I came across Badiou’s article, “Philosophy as Creative Repetition,” in which he discusses the very conception and role of and the subsequent “disciplining” of philosophy. For one, since it’s the end of the semester, I’ve been thinking of these types of questions that have been bothering me for a long time. In fact, it seems to be everywhere, for some of the discussions recently here at PE and other places have touched on questions like “What is philosophy,” “What does philosophy do, if anything?” or even as one PE writer asked “Is philosophy irrelevent?” or finally “What is a philosopher?” After drawing on Althusser’s notion that philosophy has no history and is a continual repetition of the same, Badiou writes:
What is the sameness of the same, which returns in the a-historical destiny of philosophy? Behind this question we naturally find an old discussion about the true nature of philosophy. There are roughly two main tendencies. For the first one philosophy is essentially a reflexive knowledge. The knowledge of truth in theoretical fields, the knowledge of values in practical fields. We have to organize learning and the transmission of knowledge. And the appropriate form of philosophy is that of a school. The philosopher is a professor, like Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger and so many others., including myself, when you address me under the name of “Professor Badiou.”
Badiou continues on to name a second–if not somewhat ideal–possibility, viz., the philosophical act:
The second possibility is that philosophy is not really a knowledge, that it is neither theoretical nor practical. It lies in the direct transformation of a subject, it is a kind of radical conversion, a complete change of life. And consequently it is very near religion, but by exclusively rational means; very near love, but without the violent support of desire; very near political engagement, but without the constraint of a centralized organization; very near the potency of artistic creation, but without the physical means of art; very near scientific knowledge, but without the formalism of mathematics, and without the empirical and technical means of physics. For this second tendency philosophy is not by necessity a matter of school, learning, transmission and professors. It is a free address of anybody to everybody. Like Socrates speaking to young men in the streets of Athens; like Descartes writing letters to Princess Elizabeth ; like Jean-Jacques Rousseau writing his confessions ; or also the Nietzsche or the novels or Sartre plays; or like, if you forgive me for a narcissistic touch, my own novels and plays.
The difference is that philosophy is no longer knowledge, or knowledge of knowledge. It is an action. One could say that what identifies philosophy is not the rules of a discourse, but the singularity of an act. It is this act that the enemies of Socrates called: “the corruption of young people “. And because of that, as you know, Socrates was sentenced to death. “To corrupt young people” is after all not a bad name for the philosophical act. If you properly understand “to corrupt”. Here “to corrupt” means to teach the possibility of refusing any blind submission to established opinions. To corrupt is to give to young people some means of changing their minds about all social norms ; to corrupt is to substitute discussion and rational criticism for imitation, and even, if the question is a question of principles, to substitute revolt for obedience. But this revolt is neither spontaneous nor agressive inasmuch as it is a consequence of principles and rational critics. In the poems of the great trench poet Arthur Rimbaud we find the strange expression: “Logical Revolts”. That is probably a good definition of the philosophical act. “Logical Revolts”.
Ultimately, Badiou concludes, “We, philosophers, are not allowed to sleep. A philosopher is a poor night watchman.” Indeed. I can’t help but think of Levinas’s conception of infinite watchfulness and insomnia which denote the indistinction and subsequent re-inscription of interiority and exteriority so we are left with an other interiroiry and exteriority. This is precisely the space of insomnia/infinite watchfulness/the ethical relation, or put another way, philosophy (as Levinas notes in Otherwise than Being) is re-inscribed as the wisdom of love in the service of love. It is this space of insomnia that becomes completely anachronistic for Levinas–it is nothing less than the possibility of redemptive action in history. Unsurprsingly, this kind of political aspect is not lost on Badiou, in fact it takes on more force here:
That’s why we can speak finally of a creative repetition. There is something unchanging in the form of a gesture, a gesture of division. And there is, with the pressure of some events and their consequences, the necessity for transforming some aspects of the philosophical gesture. So we have a form, and we have the variable form of the unique form. That’s why we clearly recognize philosophy and philosophers, despite their enormous differences and despite their violent conflicts. Kant said that the history of philosophy was a battlefield. Yes, it is so! But it is also the repetition of the same battle, on the same field. Perhaps a musical image may help. The development of philosophy is in the classical form of theme and variations. Repetition, the theme, and constant novelty, the variations. But both theme and variations come after some events in politics, art, science, love, events which provide the necessity for a new variation for the same theme.
Anyway, there is a good deal of useful ideas in Badiou’s article. Since I spend so much time teaching introductory courses in philosophy I wonder if this type of approach may be a nice way to help our students to “get the rubber to hit the road,” so to speak. I generally structure my intro classes around a theme, this semester it was “Knowing,” which focuses the reading and discussions nicely. Regardless, I’m sure I will revert to being always astonished at the passive “pornographic distance” some of my students adopt. I always hope for some sort of transformation, you know, into a more constructive space, but I’m today optimistic for the possibility of such a transformation since I haven’t yet graded the stack of finals glaring at me from the other side of the room…