Philosophy: cutting through particulars to reach the universal

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 (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

An important aspect of philosophy that Badiou comments on extensively is its universal focus, something Žižek focuses on to a lesser degree. Badiou goes as far as outlining his theory of universality in Philosophy in the Present in eight theses (2009: 26-48) – none of which I will directly incorporate into this sub-section, because the primary points made by Badiou and Žižek about philosophy and universality on which I will focus are found in the final quarter of the book where the particular/universal topic is succinctly commented upon. I will take as the starting point here Žižek’s affirmation (2009:72) of what he calls “Kant’s idea”, the idea that

[w]e as intellectuals should engage in the position of the singular universal; thus, a singularity that immediately participates in universality, since it breaks through the idea of a particular order. You can be human immediately, without first being German, French, English, etc. … The fundamental message of philosophy… says that you can immediately participate in universality, beyond particular identifications.

The apparent distinction between particularities and the universal is an important distinction, further grounded in light of other observations by Žižek and Badiou. For example, Badiou (2005:76) employs the idea of ‘the inhuman’ – something that I will soon show to resonate with universality – by way of a question:

Is man destined to finitude, including the finitude of humanity itself, of humanity as a finite humanity, or is there instead a capacity for the infinite, that is a capacity for the inhuman which is ultimately what philosophy is concerned with?

Žižek (2009:85) later defines ‘the inhuman’ in the following phrase: “…the inhuman as a space for redefinition”, and redefinition implies a break from any kind of stagnant particularity. Sharpening the distinction between particularities and universality, Badiou (2009:73) again uses the notion of the inhuman resonantly with the notion of universality when he contrasts the inhuman with particularities of ‘human nature’:

…philosophy really needs to be able to grasp that in truths, in new problems, there is something which is irreducible to any preconceived idea of human nature. I think this is very important: there is something inhuman in what the philosopher deals with.

‘Preconceived ideas of human nature’ are examples of particulars or particularities – a reminder here that I shall use these two terms interchangeably. The inhuman can be understood as that which lies beyond the scope of the particular notions that a given dispensation endorses (implicitly or explicitly) as the ‘proper’ definition of what it means to be human. The universal (or universality) can be understood in this light, i.e. it is that which lies beyond particular human preconceptions, something that will ‘always’ and ‘infinitely’ lie beyond human particularities, and as such the universal is ‘inhuman’. But this is not to say that universality is inaccessible to human beings, as suggested by the opening focus of this sub-section, i.e. the Kantian notion of the singular universal, which (as already quoted) Žižek affirmed as a central focal point for philosophy .

Badiou (2009:74-75) makes another association between universality and ‘the inhuman’, versus the particularity of ‘historically constituted humanity’:

…philosophy has been faced with the inhuman, and that it is there that its vocation lies. Each time that philosophy confines itself to humanity as it has been historically constituted and defined, it diminishes itself, and in the end suppresses itself. It suppresses itself because its only use becomes that of conserving, spreading and consolidating the established model of humanity.

These observations by Badiou paint philosophy in something of a ‘revolutionary’ light – philosophy is clearly not something that occurs when the status quo, or ‘humanity as it has been historically constituted and defined’, is perpetuated. And again here one is confronted with an explicit distinction, a dichotomy, between particulars (i.e. humanity as it has been historically constituted) and ‘the inhuman’, where the inhuman is again used synonymously with ‘the universal’. Badiou indeed clearly conveys the apparent revolutionary role of philosophy when he states explicitly that philosophy “suppresses itself” when it conserves, spreads and consolidates “the established model of humanity”. These are all important points that I will incorporate into the following sub-sections, which together constitute an application of various concepts, ideas and theory so far collated in sub-sections 2.1.1 to 2.1.4.