The Critique of Critique: Critical Theory as a New Access to the Real

Note: I, Duane Rousselle, have selected the title for this transcription of a talk that Alain Badiou gave to students of the Global Center for Advanced Studies on the morning of January the 8th, 2014. I have taken some minor liberties in my transcription so as to facilitate better comprehension. Alternatively, the reader may choose to watch the lecture rather than read it. This can be done by clicking on the following link: Alain Badiou, Live at GCAS.

The Critique of Critique: Critical Theory as a New Access to the Real

By Alain Badiou

The word “critique” has a very long history. In the old language, we have the word “krinein(κριτική)* and the meaning of “krinein” (κριτική) was ‘to sort, or to separate, something which is good from something which is bad.’ So there is always a relationship between the idea of “critique” and the idea of “judgement”; judgement concerning very different things; judgments concerning the true and the false, concerning the good and the bad, concerning what is appropriate and what is not, and so on. So, the philosophical history of the word “critique” is also the history of that sort of mental activity which consists of the separation between two values. Maybe the clearest example of critical enquiry is with Plato whom made the fundamental distinction between opinion and knowledge, and, between what is without philosophical interest and what is inside of the field of philosophical interest.

This is a very important point: critique is not reducible to a purely negative activity. Very often the word “critique” has a close relationship to something like negativity, and finally to a sort of skepticism. (Skepticism, in the sense of a purely negative conclusion or a negative activity.) But this is not exactly the meaning of the word “critique”. We must say that critique always has a negative part which is the negative determination of some activity, some mental disposition, or some orientation of thinking. But there is also always something which is good, which is the result of the separation between two forms of thinking, of knowledge, and so on.

As you know, another meaning of “critique” has a close relationship to the work of Immanuel Kant (in The Critique of Pure Reason, and so on). And so, it is very important for us to clearly understand the meaning of “critique” in the work of Kant. I think we can say something like this: with Kant, critique is not exactly the pure separation between what is true and what is false, it is more about the idea of a limit. Kant’s role was to determine the limit of pure reason, the limit of knowledge. So, the separation is not exactly between something true and something false but much more between what is possible and what is impossible. It is different from the original sense of the word “critique”. We have now passed from the idea of separation, the distinction between what is true and what is false, between opinion and clear knowledge, and so on, toward something of a different nature which is the knowledge of what is possible for human knowledge. And I think that this sort of transformation of the word “critique” is also the transformation of the function of negativity within knowledge itself.

For Kant, finally, the negative function of “critique” was to determine that something is impossible for human knowledge, that something can not be really known by humanity. And this is the idea of the limit. It is something like a radical critique of what Kant names dogmatism. Dogmatism is in some sense classical metaphysics. There was something in Kant which formed the real beginning of what I can name the modern tradition. The modern tradition is different from the old fashion of philosophy, under the name of metaphysics (when we are in the Heideggerian style), dogmatism (when we are in the classical style), and nonsense (when we in Wittgenstein’s style). But in any case, with Kant, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, we have the idea of something completely inappropriate, something obscure, and finally, with no value concerning knowledge within a large part of the philosophical tradition. And with the negative designation, under the name of dogmatism, nonsense, or metaphysics. A large project of human thinking is finished. Critics say something like that. The idea of critique is to transform the historical idea of something like the end of a philosophical style.

This transformation is very important because if critique in a primitive sense is the exercise of practical and theoretical separation between true and false, opinions and truth, and so on, then practically all philosophers must admit that activity is in some sense a metaphysical one. Because inside metaphysics, inside skepticism, inside critical theory, and so on, we have always some separation between that which is true and that which is false, or truth and accident, and so on. There is no thinking without the work of separation. But if critique takes the modern meaning of something which is historically accomplished or historically finished and if the meaning is that philosophy must accept the limit of its proper activity, then this is something different. It is something different because it is not a general characteristic of philosophical activity, but it is a philosophical proposition. And a philosophical proposition can be discussed and can be refused, and so on. At this point I can say something like that.

We have two meanings of critique. First, in some sense a weak meaning: which is only the activity of separation between what is possible within philosophy and what is outside the world of philosophy. And, in this case, the point is only what is the extension, the dimension, of negativity. We can begin from the Platonic position, which is that we can, after a good critique, we can have an idea of Truth, toward the skeptical position, which is that we have no idea of Truth. But in any case, the separation is the point and the separation is active and affirmative, finally, in the case of Plato, and the separation is completely negative in the sense of skepticism. It is the classical meaning of critique, if you want. But now, in the modern time we have a strong meaning of critique which is the idea that a large part of philosophy, the destiny of philosophy, must be determined as something which is finished, something which is historically finished.

We can say some words about the latter position [about the strong modern meaning of critique]. I am in some sense against the modern meaning of “critique” if this modern meaning is a judgement concerning the complete history of philosophy. I don’t agree with the idea that after some centuries of dogmatic power [in philosophy] we are now in the field of “critical” possibility and that we know the limits of reason. And, why? It is because I think that in fact we can not know something that limits reason. So it’s my critique of critique. We can not know the limit of reason because human reason is in some sense the infinite dimension of our existence. And “infinite” must be understood in the strong sense. “Infinite” means that we can not know precisely the limit of what we can know, of what we can understand, and so on. And so I think the true modern idea of critique, on the contrary, is to assume that we can not understand, we can not have a clear idea, of what is an “end” or a “limit” of reason.

My position is contrary to the modern sense of critique as the determination of something impossible. Why? On this point, I am Lacanian. I think that the impossible is precisely the name of the Real. So when we say, “okay, I know the limits of reason, I know what is impossible for reason to know,” and so on, I am saying, finally, “I am not able to understand the Real at all.” After all, this is the position of Kant: that being-as-such and the Thing-as-such, can not be known, precisely. Maybe it concerns the field of practical reason, but in the field of knowledge we can not know it. And so there is a close relationship between Kant and Lacan on the topic of the Real; the Real, precisely as being-as-being [being qua being], being-as-such, can not be known, and so it is a point of impossibility. The Real is also something impossible. That’s a conclusion. It’s not that it is completely impossible to have access to the impossible. We can perfectly have the conclusion that something of the Real can be known under the condition of a displacement concerning the limitations of possibility and impossibility. Part of what is impossible can be known if the separation between what is impossible and what is possible changes. And, it is my conception, basically, that something which satisfies the limit between impossibility and possibility opens a new access to the Real as such.

Finally in that sort of context, what is the possible definition of something like “critical theory”? The definition would be something like this: “critical theory” is the opening up of the new possibility to think the Real through the possible modification of the separation between what is possible and what is impossible. In some sense, the goal of “critical theory” is always to know, to have an understanding (to have a new form of understanding), of what is impossible to know. So it is something which accepts the Kantian idea concerning the relationship between the Real and the impossible. That is the Lacanian part. To be on the side of Kant and also on the side of Lacan is precisely on the point of this close relationship to the Real. Although we can accept all of that, the conclusion concerning critical activity is that the field of critical activity is always to work at the limit of the possible and the impossible with the idea that this limit is not a stable limit, it is a limit which in some sense can be modified, can be transformed.

The work of critical thinking is precisely the work on this limit. So, as a retroactive conclusion, my vision is first to accept the classical meaning of “critique”: “critique” is always a question of separation and so of a limit between, classically, the good and the evil, and so on. I also accept the modern meaning of “critique”: that is the meaning given by Kant, which is that the question of the limit is the question of the limit between the possible and the impossible. But my conclusion is not a negative position, my conclusion is an affirmative one. That is, that we can open up a new access to the transformation of the limit itself. So, it is not only the activity of the defining of the limit but the activity of the change of the limit itself.

* Thanks to Simon Gros for providing this more correct Greek version of the word.


8 thoughts on “The Critique of Critique: Critical Theory as a New Access to the Real

  1. Thank you for the work you put into this – as for Badiou, I find him banal, almost trivial in his dramatic pronouncement of the obvious as something new. But, it would be interesting if he also discussed The Concept of Criticism in Early German Romanticism by Walter Benjamin which casts the debate in an entirely different direction.

    • You’re totally missing the point. I’m not defending Badiou, it’s only that, he is putting his own thought on the problematic (the stamp of Badiou) by saying the Real is knowable in different worlds “and so on.” It’s novel insofar as Badiou is novel, and you can’t deny that he is. Bringing Benjamin into it is banalification proper!

  2. Sorry to disagree, but a deep understanding of philosophy will reveal that Badiou is not novel at all – as he says himself, he is the last one still alive, and there is always an anglophone who will worship the next French fad. As for Benjamin, his thinking is subtle and influenced by more than his unfortunate Marxism.

  3. Pingback: The Critique of Critique: Critical Theory as a New Access to the Real | Durandus von Meissen

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

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