Alain Badiou (b. 1937) is probably the leading living philosopher in France today. He is a very complex figure who writes well-organized, multidimensional books and says things that are sometimes quite insightful, but who takes a number of fundamental positions I find utterly antithetical. To oversimplify in the extreme, I read him as a highly original Sartrean existentialist who borrowed a few arguments from Sartre’s structuralist nemesis, and added a lot of layers of his own. Somewhat unfortunately in my view, he has become very influential in continentally inclined academic leftist circles. Slavoj Žižek, who offends my sensibilities less often and catches my interest more, has dedicated books to Badiou.

One thing I appreciate is that unlike some others of his generation, Badiou unapologetically identifies himself as a philosopher in the classical sense. I also like the fact that he overtly puts a high value on reasoning (though I think at a deeper level he is more committed to several kinds of voluntarism, including those of Rousseau, Sartre, Mao, and the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt). I appreciate his sharp-tongued critique of identity politics and some of his other social criticism, but think he draws some very wrong conclusions about the way forward (again in a voluntarist direction). I like the way he integrates diverse interests like mathematics and literature, but strongly object to his claims about political implications of classical versus constructive mathematics. If one were to make such a connection, it seems to me that contrary to what Badiou says, constructive mathematics — with its nonreliance on assumptions — would be the more “liberating”.

Badiou has developed an elaborate and very original account of agency and subjectivity. I like the fact that Badiouian subjects are emergent rather than pre-existent. Unfortunately, his concepts of subjectivity and agency are both extremely narrow and extremely inflationary. Subjectivity and agency are grounded in an arbitrary, exceptional decision to embrace an arbitrary, exceptional new “truth” that cannot be rationally comprehended. Then on the basis of this arbitrary truth, subjects may exceptionally constitute themselves through fidelity and purely formal logical consistency. Rational development begins only after — and on the basis of — an utterly arbitrary decision. In the context of the initial decision, he invokes the Kierkegaardian leap of faith, and promotes a reading of the apostle Paul as the prototype of a revolutionary. He has no use for rational analysis of social conditions. It all comes down to a kind of arbitrary revolutionary will, calling to mind the worst excesses of Robespierre and Mao.

I note in passing that he has promoted a useful clarification of abstraction as a kind of subtraction.

His first big book was Being and Event. I believe the emphasis on Being is misguided, as is that on set theory. His highly original attempt to redefine events, truths, and subjects that we actually care about as limited to the exceptional cases is quite fascinating, but ultimately spoiled by a rather arbitrary canonization of particular exceptions, and by the voluntarist root agenda.

His early Theory of the Subject included elements of a sort of Lacanian Maoist reading of Hegel. I suspect the young Slavoj Žižek attended the original seminars on which it was based, and got significant inspiration there. At this stage, Badiou was emphasizing a so-called “scission of the subject” in Lacan, while attempting to relate it to the more general Maoist “One divides into Two” dogma.

While I think Lacan himself deserves serious consideration, “One divides into Two” is a subtheoretical atrocity that would not only undo all of Hegel’s careful work to develop a concept of determinate negation, but also completely reverse the thrust of Engels’ quite reasonable account of the conditional, relative status of opposites in Anti-Dühring. “One divides into Two” reduces dialectic to crude talk about opposed forces. Badiou still defends this. (See also Contradiction vs Polarity; 1968; Antiphilosophy; “Hard” Kantianism?; Johnston’s Pippin; Weak Nature Alone; Democracy and Social Justice.)

I am even more disturbed by Badiou’s apparent strong sympathy for the work of the political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who was an ardent Nazi, and wrote key legal opinions legitimizing Nazi actions. Schmitt’s Nazi involvement seems much worse than Heidegger‘s, and his thought far less mitigating. I just read a couple of secondary accounts of Schmitt for the first time — a bunch of stuff about will and enemies. There are more lessons here about the political evils of voluntarism. Badiou’s explicit references to Schmitt are apparently only the tip of an iceberg. I now realize there are many more implicit resonances in his texts.