The world today is a desperate place; life on this planet is facing imminent destruction and we cannot avoid the catastrophic extinction event that is already well underway. What relevance does philosophy have in such a situation?

Not much, I would suggest, despite being a professional philosopher myself. In contemporary philosophy, we hear only the pale echoes of the mid-twentieth century when philosophy felt consequential, when it stood against or for the great political and existential issues of the day; when political hope was alive, albeit bitterly contested, and philosophy seemed closely linked to its fortunes.

We are living in an age when philosophy is clearly past its prime, but it is not without its heroic figures. In this piece, I will focus on one such hero, Alain Badiou, who I believes merits the title of the greatest philosopher living today, not least because of how he harks back to the recently lost era of philosophical grander.

Who Is Badiou?

By the standards of contemporary academic philosophy, Badiou is famous. Of course, this means the great majority of people—including more than a few within academic philosophy—will not have heard of him at all, let alone have any familiarity with his ideas. There was nonetheless a palpable vogue for his thought in the late noughties, made possible by the sudden appearance of translations of his thought in English.

Badiou is a French philosopher in a classic mould which he may be said to have broken—as well, in the classic French style, as being by turns a poet, playwright, militant, and scholar of mathematics. He, with characteristic, and not entirely unjustified, immodesty, positions himself as the last in the series of great French philosophers of the twentieth century, a series that includes such titanic names as Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida. Still writing and speaking today at the ripe old age of 80, he is certainly the oldest living major French intellectual.

He sees himself as the final representative of the great blossoming of twentieth century French philosophy, but he could also be cast as the first of a new generation of French philosophers that came to prominence after the so-called “Events” of May 1968. Badiou was young enough to have figured as a student-militant rather than a professor in 1968, even if he was then already in his thirties, and became established in the professoriate immediately afterwards. He is younger by a decade than any of the previous generation, the so-called French poststructuralist philosophers—principally the trio Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida—who might not all have been well known before 1968, but had each published major works already before that date.

Along with many others of his young peers, Badiou aligned himself with the “anti-humanist” or “structuralist” camp in French thought, which is principally opposed to a “humanist” or “phenomenological” camp focused on human subjectivity. This means schematically taking the position that what is most important is not how human beings feel and experience the world, so much as the underlying structures that constitute this experience. This division puts him on the side most obviously of Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser among older French thinkers, as well as to a lesser extent of Michel Foucault, against figures such as Emmanuel Levinas (although Badiou retains a peculiar sympathy for the Marxist-phenomenologist Sartre).

Badiou went on to propound a systematic, metaphysical philosophy, of a type that had become unfashionable, though its bases are tailored to exempt Badiou’s thought from the objections that discredited the old systematic metaphysics. Badiou’s system is based around a mathematical ontology, specifically centred initially on Cantorian set theory, but more generally around the principle that it is mathematics that tells us how the world really is.

While this philosophy is meant to stand as a monument in its own right for Badiou, there is little doubt that his politics, or perhaps more specifically the way his politics and philosophy combine, have been the major point of attraction of his thought.

Badiou’s politics began in Marxism, as did the politics of almost all his philosophical peers in France. The specific brand of Marxism that they attached to, however, divided them from one another. Badiou embraced Maoism, though quickly developing a heterodox version outside of the main Maoist organisations, instead founding his own.1 Maoism was a major force on the far Left in the 1960s, as young people in particular looked for an alternative to the ideal of communism offered by a Soviet Union that looked increasingly conservative and stagnant, being attracted to the Chinese Cultural Revolution then in full swing instead. Badiou was an early adopter of Maoism, and late to abandon it, remaining a Maoist militant long after French Maoism had declined alongside the demise of Mao himself.

Ultimately, however, though both Marx and Mao remain important references and influences for Badiou, the position he articulates in his 1988 magnum opus, Being and Event, cannot be described any longer as Maoist or even Marxist, though Badiou does continue to insist on the vaguer adjective “communist” as a self-description. While Badiou’s mathematical ontology is not a total departure from Marxist materialism, it is nonetheless fundamentally at variance with it, and in the end is more idealist than materialist, as indicated by Badiou’s fondness for Plato.

Badiou uses mathematics to ground a theory of the event. Events for Badiou come in four varieties: political, artistic, scientific, and romantic. These types are distinguished arithmetically according to the number of possible participants—for example, the amorous event has only two for Badiou. Political events for Badiou derive their unique status via their capacity to mobilise masses of people, through their universal appeal: even if they mobilise only a few people in practice, for Badiou truly political events, such as the French or Russian Revolutions, have to be open to anyone and everyone.

The ontology of the event for Badiou is set-theoretic: the political event consists in naming the “void” in the situation, taking the mere situation (all the things that are found together in a time and place) and radically pointing out the thing that is ignored in it, the lack around which the situation is organised. To give a privileged example of Badiou’s, Marx inaugurated a political event by naming the “proletariat” as the void of the capitalist situation.

His “evental” ontology allows Badiou to absorb some of the relativism of the poststructuralist thinkers who preceded him, while retaining a universalism based on mathematics: there was no communism before the event that inaugurated it, but once it comes into existence, it’s open to everyone, for as long as it takes to play out. A difficulty emerges insofar as mathematics itself is evental, and hence subject to change, an implication which rears its head in Badiou’s 2006 sequel to Being and Event, Logic of Worlds, where he refers to different mathematical theories to those he had previously invoked.

Politically, Badiou offers a basis for communist faith which relies not on old arguments based on economics and dialectics, but on quite novel ones, though ones which present the historic basis for communism as being something different to what communists themselves believed them to be at the time, namely fidelity to an event, or a series of events, including that of Marx’s thought as well as Lenin’s 1917 Revolution, to name only the most obvious ones. Philosophically, he purports to square the epistemological circle through a reference to mathematics, restoring certainty in an era when our ability to understand reality had seemingly dissipated into relativism.

Why Badiou?

Badiou was a fixture of the French scene for decades before any of his significant works came into English translation. He had written dozens of books, including works of philosophy, plays, and novels, before rather suddenly, in 1999, a couple of his books appeared in English for the first time. Not much more than a decade later, twenty books by Badiou were available in English, and now, less than two decades after a book of his first appeared in English, approximately forty volumes of his writing are available to Anglophone readers. This rapid inflation, I will suggest, itself explains both the dramatic initial rise and then more recent slackening off of interest in Badiou’s thought in the Anglosphere. To us English-speaking readers of philosophy, he went from being just another French philosopher that no-one’s ever heard of, to being the living French philosopher with by far the largest number of accessible writings, giving him a status he does not enjoy in France, where he can be seen as just another soixante-huitard philosopher who has written dozens of books over the years, in an intellectual culture where writing so prolifically is much more usual. That said, in France philosophers generically enjoy a prominence that none enjoy in any English-speaking culture.

Of course, the explosion in the translation of Badiou’s works can hardly have happened by accident. Rather, it happened for various reasons. One, certainly, is that scholars with the capacity to translate Badiou’s work (I might mention here Peter Hallward, Ray Brassier, Alberto Toscano and Oliver Feltham for starters), and publishers with the capacity to make it available (such as Verso and Continuum) were interested enough in his work to do this. But of course no publisher will keep printing material if no one buys it, and the continuing explosion of translations attests to an intense interest in his writing. To what do we attribute this interest?

One could here emphasise Badiou’s personal qualities, his prolific productivity and extraordinary portentous charisma as a public speaker, but I don’t think these are particularly decisive here, not least because we are talking about people primarily being exposed to his writing rather than his personal presence. It must rather be the content of his thought that has excited interest. What I am going to suggest though is that the aspects of his thought that led him to broad appeal are not exactly the same—though they are far from unrelated—as the aspects of his thought that I think make him the most important living philosopher.

A factor that should be mentioned, though it should not be accorded undue importance, is the role of Slavoj Žižek, at the height of his own fame a decade ago, and perhaps the most publicly prominent philosopher at that time, in promoting Badiou’s thought and Badiou personally, happily panegyrising Badiou as a philosopher whose name belonged among the greats of the philosophical canon. Žižek and Badiou are not quite co-thinkers, though they belong to the same broad French anti-humanist tendency, with a shared adherence to communism (though Badiou’s is greater, albeit less orthodox) and respect for Jacques Lacan (though Badiou is not a Lacanian in the fundamentalist sense that Žižek proclaims himself to be). The apogee of this relationship and of the reception of either philosopher seems to me to have been the massive, expensive sold-out event in London organised by Žižek in 2009 under the title “On the Idea of Communism,” with Badiou and Žižek as effective headliners, though the event consisted of a who’s-who of contemporary superstars of far left theory.2

Here we might go deeper and ask why people were so interested in Žižek himself during this period—he too enjoyed an extraordinary explosion in his reception in the first decade of the third millennium, one which peaked perhaps somewhat before Badiou’s, and has passed still more clearly than Badiou’s moment yet has. Clearly, the interest in the pair testifies to an intense millennial reemergence of interest in communism in the Anglospheric academy. One could exaggerate this, inasmuch as I do not believe that Marxism ever really disappeared from the scene. However, there clearly was some kind of recession of Marxism internationally after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, which is to say, in the 1990s in particular. The first great sign of left renewal in the wake of this was the growing anticapitalist protest movement around international summit meetings, a series that made its loudest formative appearance with the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and effectively ended at Genoa in 2001. The theorists whose star rose immediately as a result of this development were two of those who appeared at Žižek’s conference a decade later, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. This movement effectively died with the shift in global dynamic and security following September 11, 2001. It was in this period that the uptake of Badiou and Žižek, though it had begun to some extent already, really took off. This was a period of renewed bare-faced imperialism, which immediately falsified Hardt and Negri’s position and saw them bizarrely calling for the creation of the global “Empire” that they had a few years before claimed already existed and constituted their main enemy. In light of this, there was something of a return of more orthodox Marxist positions: Trotskyist, Marxist-Leninist, and Maoist groups in the Anglosphere waxed on the basis of their opposition to Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ and, in the way of Leninist groups, divided and produced new groups.3 While Žižek and Badiou were neither of them orthodox Leninists, they nonetheless both pointedly defended Lenin, in contrast to the more anti-authoritarian sentiment that had been hegemonic in the pre-War-on-Terror anticapitalist movement.

Badiou’s popularity in the high noughties was due then to the fact that he used novel arguments to attack and defend sets of things that a certain audience disliked and liked respectively, namely capitalism and imperialism on the one hand and communism on the other, making him a suitable patron-philosopher for various tendencies. It helped to some extent that Badiou was propounding a form of communism that jettisoned a variety of elements that had become difficult (though certainly not impossible) to defend, such as Marxist economics, the dialectical view of history, and the Leninist party form.

But here is the rub: much or even most of Badiou’s audience was found among soi-disant Marxists, and indeed among people who had scant interest in the radically unorthodox elements of Badiou’s position. (Žižek incidentally gelled rather better with the same audience, since he was willing to call himself a Marxist without qualification, and his purported Lacanianism operates at a rather different register to Marxism, so does not promise to replace Marxism’s tenets). In the heyday of his influence, then, it was not so much the details of Badiou’s thought that most of his audience were drawn to, as the idea that there was a major living philosopher whose continuing adherence to communism could vouchsafe their own. Badiou’s mathematical justifications were not widely understood but functioned as a mystical explanation that can be pointed to, just as lay Catholics have taken the theological knowledge of the Church to vouchsafe their faith in the absence of any coherent understanding of their own of how it is possible for God to appear as a man and die.

If Badiou is less popular than he was formerly, I think he is—like Žižek, Derrida, or even Foucault before him—a victim of his own success, that is, that the volume of publications that have appeared to capitalise on the his success has overwhelmed his readership and fractured it, preventing understanding and coherent conversations. By this logic, Badiou’s heyday came precisely around 2008 or 2009, when a substantial number of readers had managed to read some of Being and Event, as well as more accessible works like Ethics and * Metapolitics*, but before the confusing 2009 appearance in English of Logic of Worlds, which I think complicated things beyond most readers’ tolerance: while this intervention was important and necessary in shattering a possible impression of Badiou as an absolutist adherent of Cantorian set theory, much of Badiou’s fanbase was looking for certainty, and preferred the appearance of absolutism.

It might be regarded as a good thing that Badiou has become less attractive as a reference for left dilettantes. While the largest part of Badiou’s reception has been, as for many thinkers, superficial, I must emphasise that there is a significant, smaller audience that is intensely interested in the details of his project. This audience is less drawn towards Badiou’s political valences than his philosophy itself. For the superficial audience, Badiou’s name and some of his ideas, particularly his emphasis on fidelity to the cause of the event, vouchsafed political commitments; for the more serious reader, the primary point of interest is the deeper and more general promise of a philosophy that can ground itself in mathematics and vouchsafe a variety of fidelities, not only political but artistic and personal ones.

The most general challenge of Badiou to philosophy at large is his raising of the status of mathematics. This is at once immensely attractive in getting us out of the apparent baseless arbitrariness of all beliefs in an era of postmodern relativism, and plausible since mathematics does seem to be have a special status. While natural language struggles to describe reality, mathematics seems to do it with a precision, and to be verified by making the calculations that inerrantly guide our technologised lives. That said, it’s not terribly clear that giving mathematics a special status between language and reality yields any or all or Badiou’s conclusions, and his usage of mathematics has certainly been contested by experts. In the end then, Badiou may either be the last gasp of metaphysics or its saviour.

Regarding mathematics, I find it hard to conclusively either gainsay or endorse Badiou’s stance. Does mathematics understand something fundamental about reality, and if so what does this say about our relation to the world? I don’t know, and I don’t even know how one would know whether one knows this. Mathematics certainly seems to have an extraordinary capacity, proven in particular in contemporary physics and information technology, to accomplish things in the world, but we do not know whether or not there are limits to this capacity.

Still, it is possible to agree with much of Badiou’s program at a liminal level without accepting his ontology. Indeed, anyone can read his Ethics—a book he wrote for French high school students, though this has to carry the caveat that the level of philosophy studied at French lycées is close to that studied at senior undergraduate levels in the Anglosphere—and find his arguments convincing even without the mathematical metaphysics. The problem is that without accepting his argument from mathematics it is unclear that we must accept his evental account of politics. Without the argument from mathematics, moreover, this account takes on a rather different flavour, as a psychological or sociological thesis about the operation of politics and human subjectivity more generally. The difference is that, if we accept the mathematical argument, then we can understand our commitments as rooted in the deep structure of reality itself, rather than being something more in the direction of a subjective or collective illusion. In fact, Badiou candidly admits this problem, inasmuch as by his lights we can never be finally certain that what we are think is an event is “really” an event and not just something that looks like an event—this for him indeed is precisely why all our passionate commitments rest on faith.

Badiou follows French philosopher of mathematics Jean Cavaillès, executed by the Nazis for resisting them in World War Two, in seeking to ground a life of fervent commitment in mathematics and reason. But I do not believe reason can motivate action, still less mathematical reason. Of course, strictly speaking, for Badiou it is not the ontology but rather the event that anchors our motivation by giving us something to believe in. But why believe in events? Without the mathematical explanation, the only reason ends up being the psychological understanding that we need to believe to give reason to our life—but once we understand this, we are not in the space of belief, but of disenchantment. Appeals to mathematics cannot re-enchant things. They can, at best, stave off disenchantment by convincing us that there is a deep necessity to the commitments we already have and feel. In short, Badiou produces a philosophy which is useful to enthusiasts such as himself, but is attractive without being compelling to others. I think we see this in Badiou’s biography and in his popular reception: abstract arguments can be taken up to defend and shape motivation that is fundamentally of an irrational type, and already exists prior to these arguments. Badiou has a fervently positive spirit, but his philosophy is the symptom and not the cause of this will, in himself as well as in others.

Still, I would want to side with Badiou in championing reason, if not to quite the extent he does. We are indeed in an age of what he calls ‘democratic materialism’, in which people are obsessed with bodies, and politically with affect, which is to say, with feelings. I think the politics of the United States in particular sees two camps facing each other, each accusing the other of making them feel bad. Against this Badiou raises the possibility of political principles which take us out of our animal existence by raising higher causes in which we can find meaning. Still, I remain pessimistic: while it is energizing to read Badiou, his thought remains insufficient to compel me personally, and I think also most others who have encountered it. Nonetheless, it does not seem to me that we have a better philosopher leading the way, and in this much Badiou remains indispensible, not least because he disturbs and attacks the pieties which most Western-educated people today believe in.

  1. On the history of French Maoism in this period, see the relevant chapter of A. Belden Fields, Trotskyism and Maoism (New York: Praeger, 1988). 

  2. The conference was subsequently turned into a book

  3. I am thinking here respectively of the growth of the Trotskyist British SWP (Socialist Workers Party), and of the anti-revisionist WWP (Workers World Party) and Maoist RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party) in the USA. The WWP enjoyed enormous growth with the success of its anti-war front ANSWER, but soon split to produce the PSL (Party for Liberation and Socialism); the RCP also grew strongly, in a period in which Maoist insurgencies in India and Nepal affiliated with the RCP were burgeoning and looked likely to win in the latter instance, but split as member bridled under its authoritarian leadership structure.