The Philosophy of Alain Badiou
Alain Badiou has genuinely invented a new possibility in the history of philosophy; no matter how squeamish many of his contemporaries may be about his confidence in this fact. I want to elaborate here as simply as possible the power and coherence of his thought, especially with regard to his ontology.
First of all, one must understand that Badiou, against the grain of 20th century “continental” philosophy has resuscitated the role of rationalism in philosophy. Whereas most 20th century philosophers maintained that philosophy bore a more essential relation to poetry, art, culture, and language, Badiou maintains that philosophy cannot escape its relationship to science, though where he says science he mostly means mathematics.
In contrast to other philosophers in the Speculative Realist camp who seek to reinvigorate rationalistic metaphysics with a kind of pre-Kantian re-turn, Badiou really goes out through the in door. Though Badiou thinks of his philosophy as a critique of Heidegger, it is in many ways a radicalization.
With regards to ontology, Badiou radicalizes Heidegger's theory of the ontological difference, the difference between beings and Being, as well as the revelation that Being must itself be Nothing. However, also Badiou uses this theory to resuscitate the importance of the Ancient distinction between Being and Appearance (whereas one could argue Heidegger conceived them as in a way the same).
What merely appears is what he calls “The One, ” or oneness. Oneness is simply the coherence and sensibility of regular situations. Things make sense, because they are stabilized into natural forms. Yet oneness is in a way ‘illusory,’ it is merely the epiphenomenal effect of the form of Being, which he calls “the multiple” and which makes possible any existence whatsoever.
Unlike the appearing of the One, Being is senseless, groundless, chaotic. It has no reason to be (we could call it nihilist in this sense), and it is in a sense Nothing, the mere form of existence. Yet, this groundlessness can be thought.
This is where mathematics comes in. Mathematics is the only kind of discourse or human endeavor which can make sense of chaotic Being. We will not go into the details of his analysis of set theory here, but what is essential is that in set theory he finds the conditions of a thinking of Infinity, not only in the endless chain of ordinal sets (which lay the ground for numbers) but in the very nature of an axiom system.
It is this infinity that lays the groundwork for what allows there to be a thinking of Being, a kind of Truth of Being. Whereas situations are epiphenomenal ones, this does not mean it is impossible for Being to paradoxically appear. This is what Badiou calls the Event. Once an event has happened, infinity has been made possible within the finite limitations of oneness and order. Since it is the Event that makes infinity accessible, the Event makes a creative deployment of this infinity possible, since we have to understand that this infinity is like a groundless well-spring of possibility.
The bizarre result of Badiou’s philosophy is that through this infinity, in a sense mathematics invents Being. Does this make Badiou’s philosophy idealist, in the sense that a kind of human discourse creates Being itself?
This is not exactly the case. Being is infinite, which means it always admits of possibilities. It can develop itself in whatever way it does. Yet this does not mean that there is not an essence of infinity itself, an essence of this capacity of creativity. Set theory thinks this essence – the multiple – with specific procedures we won’t go into. But if set theory thinks the essence of the multiple, how can it do so without entering its multiple deployment itself and thus elaborating it’s endless possibilities? Being is both a timeless essence, and yet the never ending possibilities elaborated within the real historical time of a science that thinks the Truth, a science which takes on the character of what Badiou calls the Subject.
Badiou’s thinking however does not necessarily eschew the artistic in order to simply elevate science to the top. What comes to the fore is that the artistic can paradoxically think the Being of the epiphenomenal effect of Being, appearance, illusion. Art can make Appearing Be. As Badiou said early in his "career," 'Art is not a reflection of reality, it is the reality of the reflection.'
This is possible because Art is also susceptible to the Event. Being can rupture an artistic situation as it can a scientific situation, thus making a thinking of an infinitely deployable Truth possible. But since art’s essential structure is not the pure multiple, but actually form, sensory stability, oneness, oneness will actually take on the character of infinity once it becomes infinitely possible to endlessly create, and in a sense chaotically, absolutely new forms of oneness, new artistic possibilities. Otherwise, oneness is already structured in advance, by the structures of Being science invents, structures which are not entirely separate from their epiphenomenal effect, but are still decidedly not that epiphenomenal effect.
What then is the relationship between Being and Appearance if we look at it more closely? Being is not Appearance, Appearance is not Being. Why in the world is their appearance at all then, if it isn’t really real? In fact Badiou takes this purely empirically – we experience it, Appearing is there, before us, and with us.
Zizek has recently criticized this view. He says that Badiou, by thinking Appearance simply as an empirical fact without explanation, makes it impossible to actually connect Being and Appearance. He argues instead for a dialectical relationship of Being and Appearance, or the One and the multiple where oneness is actually inscribed into the multiple itself through dialectical relations which are not mathematical – this is Zizek’s reinterpretation of Hegel.
I believe this criticism misses the point. Though Badiou in Logics of Worlds develops a very elaborated theory of Appearing itself, I don’t believe it is possible in his philosophy for Being to truly explain Appearance, or why it comes about, nor should it. If Being is groundless and develops itself groundlessly, there is no reason for it to give rise to anything. Thus there is no reason for it to give rise to Appearing, and since Appearing is not, it doesn’t. Appearing is there, in a way falsely, for no reason. This is completely consistent with the groundlessness of Being itself. I do not see why Appearing needs any explanation.
One might respond that I have appealed to Being in order to say why Appearance is groundless – because Being is groundless – and thus used Being to explain Appearance, exactly what I was arguing against. But I have not explained Appearance, I have explained nothing. To name something as “groundless” is not to explain it, it is simply to point out its groundlessness, which needs no explanation whatsoever. That appearance is groundless doesn’t matter, for it is not.
I haven’t really gone into Badiou’s theory of the Subject, nor the universality of Truth, for there is not space. But I think it should be clear how powerful Badiou’s philosophy is, if incredibly difficult and full of (legitimate) paradoxes. These are soluble not by giving them over to simple, logical coherences, but their relationship to the irreducibly real, actual practices of science and art.