FEYERABEND, LYOTARD, AND POSTMODERNISM (2): the “end” of philosophy?

“Does Feyerabend believe in the end of philosophy, as some postmoderns do? (This question was posed by Ian James Kidd on his facebook page).

This question is more complex than it seems, given that the relevant philosophers did not use the same terminology as Feyerabend. The “postmoderns” (but who are they? who can say?) did not call for or announce an end to philosophy, that would be a rather essentialist move to make) but rather to “metaphysics”, conceived of as a totalising, homogeneous, and dogmatic figure of philosophy.

Who are the postmoderns? Lyotard (who put the concept on the philosophical, as opposed to merely journalistic or culture critical, map) lists Deleuze, Levinas, Derrida, Foucault, Serres, and himself (and elsewhere includes Feyerabend):

“la philosophie française des dernières années, si elle a été postmoderne de quelque manière, c’est qu’elle a mis à travers sa réflexion sur la déconstruction de l’écriture (Derrida), sur le désordre du discours (Foucault), sur le paradoxe épistémologique (Serres), sur l’altérité (Lévinas), sur l’effet de sens par rencontre nomadique (Deleuze), c’est qu’elle a mis ainsi l’accent sur les incommensurabilités” (Lyotard, TOMBEAU DE L’INTELLECTUEL, 84-85).

“recent French philosophy, if it has in any way been postmodern, it is in that by way of its reflection on the deconstruction of writing (Derrida), on the disorder of discourse (Foucault), on epistemological paradox  (Serres), on alterity (Levinas), on the effect of sense by nomadic encounter (Deleuze), it has put the accent on incommensurabilities” (my translation).

Feyerabend has much in common with these thinkers, in particular with Lyotard (and I would add with Serres and Deleuze, but their case is different). Feyerabend in line with these thinkers does not call for an end to philosophy as such (Feyerabend clearly tells us that “philosophy” does not exist as a well-defined and homogeneous activity, any more than “science” does) rather for an end to the hegemony of abstract traditions (what others would call “Platonism”, the relation of Platonism to the actual philosophical practice of Plato being a moot point).

Postmoderns (in the “noble”, Lyotardian sense) criticise such doctrines as the “end of philosophy” as being just as dogmatic, in their certainty of an ending, as the dogmatic metaphysics that they are identifying with philosophy and whose end they proclaim. The end of the hegemony of that form of philosophy does not mean the end of all philosophy, but only the freeing up of possibilities for thinking.

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FEYERABEND, LYOTARD, AND POSTMODERNISM (1): ambiguities and convergences

“Is Feyerabend post-modern?”

I think this constitutes a bad question, given that the term “post-modern” itself is quite ambiguous. However, Feyerabend frequently emphasised the importance and inevitability of ambiguity, declaring that the awareness of and ability to work with ambiguity is what he had in common with the deconstructionists. So it seems reasonable to attempt an answer if we bear in mind its ambiguity and its potential fecundity.

“Post-modern” is used to name a wide spectrum of ideas and positions, ranging from epistemological relativism to ontological pluralism. Lyotard is often misquoted on this point: he defined post-modernism as the decline of grand narratives of legitimation. This is often reduced to the “decline of grand narratives”, without including the qualification “of legitimation”.

Lyotard’s conception of the “post-modern” is exactly the same as Feyerabend’s concept of epistemological anarchism. Feyerabend’s argument in AGAINST METHOD is not opposed to all methods, but only against the use of Method as legitimation for the derivation of rules for scientific progress having prescriptive, rather than heuristic, force and guaranteeing progress.

Feyerabend was aware of Lyotard’s book THE POSTMODERN CONDITION, and he cites it favorably in the introduction to FAREWELL TO REASON. Lyotard cites Feyerabend’s work on a number of occasions. I can further attest that I met Lyotard in 1980, shortly after the publication of THE POSTMODERN CONDITION, and I discussed Feyerabend with him. He was quite a fan, declaring “J’adore Feyerabend!”.

Beyond this anecdotal level, what unites them more fundamentally is that both Lyotard and Feyerabend were hostile to the facile relativism that passes for “postmodern” and were eager to elaborate a conception that would allow for plurality while allowing us to combat the relativist tolerance for anything and everything.

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Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy is globally a regression compared to the post-structuralism that it purports to go beyond, but it does contain certain progressive elements. In particular its anti-scientism and its anti-literalism.

The striking failure of Peter Wolfendale’s much vaunted (in Speculative Realist circles) critique stems from the fact that it is in net regression compared with these progressive elements. What vitiates Wolfendale’s critique above all is its naive scientism, although he himself is unable to recognise this.

This regressive aspect of scientistic objections is why a non-scientistic critique of OOO, such as Zizek’s, has a greater chance of isolating the major structural elements that need to be replaced. This is better than concentrating on critiquing OOO’s lesser defects, as does Wolfendale, due to his scientistic blindspot.

Zizek manages to say in the limited space of 15 pages more than Wolfendale says in a 400 page book, because he does not approach OOO from a scientistic perspective.

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HAPPINESS IN BADIOU: four philosophical affects

Badiou talks of joy, happiness, and beatitude in various places, so one is entitled to wonder what difference, if any, exists between these concepts. As Badiou is using these terms in his recent book “Métaphysique du bonheur réel” (2015), “happiness” is the generic term. It can be broken down into the affects of “enthusiasm” in politics, “beatitude” in the sciences, “pleasure” in the arts, and “joy” in love (page 40).

Badiou discusses these affects only briefly, affirming

“As we have seen in the preceding chapters “happiness” is a synthetic word for several affects tied to distinct truth procedures. In LOGICS OF WORLDS (2006), I indicate explicitly, for the first time, that the participation of an individual in a truth is signaled by an affect, and that for each type of truth there is a different affect” (page 57, my translation).

We should bear in mind that later in the book Badiou declares that we must abstract from his terminology, and that he finds that Deleuze’s concept of sense corresponds quite closely to his own concept of truths.

Secondly, I think we must reject Badiou’s obsession with magic numbers such as the FOUR truth procedures. Deleuze and Guattari recognise many more semiotic régimes, and we should see their book WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? as a pedagogical simplification of their full system.

Another interesting development is Badiou’s application of this typology of philosophical affects to his own works. He claims that in BEING AND EVENT the predominant affect is the beatitude that comes from scientific comprehension:

Beatitude is the name of the happiness provided by being as being, when it is taken up in the writing of its purity (59).

In contrast, the predominant affects in LOGICS OF WORLDS are the pleasure and joy arising from the exploration of the logic of appearing, as it manifests in the relations between bodies and truths within specific worlds:

The fact that the question of the body of truths is central obviously explains that pleasure (of the formalised sensible) and joy (of the other, of the sexed Two as sovereign in the world) are at this level the most clearly explored forms of happiness (60).

Badiou’s terminology is far from satisfactory, but at least it has the merit of spelling out certain distinctions and sketching a useful typology of affects, even if we choose to apply it differently.

I think Deleuze would treat “joy” as a more generic term than “happiness”. “Pleasure” seems very insufficient to describe the artistic affects, especially given the importance of the sublime in modern art. But Deleuze also told us not to be too attached to particular words, and to be ready to change them. Deleuze exemplified this attitude in his aborted dialogue with Foucault, where he tried to show that what he and Guattari meant by “desire” corresponds to what Foucault refers to with the expression “bodies and their pleasures”.

Note: I am grateful to a discussion with Anna Powell that helped me clarify my ideas on this point.

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One can get a very useful overview of the difference between Alain Badiou’s and Graham Harman’s philosophies by comparing the diagrammes of their philosophies (cf. Badiou’s diagramme and Harman’s diagramme).

There is a radical incompatibility between the two philosophies on a number of fundamental points

1) the object: there is a radical rupture in Harman’s scheme between the appearing sensual object and the withdrawn real object. For Badiou there is no such rupture, the appearing object is a multiple inside a world and the ontological object is a pure multiple. There is no barrier between them, both are real.

2) the subject: the subject for Badiou involves the whole diagramme. It exists in the emergence of a relation (of fidelity) to an emergence (of a Truth). As we saw in the last post, for Badiou emergence does not define a one-way movement as there is retroaction (both by directly and by indirect looping) of Truths on Being. Harman’s diagramme cuts the subject from the object via the veil of withdrawal, which is one-way only.

3) emergence vs withdrawal: Harman’s problem is that he cannot explain in the terms of his system how a withdrawn object can “de-withdraw”. The movement or trajectory of Badiou’s diagramme is horizontal, including thresholds of emergence. Objects, truths, and subjects are all immanent. The movement of Harman’s diagramme is vertical, including an epistemological and ontological barrier: the veil of unknowing/veil of withdrawal.

4) phenomenology: the place of phenomenological experience in Harman’s system is purely formal. Experience offers us sensual analoga of real objects, in particular it provides us with the basis for the intuition that the real is composed of objects (and relations). However, the veil of withdrawal voids all particular sensual objects, qualities, and relations of any ontological pertinence. There is no trajectory that can rise from sensual objects to real ones and no path, whether causal or deductive, leading from real objects to sensual ones.

The popularity (where it exists, as it is a very regional phenomenon) of Harman’s system is due to the intuition that OOO can be “flipped” into immanence, but that would involve subtracting some of Harman’s central assumptions (something that other OOO partisans have not hesitated to do).

Badiou claims that there are two modes of entry into his thought: (1) systematic, by means of the major treatises (including THEORY OF THE SUBJECT) and (2) phenomenological, by means of the manifestos and the trajectory embodied in the seminars. It would seem that the principle of “immanence” implies that the phenomenological trajectory has heuristic primacy, and includes multiple possible paths.

Note: I am indebted to a discussion with Chris Bateman for helping me to clarify these points.


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BADIOU’S DIAGRAMME: evental emergence vs objectal withdrawal

Alain Badiou has published in the 100th issue (June 2016) of PHILOSOPHIE MAGAZINE a summary of his philosophy in the form of a diagramme and a three page commentary. It is interesting to examine it in the light of Badiou’s general critique of philosophies of withdrawal. Badiou’s diagramme is one of evental emergence rather than of objectal withdrawal.

Description: we pass from the multiplicities and multiple worlds of ontology and phenomenology (or being and existence) on the left across the membrane of emergence into the domain of events and of truths and conclude in the circle of happiness on the right, which contains the subject, the truth procedures, the absolute, and the domain of philosophy. As we shall see, Badiou considers that this movement of reading the diagramme corresponds to a real philosophical trajectory:

Here, the trajectory leads from being to the circle of real happiness (Badiou, Philomag 100, page 72).

Separating  the domain of being and appearance from the domain of events and truth procedures is what Badiou calls a “double bar”:

One will have noticed that the whole part on the left of the diagramme is very formal. But then a sort of dramatic development occurs, represented by the double bar. This caesura is that of the event. This concerns a pure emergence, an unpredictable rupture (page 72).

Badiou’s bar of emergence is the opposite of Harman’s veil of withdrawal. As events do not only emerge from being but act back on it we could also call this bar the membrane of emergence.

Badiou distinguishes between several senses of system:

1) a strong sense, where the aim is to embrace the totality of thought and the universe. Badiou rejects this sort of system as it implies a totality, and thus a unity closed in on itself. Badiou tells us that his enemy in metaphysics is the One, and that he replaces its primacy with that of difference and multiplicity.

2) a weak sense, where the aim is to cover ever vaster domains in starting from a set of principles and constrains, by means of  rational demonstrations and arguments. Badiou’s system is no longer a synchronic totality but a trajectory constituted by the rule-governed unfolding of thought.

Badiou concludes by emphasising that the whole movement is not a simple one-way linear progression, but a circle, a sort of feedback loop:

“there is in fact a loop, a great circular movement: the system teaches us that being, given in its pure neutrality, is susceptible, under condition of the event, to sustain the absolute: but the absolute, this cipher of true life, emerges from being and flows back onto it” (page 73).

Badiou’s “absolute” is not that of a speculative totality or of a religious transcendence. The Badiousian absolute qualifies the universality of a Truth, the fact that although it is active in a particular world it is not reducible to that world and can be re-activated in a different world. This is why it transports with it a sort of eternity.

It is interesting to note that this theme of “eternity” is tied to a reconciliation with Spinoza:

“As Spinoza says, the human animals that we are can experience they are eternal, here and now” (page 73).

This is of a piece with Badiou’s increasing reconciliation with Deleuze’s thought and with his re-working of Deleuzian themes. Happiness, for Badiou, is a sort of beatitude, the product of the experience of our eternity and infinity within a finite and temporal life.

One can only welcome the speculative intensity that Badiou continues to bring to the pursuit of his project, as he extends it now into an account of the “immanence of truths” (this is also the title of his forthcoming book). The danger is that sometimes it sinks from the summits of philosophy to the platitudes of the “wisdom of life”.


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LARUELLE AND GENERICITY: the problem of scientism and of religionism

If a sympathetic reader of Laruelle has never noticed or been disturbed by the sense of infallible uniqueness emanating from his writing then I think they may be mistaking his many declarations of principle for real practice.

Laruelle often invokes a democracy of thought, but in fact he is one of the least democratic thinkers in the post-structuralist constellation. Laruelle often affirms that he is not doing critique, but he constantly claims that philosophy aims at immanence and fails to attain it, etc.

Laruelle’s use of quantum theory is very rudimentary compared to Deleuze’s and Zizek’s use, and very undevelopped compared to Badiou’s use of set theory. One cannot put on the same plane Laruelle’s handful of terminology taken from quantum physics and Badiou’s well worked out use of set theory and category theory.

Zizek is willing to see convergences between his own use of quantum physics and Badiou’s use of set theory. In particular, Zizek has the generosity to treat Badiou’s mathematically formalised notion of the inconsistent multiplicity as on a par with his own concept of the incompleteness of the real illuminated by quantum physics.

Laruelle lacks that generosity. Laruelle caught in his own philosophical sufficiency cannot see such parallels with others, and seems to think that he is the only one to have broken with sufficient (or standard) philosophy, that he himself is the only non-philosopher. This is what I have called the uniqueness hypothesis and it has had a sterilising effect on his thought.

 There is a contradiction between Laruelle’s goal of genericity and his scientism. Adding the term “messianic” into the mix does not help, as this is not a generic enough term, as any Buddhist or Hindu could tell you, not to mention just simple atheists. My argument on this point is simple: we are not immanently Christian, and the word “messianic” is not generic.

If one claims that the concept of generic is the content of his Christo-fiction, then I object that there is a mismatch between the concept and its specific name. I accept the concept but refuse the name. One cannot conflate immanence with Christian names, even if their sense is heavily re-worked.

Every thinker proceeds by impasses and ruptures, and Laruelle at least has had the insight and the honesty to admit and to foreground his changes and to label them Philosophy I, II, etc. However, we need not accept his own description of his progress. In PRINCIPLES OF PHILOSOPHY he clearly says that his system of thought was scientistic, and that now he has gone beyond it. I agree with his diagnosis of scientism, you’d have to be blind to miss it. Nonetheless, I disagree that he went beyond scientism in that book or even in his later ones.

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