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Badiou and Cassin, two kinds of philosopher

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Alain Badiou’s work is so wide and varied – still more so if we take into account his novels, plays, essays on music or cinema – and his interventions in the public sphere so numerous, that with a little bad faith we could make him say everything and its opposite. It is therefore reasonable, even if it means mutilating and erasing certain facets of it, to focus on a single diagonal, that running from Being and Event (1988) through its two ‘sequels’, Logics of Worlds (2006) and L’Immanence des vérités (2018). This line is a sign of fidelity and coherence, in that Badiou has never abandoned his initial gesture, Platonic in all respects, which, in an age marked by the ‘conflict of interpretations’, relativism, proclamations of an ‘end’ to both history and grand narratives, if not philosophy itself, boldly relaunched the conception of philosophy as a search for the truth.

The truth Badiou speaks of is obviously not a naive grasp of being by logos. As in Plato, it is mathematical – mathematics and ontology thus coincide – but it is conditioned, i.e. related to four domains or four generic procedures: science, art, politics, love. It focuses on a structurally multiple being (conceived by Badiou according to set theory) whose position, situation or ‘instance’ is radically redefined on the basis of the irruption and eruption of an event, not representable in itself and irreducible to language, but capable of initiating truth procedures. In other words, truth is the meticulous construction of new multiplicities within a scientific, artistic, political or loving situation, born of the possibilities opened by the event. None of the fractal ramifications it experiences ‘betray’ this beating heart of Badiou’s thought.

The work of Barbara Cassin, a Hellenist, philologist and philosopher, is so broad and varied – she has been elected to the Académie française and awarded the CNRS gold medal – that it could also be approached in a host of ways. It must therefore be traced back to its source, which has never stopped feeding it. A Greek source, naturally enough, but not Plato. Rather from among those whom Plato and Aristotle considered enemies, or obstacles on the path of knowledge towards the truth of being: the Sophists. The Sophists were not what the accounts of the victors – Plato and Aristotle – have reduced them to: fine talkers, ‘influencers’, seeking only to ‘convince’ by any means, however rhetorical and specious. What Cassin discovers in Gorgias, for example, is the ‘performance’ that language can achieve (in the sense that ‘saying is doing’). The ‘sophistic effect’, the title of one of her first major works (L’Effet sophistique, 1995), shows us that philosophical truths, even the most profound, are first and foremost an effect of language. Words have the power to make things happen, an idea that Cassin has never abandoned. She has done a thousand things, written on topics ranging from Google to nostalgia, founded the UNESCO Network of Women Philosophers, translated Gorgias’ ‘Treatise on Non-Being’, book Gamma of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, as well as Hannah Arendt and Peter Szondi; she has taken an interest in Heidegger and Habermas, in Leibniz and Lacan, worked on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, curated the exhibition Après Babel, traduire, launched the Maisons de la sagesse, in Marseille and Aubervilliers – and completed what will be seen as her major contribution: the Dictionary of Untranslatables, a European vocabulary of philosophies (ten years’ work, 150 contributors). But a single red thread runs through her work: to know what ‘words’ or ‘philosophizing in tongues’ can do.

Barbara Cassin and Alain Badiou are long-time friends. They have often spoken together and written a few books jointly (on Lacan, among others). In the wake of Paul Ricœur and François Wahl, they edited the ‘L’Ordre philosophique’ collection at Éditions du Seuil, and today edit ‘Ouvertures’ for Fayard. But they do not share the same conception of truth and ontology, or agree on what gender does to philosophy. Their book Homme, femme, philosophie, recently published by Fayard, gives a privileged access into their intellectual debate. The book is an intimate dialogue, opening with an original and fascinating correspondence, complemented by lectures, in which the two friends question the inscription of gender in their respective paths and their respective relationship to philosophy. How does the fact that one is a man and the other a woman affect things? Speaking from their respective ‘positions’, Alain Badiou, the mathematician-Platonist, and Barbara Cassin, the philologist-Sophist, sketch out hypotheses and question the masculinity of the discipline while inviting us to reflect on the relationship between men and women.

Could you define one another in a few words?

Barbara Cassin [B.C.]: I would say that Alain has all the qualities of a master without having the disadvantages.

Alain Badiou [A.B.]: Barbara has all the defects that I stigmatize in philosophy without having any of their disadvantages.

Your vision of philosophy?

A.B.: Our vision of philosophy can be illustrated by a specific episode. When we moved from Seuil to Fayard, we discussed changing the name of the collection. We went from ‘the philosophical order’ to ‘overtures’, from closed to open, from the one to the multiple. This was done under Barbara’s initiative. I did not share her objection to ‘the philosophical order’. My definition of philosophy is perhaps rather restrictive. In my opinion, it is a bastard discipline because it depends on four explicit conditions without which it cannot really exist, and which are: a world containing rational science, the identifiable figures of art, a point of view on human affectivity synthesized in the figure of love, and a politics capable of being not an object of sacralisation but an object of discussion. Then a singular doctrine appears, a way of thinking that somehow tries to know why it is subject to these four conditions, what is the common element that runs through them? In the end, the answer always revolves around the notion of truth. In this sense, the most venerable definition of philosophy, namely that it is a search for truth, seems to me to be defensible.

B.C.: That is tenable, but it’s not what I’m interested in. The philosophy of concepts and questions that I find all around me today – analytical, hermeneutical, ethical –is something that escapes me. My movement is more one of deterritorialization, I try to get outside to see what it’s like inside. I am not inside philosophy. I find it very hard to consider it in isolation, which is why I say ‘philosophy and’. I advocate for the ‘and’ because I believe in the porosity of genres – of literature, philosophy and ordinary language. I think these things are sufficiently permeable that there is always a philosophical side to us. I do not see philosophy as a path or even a way. I would add that ‘Truth’ in the singular with a capital letter makes me bristle. I am for truths with an ‘s’ and with a missing Lacanian ‘petit e’, in reality more of a ‘petit a’: ‘Varités’ [i.e. ‘vérités’/truths with the ‘e’ changed to ‘a’, suggesting ‘variétés’/varieties – Translator].

A.B.: Plural truths, always, yes! That is why philosophy always comes second, why it comes ‘after’: it is strictly dependent on the four conditions. It has no autonomy, it does not start from scratch, it is not based on a primordial doubt, it is based on the extraordinary variegation, at a given moment, of the coupling between mathematics, poetry, speculative determination and passion in love. It is in this constantly changing and burgeoning element that it seeks some fixed landmarks. Landmarks that themselves shift with changing conditions.

How did you come to philosophy?

B.C.: For me, it was really encountering the possibility of asking huge questions. I found it extraordinary that wondering if there was a god or what freedom meant could be a profession. I remember my philosophy teacher at the Lycée La Fontaine. One day, she asked us: ‘Who was Socrates?’ I put my hand up like a good student, and began a response that I intended to be long and well-documented: ‘He was an Athenian...’ She stopped me straight away: ‘That’s enough.’ This interruption floored me. I was forced to understand why it was enough, and what it meant to say that it was enough.

To be a citizen of Athens meant enjoying freedom and equality of speech, being able to go like a gadfly to the agora and question those who believe they know. This is how philosophy was invented. It also meant being accused of corrupting young people and making them doubt the gods of the city, proposing for oneself when on trial the supreme honour of being cared for in the Prytaneion, thus refusing that politicians should dictate their laws to philosophy. It also meant acceptance of being condemned to death as Socrates’ accusers demanded, thus placing truth and the life of the mind above mere life, and choosing to dialogue with one’s friends until the moment of drinking the hemlock, etc.

A.B.: Through the completely classic path of meeting a master. I had no intention of being a philosopher at all. I was a senior in high school and hesitating between becoming an actor, which I have remained a little bit, or a water and forest inspector. I was a great collector of insects, a botanical connoisseur. I then found in my mother’s library, which was in a huge mess, Sartre’s Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions. I was absolutely fascinated. Then I read Being and Nothingness, as best as I could at the time, my philosophy teacher had not taught me to read such things, and I said to myself, ‘that’s what interests me’.

Does gender determine thinking?

B.C.: That's the question we asked ourselves. The point of this question is simple: Alain is a bit of a Platonist and a bit of a mathematician, I am a bit of a Sophist and a bit of a language freak. And we wondered if this had anything to do with our respective genders. Perhaps it does.

A.B.: I want to answer: perhaps not. But this lays me open to severe criticism about the return of the one, of universalism. Because Barbara is always lying in wait, naturally, to catch the man out! It cannot be said that philosophy is indifferent to the question of gender, that would be absurd. Nothing in human experience escapes the dimension of gender, from family organization to the exercise of political power and every conceivable activity. So there is definitely an indirect dependency. To the extent that philosophy works to find the common ground in all this, however, it has a particular position with regard to gender. Contrary to philosophy, gender is an element of difference, differentiation and specification. Philosophy thus has a twisted and complex relationship with the gender issue. I don’t think there’s an unambiguous answer. It’s good enough for me that it may be yes or no.

B.C.: I would say maybe yes!

A.B.: Which means maybe no... We can’t say ‘maybe’ and then turn it into an unambiguous certainty...

B.C.: I don’t turn it into a certainty. When I said maybe yes (and I didn’t add: ‘maybe no’), this means yes, but my ‘maybe’ is because I would have a lot of trouble explaining how and why.

Is philosophy a male discipline?

B.C.: Philosophy has always been a male discipline, like all others. Because women have not historically benefited from the necessary conditions of production, presentation and promotion. But it is no longer only male, and its masculinity may only be contingent. 

A.B.: If we look at it empirically, it has been largely a male discipline over the years, as has the exercise of political power, painting, mathematics... There is a minorization of women within the conditions themselves, which is historically maximum for mathematics and political power. But this is falling apart. The question of gender has itself become an explicit question for each of the conditions of philosophy, in forms that are sometimes naive, statistical... I think that reducing this through quotas is a bit of a dead end. Philosophy will embark on the gender issue because the decision is made at the level of the conditions [i.e. science, art, politics, love].

B.C.: Yes, unless it plays its philosophical role, that is, decides to settle this question intellectually. 

Do women philosophers propose a different philosophy?

B.C.: I believe they make it something that is no longer essentialized or essentializable. I call this the ‘permeability of genres/genders’, to be taken literally and in every sense. Philosophy done by women is decompartmentalized. They do not propose the same reading of philosophical texts, but it is not easy to say what is specific to them ‘as women’. As far as I am concerned, I know that it was as an individual trained in philology, something that probably interested me as a woman. My intuition is that we do not have the same relationship to mastery as men and therefore we do not read in the same way. ‘All men (anthrôpoi, i.e. ‘all humans’) naturally desire to understand’ is the magnificent first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. However, I do not want to understand completely. I do not want to dominate a text, a thought, a class, a student. That would even make me, I wouldn’t say afraid, but a little disgusted. That is not the relationship I want to establish, either with regard to things or with regard to people. And that, I imagine, is a gender fact, whether or not inherited or constructed.

A.B.: This question is in progress, in the process of development. In addition, great female philosophical figures like Hannah Arendt defined themselves as not exactly philosophical. From the perception of my dear friend here, from my long experience as a teacher, and from how people constitute themselves in their philosophical apprenticeship, I sense a different tonality coming into being. Interest in philosophy among female students is more immediately multifaceted, which to men may seem an uncertainty, but is rather a mode of prospecting or entry that is not exactly the same. Our male entry into philosophy, through absolute fascination with a master, is a very widespread entry, but I don’t know if it can exactly be female. Something of the multiple, of nuance, of language, is more immediately present in women. However, I can say that women do not generally have the same relationship to the system of conditions as do men, there is no doubt about that. Psychoanalysis clearly distinguishes the female position from the male position. It is clear in mathematics, partly because women were for a long time in a very small minority, that their relationship to mathematics could not be exactly the same as that of men. Emmy Noether’s reformulation of modern algebra was in part due to an intuitive perception of the structural links that men had ignored.

B.C.: If I had to define feminism, I would say that it is what does not tolerate assignment to a female essence. So it’s very complicated to see how this affects the ‘conditions’. As women, we do not have an essential identity but a strategic one, formed by circumstance and resistance. And I believe in that. Although I would like to think that our task isn’t to win, the real need is to change the model and stop the war.

You write that because of her reproductive function, ‘woman is a servant of humanity’...

B.C.: For me, this is the great superiority of women over men.

A.B.: Yes, there is a timeless image there, irreplaceable. It can be argued that it is on the basis of this inferiority that men built their domination. It is compensatory.

The most common thing between men and women?

B.C.: Love.

A.B.: Love. It is the territory of the encounter, where the adjustment of things forces us to have a differentiated commonality. That is why I have always defined love as minimal communism. 

Translated by David Fernbach

First published in Libération, 28 November 2019