Rationalism versus Empiricism, Continental versus Analytic philosophy—and that to nominate one set of interlocutors in this debate “philosophers” and another “antiphilosophers” seems unnecessarily polemical.

To the second point, Badiou’s argumentation is sometimes frustrating. Occasionally he gives what amounts to a say-so argument concerning the ontological truths of mathematics and sometimes he gives compellingly descriptive ones. When he names, for example, the four types of mathematical theorems—of existence, of power, of decomposition, and of presentation—we are reminded of the elegance of his theory that mathematics is the language of Being, which determines the entirety of our experience as humans. Yet, while such descriptions are alluring, Badiou eschews here the metaphysical heavy lifting that is required to dismantle Wittgenstein’s argument convincingly.

At times, the tone of the work is regrettable—populated as often with moments of muted aggression as it is with thoughtful refutation—but one can understand the avuncular spokesman’s position: philosophy must not dissolve into anthropology, literary criticism, or cognitive science, and if this is to be prevented, Badiou is right that ontology must be better reconciled with the sciences. But it is equally important that philosophy not distance itself from its destructive habits, from its ability to question, and occasionally bring to ruin, our most basic assumptions about mathematics, metaphysics, or theology. This, more than any other, is the legacy of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Pascal. It is the legacy not of Plato, but of Socrates. Badiou has worked to nurture philosophy, to bring it under his wing; in this new text, one sees that his shelter may be too small.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011