Badiou and the Bankruptcy of Fashionable French Philosophy

by Ralph Dumain

Badiou un-self-consciously gives the game away in this specimen of illusory self-consciousness:

Badiou, Alain. "The Adventure of French Philosophy," New Left Review, new series, no. 35, September-October 2005.

Here are some notes I wrote on this article.


4 Dec 2005

Just as I was about to go to bed, one of my fans enthusiastically forwarded me this article. Badiou is definitely the flavor of the month. This article is a succinct summary of a slice of intellectual history, but what blows me away is how fundamentally unconscious Badiou seems to be of the underlying dynamics I see motivating his intellectual universe. It shows how thoroughly bourgeois all French intellectuals are, esp. those of the hard left—they're the worst! To paraphrase Lenny Bruce: this is so bankrupt, it's thrilling. I'll have more to say when I've had a second go-round with this essay.


4 Dec 2005

First, some quotes, with comments:

BADIOU: "a French philosophical moment of the second half of the 20th century which, toute proportion gardée, bears comparison to the examples of classical Greece and enlightenment Germany."

DUMAIN: But why this moment, or the others, and with what import in the grand scheme?

BADIOU: "Sartre’s foundational work, Being and Nothingness, appeared in 1943 and the last writings of Deleuze, What is Philosophy?, date from the early 1990s. The moment of French philosophy develops between the two of them, and includes Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida and Lacan as well as Sartre and Deleuze—and myself, maybe."

DUMAIN: What was the state of French philosophy before this moment? Kojeve, I've read, was the grand central station for the introduction of Hegel, which influenced all these people? What was French philosophy doing before this turn? Bachelard was a philosopher of science as well as of the poetic imagination: doesn't he go back a little further? What about the previous state of French philosophy of science? What came out of Poincaré, or of Emile Meyerson? Doesn't Barthes figure into this scenario?

BADIOU: "To think the philosophical origins of this moment we need to return to the fundamental division that occurred within French philosophy at the beginning of the 20th century, with the emergence of two contrasting currents. In 1911, Bergson gave two celebrated lectures at Oxford, which appeared in his collection La pensée et le mouvement. In 1912—simultaneously, in other words—Brunschvicg published Les étapes de la philosophie mathématique. Coming on the eve of the Great War, these interventions attest to the existence of two completely distinct orientations. In Bergson we find what might be called a philosophy of vital interiority, a thesis on the identity of being and becoming; a philosophy of life and change. This orientation will persist throughout the 20th century, up to and including Deleuze. In Brunschvicg’s work, we find a philosophy of the mathematically based concept: the possibility of a philosophical formalism of thought and of the symbolic, which likewise continues throughout the century, most specifically in Lévi-Strauss, Althusser and Lacan.

"From the start of the century, then, French philosophy presents a divided and dialectical character. On one side, a philosophy of life; on the other, a philosophy of the concept. This debate between life and concept will be absolutely central to the period that follows. At stake in any such discussion is the question of the human subject, for it is here that the two orientations coincide."

DUMAIN: This is most fascinating, and presents the essence of the problem before us. And the question is: why this dynamic? And then, Is there an unnamed dynamic underlying this ostensible dynamic? How does this compare to the duality of positivism and irrationalism one can find elsewhere in the past century and a half of western philosophy?

Badiou names a dynamic, but there's more to be said about it. (1) Badiou names a conspicuous feature of French thought: the tendency towards formalism and schematism. This is neither British, nor I think, particularly German. Here there is neither German depth nor positivist reduction, but a different twist. (2) Bergson is counterpoised to this tendency. But Bergson is not only a vitalist, but an intuitionist, a mystical reactionary of the worst sort. Bergson's incredible popularity arrives at a moment of historical rebellion against a fully schematized and mathematized world view; it is itself, paradoxically, an abstraction: pure intuition, the flow of lived experience, counterpoised against a completely reified social world? And why is this reification perfected foremost in France? This is the question Badiou doesn't pose.

BADIOU: "A first definition of the French philosophical moment would therefore be in terms of the conflict over the human subject, since the fundamental issue at stake in this conflict is that of the relationship between life and concept.

"We could, of course, take the quest for origins further back and describe the division of French philosophy as a split over the Cartesian heritage. In one sense, the postwar philosophical moment can be read as an epic discussion about the ideas and significance of Descartes, as the philosophical inventor of the category of the subject. Descartes was a theoretician both of the physical body—of the animal-machine—and of pure reflection. He was thus concerned with both the physics of phenomena and the metaphysics of the subject. All the great contemporary philosophers have written on Descartes . . ."

DUMAIN: Descartes set up, abstractly, the philosophical duality of the modern world, of the rising bourgeoisie breaking free of its feudal bonds. Also emerging is a new twist on the division of mental and manual labor. (As, e.g., CLR James et al [1950] have noted, this conception becomes embodied in the administrative-industrial organization of society to come, finally perfected in Stalinist state capitalism—bodiless planning totally organizes mindless physical labor.) A number of analysts have noted thus. The question remains, though: why this struggle over Descartes, specifically in France and specifically in the 20th century?

BADIOU: "French philosophers went seeking something in Germany, then, through the work of Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger. What was it that they sought? In a phrase: a new relation between concept and existence."

DUMAIN: This is eminently logical, but . . . Where was French philosophy at the moment when this trend began? What happened to the once fashionable Bergson?

BADIOU: "The second operation, no less important, concerns science. French philosophers sought to wrest science from the exclusive domain of the philosophy of knowledge by demonstrating that, as a mode of productive or creative activity, and not merely an object of reflection or cognition, it went far beyond the realm of knowledge. They interrogated science for models of invention and transformation that would inscribe it as a practice of creative thought, comparable to artistic activity, rather than as the organization of revealed phenomena."

DUMAIN: This immediately makes me think of Bachelard. But again, where's the why?

BADIOU: "The third operation is a political one. The philosophers of this period all sought an in-depth engagement of philosophy with the question of politics. . . . This fundamental desire to engage philosophy with the political situation transforms the relation between concept and action."

DUMAIN: Why this particular evolution, as opposed, to say, that of Lukacs, or of the Frankfurt School? Note that if the German turn was necessary, then the French lagged behind the Germans in some respect. But why this appropriation of German thought and the French twist on it? And how do the two streams compare in value? How does Sartre's Being and Nothingness—strapped in an impossible dualism ridiculed from all corners—from Marcuse to Farber and back again—compare to the German achievement?

BADIOU: "The fourth operation has to do with the modernization of philosophy, in a sense quite distinct from the cant of successive government administrations. French philosophers evinced a profound attraction to modernity. They followed contemporary artistic, cultural and social developments very closely. . . . In all this, philosophy was seeking a new relation between the concept and the production of forms—artistic, social, or forms of life. Modernization was thus the quest for a new way in which philosophy could approach the creation of forms."

DUMAIN: Again, why the particular configuration of French thought, in comparison to German, in achieving these aims? There must have been a particular blockage that had to be overcome. Later, I think, I'll be saying something about the surrealists, Sartre, and CLR James.

BADIOU: "The question of forms, and of the intimate relations of philosophy with the creation of forms, was of crucial importance. Clearly, this posed the issue of the form of philosophy itself: one could not displace the concept without inventing new philosophical forms. It was thus necessary not just to create new concepts but to transform the language of philosophy. This prompted a singular alliance between philosophy and literature which has been one of the most striking characteristics of contemporary French philosophy."

DUMAIN: Literature and language. The breakout of conceptual confinement paralleled or even necessitated a breakout from linguistic confinement. How, different, then the use of language in France from Germany, which after all, was no stranger to linguistic innovation in either area. But yet the French must have felt the most straight-jacketed. That's where the surrealists came in, after the war.

BADIOU: "The surrealists also played an important role. They too were eager to shake up relations regarding the production of forms, modernity, the arts; they wanted to invent new modes of life. If theirs was largely an aesthetic programme, it paved the way for the philosophical programme of the 1950s and 60s...."


"It is at this stage that we witness a spectacular change in philosophical writing. Forty years on we have, perhaps, grown accustomed to the writing of Deleuze, Foucault, Lacan; we have lost the sense of what an extraordinary rupture with earlier philosophical styles it represented."


"There was, then, both a transformation of philosophical expression and an effort to shift the frontiers between philosophy and literature. We should recall—another innovation—that Sartre was also a novelist and playwright (as am I). The specificity of this moment in French philosophy is to play upon several different registers in language, displacing the borders between philosophy and literature, between philosophy and drama."

DUMAIN: Here we see an impetus to develop a new way of writing. What is not clear in many of these cases, is an intrinsic connection to the development of new abstract concepts. How do the literary and the abstract motivations necessarily mutually motivate one another, if they do? Badiou will then discuss the role of Freud, but there's already something unstated that shouldn't pass unexamined. German philosophical writing is notoriously difficult, syntactically convoluted, dense and allusive, with a record of prodigious terminological innovation, yet something different seems to be going on. The Frankfurt School was up to its eyeballs in Freud, as well as aesthetics, but . . . . ? Is the difference merely that the German philosophers did not feel the need to write novels, plays, poems? Something else is going on that needs to be teased out. It has something to do with "Cartesianism", with literary style, with a rebellion against rigidity and classicism, with a particular configuration governing the rebellion and the nature of what it rebelled against.


4 Dec 2005

I'm going to defer addressing the questions I posed last time, and pick up with the section "With and against Freud."

BADIOU: "At stake, finally, in this invention of a new writing, is the enunciation of the new subject; of the creation of this figure within philosophy, and the restructuring of the battlefield around it. For this can no longer be the rational, conscious subject that comes down to us from Descartes; it cannot be, to use a more technical expression, the reflexive subject. The contemporary human subject has to be something murkier, more mingled in life and the body, more extensive than the Cartesian model; more akin to a process of production, or creation, that concentrates much greater potential forces inside itself."

DUMAIN: I am singularly unimpressed with this stance—though I understand the historical statement he's making—because the Germans were just as deeply engaged with Freud and with all these issues, sans the pretentious rebellion against Cartesianism. But this is too delicious, for Badiou names a dynamic he's trapped in himself, like all these people, and thinks he's diagnosed while remaining obtuse. This is so delicious I'll have to return to it again and again.

BADIOU: "At issue, most fundamentally, has been the division of French philosophy between, on one side, what I would call an existential vitalism, originating with Bergson and running through Sartre, Foucault and Deleuze, and on the other a conceptual formalism, derived from Brunschvicg and continuing through Althusser and Lacan. Where the two paths cross is on the question of the subject, which might ultimately be defined, in terms of French philosophy, as the being that brings forth the concept."

DUMAIN: I see why Sartre is put on the one side, esp. opposite Althusser et al. But wasn't Sartre himself remarkably Cartesian and Kantian, and opposed to the surrealists as well as the spell of poetry? Sartre was deep-sixed posthumously precisely because of his affirmation of the subject, which the other side was sadomasochistically bent on smashing. And remember Barthes' assault on the concept of Man. This is a specifically petty bourgeois French preoccupation—nobody else in the world except their groupies takes this puffed-up foolishness seriously.

BADIOU: "The relation between philosophy and psychoanalysis within French philosophy is just this, one of competition and complicity, of fascination and hostility, love and hatred. No wonder the drama between them has been so violent, so complex."

DUMAIN: Badiou continues with the examples of Bachelard (but omitting Bachelard's philosophy of science) and Sartre—interesting. Deleuze—delusional.

Then, under "Paths of Greatness," Badiou outlines 6 key features of the French philosophical moment. I won't reiterate them here, but do read them.

BADIOU: "Such is the French philosophical moment, its programme, its high ambition. To identify it further, its one essential desire—for every identity is the identity of a desire—was to turn philosophy into an active form of writing that would be the medium for the new subject. And by the same token, to banish the meditative or professorial image of the philosopher; to make the philosopher something other than a sage, and so other than a rival to the priest. Rather, the philosopher aspired to become a writer-combatant, an artist of the subject, a lover of invention, a philosophical militant—these are the names for the desire that runs through this period: the desire that philosophy should act in its own name."

DUMAIN: What a load of shit! The French intellectual and cultural system is the most centralized, bureaucratic, class-confined and elitist in the entire history of humanity. Striking a pose like this is just one other route to the top. This is self-deception at its peak. This is so incredible, I'm almost speechless, but not quite . . . .


9 April 2006

The star system in France also relates to its highly centralized cultural system. The concept of cultural capital now in vogue could never have originated anywhere but in France, and itself is the product of how bourgeois culture emerged out of aristocratic culture, France being the cultural capital of European feudalism. Furthermore, French philosophy, with its penchant for impersonal, schematic, and quasi-mathematical formalized theoretical schemes, reflects the conditions of the French educational and cultural system, and even the rebellion against it, with a penchant for irrationalism, linguistic play, psychoanalysis, obsessions with the body, etc., is determined and wholly encapsulated by the very same conditions. And if you take a cold hard look at all the innovations in French philosophy since the introduction of Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger in the 1920s-30, you should find it all rather inferior to what the German philosophical tradition had already accomplished with the Frankfurt School in the 1930s.


27 July 2009

On Badiou's six points:

1. Eliminate separation of concept and existence? Pretentious drivel. "Existence" is purely academic, and in fact, the separation is greater than ever.

2. Taking philosophy out of the academy? Are you kidding? This was done far more sincerely and effectively 60 years ago.

3. Abandon opposition between knowledge and action? More pretense.

4. To make philosophy a real political intervention? Compared to what now? More pretense.

5. Question of the subject? French anti-humanism is of no importance whatever. The German tradition has said everything needed to be said on the subject.

6. New style of philosophical exposition? Heaven help us!

I find this entire program utterly worthless. . .


See also the following haphazardly selected items. Not all are listed to cast aspersions on their authors or subject matter, but they do amplify some—not all!—directions in French philosophy. One finds here various contributions to various trends, for example, French Marxism and postmodernism. Omitted, for example, are French analytical philosophers. The conflict between Benda and Bergson early in the 20th century, as well as the broader contextualization by Hughes, is relevant here. Read points out Althusser's key issues concerning philosophy. Balibar and Macherey probably accomplished far more. Schrift emphasizes the institutional context of French philosophy, which he believes accounts for its peculiar traits. Badiou's perspective is not all there is.

Balibar, Étienne. "Irrationalism and Marxism," New Left Review, I/107, January-February 1978, pp. 3-18.

Balibar, Etienne. Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy Before and After Marx, translated by James Swenson. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Balibar, Etienne, The Philosophy of Marx, translated by Chris Turner. London; New York: Verso, 1995. Full text online.

Benda, Julien. The Treason of the Intellectuals (La Trahison Des Clercs), translated by Richard Aldington, with a new introduction by Roger Kimball. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007. (Translation first published 1928; French original, 1927.) See also my reviews of July 12, 2006:

Of Benda:

I am alarmed by's links to "similar" right-wing books. The conservative thrust of other customer reviewers is flat-out ignorant. To get a better appraisal of Benda's philosophical outlook, a look at his other work is in order. A good source on Benda's ouevre is Julien Benda (1956) by Robert Judson Niess.

Another good source is also a classic: Consciousness and Society by H. Stuart Hughes. To be sure, Benda was an uncompromising partisan of the Enlightenment and democracy, but his provincial, traditional, classical education made a control freak out of him. Benda lacked flexibility and could not with sufficient concreteness engage the contemporary trends he rejected—recent developments in literature as well as irrationalist philosophy. (Benda's nemesis was Henri Bergson, a point in his favor.)

There is also a pro-Benda tendency on the left. Recent examples are Russell Jacoby's The End of Utopia and Edward W. Said's Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (see my review). Apart from what I call 'left Benda-ism', there is a rich history of public intellectuals as well as academics who advocate or practice free-floating intellectualism combined with political radicalism, including Richard Wright, Jean-Paul Sartre, Theodor Adorno, Jurgen Habermas, Noam Chomsky, and Alvin Gouldner. In fact, Karl Marx was just this type of individual, as Gouldner pointed out.

Of Said:

This is a short popular introduction to the social role of intellectuals, taking off from the polarity of Julien Benda (free-floating) vs. Antonio Gramsci (organic) intellectuals. While Benda has always had a conservative flavor, his advocacy of independence and integrity (as opposed to his conservative notion of the intellectual's obligation to the eternal verities) is nonetheless important, so Said could be considered a left Benda-ite (as could Russell Jacoby). Said advocates the independence as well as the engagement of free-floating and academic intellectuals. He writes of the difficulties of negotiating the cosmopolitan and the national commitments of intellectuals, also of the experience of exile and marginalization. He also addresses the polarity of professionalism and amateurism, holding to the side of the "amateurs", without disavowing membership in academic institutions. He prefers the role of "speaking truth to power", which also means avoiding the twin temptations of self-submission to gods that inevitably fail and apostatic dogma-hopping.

Burwick, Frederick; Douglass, Paul; eds. The Crisis in Modernism: Bergson and the Vitalist Controversy. Cambridge [UK]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. See table of contents and publisher description.

During, Elie. « 'A History of Problems' : Bergson and the French Epistemological Tradition ». Article publié dans le Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, vol. 35, n° 1, janvier 2004.

Hughes, H. Stuart. Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. Originally published: New York: Knopf, 1958. Latest edition, with a new introduction by Stanley Hoffman: New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002. My edition: New York: Vintage Books, 1961. See also "Consciousness and Society: A Review" by R. Dumain.

Lears, Jackson. "Keeping It Real," The Nation, June 12, 2006. Review of Martin Jay's Songs of Experience.

Lefebvre, Henri. Henri Lefebvre: Key Writings; ed. Stuart Elden, Elizabeth Lebas, Eleonore Kofman. New York; London: Continuum Books, 2003. Excerpts can be viewed on Google books; see also the Continuum Books site.

Macherey, Pierre. In a Materialist Way: Selected Essays, edited by Warren Montag; translated by Ted Stolze. London; New York: Verso, 1998.

Matthews, Eric. Review: Alan D. Schrift, Twentieth Century French Philosophy: Key Themes and Thinkers, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 2007.03.25.

Nizan, Paul. “The End of a Philosophic Parry: Bergsonism,” Les Revues, 1929, reprinted in Paul Nizan, Intellectuel Communiste (Paris:Maspero, 1967). Translated by Mitchell Abidor.

Politzer, Georges. After the Death of M. Bergson, La Pensée Libre, no. 1 February 1941; reprinted in Ecrits 1; La Philosophie et les Mythes, edited by Jacques Debouzy (Paris: Éditions Sociales, 1969). Translated by Mitch Abidor.

Read, Jason. "The Althusser Effect: Philosophy, History, and Temporality," borderlands e-journal, volume 4 number 2, 2005.

Schrift, Alan D. "Trends in French Philosophy: Fashion? ou autre chose?," paper delivered at American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, 103rd Third Annual Meeting, December 29, 2006, session IV-F.

Schrift, Alan D. Twentieth Century French Philosophy: Key Themes and Thinkers. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Full text online.

Schrift, Alan D. "The Effects of the Agrégation de Philosophie on Twentieth-Century French Philosophy," Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 46, no. 3, July 2008, pp. 449-473.

Wolin, Richard. "Heidegger Made Kosher," The Nation, February 20, 2006.

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