ON EVENTS IN PHILOSOPHY: Badiou, Feyerabend, and Cavell

Badiou says there are no “events” in philosophy in the strong sense, but only in art, science, politics, and love. Cavell’s lifelong testimony shows that philosophy does intrinsically comport events, and happily so.

For Badiou two important factors closely associated with an event in the strong sense are “fidelity” and “incorporation” (the construction of a body for the event, a body that is both individual and collective). So it is quite interesting for me that in this conference Cavell puts his work under the sign of the Wittgensteinian event. (For Badiou this is not strictly possible, as philosophy merely configures the compossibility of events taking place in in science, art, politics, and love – but this is a case where Badiou’s system interferes with his insights and needs to be modified).

So in these terms we can see the conflict in Cavell between the “fidelity” (which is quite apparent) and the “incorporation”. Cavell talks about the body, about philosophy and embodiment, about how Wittgenstein’s “writing is (of) his body”, but that is at the level of theme or content. Cavell’s style comes across as curiously disembodied, and thus still metaphysical, one could say “idealist”.

I associate this disembodied, metaphysical stance with a failure of pluralism. Cavell gives us an idea of the ampleur of a true event and of its consequences. However he shows no curiosity about other events, in philosophy or in the other domains of thought. Even inside philosophy one major event is enough, the rest are preparatory (Austin) or confirmatory (Emerson). This is also a failure of democracy, as there is no sense of how, despite an implicit claim to modeling an individuating approach to philosophy, Cavell could engage with others who follow their own individual path or who work together to change things.

Cavell is part of an élite, an intellectual and institutional aristocracy. Badiou talks about this sort of response to the decadence of the modern world as “nostalgia” and “aristocratic idealism”. Badiou’s own counter-measure to decadence is also ambiguous, and has its own failures of pluralism and democracy. But his thought contains more of these ingredients than Cavell’s.

On this question of events, the comparison of Paul Feyerabend with Stanley Cavell is very interesting. Wittgenstein was an “event” for Feyerabend, just as much as he was for Cavell, but the consequences were very different. What Wittgenstein liked about the Kraft circle, of which Feyerabend was a member in his student days, was their irreverence. In his autobiography, Feyerabend talks about a vist Wittgenstein made to the group :

There were interruptions, impudent questions. Wittgenstein was not disturbed. He obviously preferred our disrespectful attitude to the fawning admiration he encountered elsewhere (KILLING TIME, 76).

One of Feyerabend’s earliest articles was an account of Wittgenstein’s PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS, and one can see the explicit and implicit influence of Wittgenstein throughout Feyerabend’s philosophical development until the end, and which remained under the sign of irreverence. Cavell’s “inheritance” of Wittgenstein is more under the sign of reverence.

Feyerabend tells us of many such events in his life: the encounter with Popper, with Bohr, with Brecht, with his dog Spund, with his wife Grazia, with the “Mexicans, Blacks, Indians [who] entered the university as a result of new educational policies”. In contrast, Cavell seems to develop his ideas in a near vacuum, just him facing Wittgenstein. He shows that Wittgenstein cannot be reduced to the technical vision of philosophy, and this is a big achievement. But Cavell’s disappointment with academic philosophy is sublimated into becoming a spiritual supplement, like a food additive, to a devitalised academic practice.

My own experience of philosophy as event is much closer to Feyerabend’s than to Cavell’s. In 1979, when I was very much under the influence of Feyerabend’s pluralism, I read two big books that I was very impressed by: Stanley Cavell’s THE CLAIM OF REASON and Deleuze and Guattari’s ANTI-OEDIPUS. I had a doctoral scholarship that would pay me for a year’s trip to another country to study. I did not even consider going to study under Cavell. My way of being “faithful” to Feyerabend was, strangely enough, not to go to Zurich and attend his seminars, but to go to Paris and attend Deleuze’s seminars. I was faithful to Feyerabend’s call to openness to new encounters and new intensities, and had no desire to become his disciple and to “repeat” his thought.

Feyerabend often claimed that he was not a philosopher but merely that his profession was that of “thought-bureaucrat”. Near the end of his life he published a little text called “Not a Philosopher”, and this was a constant theme of his talks and texts. He said he liked the job of philosophy professor because it paid him well to talk about whatever he liked, and he condemned the élite who protected their financial territory, and squeezed out anyone who disagreed with them, all the while pretending to disinterested reason. He was conscious of being a lucky exception in that regard. It would have been nice to hear Cavell talk about the financial aspect of his profession too.

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