I was reading some of the lecture “Philosophy and Desire” from Badiou’s Infinite Thought yesterday, and it occurred to me that his description of the contemporary state of philosophy is decidedly clinical. But first, a little recapitulation.
Badiou’s claim in this lecture is that contemporary philosophy can be split into three streams: hermeneutic, analytical, and postmodern, and that more or less breaks up into German (Heidegger), Anglo-American (Wittgenstein), and French (Derrida) schools. The exact genealogy here is essentially irrelevant, however – what is important is what underlies these contemporaneous philosophical events, to what symptom they are responding. Badiou locates this as a symptom of language, or the historical realization that language works as a mechanism of predetermination and an inhibitor of freedom in the modern sense. As a result, Badiou finds two illnesses that this symptom has created: linguistic relativism or the polyvalence of meanings, and historical pessimism or the end of metaphysics. This is the patient’s self-diagnosis.
Badiou’s thesis is that contemporary philosophy need not suffer from these illnesses. His claim is not that this diagnosis is incorrect (i.e. in the realm of knowledge, there is a polyvalence of meanings, one with just as equal a claim to adequation as another), but that there is most certainly another way forward. The problem with the patient, for Badiou, is that she views the loss of her former state as an actual ontological loss rather than a realization of new possiblities. Here is the quote in full:
My hypothesis is that although philosophy is ill, it is less ill than it thinks it is, less ill than it says it is. One of the characteristics of contemporary philosophy is to elaborate page after page on its own mortal illnesses. But you know, when it is the patient who says he is ill, there is always a chance that it is at least in part an imaginary illness. And I think that this is the case, because the world itself, despite all the negative pressures it exerts on the desire of philosophy, the world, that is the people who live in it and think in it, this world, is asking something of philosophy. Yet philosophy is too morose to respond due to the morbidity of its own vision of itself.
Contemporary philosophy is in a sort of catatonic state due to this perceived loss of its being. It can’t respond to calls to move forward because it remains stuck in the scheme of its former intended meaning; that is, if it can’t reach the level of truth once desired, then it will strive for no truth at all. It has lost the pleasure of its former activities, so it moves into other realms, whether literature, art, or the social sciences, but when it interacts with the latter disciplines, it can become an irascible antagonist, poking holes in established theories simply to provoke. There is a feeling of hopelessness that pervades contemporary philosophy, to the point where it has become enclosed in its own loop of despair, and any attempt to rescue it with reassurances of new and better things is met with resentment and anger. In other words, philosophy is in a state of depression. This is the clinician’s diagnosis.
What Badiou opens up is a philosophical cure for this supposed illness. The concepts of being, subject, and truth are renewed, once again given life with the help of a set theoretical ontology. This is not a resurrection, however. Philosophy is right to feel the loss of the old rationalism and its metaphysics of substance. What Badiou offers is a new way of conceiving the duty of philosophy, but with a familiar ring. That familiarity lies in the fact that the desire of philosophy hasn’t changed, only the means of its accomplishment have. The patient may renew that same desire which always drove her to her work, but directed to a wholly new end – in this case, the thinking of contemporaneous events. The difference between the latter and the metaphysical system is that the thinking of events is a reachable end, not destined for the failure inherent to totalization.