Alain Badiou: Against the Sophists

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“Just  as  Plato  wrote  the  Gorgias and Protagoras for the major  sophists , we  should write the  Nietzsche and  the  Wittgenstein. And,  for  the  minor sophists,  the  Vattimo and  the  Rorty.  Neither more  nor less  polemical,  neither  more  nor  less  respectful.”
…….– Alain Badiou, Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy 

  Began reading Badiou’s Being and Event past couple of days. Following Descartes use of meditations Badiou will divide his into thirty-seven. In Old French meditacion is defined as “thought, reflection, study” along with the Greek, Latin, German, and other uses and definitions we see its use in philosophy as part of that contemplative tradition that seeks to clarify and enlighten. Along with Badiou’s own work (i.e., his Manifestos’, Conditions, Theory of the Subject, etc.) I’ve put Christopher Norris’s commentary Badiou’s ‘Being and Event’: A Reader’s Guide along with The Badiou Dictionary, Ed Pluth’s Badiou: A Philosophy of the New, and Peter Hallward’s Badiou: A Subject To Truth on my study table. Several study guides and in depth works on Cantor’s and Cohen’s mathematical work on Set Theoretic.

I almost feel like I’m going to war. It’s true. Sometimes when one is embarked on a work of such depth as Badiou’s two-part Being and Event and Logics of Worlds one should be aware of one’s own limitations. One is the obvious inability on my part to read Badiou in the original. Even though I do have both works in French and several dictionaries and grammars I still feel inadequate to the task of translation. But we work on it with the usual cross-reference of good English translations. One of the great things about the French language as against English is its precision and clarity. Whereas English in polyglot and prone to pun and ambiguity (i.e., read Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson), the French language is based on a stringent and circumspect, almost modest enforcement of the use of metonymic over metaphoric tropes. Of course many linguists dispute this, too. French having just as many expressive and hyperbolic or multivalent words within its vocabulary as English. Either way working with both the original and translations I’ll be slowly absorbed in Badiou’s works for a while so that many upcoming posts may reflect certain aspects of his work.

One can feel the excitement of Badiou as he tackles this project of ontology. His sentences are lucid and rigorous. I’ll save a commentary on the first meditation for another time, but will mention two statements that intrigued me already: first, he posits that being is structureless (i.e., ‘there is no structure of being’ p. 28); and, second, ontology is the theory of inconsistent multiplicity as such.1 Badiou attests that his main enemy is the Sophists of our age, those who perform the task of reducing truth to language games. His book on Wittgenstein is probably the one to read to get the complete diagnosis of this age-old dilemma, and why Badiou’s return to Plato is so prevalent with his installation of truth-procedures, conditions, and the empty form of Truth against what he terms the ‘democratic materialism’ of our day.

The Greek word sophistēs, formed from the noun sophia, ‘wisdom’ or ‘learning’, has the general sense ‘one who exercises wisdom or learning’. As sophia could designate specific types of expertise as well as general sagacity in the conduct of life and the higher kinds of insight associated with seers and poets, the word originally meant ‘sage’ or ‘expert’. In the course of the fifth century BCE the term, while retaining its original unspecific sense, came in addition to be applied specifically to a new type of intellectuals, professional educators who toured the Greek world offering instruction in a wide range of subjects, with particular emphasis on skill in public speaking and the successful conduct of life. It is important to emphasize the individualistic character of the sophistic profession; its practitioners belonged to no organization, shared no common body of beliefs and founded no schools, either in the sense of academic institutions or in that of bodies of individuals committed to the promulgation of specific doctrines.2

That’s enough for now… I’ll take up Badiou’s thoughts on Sophism in his Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy in a future installment. The important aspect is Badiou’s stance on truth(s) against the relativism and nihilism of the antiphilosophers who reduce conceptuality to semantics rather than metaphysics.  

 

  1. Being and Event. Alain Badiou. trans. Oliver Feltham. (Continuum, 2012)
  2. Taylor, C.C.W. and Lee, Mi-Kyoung, “The Sophists“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

 


 

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