Alain Badiou: What is Philosophy? [Part 1: Philosophy and Language]

I encourage you to check out some of my other hyper-transcriptions, including:

Today’s hyper-transcription is from the first half of a a multi-part Lecture that Alain Badiou gave at the European Graduate School in 2010 entitled “What is Philosophy?”

I should mention that hyper-transcription, as a strategy or form of thinkingseems to mature over time. Perhaps it can even mature over a very short period of time. It necessarily involves dedication and perseverance and the rewards are seldom felt. Why is it that the rewards of thinking are seldom felt? Recall that thinking involves the unification of theory and practice. We must understand practice in its more general sense; it does not always, by necessity, imply activism. I think that this is one of the major problems that we have within the radical left: we often believe that practice always involves some sort of public activism. Practice is something much more broad – there are many wild styles that we could attempt to practice. In any case, the rewards are seldom felt because we so seldom see the fruits of our labor in the form of a clearly discernible object. More often than not, we are dealing with lost objects and lost objects, by definition, can not be found. Perhaps, even, if we found an object we would by necessity stop thinking.

But hyper-transcription is not itself a thinking, it is merely conducive to thinking. And it is conducive to thinking because it is a strategy of thought. It seems to me that the strategy of hyper-transcription encourages thinking only to the extent that the strategy is employed over and over again. It shouldn’t be something that one does only once. In many ways, some of the best blogs out there – I believe that many of these bloggers would certainly deny this claim – have already been attempts at hyper-transcribing philosophical texts. This accounts in whatever small way for the fact that their own thinking, as bloggers (and later as authors of articles and books), has matured so much by the constant deployment of the strategy. Levi Bryant is a great writer, in my opinion, because he is constantly working himself into and through all of the philosophical positions that seem to challenge him and his own philosophical position. He is understanding the texts that stand in his way by working through them on his blog.

This is the whole point of a hyper-transcription: you must struggle through the primary texts of a teaching or dogma so as to understand them (and along with it your own position) at some level. The process of understanding necessarily involves asking the crucial question of what the text is to you or what you are to the text. For example, if you are an anarchist and you are reading Alain Badiou’s work, you might ask yourself how Badiou’s work speaks to the anarchist tradition. Or, if you are an object oriented ontologist, you might ask yourself how it is that Francois Laruelle’s work jives with your own position. It is when an understanding of this question begins to emerge that the process of experimentation has begun. The result is, with any luck, a renewed understanding of the text and your own position.

In any case, I want to spend a short time discussing the first concrete problem that was addressed in Alain Badiou’s lecture.

Why must we speak English? It is a legitimate question. Of all the languages in the world, English is the most widely spoken (with over 360 Million people using the language). In fact, English has been called a “global language“. We could probably argue that English has colonized the world, that there has been a long period of linguistic imperialism. If we can speak of a global language then we are by necessity also speaking about one world. If there is only one world then English must be its official language.

Why must philosophers speak English? This is the real question. There seems to be a contradiction of sorts between philosophy and the spoken English language as such. English is the language of the world but philosophy addresses itself to many worlds. Philosophy, you might recall, is for everybody. If philosophy is for everybody then it must go across all of the differences in the world, whether those differences are linguistic or cultural. If we, as philosophers, agree to speak only the one great contemporary language of English then we are positioning ourselves, in some respect, inside of the “global” world; or, if you like, we are positioning ourselves inside of the world. And so a philosopher who believes that we must only speak English might also presume the acceptation of the unity of the world.

Philosophy can not only be in the English world. However, the world as it is today, if there is some understanding of it as a single world, is nonetheless an English world. This is the situation in which we find ourselves today and it is difficult to avoid. We are in some sense even obligated to speak English in the world today. This is a part of what we might call the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves; it constitutes the is-pole, that is, it is the way the world is. 

The paradox is that philosophy has a different history. The great philosophies were written in three major languages including Greek, French, and German. Certainly, many great philosophical works have been written in other languages – many of which are even in English – but the point is that the grand history of philosophy was really only written in three. English is not really a philosophical language. Historically, it is more like the language of business.

But, as philosophers, we must speak English because we must address other people. Philosophy is for everybody, and this implies that we must speak to everybody.

Finally, we can discuss the problem in philosophical terms as one of universality. Philosophy is for everybody, it is universal. Yet, philosophy is also universal because it is not completely inside the world as it is. Philosophy does not cling, then, entirely to the is-pole. In some sense, philosophy much rather clings to the worlds that do not yet exist. The world/s of philosophy in fact do not exist. This is what makes philosophy truly useful: the world of philosophy is something between the is-pole and the ought-pole, between the world that exists and the world that we desire to exist. For philosophers the world that is is not the world that ought to be.

And so we have two possibilities at the level of the relationship between language and philosophy: first, philosophy is or ought to be the dominant language. For example, it is or ought to be the language of business and globalization, and ultimately capitalism. This position sutures the ought-pole to the is-pole and accepts that the world that ought to be is also the world as it already is. There are no other creative possibilities. The second possibility breaks out of the first and presumes that philosophy ought not to be tied completely to one dominant language but must be somehow inside of all of the differences of language even while not allowing itself to be reduced to any individual one of them.

We do not want to oppose the first position to one that favors only one marginal language. Heidegger’s position, for example, might have been that Being speaks German. This is a profoundly nationalist position; it is also a fascist position. Against the dominant universal position we must not be tempted toward the particular minoritarian positions. Instead, we must recognize that something like a generic humanity as such exists. Naturally, there are differences within humanity (humanity as a multiplicity of multiplicities), but humanity as such, that is, as a distinct entity, must be presumed to exist.  Generic humanity should therefore not be reduced to its differences. Similarly, we should not reduce philosophy to the English language of business, for example, because being does not speak only one language.

The philosophical opposition that we are tracing is between abstract universality and particularity, it is between the abstract universality of global business ventures and the particularity of nationalism. The point is to move beyond this false opposition. Philosophy itself can not be inscribed into the closure of either (1) abstract universality, and the oppressive universal culture against the life of different peoples, or (2) particularity, and the individual fight against abstract universality. We should not adopt the position that business speaks English, so we must also speak English. Nor should we adopt the position, We are German, so we must only speak German.

There are two political enemies of abstract universality today: (1) the conservative position, that is the one of abstract universality which claims that the world as it is is the only possibility of the world (the world at “peace-time”), and; (2) the reactive position, that is the one claims that we must desire to revive the past. Both of these positions lack a future. Philosophy, on the other hand, always has a future.

If philosophy is really useful today then it is because it attempts to escape the false contradiction or opposition between the conservative position and the reactive position – what we can name the dominant contradiction. Philosophy proposes the possibility of a real future by examining the conditions in which it finds itself.

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3 thoughts on “Alain Badiou: What is Philosophy? [Part 1: Philosophy and Language]

  1. Pingback: Alain Badiou: The Three Fundamental Logics of Negation (Hyper-Transcription) | dingpolitik

  2. Pingback: The Time of Post-Anarchism | dingpolitik

  3. Pingback: Alain Badiou: Two Names for Infinity | dingpolitik

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