DEMOCRATIC PLURALISM vs ARISTOCRATIC IDEALISM: Cavell, Badiou, Latour

Philosophy practiced as a way of life, or mode of embodiment, continued long after the closing of the Greco-Roman schools, at least into the Enlightenment. Descartes is by no means the disembodied thinker of abstractions that some imagine, and partakes of the Enlightenment contradiction between a democratic image of thought as pluralist process of individuation (think for yourself) and an aristocratic image of thought as architectonic of monist doctrine (science, and I, have found the right answers).

Stanley Cavell argues that this union of life and thought is continued in Transcendentalism (Emerson, Thoreau), Wittgenstein, and (modestly) himself. However I can only partly agree with Cavell, as I see a process of individuation in his work, but it is more élitist and aristocratic than pluralist and democratic.

There is a conflict in Cavell’s work between the fidelity he advocates and exemplifies to the ideal of “moral perfectionism” and his real degree of embodiment of that ideal. Cavell talks about the relation between philosophy and embodiment, about how Wittgenstein’s writing is of his body. However, Cavell’s own style is curiously disembodied, and to that extent still metaphysical, one could say “idealist”.

This disembodied, metaphysical stance amounts to a failure of pluralism. Cavell gives us a sense of the divisions and of the ruptures that stem from the task of being faithful to a series of events (he talks explicitly of the “Emersonian event”, and of the “Wittgensteinian event”) and to their consequences. However he shows no curiosity about other events, in philosophy or in the other domains of thought, aside from the arts.

It is also a failure of democracy, as Cavell gives us no sense of how, despite his implicit claim to be modeling for his reader an individuating approach to philosophy, he could engage with others who follow their own individual or collective paths. Cavell is part of an élite, of an intellectual and institutional aristocracy, despite his evocation of his experience of following a difficult path within academia, a “strained way within the institutions of philosophy in our America” (PHILOSOPHY THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, 111).

In the introduction to his LOGICS OF WORLDS, Badiou discusses this sort of aristocratic response to the decadence of the modern world as a form of “nostalgia”. Its strategy is to “found  the secret society of the surviving creators”. Badiou names this nostalgic approach “aristocratic idealism”, and considers it to be doomed to inefficacy by its backward-looking stance of “preservation”:

However, since such a preservation – which sustains the hope that the intellectual and existential splendours of the past will not be abolished – has no chance of being effective, it cannot partake in the creation of a concept for the coming times (3).

This conflict between aesthetic preservaton and conceptual creation is common to both Badiou and Cavell. Badiou has his own forms of nostalgia (mathematicism, lacanism and maoism), and these are well analysed in Laruelle’s ANTI-BADIOU. Bruno Latour in his AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE manages to dispense with these reductionist leftovers from the Althusserian sixties (scientism, politicism, and psychoanalysism), but he falls into a religious nostalgia that disfigures or conceals the conceptual advances that he accomplishes.

Badiou traces two failures of pluralism: excess of negativity and excess of religiosity. This diagnosis is behind his declaration that the analytical tradition is “too sceptical” and that the phenomenological tradition is “too pious”. But I think the domain of this critique is more general. Bruno Latour takes pains to distinguish himself from the phenomenological tradition, but he conserves its piety, elevating religion to the status of a mode of existence. Stanley Cavell’s engagement with scepticism is far more nuanced than Badiou’s simplistic vision allows for, and he takes pains to distance himself from the mainstream analytic tradition, but his mode of philosophising excludes the sort of “prospective metaphysics” that Badiou is elaborating, and that he finds in Deleuze.

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