The Adventure of French Philosophy

This examination of past and future thought leaves Shahidha Bari captivated, and occasionally baffled

July 12, 2012

In recent months, as the neatly bespectacled François Hollande has been ducking for cover from the crossfire of his romantic entanglements (see Valérie Trierweiler @valtrier versus Ségolène Royal @RoyalSegolene on Twitter, 12 June), one might have wondered if some mischievous wag hadn't thought to send France's beleaguered new president a copy of Alain Badiou's latest tome, The Adventure of French Philosophy.

With its earnest probing into matters of love, sex and politics, you would be forgiven for thinking that Verso's latest offering from "France's greatest living philosopher" might have served the current occupant of the Élysée Palace, his lover and his ex rather well. Certainly this new book is likely to receive a warmer welcome from the newest Président de la République than Badiou's 2009 book The Meaning of Sarkozy might have elicited from Hollande's predecessor.

But this is philosophy neither for presidents nor popular audiences. It is, instead, unashamedly difficult and obscure continental thought. The miscellaneous essays compiled here stretch across a 40-year period, but they also range widely from a boyishly obstinate Maoism to virtuosic exposition, spiky ontological roistering and more troubled introspections on intimacy.

In the introduction to the book, Bruno Bosteels breathlessly describes Badiou as "a grand system-builder", a "seasoned pedagogue", an "unforgiven polemicist" and a "satirist of the political moment", but unctuous blandishments ought not to dissuade you from acknowledging that these essays showcase the tenacious drilling-down of an ambitious and generously committed philosopher.

Perhaps more discouraging, though, is the resolutely recondite quality of the prose; if this isn't the most infuriatingly opaque read you'll encounter this year, then perhaps you ought to get out more. Yet what Badiou accomplishes terrifically well here is an account of the state of philosophy, not as an academic discipline but as a mode of engagement with the world, and one that is still emerging from the most significant epoch of its history.

Cumulatively, these essays delineate a history of contemporary continental philosophy, a field whose atmospheric existential inheritance from Martin Heidegger is, in Badiou, united with a more severe conceptual formalism and a determined political affiliation. For Badiou, philosophy is the ends of reason that is only made manifest in specific moments of history, but this is not simply to say that his philosophy speaks directly to politics, nor even solely to any Maoist-Marxist formation of politics. Rather, as Badiou explains in the first essay (from which the book takes its title), contemporary philosophy is shaped by four key developments.

First, it inherits the German legacy of Heidegger, from which the branches of deconstruction and phenomenology have extended; second, through thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, it interrogates and reconfigures the natural sciences as a model of invention, seeking a similar creativity; third, following the post-war activism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Louis Althusser, it commits to political engagement; and last, it demonstrates an affinity with non-figurative art forms as expressed in the modernist interests of Michel Foucault and others.

From this astute summation of the history of contemporary philosophy, Badiou concludes with an unwavering sureness that the upshot of this epoch (and the object of the next) is the inauguration of an idea of philosophy in which new relations are formed between "concepts" and the "life" from which they come and to which they belong. This opening essay is remarkable for the confidence of its synthesis and the overview that it provides, but what's most impressive is the quietly contained excitement Badiou manages to impart about what philosophy could do next, and what it might look like if the distance of "concept" from "life" were to be collapsed. In part, this rather abstract formulation returns to tried and tested Badiou-ish notions exposited in his earlier work Being and Event (2007). Badiou strategically avoids offering up a description of what might constitute this new "concept-life" philosophy, but it is the intimacy of his thinking about the nature of thinking itself, and his insistent sense of the profound place of philosophy, that makes this essay live up to the "adventure" promised by its title.

And yet, the book also has some disastrously faltering moments. The essays on Maoism are difficult, technical and ungainly, exhibiting a boyish devotion when others have abandoned ship. There is a vaguely distasteful, sometimes ugly egotism in the ontological elbowing of Jean-Luc Nancy, too. Certain essays included in the collection (see "The (Re)commencement of Dialectical Materialism") are surely addressed to a narrow specialist audience, and might, to even the most capable reader, call to mind the infuriated incomprehension of a child hurling a gnawed Rubik's cube at a wall. In contrast, the essays on Georges Canguilhem and Jean-François Lyotard are focused and illuminating, technical and deft. That Badiou's rendering of Foucault, Deleuze and Lyotard reconfigures them to the point of unrecognisability is to his credit; that crowd of familiar French faces are fashioned anew under his dynamic and sure hand. It is, however, embarrassingly evident that the female thinkers reviewed towards the end of the book - Monique David-Ménard, Françoise Proust, Barbara Cassin - are a hastily appended afterthought, barely done justice.

Yet the question of sexual inequality makes for the most arresting essay in the collection. In the "Caesura of Nihilism", a bullish critique of Nancy yields to a more troubled, probing inquiry into the puzzle of sex, violence and pleasure. The thinking here is less sure and so oddly persuasive, each proposition formulated and carefully inspected, and the idea of intimacy ingeniously bound back into broader questions of political and philosophical truth. Sexual pleasure is neither selfless nor solipsistic but "a fragment, a cut...a dislocated continuum", he muses, "in which the fertile obscenity of the real had come to glow".

Similarly, the "Commitment, Detachment, Fidelity" essay of 1990 reveals another Badiou in a different tone. There is a pleasing candour to this essay, an intimacy in its opening tableau of the philosopher nostalgically puzzling over his adolescent reading of Sartre, as he gradually unfurls an existential epigram into a startling fullness. It is Sartre, for Badiou, who recalibrates philosophy to put into question the "whole world". But Badiou redeems Sartre's existentialism against a conceptual formalism and this fires his thinking with confidence: "If God is dead...this does not mean that everything is possible - and even less that nothing is. It means that there is precisely nothing better, nothing greater, nothing truer, than the answers of which we are capable...It means that there are truths and, consequently, nothing is sacred, except precisely the fact that there are truths." What might distinguish Badiou here from his predecessors is an unwavering sense of the possibilities of such "truths" and a relentless vigilance against the temptations of transcendence. The thinking of "truths" with promise neither of redemption nor nihilism is, for Badiou, the challenge in this new epoch of philosophy that binds concepts to life.

At times, the essays in this collection present a seasoned and trenchant Badiou, a stubbornly undeterred and unreconstituted 68er. At their best, though, they also betray a wistfulness shored up by a confidence in the cause of philosophy, and always the bravura of a fearless thinker not incapable of gentleness: "To think means to make a section in chaos. To be as close as possible to chaos, and nonetheless to shelter oneself from it." This is a difficult book, but one under which we might shelter.

The Author

Great names, it seems, are inevitably linked to that of Alain Badiou, holder of the René Descartes chair at the privately funded European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. No less a theorist than ursine provocateur Slavoj Žižek has said of the philosopher, novelist/playwright and activist: "A figure like Plato or Hegel walks here among us." And no less a film-maker than Jean-Luc Godard cast him (as himself) in 2010's Film Socialisme, set on a luxury liner.

Born in Rabat, Morocco to a philosopher mother and a mathematician/mayor father, over the years the still-prolific 75-year-old has seen off a host of intellectual peers and sparring partners, including Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault - as well as the politician he dubbed "Rat Man" in 2009's The Meaning of Sarkozy.

An unrepentant Maoist and soixante-huitard, he insists that "liberal the vehicle of savage, destructive nihilism" and that China's savage, destructive Cultural Revolution was a necessity.

But the author of this year's In Praise of Love does have some regrets.

"In Paris now, half of couples don't stay together more than five years," he told The Guardian. "It's sad, because I don't think many of these people know the joy of love."

The Adventure of French Philosophy

By Alain Badiou, edited by Bruno Bosteels

Verso, 430pp, £20.00

ISBN 9781844677931

Published 2 July 2012

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.