"Great philosopher" or, for the more Gallically minded, "maitre a penser" has become a harder and harder term to use without drawing quotation marks in the air. Like "great composer" in the world of music, over the years it has been caught in so many crosshairs that it seems either naive or suspect.
Philosophers themselves have not exactly helped - not least by the reluctance of many to tackle little things like truth, ethics, freedom and justice. The media offer us not public intellectuals but "talking heads", who usually prove as vapid as the term suggests. I, for one, would rather take the term literally and hear Orville the Duck's perspective on Iraq.
At first glance, Alain Badiou's Pocket Pantheon may seem a nostalgic look at simpler intellectual times. In these pages we find "funeral orations" dedicated to some of the key French thinkers of the past 50 years: Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean-Paul Sartre and eight others. Like superheroes, "we have to call them to our rescue ... to accept unconditionally the need to find at least one true Idea and never to give in".
What they share is membership of an elite club of intellectuals, who attended and often taught at the same universities and even, in the case of Lyotard, came from the same village as Badiou. (One of the under-emphasised aspects of cultural history is how small scale cultural movements tend to be - in numbers, diversity of background and, often, simply how close to one another the key players lived and worked.)
All, basically, also share a left-wing perspective and, unsurprisingly, several have books published by Verso. More significantly, in Badiou's presentation, they were thinkers who saw that philosophy can - indeed, should - be more than a conformist game or masturbatory pastime.
Like Jean Baudrillard's America, Pocket Pantheon is almost a coffee-table book, albeit in this case one with intellectual substance. As with classic literary criticism, the essays' combination of reminiscence and exposition yields perspectives that are idiosyncratic without distorting or simply being projection. Discussing Sartre, for instance (and Badiou's affection for Sartre comes out very clearly), he focuses on the Critique of Dialectical Reason, a gargantuan work often dismissed as folly. It undeniably bears signs of what you can do with amphetamines, and what they do to you, when you rely on them to keep you writing rather than to keep you dancing. For Badiou, however, its novel exploration of the genesis, transformation and ossification of different kinds of "social ensemble" makes it Sartre's most important project.
As in Badiou's major works - Being and Event, Theory of the Subject and Logics of Worlds - what implicitly emerges from Pocket Pantheon is a refreshing reassertion of the radical possibilities of philosophy - not only in retrospect, but today. "The trouble is that, nowadays," he writes, philosophy is reduced to little more than a lifestyle option: "keep fit and be efficient, stay cool ... So we revive 'values' that philosophy has always helped us get rid of: obedience ..., empty religion ..., and I could go on." Instead, what philosophy can offer is the expansion of the human mind towards its potential, "exposing ... the human animal to that which exceeds it".
Inasmuch, then, as Pocket Pantheon incidentally provides a kaleidoscopic - or, more precisely, teleidoscopic - view of some of Badiou's own preoccupations, we see that maitres a penser, whether or not we dare use the phrase, have not breathed their last. Badiou and his "pantheon" remind us that a relevant as well as rigorous philosophy remains attainable, not to mention urgently needed.
Pocket Pantheon: Figures of Postwar Philosophy
By Alain Badiou
Verso Books, 208pp, £9.99
Published 17 August 2009