Is truth a static state that can be determined, or is it something beyond such mediocrity – an eternal and invariant quality that can only enter into the world via a rupture into the state of affairs?
I have only just begun to explore the philosophy of Alain Badiou, firstly via Ian Bogost’s adaptation of the French philosopher's work in Unit Operations, and secondly via Badiou’s magnificent Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. The latter book is the kind of account that one disagrees with on almost every single point, but still adores the thought processes it puts in train. Great philosophy is exactly about this kind of inspiration, whether by illumination (Socrates for Plato) or by opposition (Hume for Kant).
Central to Badiou’s philosophy is his unique conception of truth. For Badiou, truth does not occur in the context of knowledge at all, which (broadly following Nietzsche) is relegated to “opinion”. He sees knowledge as ultimately fragile, subject to change, and encapsulates this perspective in the iconic figure of the encyclopaedia. Although Badiou to my knowledge has said nothing about the Wikipedia, the state of infinite and constant flux this community-managed site endures is a perfect example of this fragility, of why knowledge cannot make a strong claim to any kind of universal truth in and of itself.
But Badiou is not a relativist, and believes in an absolute and eternal truth – for him, what constitutes truth must be so under all circumstances, which is why knowledge fails to qualify. As a result, truth enters into the world for Badiou not as a state but as a process, or more specifically as four (and only four) processes: love, politics, art and science. He claims that truth itself is almost impossible to recognise as truth, but it can become briefly discernable for a passing moment in what he calls an event. The event is a rupture in the current circumstances (what Badiou terms the state) caused by an awareness of what is missing from those circumstances. The event is a glimpse of the void inherent to any given state.
Having experienced such an event, a subject is created who has a chance to affect the world by remaining faithful to the event of truth they have encountered. This fidelity to an event is a key part of Badiou’s ethics, and everything that Badiou considers evil is some kind of distortion of the event – either by the event being a distorted simulacrum of truth, by betraying the truth (i.e. giving up on what one has glimpsed) or by causing a ‘disaster’ by trying to force that image of truth as absolute. Provided the subject remains loyal to the event they have a chance to introduce that truth into the state of the world, by ‘naming it’ into worldly situations.
It is hard for many people, myself included, not to see Badiou’s truth condition of science as being equivalent to Kuhn’s paradigm shift. Furthermore, it is impossible for me not to see Gianni Vattimo’s adaptation of Kuhn to art in ‘The Structure of Artistic Revolutions’ in Badiou’s truth condition of art, especially since the example he provides of Haydn has precisely this timbre. The absence of any mention of either Kuhn or Vattimo in the part of Badiou’s work I’ve currently explored feels almost rude. Extending this basic idea into politics is easy, and adapting it to romantic love is charming – the idea that when we fall in love it is a “paradigm shift” in our experience of the world is quite beautiful.
A problem with Badiou’s approach, however, is that it has a highly confused relationship with religion. Badiou declares it as an axiom of his ethic of truths that ‘there is no God’, but this is a problematic claim: one cannot move out of the domain of religion by invoking theology, even if one is using atheology. Furthermore, his motivation seems to be to shut down Levinas’ ethics by denying the Altogether-Other, which Badiou correctly recognises is the “ethical name for God”. Yet Badiou goes on to show how Levinas’ concept of alterity is the absolutely certain state of being. This seems to be intended to block Levinas, but it has the opposite effect – it shows how Levinas’ concept of God (which is not in any way a conventional God-concept) is indeed as fundamental as Levinas claims. One certainly might claim that an imminent God is not evidence for a transcendent God, but it’s a weird claim that the certainty of a particular imminent conception of God will block an ethical system founded on such a conception. Only by resorting to an axiomatic stance on God does Badiou maintain his case – and this is precisely the leap of unfaith.
Furthermore, as Badiou’s friend Slavoj Žižek has noted, right at the heart of Badiou’s account of truth it seems as if religion is tacitly operating as a privileged ‘fifth procedure’. Indeed, in Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism Badiou uses Paul’s experiences as a paradigmatic case of the event, and fidelity to the event. In his defence, Badiou has stated that he doesn’t see Paul as a philosopher, and see’s Paul’s experience as “something like the non-philosophical conception of truth”, with Paul offering “a new conception of truth in general”. While Badiou certainly feels he’s made his case here clear, I he may have wildly misjudged the transparency of his account. Don’t get me wrong – I love Badiou’s perspective here. But since I cannot accept as an axiom any claim as to whether there is or isn’t God, my reading of Badiou ends up in a very different space to what is likely intended.
Similarly, Badiou’s claim that there can only be four truth procedures strikes me as problematic – the kind of observation that emerges from laying down a framework and then determining what that framework encloses. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem with his approach, but it needs to be borne in mind, especially since by excluding spiritual truth – as in the case of Badiou’s schizophrenic attitude towards Paul – any event of religious truth must be split weirdly between love, art and politics. This would not trouble me if it did not then seem to reinforce the perceived conflict between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ by denying to the religious aspect of culture just one of Badiou’s truth conditions. (I also feel it silly to restrict ‘love’ to amorous love, as Badiou appears to do, but this perhaps is the erotic soul of the French nation shining through his philosophy!)
There is an irony to the way that Badiou, having attempted to position himself outside of religion, proceeds to provide a philosophy which has as much or more to offer people of faith as it does people of unfaith. Conceiving of the truth as something that exists outside of the condition of the world is begging for a theological reading of the kind that Christianity and Islam inherited from Greek philosophy, and particularly from Plato. Badiou, indeed, allies himself with Plato explicitly, which means all that stands between Badiou's philosophy and believers is a mere mathematical axiom, and as it happens Cantor (from whom Badiou acquires his set theoretical influences) already provides the reverse reading. But then, despite his axiomatic opposition to God, Badiou's unique slant on ethics implicitly supports cultural and religious diversity in a manner that many atheists will find difficult to accept.
Badiou’s philosophy is undeniably radical, and this in almost every sense of the word. It seems to exist almost entirely for the purpose of providing viable support to political radicalism, epitomised in Badiou’s involvement in actions that ‘subvert’ democracy by forcing action on the behalf of individuals in need rather than trying to crank the gears of the system slowly towards change. In this respect, I sense a thematic connection between Badiou and Ivan Illich, and someone who could bridge their two philosophies could create something truly explosive. In the meantime, the capacity for Badiou’s philosophy to underpin the kind of radical activism he himself engages in will be seen by some as a flaw. For me, it is Badiou’s greatest strength.