Alain Badiou's Truth
March 22, 2011
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.
Never heard of Badiou before. As little as I understood of this, I enjoyed reading. In particular this notion of "truth events" and love being a paradigm shift in our experience.
Posted by: Sandbags | March 22, 2011 at 02:10 PM
Matt: yeah, I worried that this would read incomprehensibly... Badiou's ideas need a lot of space to be properly expounded. I hope to return to his work in future pieces, though.
Posted by: Chris | March 22, 2011 at 04:25 PM
It would be interesting to hear what some of your better read players think of it. I'm more inclined to think I just don't have the background for a lot of the more interesting arguments. I guess it comes down to.. who do you really want to be able to read this?
Posted by: Sandbags | March 23, 2011 at 08:16 PM
Matt: I always aim to be readable even by people without a background in philosophy, but some of the more abstruse philosophies can be difficult to put in more accessible terms. I think the problem here is that I just introduce all of Badiou's terms in passing (and anyway, Badiou is not known as an accessible philosopher!)
I'd be interested to know what others make of this 'brief introduction'...
Posted by: Chris | March 24, 2011 at 10:54 AM
To me, your account of Badiou sounds like " Platonism meets constructivism" ;-)). I find Badiou's attempt to build yet another ontology quite courageous for a scholar (teaching at France 's Elite University ENS, apparently!). To understand in which war he seems to believe he is fighting one would have to dive deeply into French atheist postmodernism which is certainly tangential to your intended introduction- so to me your piece is quite inspiring as I was also not familiar with his unconventional use of set theory. Best!.
Posted by: translucy | March 26, 2011 at 09:58 AM
translucy: thanks for sharing your perspective here! I'm not sure if Badiou is constructivist but he is *certainly* coming down a Platonic line - in fact, he seems to revel in his debt to Plato. It makes me a little suspicious, but I'm able to find value in his "ethic of truths" without having to believe in a world of Platonic truths.
Badiou is definitely worth a look... he's doing some interesting work, and a lot of what he's doing on the ethical side is of great value to me.
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | March 31, 2011 at 12:22 PM
Featured in the Philosopher's Carnival #123.
Posted by: Chris | April 04, 2011 at 11:16 AM
Badiou's atheism is very different from someone like Christopher Hitchens, for example. My sense regarding Badiou's atheism is that if he were born 2000 years ago he might not have been so. A belief in a God seems to be a conditioned truth just like any other, and one which today can't create the same break away from established knowledge as it could before set theory was established. I think its only because of set theory that Badiou considers himself to be an atheist, because Badiou sees set theory as dismantling the idea of the One. Central to Badiou's theory is that the One is not, and only in this sense is he atheist.
Posted by: Tim Beck | October 16, 2011 at 09:42 PM
Tim: I think you're absolutely right - certainly, the chain of inference which leads Badiou to his atheism passes through set theory, and absolutely - Badiou is not an anti-theist like Hitchens and chums. I rather suspect his conclusion is conditioned by his life as a Frenchman, though, and in this respect he was predisposed to reach this conclusion. ;)
Personally, because of my agnosticism about mathematics I'd be very reluctant to derive ontological or metaphysical conclusions using maths as a starting point. (See also my interview with Stephen Yablo). I feel great sympathy with the later Wittgenstein who clearly regretted his earlier "faith" in mathematics as expressed in the Tractatus.
Badiou, not entirely unlike the early Wittgenstein, sees mathematics as the locus of ontology, while I see mathematics as a logically validated fiction. But then, I also see ontology as primarily involving fictions - so in this respect, the confluence of ontology and mathematics appeals to me, but the meaning of this for me is very different to what it means to Badiou. :)
Many thanks for your comment!
Posted by: Chris | October 17, 2011 at 10:37 AM