Creating the Future

In this lecture, Alain Badiou suggests the task of philosophy is to avoid two extremes. One extreme – abstract universality – is to state in abstract and theoretical terms what unifies all people. Badiou identifies this with science, technology, business, capitalism. The other extreme – particularity – resists abstract universality by focusing on bounded groups, such as nationalism, religious fundamentalism, racism, and so on. The task of philosophy is to thread the needle and create, what one might call, universality of particulars, where people discover their shared universality through an openness to each others’ particularity.

For Badiou philosophy – the universality of particularity – is always oriented towards the future. Particularity is focused on the past: it says we need to hold on to the communal bonds which are being dissolved by the push towards universality. In contrast, abstract universality is focused on the present: it says we have discovered the universal categories (evolution, cognitive science, the rational foundations of morality, etc.) and now the task is mainly to apply them to our situation. But for Badiou philosophy is neither about preservation of the past nor sustaining the present, but about creating the future.

It is evident through the talk that fundamentalist religion is particularity and the past. About an hour into the talk, he suggests that analytic philosophy is abstract universality and the present. This leads to the striking claim that if analytic philosophy dominates, then creativity and philosophy and love and, indeed the essence of humanity, will come to an end. On this picture, analytic philosophy succumbed to technicism and lost itself in scientism.

Having just read Jason Stanley’s book on propaganda, what jumps out to me is the contrast with Stanley’s conception of analytic philosophy. Part of what Stanley is doing is trying to undercut precisely the kind of view of analytic philosophy Badiou and many others assume.

Yet, the way Stanley does this is not by addressing the kind of worry Badiou has; in fact, this worry whether analytic philosophy has the resources to create a pluralistic community of particulars is nowhere entertained in Stanley’s book. Stanley’s method is to quiet this worry by pointing out, as he sees it, all the resources that analytic philosophy can bring to the table: the latest achievements of analytic epistemology and philosophy of language. Stanley though doesn’t address the obvious question which someone like Badiou would have: But how are the results you focus on different from science? They seem to follow precisely from philosophy as meta-science, where the work Stanley focuses on arises from within discussion of linguistics and cognitive science. It is easy to imagine Badiou asking: But how can people in general contribute to this project? How can philosophy retain it’s ideal of universal participation? This is a question I pressed in my posts on Stanley’s book.

Setting aside Stanley, what of Badiou’s view? One criticism I made of Stanley’s book is that in it there is no reference to non-academic philosophy, or even to its possibility. This is bizarre for a book interested in the role of philosophy in democratic public discourse. Badiou in his lecture suggests that philosophy should not be seen as a mere academic subject. That it is about living a philosophical life, and that this cannot be reduced to academic professionalization.

All well and good. But what does this mean about the fact that Badiou is an academic, a very famous one, at a very prestigious university? And that his work is no less specialized in a sense than Stanley’s, in that one has to share a great deal of academic background with Badiou to even understand what he is saying? What is Badiou’s relation to non-academic philosophy?

As I see it, it is that Badiou is calling for something which in the first instance, and primarily, can only be created, at this moment in our culture and civilization, outside academic philosophy. In this Badiou is like Wittgenstein: If Badiou is right, then he has to either leave academia, or, at the very least, acknowledge that as an academic the practice of his philosophy only makes sense in relation to something that does not yet exist and which is the telos of his thought: structures of philosophy outside academia.

I see Badiou as a kind of John the Baptist: heralding what is to come, and where what he himself does is not the foundation of what is to come. Badiou’s philosophy is that of a transition. It is an academic philosopher highlighting from within it the limits of academic philosophy. This is not a project that can be carried on generation after generation just from within academia.

The thinker Badiou reminds me of is Stanley Cavell. In the below lecture, Cavell articulates a very similar picture of philosophy as Badiou. For Cavell, philosophy is about exploring one’s own individuality in a way such that our universal bonds as people come to light. This is a version of univerality of particulars. Cavell suggests that we have no universal categories which already capture what it is to be a human being. This skepticism of abstract universality is what he finds in common to many of his heroes such as Emerson, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. The philosophical task for Cavell is to dig through one’s individuality to the universal, but where the destination is forever out of hand, and where it can never be used as textbook material: philosopher X discovered insight Y, and so Y can be added to our universal concepts of humankind.

It is not a coincidence that Cavell and Badiou are older, white men. For they are remnants of a time when academic philosophers could presume to spend their days exploring whatever they find interesting in whatever ways, and so exploring and cultivating their individuality as thinkers. That is, where they can do philosophy as, to put it in Cavell’s terms, an autobiographical exercise. Try doing this now in graduate school or as an assistant professor. It is impossible.

The reason for this is not techocentrism or the dehumanizing effects of the business model of academia. It is something more basic: the pluralism which enables people of vastly different background, cultures, abilities, interests, etc. to now partake in academia when they couldn’t have done so even 50 years ago.

This comes out clearly in Cavell’s discussion of Wittgenstein on education. According to Cavell, the main insight of Wittgenstein’s can be put as follows: education presupposes the teacher and the student having a shared background, a common form of life. Why should the student listen to the teacher? What gives the teacher authority over the student?

It is not because the teacher is simply a stand in for the community, insisting that this is how it is done; this is, for Cavell, the pedagogically conservative implication of Kripke’s communal reading of Wittgenstein. This is particularity in Badiou’s sense. Nor is it because the teacher has grasped onto the universal categories which bind all human beings; the worry about rule following arises because there is no such universal interpretation. This is abstract universalism in Badiou’s sense.

For Cavell it is because the teacher and the student are bound by certain forms of life, where the teacher is someone the student can grow to be similar to. Not just in a professional sense, but as a human being. This is easier to imagine when the classroom is filled with a white male professor teaching white male students. Because sociologically and economically and otherwise, they used to share a form of life.

But the democratization of education undercut this possibility. It raised the question, what form of life now binds the teachers and the students? It is a question I had even when listening in class to Cavell as my professor: what form of life do Cavell and I have in common such that I can see myself going in the same way as him? Importantly, agreeing with Cavell does not provide such a shared form of life. If mere theoretical agreement, even about philosophy, could provide it, then it would be a form of abstract universalism after all. The fact that I agree with Cavell but don’t see my future in his form of life shows the extent to which our background form of life are different.

Not necessarily because he is white and I am not. That’s the problem with pluralism. Once the Pandora’s box of pluralism is opened, there could be any number of dimensions along which people may, or may not, share forms of life. I can’t say why exactly I didn’t see myself in Cavell’s, but I can say this: I didn’t.

And the more he didn’t talk about this possibility – that perhaps some of his students might not share in his form of life even though they are taking a class with him – the more it seemed that Cavell was merely making an abstract, theoretical point after all. He, like Badiou, was highlighting the abstract structure of what an engaged philosophy should look like. But they are not addressing the practical problems of doing such engaged philosophy. For if they did, the first thing they would have to confront is the possibility that they as professors cannot presume to relate to their students in the way assumed by the institutional structures.

This comes up in the Badiou talk. Half way through the talk, Badiou asks: “What is my duty here in this room as a philosopher? What is the duty of all of us in this room?” What he means is: what can we as academic philosophers, we professors and students, do to cultivate engaged, creative philosophy? He then goes on to sketch what is thinks is needed: to resist analytic philosophy, to make the past speak to the present as a way of creating the future, etc.

But what he takes for granted is that he and the people in the room are bound by something – something abstract called “philosophy”. And yet, what is that philosophy? Where is the guarantee that the people in that room share the form of life needed to engage in joint, practical projects? This explains the dismissal of analytic philosophy, because it is an easy thing to fall back of what presumably most of the people in the room have in common: they don’t spend their time reading Kripke or Dennett. However, this is to fall prey to a kind of abstract universalism, where the bond between people is mainly created through something they theoretically agree on.

What then of the practical problem of how to get beyond abstract universalism in the context of pluralism? At least in the video Badiou has nothing to offer in response. And it is hard to offer something in the academic context in which he is speaking. For in academia the kind of creativity Badiou is talking about is reserved for people at the top of hierarchy, for people like him, Cavell, Rorty, Rawls, Quine, Wittgenstein and so on. It is a farce to imagine that an adjunct professor or even an assistant professor can do the kind of creative philosophy Cavell and Badiou can take a stand for as academic super-stars.

Here there is a core similarity between Cavell, Badiou and Stanley. All of them presume to do philosophy without being completely up front about the power they have in speaking of philosophy. It is almost as if they are simply doing philosophy, and so are beyond such concerns. But in the process they fail to deal with the practical problem of how philosophy as a universal discourse is even possible when no two people can presume to speak as equals or as sharing a form of life.

In this context, there is a potential for philosophy outside academia that there isn’t inside academia. Outside academia no one has to listen to any other thinker, at least not in moderately open and free societies. They are not already burdened by the institutional relations of whether one is a tenured professor or is at a prestigious university and so on. Or, at any rate, not burdened to the same degree, and not in the same way. This doesn’t mean people outside academia are free of power differentials; certainly not. But it does mean that, if structures for doing so can be created, those power differentials can be talked about more easily and openly outside academia than they can be inside academia. And that is a path for co-creating philosophy for the future.

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