The philosopher’s ‘personal views’ versus philosophy itself

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed. I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

Both Badiou and Žižek clearly differentiate between the specific views that a philosopher may hold, and philosophy as they define it. Badiou (2009: 1) speaks of “the philosopher [who] can speak about everything”, “exemplified by the TV philosopher: he talks about society’s problems, the problems of the present” (Ibid). Žižek (2009: 51) humorously concurs when he offers the following scenario: “You’re sitting in a café and someone challenges you: ‘Come on, let’s discuss that in depth!’ The philosopher will immediately say, ‘I’m sorry, I must leave’, and will make sure he disappears as quickly as possible.” Žižek’s comments need not be taken literally, in the sense that a philosopher would physically ‘remove herself’ when asked to discuss a particular subject in depth. Instead, his remark can be taken figuratively: it highlights an aspect of the role of philosophy that is absent when opinions about ‘particulars’ or ‘particularities’ (I will use these terms interchangeably; more on particulars later) are expressed. As Žižek points out, philosophers are expected “to become engaged in the … public sphere and so forth” (2009: 50), but “often all one wants in truth is that we introduce ourselves. Our knowledge is then a type of vague reference that gives authority to our opinions” (2009: 67). These opinions may then get shared with members of a conversation or dialogue, a dialogue in which different but commensurable opinions emerge – but Žižek explicitly says that philosophy is not a dialogue (2009: 50); indeed, as I will outline below, philosophy (according to Badiou and Žižek) ‘occurs’ when incommensurability is brought to light.

So then, what is philosophy according to Badiou and Žižek? I will refer first to Badiou’s initial ‘philosophical characteristics’, all of which reiterate the point that philosophy is encountered in the creation or elucidation of problems:

  • “The philosopher constructs his own problems, he is an inventor of problems’ (2009: 1)
  • “A genuine philosopher is someone who decides on his own account what the important problems are, someone who proposes new problems for everyone (2009:2)
  • “Philosophy is first and foremost this: the invention of new problems” (Ibid)
  • The philosopher “intervenes when in the situation – whether historical, political, artistic, amorous, scientific… – there are things that appear to him as signs, signs that it is necessary to invent a new problem” (Ibid)

Žižek is in agreement with Badiou (2009: 69) and adds that the philosopher’s role is not simply to participate in a debate, but primarily to “change the concepts of the debate” (2009: 51). This role entails a move away from ‘alternatives’ that together form a mere disjunctive synthesis (a concept Žižek attributes to Deleuze) – “a play of differences that do not make a difference, or of choices that have no consequence or significance”[1]  – a move away from “mutually complementary positions” (Žižek 2009: 53). So again philosophy is initially presented as something emerging when faced with the incommensurable[2], so much so that it is associated with ‘the foreign’, or to coin a phrase, philosophy is a process of ‘foreign-ising’. In further agreement with Badiou, Žižek states that what “interests me in philosophy above all is that moment of foreignness to which you [i.e. Badiou] refer” (2009: 70):

This moment of foreignness that emerges through displacement; that philosophy… was from the very beginning not the discourse of those who feel the certainty of being at home. It always required a minimum of breakdown of the organic society. Ever since Socrates we always meet over and again this otherness, these holes… […] That is in my opinion the zero point of philosophy. Every philosopher adopts this place of displacement.

To repeat, philosophy ‘foreign-ises’, or displaces. Žižek’s focus on foreignness echoes that of Badiou established much earlier in the book (2009:24): Genuine philosophical commitments, says Badiou, create

a foreignness. In a general sense, it is foreign. And when it is simply commonplace, when it does not possess this foreignness, when it is not immersed in this paradox [of incommensurability], then it is a political commitment, an ideological commitment, the commitment of a citizen, but it is not necessarily a philosophical commitment. Philosophical commitment is marked by its internal foreignness.

Badiou, after his initial comments on the role of the philosopher, asks, “[O]n what conditions does the philosopher find, in the situation, the signs for a new problem, for a new thought?” (2009: 2), and continues by offering three “examples of philosophical situations” (2009:3); I will now summarise them for later application to earlier aspects of this study.

[1] http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=646 accessed 13 September 2016

[2] Incommensurability, in the philosophical context only beginning to be established, is similar to Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of ‘the differend’: “A differend is a case of conflict between parties that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both. In the case of a differend, the parties cannot agree on a rule or criterion by which their dispute might be decided”. http://www.iep.utm.edu/lyotard / accessed 5 October 2016.