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Philosophy has a future

Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return of Philosophy, Alain Badiou, Translated from the French and edited by Oliver Feltham and Justin Clements, Continuum: 196 pp., $19.95

August 17, 2003|Crispin Sartwell | Crispin Sartwell is the author of "End of Story: Toward an Annihilation of Language and History."

One of the main activities of philosophy in the 20th century was the declaration of its own demise. Philosophers of the most varied persuasions -- positivists, existentialists, pragmatists, deconstructionists -- insisted for one reason or another that philosophy was over. Metaphysics, which attempts to explain what sorts of things there really are and how they are organized, was held to be exhausted or meaningless, and it was claimed that all we can know are our own interpretations or languages. Philosophy, according to these thinkers, produced not the Truth but merely more and more words, often used in senseless ways.

The declaration of the end of philosophy started in some form with G.W.F. Hegel and has been repeated by such figures as Martin Heidegger, Rudolf Carnap, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Richard Rorty. However, as long as it was philosophers who were making this declaration in their philosophy books, the field was in no real danger; in fact, the claim that philosophy was over was itself a philosophical claim. Nevertheless, like the end of art, history and more or less everything else that emerged from the millennial mood, the crisis of philosophy got boring. One of the many excellences of the work of the French philosopher Alain Badiou is that he not only declares the end of the end of philosophy but then goes ahead and writes philosophy in a way that is both innovative and classical, that engages and surpasses the tradition. Many of us have been waiting for a long time for the next wave of philosophy to emerge from Europe (or anywhere else, for that matter, though France, sadly, has a certain cachet), waiting for something that is not post-structuralism or postmodernism or post-anythingism. In fact, it would be nice to see a philosophy that was pre-something, and now I think we've got it.

The idea of the death of philosophy has been connected to a crisis of truth -- not surprising, since in some ways truth is the idea around which all philosophy is of necessity organized. Truth is the central notion of Badiou's philosophy, but that is not merely a reactionary gesture. Badiou's truth is radical, or it might be better to say that Badiou's truth is the radical itself: For Badiou, truth is what disturbs or destroys or interrupts the order of our knowledge or our politics.

This slim book -- the fourth of Badiou's to be translated into English recently, with at least six more (including his magnum opus, "Being and Event") soon to follow -- is a collection of essays and lectures that begins with a fairly long introduction to his work and ends with an interview. The second chapter, "Philosophy and Truth," is the best and most deeply subversive new piece of philosophy I have read in a quarter century. In it, Badiou says that "I will start with the following idea: A truth is, first of all, something new. What transmits, what repeats, we shall call knowledge." Hence truth is always a challenge to what we already know.

This claim is characteristically comprehensible (not that Badiou's writing is without obscurities), which again separates him from many of his Continental rivals, who have a tendency toward obscurantism so pronounced that one wonders whether there is actually anything there to understand and, if so, why we should bother. Truth for Badiou is both a commitment and an openness; we might say that the truth is something to which we commit ourselves but that it and we must also remain open, because a new truth may strike at any time.

This is not only an epistemology, it turns out, but an ethic, because Badiou identifies evil as the attempt to create and live within a closed system of knowledge. "Evil," he says, "is the desire for 'Everything-to-be-said.' " It is the impulse to monopolize or determine or force all truths -- something we could also call totalitarianism, or scientism or fundamentalism. Human goodness is then, for Badiou, a deep -- but open -- commitment. It is not merely open-mindedness or the scientific method: One takes the chance to commit oneself to a belief that is not yet knowledge. But the condition of truth is that it is always arriving, always attacking, so that even in our commitment we are always opening up possibilities. Truth arrives as a disturbance of consensus and convention, as something that cannot be assimilated into the current state of knowledge, and it arrives because someone has the resoluteness to face it and hold to it, even alone. Perhaps the highest compliment we could pay to Badiou on his own terms is to say that his philosophy is such a truth.

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