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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Excursus: Badiou’s Sickle—Philosophy Against its Conditions

Whereas some thinkers have sutured or fused philosophy to one of its four generic procedures or conditions—art, love, science or politics—Badiou’s gesture is to separate philosophy from its conditions in a principled act of separation and discernment which I hereby name Badiou’s sickle. An argument could be made to call this gesture a scythe or shears—all three tools involving cutting or pruning. It is a cognate of Ockham’s razor (lex parsimoniae, the law of parsimony) and Hume’s fork, other instruments of thought denoting distinction and separation. There is a family resemblance,[i] too, to Wittgenstein’s ladder, invoked as an argument one uses like steps or a ladder to “climb beyond them.” The reference is to be found in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)[ii]

The difference is that the conditions from which we wish to separate philosophy are not merely stepping stones, instruments or means to an end which can be discarded once we arrive at the end. Neither are they “lies-to-children” in an update on Plato’s Noble Lie. The conditions have the force of suturing philosophy precisely because they are truth-procedures in themselves, hence it would be a mistake to dismiss them like so many “useful idiots.”[iii]

On the other hand, there is the temptation to make philosophy itself one of its conditions. This is the proposal of Slovenian theoretical psychoanalyst Alenka Zupancic in her essay on the “fifth condition.”[iv] To recapitulate, Zupancic argues the following: philosophy’s  conditions do not provide a foundation for philosophy, because if they did this would “suture” philosophy and lead to its “suspension,” or abandoning itself to one of its conditions. Nonetheless, she posits that:

One could thus say that there is also a fifth condition of philosophy: philosophy has to pull away from the immediate grip of its own conditions, while nevertheless remaining inder the effect of these conditions.[v]

She arrives at this by acknowledging that Badiou is the first philosopher to conceptualize the singular notion of the Two. Acknowledging that philosophy must “take place within the space of the infinite process of truth without itself becoming a process of truth” that is, “situated on the same level as generic procedures yet a certain distance from them,”[vi] Zupancic argues that philosophy must rely on the “immanent count-for-two.” Zupancic concludes that the count-for-two is also a fifth condition which “defines the very relationship of philosophy with its conditions and keeps it from merging with them, as well as from appearing as their independent sum.”[vii]

In a discussion of Badiou’s politics, Oliver Feltham poses the parallel problem of inhabiting philosophy, that is, “how to take a position within its field, how to even identify its domain via a ‘front,’ a line of conflict, while at the same time completely renaming and refiguring it.”[viii] Feltham calls it “the renovator’s problem[ix]: how do you inhabit what you want to tear down and rebuild?” Citing Althusser’s failed project of trying to fuse politics and philosophy, Feltham argues that philosophy must rigorously separate its own names from the immanent names of a truth procedure and avoid the trap of (con)fusing procedures or conditions with one another (e.g., political art). On the other hand, if these procedures do not intersect or have a common language (Badiou does not present Cantorian set theory or discuss a poem by Mallarmé in the same way), just how does philosophy discern their truths?

While I am aware of this aporia in Badiou’s thought and sympathetic to her argument, I think Zupancic’s resolution is not altogether coherent with Badiou’s approach, in part for the larger problems that Feltham poses. The problem with Zupancic’s elaboration of Badiou’s argument about conditions is that Badiou has posited an instrument of absolute separation, not of degrees. He draws a sharp line—an epistemological cut—between philosophy and its conditions that will be among his lasting gifts to thought. To this cut,  I give the name Badiou’s sickle or scythe, an instrument we will apply to other fields, notaby psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis. In this analysis, psychiatry cannot be reduced, fused or sutured to one of its conditions—be they the chimeras named  “cognitive behaviour therapy,” “existential analysis,” “neuroscience and genetics,” “phenomenological psychiatry,” “systemic family therapy” or “sociocultural studies.” It is in this sense that RD Laing eschewed the label “antipsychiatry” and described himself as an “orthodox psychiatrist,” affirming the key mission of psychiatry as clinical.   

In Jewish religious observance, there is a ritual called havdalah, meaning the separation of the sacred from the profane.[x],[xi] Badiou’s sickle functions as a rite of separation of philosophy, which is consacrated to pure thought, from its important, even necessary but subordinate, not to say profane, conditions.

Let us therefore add Badiou’s scythe to the tool-kit of the philosopher. Along with the workaday objects every thinker needs—a ladder (Wittgenstein), a razor (Ockham) and a fork (Hume)—we can now add instruments for cutting, pruning, and sometimes clear-cutting: Badiou’s shears, sickle, scythe.

[i] “Family resemblance” is a term introduced by Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe (1953), §67, p. 32.
[ii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. by C.K. Ogden (1922), p. 189.
[iii] The term is often attributed to V.I. Lenin but its provenance is not established.
[iv] Alenka Zupancic, “The fifth condition” in Peter Hallward, ed., Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy (2004), pp. 191-201.
[v] Ibid., p. 191.
[vi] Ibid., p. 191.
[vii] Ibid., p. 201.
[viii] Oliver Feltham, op. cit., p. 17.
[ix] Ibid., p. 17 (emphasis added).
[x] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966).
[xi] Jean Soler, “The dietary prescriptions of the Hebrews,” trans. by Elborg Forster, The New York Review of Books, June 14, 1979.


  1. Doesn't Badiou simultaneously suture politics and history to philosophy, however? -- I'm thinking especially of his leap from ontology as such to the historico-social situation in Being and Event. "Badiou's sickle" seems to me a very dangerous instrument -- perhaps even a kind of technology of power in that by emphasising one 'field of knowledge' as end in itself, by its nature, it (re)defines others in relation to that prior end, instituting a new metadiscourse in the process.

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    I think you are misreading Badiou. His philosophy was notably influenced by Althusser from whom he took the notion of general theories and regional theories. Badiou is quite consistent in separating philosophy from its conditions and agrees with my reading of Zupancic. This is to say that her notion of philosophy itself being a "fifth condition" is misguided. Badiou's whole thought is one of separation, as is my thesis, in separating trauma from event. He stated this clearly and forcefully at my dissertation defense.

    If I read you correctly, again, I think you are wrong in thinking that he sutures history and politics to the situation which is transhistorical and as he recently clarified non-decisionistic (it is not a choice or decision by an individual consciousness).

    My proposal of an instrument, like Ockham's Razor or Hume's Fork, to clarify thinking, which I call variously Badiou's Shears, Scythe or Sickle depending on the size of the task, to make discernments about what is properly philosophy and what better belongs in other discourses, cannot be dangerous in the way you describe it. On the other contrary, applied to my own fields of psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis, I argue strenuously that each of these are discourses on their own. I am not one for conflations and confusions but for nuances and the best way to preserve the nuances and subtleties of each discipline is to separate them and organize them around a given question. That is a shifting exercise. In discussing what is psychiatry, for example, one can name its subdisciplines such as psychoanalysis and neuroscience without suturing psychiatry to either of them, as many in my field attempted but failed to do with psychoanalysis and are now trying to do, in my view fruitlessly, with neuroscience. This does not mean that either of them are subordinated to psychiatry but rather that in the activity of the psychiatrist or in psychiatric thought, we must avoid reducing, conflating and subordinating psychiatry to its allied disciplines. As Leon Eisenberg said a generation ago, this has produced either brainless psychiatry (informed by psychoanalysis but without neuroscience) or a mindless psychiatry (informed by neuroscience but without psychoanalysis). Of course, you have to accept our contention (ie., Eisenberg's and mine, shared by Jerome Kagan which he forecefully articulates in his intellectual autobiography, "An Argument for Mind") that brain and mind are overlapping but finally separate things or as Kagan elegantly put it, a complete account of the brain will not be a total account of mind.

    I have lived this and know this to be the fundamental trap of psychology and psychiatry which continually rename and reconfigure their fields when new technologies arise without even taking stock of their own historical developments and how we got where we are. Psychologists and psychiatrists are often guilty of throwing away Wittgenstein's Ladder and then get stuck like cats out on the limb of a tree, not knowing how to climb back down. This is what I'm talking about and can give you many examples of this problem in the history of these fields.

    Finally, far from being some newfound or newly-fashioned metadiscourse as you suggest, philosophy simply must maintain its task as the founding discourse of thought and continue to fight against the Sophists old and new, from scientistic philosophy-bashers to other forms of antiphilosophy including such thinkers as Freud and his follower Lacan, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein.

    Badiou's distinction is between philosophers and antiphilosophers, a similar territory to what Richard Rorty described as systematic and edifying philosophers. Rorty as we know chose edifying philosophy to become an anti-foundational thinker. He would not have approved, I think, of Badiou's ontology which is to a great extent positioned against postmodernism and is a return to philosophy's great task of understanding being.

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