Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy: German Philosophy: A dialogue

German Philosophy: A Dialogue Couverture du livre German Philosophy: A Dialogue
Untimely Meditations
Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy. Edited by Jan Völker. Translated by Richard Lambert
MIT Press
Paperback $12.95 T | £9.99

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan

On January 30, 2016, Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy conducted a public dialogue at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) moderated by Jan Völker. The agenda for the dialogue was Badiou’s and Nancy’s perspectives of German philosophy and of its influence on French philosophy. This book records their conversation.

In his “Afterword”, Völker wonders if something like a dialogue is ever possible between philosophers. While skeptic that a dialogue in the strong sense is possible among philosophers, he suggests that to have a philosophical dialogue is to “exhibit the presence of philosophy, to share its essence, to develop problems by debating shared concepts…it is always an address, a praxis—an invitation, a letter” (81). What a philosophical dialogue does not seem to be, is a shared effort to reach an agreement and mutual understanding.  With that in mind, we need also to remark that this book is not a discussion about the reception of 19th and 20th Century German philosophy into French philosophy in general, but a reflection on Badiou’s and Nancy’s personal and highly original relationship to Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger. It is not the history of German philosophy in France, which would have to include also the influence of the different strands of neo-Kantianism, but an attempt to map the convergences and divergences between two leading French thinkers, which also happen to be the last representatives and inheritors of the great “Philosophical Moment of 1960’s”.

Völker opens the conversation stating that German philosophy plays an important role in the thought of Badiou and Nancy, while at the same time both subscribe to the idea of the timelessness of philosophy. Based on that, Völker asks from Badiou and Nancy to assess the philosophical relationship between Germany and France.

Badiou replies that philosophy is not really timelessness. There are discontinuous philosophical periods that we can locate historically and geographically.  We can speak of a Greek, an Arabic, a French (which starts with Descartes, and includes Spinoza and Leibnitz, both not French as he acknowledges), an English, a German (German Idealism), and finally a German-French period which seems to be reaching its end. This German-French period includes thinkers such as Heidegger, Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy and Ricoeur, and continues in Lacan’s and Foucault’s influenced French structuralism. Characteristic of this “French period”, which represent the last stage of the German-French philosophical constellation, is the effort to release Philosophy from its academic restraints and infuse it with new life, and to orient it towards a more political role, drawing inspiration from Psychoanalysis, the Arts and Mathematics.

Nancy adopts a more historical approach. He first comments on the fact that while Völker asked about the French-German philosophical relationship, both interlocutors are French, and they represent the French tradition. Nancy stresses that the influence of German philosophy dates from the interwar period, while the Second World War and its aftermath saw the departure of Philosophy from Germany and the invigoration of French thought.  What French philosophy inherited from the German tradition was the idea that the saying of Philosophy should be present in what it is said (7), which he opposes to a Cartesian tradition advocating a neutral language.

The second movement of the dialogue pertains to Badiou’s and Nancy’s relationship with Kant.  Badiou doesn’t like Kant.  He does not like the idea that there is a limit to human cognition, nor does he like the notion of a categorical imperative or the distinction between sublime and beautiful.  Nancy offers a nuanced rebuke to Badiou. Indeed, he also finds Kant « unlovable”, but this can be explained by the fact that Kant is writing in a language which is not mature enough to express his thought. Nancy also rejects Badiou’s understanding of Kantian epistemology as placing limits to knowledge. The “thing-in-itself” is not a something unknowable hidden behind the phenomena but, in a Heideggerian spirit, the “positing of the thing as such” (15). Nancy further explains that this is pure reality, which pushes reason to seek the unconditional, even if Reason knows that it will not find it.  Badiou declines this position. Everything can be absolutely known (17).  The “thing-in-itself” is nothing but “the general system of the possible forms of multiplicity”, one that we can explore mathematically, and therefore come to know (18). To say otherwise is to open the door to obscurantism and to political enslavement.

The question of limits to knowledge serves as a cue to Völker to steer the conversation to Hegel and to the question of the negative. Völker asks: « How much system is necessary to think negatively » (21). Nancy interprets negativity as mobility. Hegel’s system is one that does not cease to systematize itself.  Even when Hegel engages into fields that seem odd today, like in his Philosophy of Nature, his purpose is to give voice to all things or to “traversing all things through language” (23).  Badiou, for his part, expresses his passionate relation to Hegel, but also his impatience with Hegel’s encyclopedist drive, which does not leave room for what is to come.  But Hegel is also a true thinker of an affirmative negativity. In this, he is, in spite of his shortcoming, our contemporary.

Nancy objects to Badiou’s affirmation of contemporaneity. We come after Hegel, and we reread him.  For Nancy, the relationship is one of reception. There is no direct encounter with a text but through those reading that already influenced our encounter. Nancy’s own reading of Hegel is mediated by a chain of tradition constituted of Derrida, Bataille, and Kojève. Nancy also objects to Badiou’s emphasis on the “exhaustive” impulse in Hegel. Nancy prefers to speak of a “process of coming to fulfillment ». He sketches the difference through a succinct discussion of Hegel’s presentation of the modern state as a “moral idea”, which already contains the idea of the disappearance of the State and its replacement with a more adequate form of “ethical idea in action”. On a more general way, Nancy reads Hegel’s like a philosophy of « infinite jouissance ».

Badiou rejects Nancy’s characterization. The “jouissance” we find in Hegel is a relationship internal to the spirit. Therefore, does not exclude the exhaustion of possibilities. Furthermore, Badiou believes that there is a big difference in the way in which he and Nancy relate to texts. Badiou characterizes his own reading as “naïve”, as seriously taking into consideration what it is said, and then to rewrite it in his own terms (30). Nancy feels compelled to defend his hermeneutical approach, shifting the question to the relationship between history and thought, and to Marx.

At this point, the moderator steers the discussion to Marx and to Marxism.  Völker asks the panelists to address the questions that Marx poses to philosophy: the question of practice, the question of the absence of Marx in contemporary critical discourse.

Badiou asks if it is adequate to characterize Marx (and also Freud) as philosophers.  Marx’s oeuvre contains philosophical ingredients but is not primarily a work of Philosophy. Furthermore, Badiou criticizes the notion of philosophical praxis and the idea—which goes back to the “Theses on Feuerbach”—which reduces philosophy to the interpretation of the world.  Badiou understands interpretation in a narrow sense, e.g., the production of myths, religions, wisdom. Philosophy, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of the rational and is based on science and mathematics.

Nancy concurs that Marx is not a philosopher because he does not push his questioning to the end. Marx is happy with pointing out to a future state of humankind but does not push forward to say what that future state would be. Marx is a philosopher which at a certain point got caught into something more urgent.  Interestingly, Badiou retorts that while not a philosopher himself, Marx indeed elaborated in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 the concept of “generic humanity” (Badiou’s rendering of Gattungswessen, generally translated as “generic being”), and the “problem” is to identify in existing societies the seeds of this generic humanity (39).  It is noteworthy that Badiou is quoting here from the same 1844 Manuscripts that his master Althusser banished to the realm of the pre-Marxist. Badiou concludes this answer with the observation that on this point he feels that they both agree and that he is happy that such understanding was reached in reference to Marx.

Nancy and Badiou agree on the claim that philosophy is not interpretation but something else, but their agreement is only nominal. And their conversation turns to the question of the beginning of Philosophy which becomes the question of the beginning of Mathematics. Badiou’s position seems to shift during the conversation. He begins asserting that the birth of Mathematics is an event, an exception to the laws of a given situation (41).  But finally, he accepts Nancy’s hypothesis that Mathematics, as well as Philosophy and Tragedy, had their origin in the de-mythologization of the world. Badiou prefers to formulate this using the formula: “to speak the truth is no longer a question of a prescribed enunciative position » (44). But under the insistence of Nancy, he finally sums up his position beautifully saying that Philosophy needs to find rational and shareable protocols so that humanity is not poisoned by its mourning the death of the Gods (46).

The book concludes with two questions which were added by Völker after the discussion, one dealing with Adorno and the second with Heidegger. Völker asks about the disconnect between Critical Theory and post-structuralist French thought, particularly at a time when the questions asked by Adorno are again relevant.  Badiou rejects the idea of “negative dialects”, preferring an affirmative form of dialectics that can be the basis for a measured, controlled, and creative form of negation. Nancy’s position is more nuanced. He acknowledges that Adorno is not well known in France. This is in part because of his difficult style but is also related to the divorce between radical political movements which emphasized “workerism” at the expense of theory, and a university where Positivism was hegemonic. This split left room only for marginal forms of Marxism (he offers as an example, Bataille and Lefebvre). Nonetheless, Lyotard, Abensour, and others were interested in Adorno. From an English reading perspective, it is noteworthy that Habermas and the thinkers from the third generation of the Frankfurt School are airbrushed from the discussion and also from the conference that provided the framework for this dialogue, though the conference shows extensive examination of Adorno’s philosophy.

The last question refers to Heidegger. Völker refers to the renewed debates on Heidegger’s antisemitism and entanglements with Nationalsocialism.  Badiou offers a succinct response based on three points: (a) that Heidegger’s merit was to bring back the question of being; (b) that he brought it essentially as a historical question; (c) that Heidegger brought the question of being in what is essentially an identitarian context. Nonetheless, his crude nationalism and antisemitism do not erase the importance of bringing back the question of being (53-54).

Nancy disagrees. It is not enough to say that regarding the question of being Heidegger was a great philosopher but that otherwise, he was an uninspiring human being.  Nancy also rejects those interpretations of the work of Heidegger that focus exclusively on his criticism of technology. Nancy believes that there is something more, which was deeply attuned to his time. He refers to the infamous Black Notebooks in terms of « philosophical hyperbole » and « unbelievably hysterical », that has to do with the « overwhelming within Europe » of the relationship to what we know as “politics”. But he does not elaborate further, turning instead to “being” in what can be taken as a silent rebuke to Badiou’s affirmation of the importance of the question of being.  Badiou begs to differ and offers an autobiographical observation: “it was only in a space opened by the Heideggerian question that I was able to arrive at this mathematical vision of the indifference of being” (59).  He then summarizes their discussion as follows:

“…after the French infatuation with German thought (exemplified by Sartre and Derrida) and the distance separating French structuralism and German hermeneutics, what we can now expect to emerge is a new form…of thinking…that…will address the following problem: how are we to reconstruct an affirmative dialectic on the basis of an ontology that accepts the indifference of being” (64).

It befalls to Nancy to pronounce the closing sentences of the discussion, but it is doubtful that these last words should be taken as a summation of the whole conversation.  Ultimately, Völker is right in arguing that what was productive in this debate was the debate itself, and not some implausible coincidences between the parties. French philosophical thought in mid 20th century was intertwined with German Philosophy in complicated ways, and resonated differently in different philosophers, constituting their distinctive oeuvre. Völker created the opportunity for this wide range exploration

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