Alain Badiou: The Philosophical Situation


Philosophy is first and foremost this: the invention of new problems.
…….– Alain Badiou, Philosophy in the Present

Badiou asks: What is a situation that is really a situation for philosophy, a situation for philosophical thought? 1

I term situation any presented multiplicity. Granted the effectiveness of the presentation, a situation is the place of taking-place, whatever the terms of the multiplicity in question. Every situation admits its own particular operator of the count-as-one. This is the most general definition of a structure; it is what prescribes, for a presented multiple, the regime of its count-as-one. (p. 24 Being and Event)

We know from our reading of the first meditation in Being and Event that the inaugural decision is simply that ‘the one is not’  (23) .  There is no One,  no self-sustaining unity in being, but only the count-as-one, the non-self-sufficient operation of unification. There  is  no unity-in-itself,  because  every unity is  a unity  of something, something that differs from the operation of unification. This decision is no less fundamental for Badiou ‘s philosophy than  his well-known equation of mathematics  with  ontology,  and  their  metaontological  meanings  are deeply entangled; any attempt to isolate one from the other would mutilate the sense that Badiou gives its twin. (Frank Ruda, BD, p. 237)

Badiou will outline three examples of a ‘philosophical situation’ as event, exception, and transformation of Life. The first from Plato’s Gorgias where Socrates and Callicles present their ideas not in dialogue but in conflict and confrontation; one might say in agon. The point for Plato was to illustrate to forms of thought that were incommensurable within a discussion of the relations between two terms devoid of any relation. As Badiou suggests “what becomes clear to any reader of the text is not that one interlocutor will convince the other, but that there will be a victor and a vanquished” (p. 14). The point of the agon is to set up two competing thoughts allowing only for a complete and utter defeat of one or the other, which in the eyes of the young men who witness the scene is shown the force of argument and persuasion in bringing about the winning victory in the agon’s struggle. The point of this agon Badiou tells us,

“The sole task of philosophy is to show that we must choose. We must choose between these two types of thought. We must decide whether we want to be on the side of Socrates or on the side of Callicles. In this example, philosophy confronts thinking as choice, thinking as decision. Its proper task is to elucidate choice. So that we can say the following: a philosophical situation consists in the moment when a choice is elucidated. A choice of existence or a choice of thought.” (Page 15).

Badiou’s second example pits the Roman General Marcellus against Archimedes. Marcellus has heard of this renowned mathematician and wishes to meet him, so sends a soldier to fetch him. The soldier arrives and demands Archimedes drop everything and come meet his General. Archimedes looks on blandly and continues to work on a mathematical problem he is demonstrating to some pupils. The soldier once again confronts the old man and demands he stop what he’s doing and come to meet his General. Archimedes without looking up says he’ll come just as soon as he’s finished with his demonstration. The soldier by name exasperated at the insubordination of this Greek fool that he takes out his sword and slays him. Badiou will describe this as a philosophical situation, explaining it this way,

Why is this a philosophical situation? Because it shows that between the right of the state and creative thought, especially the pure ontological thought embodied in mathematics, there is no common measure, no real discussion. In the end, power is violence, while the only constraints creative thought recognizes are its own immanent rules. When it comes to the law of his thought, Archimedes remains outside of the action of power. The temporality proper to the demonstration cannot integrate the urgent summons of military victors. That is why violence is eventually wrought, testifying that there is no common measure and no common chronology between the power of one side and the truths of the other. Truths as creation. (Page 16).

If one remembers the notion of measure in Old French mesure “limit, boundary; quantity, dimension; occasion, time” (12c), one discovers in this thread of a common measure as a philosophical measure a boundary or limit concepts with both a notion of quantified and temporal forms implied. The point being that at the boundary marker separating power on one side and truth(s) on the other there can be no breaching the gap between them, only a difficult struggle and act of force as violence. The creation of truths is not an action, but a form of thought carried out under terms other than violence and action.

So for Badiou philosophy must reflect upon and think a distance without measure, or a distance whose measure philosophy itself must invent. “First definition of the philosophical situation: clarify the choice, the decision. Second definition of the philosophical situation: clarify the distance between power and truths. (p. 17)”

In his final example Badiou will use his notions of truth-procedures or the conditions of philosophy, specifically relating of love and art in this instance (i.e., science, art, politics, and love). He’ll compare a film by Mizoguchi, entitled The Crucified Lovers, where two lover’s are condemned by the State to a horrible death. As Badiou remarks on the last images of the film “the film’s thought, embodied in the infinitely nuanced black and white of the faces, has nothing to do with the romantic idea of the fusion of love and death. These ‘crucified loves’ never desired to die. The shot says the very opposite: love is what resists death.(p. 18).” The second is of a conference wherein Deleuze quoting Malraux, once said that art is what resists death. Well, in these magnificent shots, Mizoguchi’s art not only resists death but leads us to think that love too resists death. This creates a complicity between love and art – one which in a sense we’ve always known about. (p. 18)

Badiou will remind us that what is incommensurable in this event is the ‘smile’ of the lover’s doomed before the law of life and state: “Why? Because in it we once again encounter something incommensurable, a relation without relation. Between the event of love (the turning upside down of existence) and the ordinary rules of live (the laws of the city, the laws of marriage) there is no common measure. What will philosophy tell us then? It will tell s that ‘we must think the event’. We must think the exception. We must know what we have to say about what is not ordinary. We must think the transformation of life. (p. 18-19)

Here one realizes three musts immanent to the philosophical situation: think the event, think the exception, and think the transformation of life.

For Badiou , an ‘event’ in the proper sense is that which occurs unpredictably, has the potential to effect a momentous change in some given situation, state of knowledge, or state of affairs, and – above all – has consequences such as require unswerving fidelity or a fixed resolve to carry them through on the part of those who acknowledge its binding force.2 To understand the ‘exception’ one must first explicate Badiou’s core concept of subtraction, which Frank Ruda describes this way,

“An understanding o f philosophy as subtractive implies that all its most crucial categories need to be conceived of in a subtractive way, including the most central one, namely truth. This is where a proper systematic elaboration of subtraction can begin. For, from the viewpoint of philosophy , truth can in the first instance be characterised in a simple and somewhat abstract manner as something that is irreducible t o , or logi­cally uninferrable from, knowledge. To say that philosophy has to ‘sub­tract Truth from the labyrinth o f meaning’ ( CS 1 3 ) , means that it must insist on the distinction between the truth and meaning, truth and sense, truth and opinion and, first and foremost, between truth and knowledge. If there are truths, they are irreducible to knowledge; this fundamental claim is a subtractive claim and it necessitates that philosophy cease to identify truth with any of the above categories . Were it not to do so , truth would be posited as objectively knowable and thus would not stand in a consequential relation to an unforeseeable event.” (BD, p. 330)

For Badiou an immanent exception is just another name for an event, from whose trace consequences arise… For Badiou , philosophy is subtractive because it implies an act of insisting on the impossible possibility of immanent exceptions from which truths can emerge. (BD, p. 337) Philosophy is the link between three types of situation: the link between choice, distance and the exception. (PP, p. 19). Badiou reminds us that the most profound philosophical concepts tell us something like this: ‘If you want your life to have some meaning, you must accept the event, you must remain at a distance from power, and you must be firm in your decision.’ This is the story that philosophy is always telling us, under many different guises: to be in the exception, in the sense of the event, to keep one’s distance from power, and to accept the consequences of a decision, however remote and difficult they may prove. Understood in this way, and only in this way, philosophy really is that which helps existence to be changed. (PP, pp. 19-20)


    1. Philosophy in the Present. Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek Polity; 1 edition (December 14, 2009)
    2. The Badiou Dictionary. Steven Corcoran. Edinburgh University Press; 1 edition (August 1, 2015)

2 thoughts on “Alain Badiou: The Philosophical Situation

    • Thanks! Yep, left a comment on the post dealing with situation ethics; or, the ethics of truths in a little more detail, since he seemed befuddled by Badiou’s locutions and conceptual bric-a-brac… It’s taken me a long while of reading, putting down, coming back, arguing, debating, writing marginal notes across his books… to finally get to that point I’m able to apprehend him. Of course isn’t that the point? His is not an easy philosophy, it requires a certain commitment and fidelity. Not something everyone is ready to do. Zizek’s the same, just when you think you have him pinned down he pops up somewhere else… a chameleon.

      At least Badiou is systematic, unlike Zizek. Zizek’s antiphilosophy tends to verbosity and dialectical virtuosity to the point that one is never sure if one has discovered a truth or a new error.

      Liked by 2 people

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