Philosophy in the Present


Today I read Badiou and Zizek’s collaborative work Philosophy in the Present. It’s short and sweet. Badiou’s lecture is longer and serves as a nice primer to his philosophy. I’m just going to post some of the quotes I found to be the most provocative.


“At a deeper level, we can say that philosophy, faced with circumstances, looks for the link between three types of situation: the link between choice, distance and the exception. I argue that a philosophical concept, in the sense that Deleuze speaks of it, which is to say as a creation – is always what knots together a problem of choice (or decision), a problem of distance (or gap), and a problem of the exception (or event). 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.”

“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.”

“Every universal is singular, or is a singularity. There is no possible universal sublation of particularity as such. It is commonly claimed nowadays that the only genuinely universal prescription consists in respecting particularities. In my opinion, this thesis is inconsistent. This is demonstrated by the fact that any attempt to put it into practice invariably runs up against particularities which the advocates of formal universality find intolerable. The truth is that in order to maintain that respect for particularity is a universal value, it is necessary to have first distinguished between good particularities and bad ones. In other words, it is necessary to have established a hierarchy in the list of descriptive predicates. It will be claimed, for example, that a cultural or religious particularity is bad if it does not include within itself respect for other particularities. But this is obviously to stipulate that the formal universal already be included in the particularity. Ultimately, the universality of respect for particularities is only the universality of universality. This definition is fatally tautological. It is the necessary counterpart of a protocol – usually a violent one – that wants to eradicate genuinely particular particularities (i.e. immanent particularities) because it freezes the predicates of the latter into self-sufficient identitarian combinations.”

“But we should add that the direct link between singularity and universality presupposes that there is something inhuman in universality. If we reduce universality to an ordinary human datum, this position is no longer defensible. And I believe that in Kant, this kind of direct relation between singularity and universality is linked to the moment in which Kant defines the human by means of something that exceeds humanity.”

“Today’s great question is not the critique of capitalism, on which more or less the whole world is in agreement with regard to the appalling material injustices, the thirty million dead in Africa because they do not receive medications, the atrocious disparities in the planet, and so on. All of this can be referred back to capitalism, in the wish for a capitalism that is better, a more moderate capitalism, and so on, without advancing an inch. Because the real question is not there, it does not lie in the negative and verbal critique of capitalism. The real question is that of an affirmative proposition regarding democracy, as something other than the consensus on the parliamentary form of politics. This is what the paradox that you point to tries to conceal, in other words, that the truly risky philosophical imperative, the one that really poses problems for thought, is the critique of the democratic form as we know it. That is the heart of the problem. And it is altogether more difficult than acknowledging along with everyone else the extent of capitalism’s injustice.”


“Philosophy is not a dialogue. Name me a single example of a successful philosophical dialogue that wasn’t a dreadful misunderstanding. This is true also for the most prominent cases: Aristotle didn’t understand Plato correctly; Hegel – who might have been pleased by the fact – of course didn’t understand Kant. And Heidegger fundamentally didn’t understand anyone at all. So, no dialogue.” [Side note, I’m surprised Kierkegaard’s misreading of Hegel wasn’t included in this list as Zizek fundamentally tries to re-read Hegel against Kierkegaard’s interpretation]

“My idea is now the following: perhaps we have to break with the dream that there is a normal philosophy. Perhaps philosophy is abnormality par excellence. Thus I would read Badiou’s theory. (We, Badiou and I, embrace each other, but in reality we hate each other. Our usual joke is: if I take power, he goes to the camps; but that is another story.) I also follow explicitly his thesis about the conditions of philosophy: that philosophy is by definition excessive; that it literally exists only through the excessive connection to external conditions, which are of either an amorous, political, scientific or artistic nature.”

“The fundamental message of philosophy, however, says that you can immediately participate in universality, beyond particular identifications.”

“At the foundation of Rorty’s conception lies a reference to particularism, whose disastrousness you have already criticized in your Ethics. It is a version of political correctness: only a black, lesbian single mother knows about the suffering of a black, lesbian single mother and so forth. Deleuze already protested strongly against this, because he said that this type of reference always amounts – even when it appears in the short term to be emancipator – to a reactionary position. Rorty’s concept of telling stories of suffering correspondingly demands an ethics that holds the space open in which anyone can tell their story. With this we lose any serious concern with truth.”


10 Responses to “Philosophy in the Present”

  1. Daniel K Says:

    That’s because Kierkegaard didn’t misread Hegel. He was criticizing the mis-readings of Hegel made by Danish Hegelians like Heiberg and Martensen:

    “Those who have gone beyond Hegel are like country people who must always give their address as via a larger city; thus the address in this case read-John Doe via Hegel.” – S. Kierkegaard

  2. Jeremy Says:

    I understand that you might be under this impression along with the majority of the philosophical community. However, Zizek has always maintained that Kierkegaard got Hegel wrong. In the Parallax View, he attempts to read both figures together.

  3. Daniel K Says:

    Well then Zizek got Kierkegaard wrong, lol. Thankfully, Stewart’s book “Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered”, takes all of the historical viewpoints: “Kierkegaard vs. Hegel”, “Kierkegaard as (Left/Right) Hegelian”, “Hegel as Kierkegaardian”, et al. and shows how they are skewed misreadings of both Hegel and Kierkegaard.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    I think Zizek’s reading of Hegel is bigger than merely defending Hegel from Kierkegaard. He’s really trying to read Hegel against many modern philosophers (I think here of Deleuze’s attack of Hegel in Difference and Repetition) who have interpreted Hegel’s philosophy as totalizing and violent. Zizek wants us to rethink Hegel as one whose thought tarried with the negative, whose dialectic doesn’t consume the entire world. According to Zizek, there’s no synthesis (or absolute spirit), but rather merely a second negation. A similar thing can be said of Derrida’s reading of Hegel. Malabou, Derrida’s student, apparently convinced Derrida at the end of his life that he might have misread Hegel. You can read her creative work on Hegel called the Future of Hegel.

  5. Reader Says:

    BADIOU: “…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.”

    Jeremy, thanks again for an inspiring blog.

    I think Badiou’s observation is important for clearing up the real job of philosophy.

    I agree that the fact that there is a ‘something’ (either a material reality, or a spiritual reality) is not for philosophy to determine, but is the proper job of the methodology of either science or religion.

    The first job of philosophy is to reconcile the scientist and the religionist not to each other but each to himself with regard to his own right to utilize the methodology of the other in its proper scope, without losing his integrity as a person of science or of religion.

    Philosophy, doing its real work, can show the scientist that the religious object, real only to living faith, does not come up for acceptance or rejection on the basis of scientific method (unless it contradicts a scientific law). No more than faith can be a guide to the acceptance or rejection of the scientific object, material reality. This would free the scientist for faith explorations without his need to subsume them under the purview of his science.

    Thomas Huxley was a classic example of a scientist who, by equating philosophy with science, (as many of that age did) lived without a real philosophy, and so entertained the illusion that he could not be true to ‘himself’ if he held any religious belief whatsoever.

    This is rushed and I meant to incorporate more of Badiou’s language in my recap. Maybe later.


  6. Jeremy Says:

    I guess I’m not quite sure why you think the first task of philosophy is to reconcile the scientist and religious person. Following Deleuze, i would argue (and Badiou would agree) that philosophy’s primary task is the creation of concepts. Exploratory paradgims. New ways to approach the world. This is an affirmative position, one that Nietzsche strove so hard to get us to embrace. i feel that if philosophy’s primary task was to take care of other disciplines then ultimately philosophy’s in a reactionary position. Historically, I would argue that philosophy (for the scholastics) was merely the handmaiden of theology. In modern times, I think analytic philosophy too often is merely a discipline that works out problems for science. Why does philosophy have to focus on either of these disciplines? It certainly will intersect with these disciplines, connections will be made. But, philosophy should be free to primarily concern itself with generating new modes of thought.

  7. Reader Says:

    The intersection of the material and spiritual is in the person. I was not speaking of a philosophy that exists outside of such personal realities. The harmonization of the approaches to the material and the spiritual within one person (whether identifying primarily as scientist or religionist) is not the same as reconciling science to religion.

    It is the reason why Kant will always be superior to Hegel, in my view. He showed the limitations, the true scope, of philosophy.

    But I’m sorry for the long comment above – proper etiquette would be to post my own ramblings on my own blog and merely track back to yours.

    I’m getting there.

    By the way, I agree with Daniel K, that Kierkegaard was really going after the “Hegelians” rather than Hegel.

  8. Jeremy Says:

    I guess I’m disinclined to endorse this material vs spiritual divide within each individual. With Hegel I’d endorse the statement that the spirit is a bone. That’s actually why I liked Avatar. In the actual world all the aliens believe in this panenetheistic life-force, however the scientists know that in reality it’s merely a gigantic neural circuit. I apologize if I misread your intent with religion and science. But, why again is this philosophy’s task?

    I’m sure you and Daniel are right on this regard, and I’m sorry if I misunderstood him earlier. Either way, I still think Hegel has been a whipping boy for postmodern philosophers, and Zizek tries to restore him to his proper place by offer a radical re-reading of Hegel.

  9. Reader Says:

    I remember you mentioning ‘the spirit is a bone’ before, but I didn’t get it.

    I don’t see philosophy as “creating” new concepts, unless we are talking about the kind of work that goes into building intellectual bridges between the paradoxical “breaks” and “distances” mentioned by Badiou. Is such bridge-building out of the question for Badiou? I referred to this kind of work as ‘the real job of philosophy’ but I see that there are problems with suggesting that it is the ‘primary’ task.

    Here’s where I’m coming from:
    (1) I know I have full access to the methodology of science and its results, while at the same time (2) I have verified the philosophical possibility of maintaining a living, enquiring faith in the reality of spirit which gives me full access to a (fallible) human experience of God. This leads me to ask, (3) is there a philosophical solution available to ‘scientifically minded’ persons who experience difficulty with the access of faith – – even though they enjoy no greater access to the methodology and results of the sciences than I do?

    But I need to withdraw my remarks about T. Huxley, as I made no notation of the opinion I attributed to him and cannot now verify it anywhere. I have a lot of admiration for Huxley as a scientist and much sympathy with his need to respond to so much unfair religious animosity. In fact, in my search for my alleged quote I found him citing a classic word from Kant:

    “The greatest and perhaps the sole use of all philosophy of pure reason is, after all, merely negative, since it serves not as an organon for the enlargement [of knowledge], but as a discipline for its delimitation; and, instead of discovering truth, has only the modest merit of preventing error.”
    (From his Essay “Agnosticism,” citing the German edition by Hartenstein, p. 256.)

  10. Jeremy Says:

    The spirit is a bone merely means, that there is no spiritual vs material dichotomy within the person. We are spiritual insofar as we are living material beings. I see no reconciling, but rather an affirmation of this life, this world, this body.

    From what I understand your perspective it sounds like you are trying to carve out a space for those who might struggle having a real existential faith because of being heavily informed by the scientific mindset. Best of luck with that task. I can understand how philosophy could be of use to you, and now I’m beginning to understand why you would have a strong interest in Kant. I think I took issue with you saying this is what philosophy ought to do. You seem to be interested in some sort of apologetics (I don’t mean this as insult, although i usually would use in that manner). I suppose that’s not something I’m as interested in, but then again different strokes.

    We obviously disagree on the definition of philosophy, which is fine. Anyway, best of luck with your work and always feel free to drop back with your thoughts.

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