One Reason Why I Try to Be Humble, A History Boy, 28/11/2013

To people who know me personally, you may find that title a little strange. I’m not exactly sheepish about my ideas in philosophy or literature. But I’m discussing humility in a more broad sense, particularly because I’m taking a break from my Arendt discussions today to talk about a new book I discovered yesterday about Alain Badiou.

François Laruelle has written a book called Anti-Badiou. It doesn’t get any more confrontational than that. Badiou is a huge figure in European philosophy, though I don’t know if anyone takes him seriously in North America beyond the self-identified Continental philosophers.* I agree that Badiou is brilliant, but I’m very glad this book exists, because despite some very intriguing ideas, I don’t think his overall effect on the culture of professional philosophy is positive.

* I’ve discussed in a previous post how I think this is an unfortunate label, because it treats as a single tradition what is actually seven distinct, if sometimes mutually influential, schools of thought. I originally wrote of six, but later realized I should have made one more distinction: hermeneutics, related to Heidegger’s work but different, had slipped my mind. It’s the school I work with least. Badiou’s influence, as well, may now constitute an eighth division in so-called Continental philosophy.

I don't dispute Badiou's brilliance. I
dispute his philosophical methods.
Some colleagues have told me that Laruelle’s other work isn’t exactly impressive, but I consider the book valuable at least for trying to poke some pins in Badiou’s reputation. I’m very hesitant about philosophers who tend to be worshipped, let alone those who encourage that kind of worship while they’re alive. It bespeaks an arrogance that I don’t think people deserve. No human, no matter how brilliant, deserves to be treated as though they’re a messenger of The Truth.

My own encounters with Badiou’s work over the years have demonstrated this. I first read Being and Event in 2006, as I was about to start my MA. I thought his ideas about interpreting set theory as a fundamental ontology were brilliant, as were the techniques he began developing in the book to do so. I had doubts about his approach to political philosophy in that book, particularly over why the student revolts of May ’68 could be taken as a foundational political event for a person, and why some more conservative cause could not. An individual’s foundational encounters with the world don’t have some pre-set political agenda; an event can make a person a racist social conservative, but if he had experienced a different event that similarly affected him, he may become a radical socialist. At the time, however, I was working on other projects in philosophy of mind, and while Badiou intrigued me, I put his work aside.

When I became more interested in Gilles Deleuze’s work later in the decade, I found Badiou’s book about him, The Clamor of Being, first published shortly after Deleuze’s death. I expected a respectful critical examination of Deleuze’s work, like Deleuze’s own book on Michel Foucault. But instead I found a book that argued Deleuze’s philosophy was precisely the opposite of the exploration of a world defined by differences, where stability was a slow-moving flux, where the universe offered potentially endless variety in thought and existence. Badiou instead presented Deleuze as a philosopher of total Oneness, where all variety is superficial and all that matters is the unity of flux. Even worse, he described the unity of flux as inevitably culminating in the death of everything in total entropy. He turned Deleuze from a joyous celebrator of variety, difference, and the hopeful potential of life into a dour worshipper of death.**

** This interpretation isn’t necessarily a hack job. Peter Hallward’s book Out of This World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation ultimately reaches this conclusion as well through a reasonable critical analysis of his work. I think it’s plausible because Deleuze’s philosophy walks a tightrope between the nihilism of a world of pure flux on one side, and the relativism of every perspective legitimated by having its own cause on another. I think Deleuze’s philosophy is precisely focussed on the tension between these two ontological ideas. Quite appropriate of him.

No one should attack this man as simply as Badiou did. He's
wily, not like a fox, but perhaps like a sorcerer.
What’s more, The Clamour of Being claims that Deleuze admitted as much in an exchange of letters between them where Badiou built a detailed argument against him, and Deleuze admitted that Badiou was completely right. He also claimed, however, that Deleuze destroyed all the letters in this exchange before Badiou could make them public. That immediately made me suspect him, but I first simply dismissed The Clamour of Being as a mediocre book and moved on in my Deleuze research.

A few years later, I read a biography of Deleuze and his collaborator Félix Guattari, François Dosse’s Intersecting Lives. One incident Dosse describes happened while Deleuze and Badiou were both teaching in the Paris VIII Vincennes campus in the 1970s. Badiou had converted a group of students to his version of Maoist radicalism, and he would regularly send these students to interrupt Deleuze’s lectures and scream Maoist slogans and denunciations at him, violent verbal attacks whose goal was literally to drown him out. So this is how Badiou treats his philosophical rivals: He has patsies scream at them until they shut up.

I do not believe that the deeds of a philosopher in his life can be treated separately from the ideas he develops. I know that life operates too fluidly for such perfect compartmentalization. About a year before I read of the violent and disrespectful way Badiou treated Deleuze when he was alive (and a departmental colleague, no less!), my friend B became very excited for Badiou’s new book about Wittgenstein just coming out in English. I was a fan of Wittgenstein, the book was very cheap on Amazon, so I bought it. And I read the following passage. Page 68, to be precise.
"The philosopher assumes the voice of the master. Philosophers are not, nor can they be, modest participants in team work, laborious instructors of a closed history, democrats given over to public debates. Their word is authoritarian, as seductive as it is violent, committing others to follow suit, disturbing and converting them."
This vision of philosophy displays a dictatorial attitude. The philosopher, he says as he elaborates on this introductory passage, must act as a master, shutting off debate and critical questioning of any kind because the philosopher’s task is to deliver the truth. He is the master, everyone else is a disciple, he tells you what to think and how to live, and you obey. I do not believe knowledge can progress from this authoritarian attitude. 

I’ve spoken with advocates for Badiou over the last couple of years at conferences or online. One considered his authoritarian streak an ironic stance. Another considered it unimportant to his wider philosophical inquiries. Discussing this review yesterday, another considered this authoritarianism advocacy for truth against all dispute, that political chicanery like climate change denial can’t truly stand against the facts of the universe. 

I remain very skeptical. I look at Badiou’s meta-philosophical writings where he expresses this authoritarian attitude toward how his own work should be received, his shoddy treatment of Deleuze both before and after death, and I find him untrustworthy. I consider philosophy to work best when all participants treat each other as equals. Badiou claims to be an egalitarian in his politics, but in the practice of philosophy, there is a clear division of rank between the philosopher (particularly himself) and the rest of the world. It looks like cheap hypocrisy to me.

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