‘Second Manifesto for Philosophy’ reviewed by Simon Choat

Second Manifesto for Philosophy

Translated by Louise Burchill, Polity, Cambridge, 2011. 176pp, £9.99pb
ISBN 9780745648620

Reviewed by Simon Choat

About the reviewer

Simon Choat is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Kingston University. He …


This book is a sequel of sorts to Badiou’s Manifesto for Philosophy, which was first published in France in 1989. Both volumes offer a polemical defence of Badiou’s vision of philosophy and a summary of his latest thinking. The first Manifesto acted as an abridged version of Being and Event, whose arguments it presented in condensed form; the Second Manifesto does the same job for Badiou’s recent Logics of Worlds.

When the first Manifesto was translated into English in 1999, Badiou was still relatively unknown in the Anglophone world; today, he is firmly established within the canon of contemporary Continental philosophy, with more than a dozen of his books translated in the past five years. The explosion of interest in his work can at least in part be attributed to the fact that his ideas and arguments are genuinely novel. More than any other contemporary philosopher, Badiou has challenged the conventions of post-structuralist thought in all its forms, from Derridean deconstruction to Deleuzian metaphysics, resurrecting unfashionable concepts like truth and universalism and reclaiming thinkers long derided.

This critical attitude toward post-structuralism played an important role in the first Manifesto. The polemical force of that book was aimed at contemporary French Heideggerianism, specifically its assertion of the end or impasse of philosophy, its recourse to poetry and art, and its deconstruction of the subject. In contrast, Badiou insisted on the need to think the conditions under which philosophy is possible, desuturing it from those conditions (including art) and rethinking the subject. The target of the Second Manifesto is less carefully drawn, and a bit harder to identify. Badiou continues to oppose philosophy to sophism, but no longer that of the French Heideggerians. Today’s sophists are more mundane: they are those ‘democratic materialists’ who reject principles and truths in the name of fetishised notion of public opinion and a supposedly pragmatic managerialism. The threat to philosophy today, Badiou argues, comes not from deconstructive proclamations of the end of metaphysics and the reduction of philosophy to its conditions, but from philosophy’s over-inflation: philosophy (or rather what today passes for philosophy) finds itself everywhere, offered as fodder for TV shows and lifestyle magazines and called upon to act as the ethical conscience of big business and high finance. Indistinguishable from the mainstream moralising discourse of human rights, ‘philosophy’ today does nothing more than supplement our dominant ideology, reinforcing the values of capitalism and an unthinking scientism.

Badiou’s critique is thus much less focused this time around. The first Manifesto attacked a clearly delimited and readily identifiable set of thinkers. Alongside economic managerialism, human rights, and neuro-positivism, however, the Second Manifesto also manages to lambast cultural relativism, the nuclear family, American militarism, media punditry, and anti-Islamism. This scattergun polemic makes for a somewhat disjointed and uneven book. In the first Manifesto, the critique of his philosophical contemporaries was used to introduce and illuminate Badiou’s own philosophy: it was in opposition to the aestheticisation of philosophy and the dethroning of truth that Badiou was able to outline his own theory of philosophy as that which constructs a space for the reception of truths. In addition, criticism of Heideggerian diatribes on technology and nihilism gave Badiou the opportunity to delineate a powerful (albeit underdeveloped) account of the relation between philosophy and capitalism. In the Second Manifesto the link between criticism of others and clarification of his own philosophy is more tenuous: instead, we have a mocking condemnation of politicians, TV presenters, and other easy targets, followed by an exceptionally dense and demanding outline of Badiou’s latest philosophical explorations.

If this new book has a main enemy, it is those who deny that there are such things as truths. This continues Badiou’s previous work – but as he explains in his concluding chapter (which offers a useful summary of the distinctions between the first and second manifestoes), if the first Manifesto sought to establish the universality of truths (against all forms of cultural relativism), the Second Manifesto emphasises their eternality (128-9). How can truths that are created within one particular world possess value for very different worlds? How is it possible – to use Badiou’s example – that paintings daubed on a cave wall 40,000 years ago can still be understood and used by us today? As Badiou notes (23), Marx had his own answer to these kinds of questions: the famous claim made in the Grundrisse that we continue to enjoy Greek art because ancient Greece was the childhood of humanity, and everyone loves a child. Badiou dismisses Marx’s response, claiming that it is ‘as feeble as it is touching’ (and ‘also very German’) (23). Instead, we should acknowledge that there are artistic, scientific, political, and amorous truths that are eternally valid.

This shift of emphasis from universality to eternality entails another change of focus: if the first Manifesto established that there are universal truths, the Second Manifesto is interested in how truths appear and are sustained as bodies in the world. Granted that there is such a thing as a truth whose ‘significance is not exhausted by that which materially binds it to its world of appearance’ (27), how do these truths come to appear in our particular, material world? This question reflects and is part of a broader change in Badiou’s whole project. Whereas Being and Event offered a theory of being as pure multiplicity, Logics of Worlds (and hence also the Second Manifesto) examines beings as they appear – not as pure multiplicities but as differentiated from other beings. If the first Manifesto called for a radical ‘disobjectivation’ – declaring the need to think an objectless subject – the Second Manifesto restores the ‘object’ as a legitimate philosophical category: it aims to show how a being can appear as an object in a world. We have thus moved from ontology (i.e. the investigation of being as being) to phenomenology – by which Badiou means the investigation of ‘being-there’ (31), or the existence of objects in different worlds.

Badiou’s work has previously been criticised for its abstraction and lack of engagement with social, historical, and economic factors. Those hoping that his phenomenological turn will lead Badiou away from the often intimidating formalism of his earlier work are likely to be disappointed. As is well known, in Being and Event Badiou identifies ontology with mathematics. In Logics of Worlds and its companion manifesto, he identifies phenomenology with logic. For Badiou, phenomenology is about the forms of relation that objects enter into – and it is logic that offers us a ‘formal theory of relations’ (31). In common with most commentators on Badiou, at this point I am forced to confess my ignorance of recent developments in mathematics – though in some senses Badiou’s turn to logic should be less daunting than his earlier use of set theory: logic, after all, is a well-established branch of philosophy, pursued by some of its most notable practitioners (Aristotle, Hegel, Mill, etc.). Nonetheless, given that his arguments can be expressed and understood without their mathematical framework, it remains difficult to shake off suspicions about the use that Badiou makes of mathematics, apart from its role in drawing on the intellectual authority that has traditionally been awarded to the hard sciences.

If ontology is interested only in the being of a multiplicity, ‘divested of all the qualitative predicates which make of it a singular thing’ (28), then Badiou’s phenomenology investigates the qualities of multiplicities insofar as they appear as objects differentiated from other objects: it is interested in the ‘degrees of identity’ between multiplicities, or in other words the extent to which two things appear similar or different. Any world (and there are many) is governed by a ‘transcendental’ that organises these degrees of identity. For example, in the world of a preoccupied commuter, two ants on the floor may appear basically identical – the degree of identity will be very strong – whereas in the world of an entomologist the two insects may appear very different to each other, and the ‘degree of identity’ will therefore be much weaker. ‘Existence’ is defined by Badiou as ‘the measure of an identity of a thing to itself’: it is ‘a transcendental degree indicating the intensity of a multiplicity’s appearing in a given world’ (57-8). What this means is that things can exist in the world to different degrees, and there can even be things that are in the world but are inexistent. Indeed, Badiou claims that ‘if a multiplicity appears in a world, one element of this multiplicity, and one alone, is an inexistent of the world.’ (60) Badiou’s example is inspired by Marx: in bourgeois society, the proletariat does not exist; it ‘can be analysed but, according to the rules [or transcendental] governing the appearance of the political world, it does not appear within this.’ (61) For the inexistent to appear, there must be a disruption of the transcendental: ‘a perturbation of the world’s order’ (91). A suitably radical change is named an event, which gives rise to a truth process as ‘the construction of a new body’ (90).

From a Marxist perspective, the concept of the transcendental as a world’s ‘structural order’ (53) does raise a series of questions. Where does the transcendental come from? Whose interests does it serve? How is it sustained? And, perhaps most importantly, how can it be challenged and overturned? Granted that it is desirable that (for example) the proletariat are raised from inexistence to maximal existence, how is this to happen? How will change come about? Badiou’s previous account of radical change was frequently criticised: it seemed as if the event’ just appeared from nowhere, as if falling from the sky. His new conceptual arsenal does allow for a more subtle approach. Events are now distinguished more thoroughly from other forms of change, and in theory the concept of the transcendental as the system of rules governing a world means that the conditions of events can be analysed, though it remains to be seen how useful these concepts are for the analysis of social forms. The relation between truth and subject is also now more subtle. In earlier works, the ‘subject’ referred to that individual or collective who sustained a truth by being faithful to an event. Badiou now acknowledges that there can be other types of subject – not only faithful but also ‘reactive’ (maintaining that the world should carry on as normal) and ‘obscure’ (calling for the liquidation of the faithful subject and the destruction of the new truth) (92-5). But there is still no sense that a subject might be something that takes part in or causes events: in a sense the subject is always ‘reactive’ for Badiou, because it is only ever a reaction to an event. In addition, despite Badiou’s polemicising, he never exorcises the spectre of relativism: if truths are sustained by subjects, then what are we left with other than a radical decisionism? The alternative that Badiou offers in his conclusion – ‘either war-mongering capitalist parliamentarianism … or the victorious renewal of the Communist hypothesis’ (124) – is admirably clear, but it remains in doubt how useful his own philosophy is for elucidating and responding to this alternative.

I have only been able to touch on some of this book’s themes here – but then that is all Badiou is able to do in such a short volume: the attempt to condense the massive Logics of Worlds into a small manifesto means that we end up with a book that is often exceedingly dense and difficult. But, then, given Badiou’s views on philosophy, it would be absurd to complain that this book is not easy enough. If this Second Manifesto does not reach the heights of the first, then that is to be expected, given that the first Manifesto is one of Badiou’s finest books (and, along with his Ethics, probably the best introduction to his unique philosophy). And if readers of this book are forced to turn to Logics of Worlds to make sense of some of the more obscure passages, then in a sense it means that this manifesto has done its job as an appetizer for Badiou’s current thinking.

2 November 2011

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