Alain Badiou: From Being to Existence

The following is a summary of a lecture that Alain Badiou gave at the European Graduate School in 2010. The video is freely available on youtube.

Alain Badiou delineates his philosophical system with utmost precision. He begins at the beginning of philosophy – and this, he claims, is itself a philosophical position (to begin at the beginning) because philosophy is always at the beginning. This is part of what makes philosophy unique. Unlike mathematics, physics, or any number of other fields, philosophy has it within itself to question its own essence. Contrarily, it is not a mathematical question to ask what the essence of mathematics is. That sort of question shifts the register somewhere outside of mathematics. What mathematics is is not a mathematical question. But what philosophy is is a philosophical question. Philosophy is therefore an exceptional field which allows itself to ask the question of its own essence within itself. Philosophy can ask itself this question because it is always a beginning – it never has for itself a knowledge which is at the beginning.

This raises the subsequent question: what is knowledge? According to Badiou, knowledge is always determined by its object insofar as knowledge is always a knowledge of some-thing. Insofar as the knowledge is knowledge of something it necessarily has a distance from that some-thing. There is thus a distinction between the object of the knowledge and the knowledge of that object. Philosophy is not itself the knowledge of an object because philosophy, being a question raised against itself, is not an object. Philosophy is thereby distinguished also from science insofar as science assumes a positive knowledge (of its object) for itself. Philosophy just doesn’t assume for itself an absolute knowledge of objects.

What is the status of analytic philosophy? Analytic philosophy has as its basic premise or claim the knowledge of definite objects. More often than not, this operates at the stratum of language: what is a sentence?, what is meaning?, what is nonsense? These restrictive questions define the perimeters of analytic philosophy and thereby go against the definition of philosophy that Badiou is attempting to uphold. Philosophy is not itself knowledge. One beginning: Socrates claims that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing. Already, at the beginning, there is a knowledge of nothing – and so it is not a knowledge, purely speaking. It is much more dialectical. Socrates knows that he knows nothing. There is thus an equivalence made between something and nothing. Nothing is the paradoxical unit of knowledge. This nothing is the foundation of philosophy insofar as it operates according to a negation of what is known. The great question of philosophy, at the beginning, is about nothingness and negativity.

To know nothing is not the same as to know an object. Knowledge of something that doesn’t exist does not constitute knowledge of an object. It just proposes that nothing exists. Philosophy compels us to affirm that something is which does not exist as an object of the world. Herein we can discern the crucial distinction that Badiou makes between being (what is) and existence (what is there). There is a difference affirmed by philosophers between “to be” and “to exist.” Badiou argues that the distance between being and existence is the important question of philosophy today; it is the same as asking what the distance is between things and nothingness. If philosophy is dialectical then it can not be reduced to the sole question of the knowledge of an object, it must also include the possibility of the being of something which does not exist in the form of an object. It is the hypothesis of philosophy, that being exists outside of the knowledge of an object.

It is important for Badiou to outline the difference between his mathematics based philosophy and the late tradition of positivism within the social sciences. Positivism, for Badiou, is a broad tradition (it is much broader than most would like to admit). It is something like the extreme pole to the right of philosophy. It affirms that only knowledge exists and that, therefore, to be and to exist are absolutely coincidental. Positivism is the belief that what exists is only that which is objectively discernible. Science is therefore the only true form of knowledge. Being and existence are conflated into objects. For the positivists, and those who share similar sentiments, philosophy is purely imaginary, illusory, or, in psychoanalysis, it is mediated always by transferential fantasies. According to Badiou, positivism is the only truly consistent form of analytic philosophy. Metaphysics is a dream, or a joke.

But Badiou maintains that metaphysics is integral to the dialectical vision of philosophy. Positivism does truly exist but it does not cover the whole terrain of philosophical dialectics. Rather, it is a small part of dialecticity. It is a point of view within existence. Thus, when the analytic point of view criticizes the dialectical point of view it does so without realizing the extent to which it is situated within the dialectical point of view itself.

The real philosophical question is a question aimed at the distance between being and existence. It does not involve a conflation of the one into the other, at least not initially. The ontological question must not be avoided within philosophy. The ontological question asks what is being qua being? It deals with the verb to be and insists on the philosophical examination of being outside of existence. In fact, ontology allows for the decoupling of the positivist conflation. Thus, to be is not reducible in any way to knowledge – ontology and epistemology are separate but integral domains of philosophical dialectics.

The problem is that we can not begin with any knowledge of being because knowledge always presumes an object. Moreover, an object of knowledge can be easily transmittable from point A to point B. When an object moves from point A to point B the object still equals itself. The transmission of the object of knowledge therefore necessarily implies a repetition. The positivist ideology insists on this type of transmission. Knowledge repeats, history repeats, and the domain of known objects increases steadily. Philosophy, which is without an object, can not continue in this way. And so it always begins. If we examine the history of philosophy we can discover a history of beginnings. Philosophy looks at the past of its knowledge and says to itself: “I can not continue to repeat that.” Philosophy therefore occurs as a rupture in the repetitive transmission of knowledge within a field. To be sure, philosophy re-interprets the past – Badiou himself has reinterpreted Plato, Heraclitus, Aristotle, and others – but this re-interpretation is always a new interpretation and therefore a new beginning.

The beginning of knowledge is already known. It is the object and it is clearly discernible. But in philosophy the beginning is always a desire for negativity. If philosophy does not begin in the field of knowledge and existence then it is because it begins in negativity, without an object. It begins with nothing. For Socrates it was a positive affirmation: he knows nothing. But can you really know nothing? It is difficult because nothing is not an object, and therefore not a knowledge. It is impossible to know nothing because knowing nothing is more like an experience. Knowing nothing is a subjective experience. Badiou claims that this Socratic affirmation of nothing, which is a subjective experience rather than a knowledge, is the primitive experience of philosophy. Descartes’ beginning was absolute, radical, doubt.

Descartes claimed that he really knew nothing. Radical doubt involves the subjective destruction of the world. If we begin by doubt, we are left with a purely negative subjective experience. This is the primitive philosophical subject. You can find similar, powerful, examples in Kierkegaard and Heideggar. For example, the experience of anxiety is radically negative. It has nothing to do with the positive and clear discovery of an object in the world. The problem is that this really is only a beginning. Within doubt or anxiety it can be difficult to move beyond the experience of negativity. Often times, we may not know if its possible to move outside of the experience. This is the experience of nihilism. Nihilism, unlike positivism, wants to remain within the beginning of philosophy. Philosophy, claims Badiou, can not begin without anxiety, doubt, or, more broadly, negativity and nihilism. But the victory of philosophy involves the birth of a subject which emerges beyond the anxiety.Husserl created a similar experience with the concept of epocheEpoche involves the suspension or bracketing of any knowledgable relationship to objectivity. Thus, all of existence is reduced to pure sense perception. The experience is always the same – the negative philosophical gesture which births the philosophical subject.

On the far right pole of philosophy is positivism. It is the triumph of knowledge and objects over nothingness and being. On the far left pole of philosophy is nihilism. It is the victory of radical doubt, anxiety, and pure being. The victory of philosophy is to go from nothingness to existence, from being to existence, from doubt to the existence of the subject. This can happen in any number of ways, or any number of beginnings. And it has. The jump from being to existence is what is called an affirmation. Without the victory of philosophy there is only anti-philosophical philosophy or nihilism. Nihilism claims that there is no beyond the experience of negativity, there is only being.

And so there are two enemies to philosophy. The conservative enemy is positivism and all that that word entails for Badiou. The ultra-left enemy, or the enemy within, is what he calls nihilism. For positivists, philosophy is nothing but a collection of jokes and non-sensical statements. Metaphysics itself must be ignored, it is nonsense. Philosophy, for the positivists, is nothing but a beautiful story, narrative, or language game. The nihilist remains at the level of being and enjoys his being in self-destructive habits (drinking, smoking, etc). Positivism involves thinking without any experience of the negativity, nihilism involves the experience of negativity without thinking, and philosophy involves the movement from the experience of negativity toward true thinking.

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9 thoughts on “Alain Badiou: From Being to Existence

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