Badiou: what is a situation for philosophical thought?

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’.

In order to illustrate what he means by a ‘philosophical situation’, Badiou turns first towards Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, thereafter the circumstances surrounding the death of the Greek mathematician Archimedes, and finally a Japanese film entitled The Crucified Lovers. I will here briefly summarise Badiou’s commentary on these texts.

Badiou (2009: 3) points out that in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, “the thought of Socrates and the thought of Callicles share no common measure, they are totally foreign to one another”. This is because in the dialogue, Socrates advocates Justice (in the philosophical sense) as the basis for happiness, while Callicles advocates personal tyranny (via might, cunningness, violence, etc.) as the basis for happiness. Badiou (2009: 4) points out that between these two mutually exclusive positions – “justice as violence” versus “justice as thought” – “there is no simple opposition, of the kind that could be dealt with by means of arguments covered by a common norm. There is a lack of any real relation”. Badiou (2009:5) explains further that the “sole task of philosophy is to show that we must choose”:

In this example, philosophy confronts thinking as a choice, thinking as a 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.

Badiou’s second illustration of a philosophical situation (2009: 6) is the death of Archimedes: quite simply, a Roman soldier (under orders from General Marcellus to escort the mathematician to the General) strikes Archimedes down for refusing to be distracted from a mathematical calculation he is conducting. The actions of the soldier show that he is of the view that one must listen to authority and follow orders without question or delay, and when Archimedes first ignores the soldier, and then says, “Let me finish my demonstration”, the soldier kills Archimedes. Keeping in mind that General Marcellus and his orders, as well as the soldier conveying the message, can be said to represent ‘the state’, while Archimedes can be said to represent ‘creative thought’, Badiou (2009: 9) comments on this situation as follows: it shows that “between the right of the state and create thought, especially the pure ontological thought embodied in mathematics, there is no common measure, no real discussion”. Furthermore, Badiou (2009:8) states that between

power and truths there is a distance: the distance between Marcellus and Archimedes. A distance which the courier [i.e. the soldier] … does not manage to cross. Philosophy’s mission here is to shed light on this distance.

The third example is the Japanese film, The Crucified Lovers, a film mainly about two lovers fleeing persecution due to the ‘adulterous’ woman being married and adultery being illegal and punishable by death in the context of the film. The lovers get caught by the authorities, and at the end of the film they are depicted being led to their execution. Badiou’s interest here is this final scene – the philosophical situation as he identifies it – where the lovers, tied back-to-back on a mule, “seem enraptured, but devoid of pathos: on their faces is simply the hint of a smile, a kind of withdrawal into the smile” (Badiou 2009: 10). Badiou (2009: 11) concentrates on the look on the lovers’ faces – the ‘smile’, a word Badiou admits he uses for lack of a better one – and comments that in the ‘smile’

we once again encounter something incommensurable, a relation without a relation. Between the event of love (the turning upside down of existence) and the ordinary rules of life (the laws of the city, the laws of marriage) there is no common measure. What will philosophy tell us then? It will tell us 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.

Finally in this sub-section, I would like to quote ‘Badiou on philosophy’ twice more. In the first quote (2009:16), the final sentence is a succinct summary of the characteristics of what Badiou considers to be a philosophical situation, while the first and second sentences begin to allude to the universal nature of philosophy, which will be expounded in 2.1.4 below:

I insist on this point: it is not because there is ‘something’ that there is philosophy. Philosophy is not at all a reflection on anything whatsoever. There is philosophy, and there can be philosophy, because there are paradoxical relations, because there are breaks, decisions, distances, events.

The final comments from Badiou to be quoted here demarcate what he calls genuine “philosophical commitment” (2009: 23):

Genuine philosophical commitment – the kind which is immersed in the incommensurable and summons the choice of thought, staging the exceptions, creating distances and, especially, distancing from forms of power – is often a strange commitment.

The above outline of Badiou’s characteristics of the philosophical situation will be used soon in general reflection of some of the themes, issues and concepts encountered during Chapters 1 to 6 of this study.