Alain Badiou

Alain Badiou, Rene Descartes Chair and Professor of Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Alain Badiou (b. 1937) is a French philosopher and professor of philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS. He is one of the most significant philosophers of our time. While Badiou’s political position has drawn him the most attention within academia and beyond, it is his ontology that is the center of his system. Badiou’s “system” is built upon the purity of mathematics––specifically, set and category theory. The structure—of vast complexity—stands in relation to the history of contemporary French philosophy, German Idealism, and the primary works of antiquity. It is constituted out of a series of determinate negations of the history of philosophy, but also out of the histories of what Badiou terms conditions: art, politics, science, and love––the essence of his theory of compossibility. In brief, as Alain Badiou defines it in the Introduction to Being and Event (2005), philosophy is that which “circulates between … ontology (thus, mathematics), the modern theories of the subject and its own history” (p. 3). An outspoken critic of both the analytic as well as the postmodern schools of thoughts, his philosophy seeks to expose and make sense of the potential of radical innovation (revolution, invention, transfiguration) in every situation.

The primary philosophical system developed by Alain Badiou is constructed in Being and Event, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II, and the forthcoming Immanence of Truths: Being and Event III. Surrounding these works––as is consistent with his definition of philosophy––are numerous supplementary and tangential works. While many significant books and seminars remain untranslated into English, those which are include: Deleuze: The Clamor of Being (1999), Metapolitics (2005), The Meaning of Sarkozy (2008), Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (2003), Second Manifesto for Philosophy (2011), Ethics: An Essay of the Understanding of Evil (2001), Theoretical Writings (2004), Philosophy for Militants (2012), Theory of the Subject (2009), Plato’s Republic: A Dialogue in 16 Chapters (2012), Polemics (2006), Philosophy and the Event (2013), In Praise of Love (2012), Conditions (2008), Infinite Thought (2006), The Century (2007), Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy (2011), Five Lessons of Wagner (2010), and The Adventure of French Philosophy (2012), among others. In addition to his books, Badiou has published innumerable articles that can be found among edited collections in philosophy, politics, and psychoanalysis. He is also the author of several successful novels and plays.

Alain Badiou studied philosophy at the École normale supérieure, where he in 1999 would become chair of the philosophy department. From 1969 (and until 1999), he taught at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes-Saint Denis) in the founding philosophy department with Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Jean-François Lyotard. He has also taught, and continues to hold seminars, at the Collège international de Philosophie in Paris. Politically active since his youth, Badiou was a founding member of the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) and was active in supporting the decolonization of Algeria. Much of Badiou's life and work has been shaped by his dedication to the consequences of the May 1968 revolts in Paris. As he writes in The Meaning of Sarkozy:

“The task facing us, after the negative experience of the socialist states, and the ambiguous lessons of the Cultural Revolution and May '68––and this is why our research is so complicated, so erratic, so experimental––is to bring the communist hypothesis into existence in a different modality from that of the previous sequence. The communist hypothesis remains the right hypothesis, as I have said, and I do not see any other. If this hypothesis should have to be abandoned, then it is not worth doing anything in the order of collective action. Without the perspective of communism, without this Idea, nothing in the historical and political future is of such a kind as to interest the philosopher. Each individual can pursue their private business, and we won't mention it again” (p. 15).

He is a leading member of Union des jeunesses communistes de France marxistes-léninistes, and was, with Sylvain Lazarus and Natacha Michel, a founding member of L'Organisation Politique, a formation focusing on direct intervention. In addition to the political influence of Mao Zedong, Badiou’s primary influences range from Plato to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to Jean-Paul Sartre, and the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan.

In such a brief overview, it is most fitting to render a sketch here of Badiou’s ontology. For Badiou, being qua being, according to mathematics, which “thinks ontology,” is pure multiplicity, multiplicity without One. Therefore, it is beyond the reach of comprehension or understanding, which is always based on a count-as-one with the exception of thought immanent to a truth-procedure, or set theory. This exception is key. Set theory is a theory of presentation, thus ontology is the presentation of presentation. Ontology, as set theory, is Badiou’s philosophical version of “knowledge in the real.” For Badiou, only set theory can write and think without One.

According to the opening Meditation of Being and Event, philosophy is buried within the false choice between being qua being, being One, or being multiple. Akin to Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit, Badiou in Being and Event sets out to resolve long standing impasses in philosophy opening up to a new horizon of thought. For Badiou, the true opposition is not between the One and the multiple, but between this pair and the third position they exclude: the One is not. In fact, this false pair constitutes itself as exhaustive of the horizon of possibility by the foreclose of the third. The details of this thesis are developed in the first six Meditations of Being and Event. The essential consequence is that there is no direct access to being as pure multiplicity, since everything from within a situation appears as one, and everything is a situation. The apparent paradox of this conclusion is Badiou’s simultaneous affirmation of Truth and truth(s).

Like his German predecessors, and Jacques Lacan, Badiou divides the nothing beyond presentation between nothing as non-being and nothing as not non-being, to which he gives the name “void,” as it designates a not non-being which is anterior even to the attribution of number. Truth at the ontological level is what Badiou––borrowing again from mathematics––calls a generic multiple. In brief, this is Badiou’s ontological foundation for the world of truths he later constructs.

Perhaps more than the assertion that ontology is possible, Badiou’s doctrine is distinct in the affirmation of Truth and truth(s). The first “Truth” is, strictly speaking, philosophical; the second “truth(s)” belongs to the conditions. The relation between these two is comprehensible through the delicate distinction between religion and atheism, or more specifically, through the distinction between residual and imitative atheisms and post-theological thought, that is, philosophy. For Badiou, philosophy is inherently empty, that is, it has no privileged access to some realm of Truth beyond the reach of artistic, scientific, political, and amorous thought and creation. Therefore, philosophy is conditioned; it is conditioned by the conditions as truth-procedures and ontology. The simplest way to articulate the apparent temporal paradox between philosophy and Truth and the truths of the conditions, is through Hegelian terminology: the thoughts of the conditions are particular, the constructed category of Truth is universal, and the truths of the conditions, i.e., the truth-procedures, are singular. In other words, philosophy takes the propositions of the conditions and tests them, so to speak, against ontology, and then constructs out of them the very category that will serve as their measure, Truth. The thoughts of the conditions, in so far as they pass through the category of Truth can be declared to be truths. Truth, therefore, is literally constructed out of what will have been truths––and ontology. With the relation of Truth and truths Badiou constructs a philosophical system adequate to Kant’s summation of the Enlightenment––thought will not obey any other authority than itself (which is not the same as saying that it will not obey).

The truths of the conditions, therefore, are procedures which, taking cause from a crack in the consistency of a presentation, itself secured by representation, are thoughts which traverse the semblance of neutrality and naturalness of an established situation from a position of assuming that––ontologically speaking––the One is not. Truths, in other words, are phenomena, or phenomenal procedures, which bear a fidelity to the foundations of ontology. Truth––the philosophical category––on the other hand, is the subtracted universal articulation of these singular thoughts, which Badiou names “generic procedures.”

To this process stretched between an encounter with the void, as cause, and the construction of a consistency not founded on the foreclosure of the real of being, Badiou gives the name subject. The subject itself involves a number of elements or moments, namely, intervention, fidelity, and forcing. More specifically, this process––given the nature of ontological truth––involves a sequence of subtractions that are always subtractions from any and all conceptions of the One. Truth, therefore, is the subtractive process of truths.

––Srdjan Cvjeticanin