Matthew R. McLennan, Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy: Badiou’s Dispute with Lyotard. London: Bloomsbury, 2015; 150 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4725-7416-9.

Reviewed by Devin Zane Shaw, Carleton University and University of Ottawa

Matthew McLennan’s Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy is a remarkable book. While providing a succinct and incisive account of the philosophical differences between Alain Badiou and Jean-François Lyotard, it also presents a sustained meditation upon the definition of philosophy itself. Beginning with a broad, working definition—that “philosophy is an activity of higher-order questioning, a search after truth” (1)—McLennan shows that defining what we do when we do philosophy is a complex problem. Badiou and Lyotard prove to be worthy interlocutors on this point, as they both uphold, for different reasons, an “obstinate” and “militant” vision of philosophy opposed to the “levelling and domesticating pressures of economic reason.” (121) While McLennan focuses on the dispute between Badiou and Lyotard, and the different ways that they inflect the basic definition of philosophy as a search for truth, there are three conflicts to which he is attentive. First, he argues that in the present conjuncture philosophy is caught in a “double bind: if unable to plead its utility, philosophy is existentially threated; pleading its utility, it is threatened no less.” (1) On the one hand, by appealing to the intrinsic value of its pursuit of truth, philosophy falls afoul of the metrics of economic efficiency. On the other hand, by appealing to its utility as either a discipline that inculcates innovative and creative thinking or a therapeutic that cultivates contentment or wisdom, philosophy risks legitimating “institutions and the individuals who populate them.” (1) Second, this conflict between appealing to philosophy’s intrinsic value or its practical, ethical utility also risks transforming philosophy into sophistry—the instrumentalization of persuasion without the concern for truth. McLennan shows, however, that the relationship between sophistry and philosophy, in the ways that Badiou and Lyotard confront it, is much more complicated.

The central dispute, however, that drives McLennan’s investigation, is the conflict between Badiou and Lyotard, which provides “a good deal of insight into their concepts, arguments and systems.” (4) Although both figures uphold a militant vision of philosophy, their respective definitions of what philosophy does are profoundly different. Lyotard, especially in The Differend (the central focus of McLennan’s analysis), practices philosophy as a “genre in search of its rule.” (122) If philosophy is the search for truth, in Lyotard’s parlance, it would be an interminable search. For Badiou, philosophy thinks the compossibility of the truths of four heterogeneous conditions: science, politics, art, and love. Thus, for Badiou, philosophy is the search for truth, the search for an ontology that can carve out a place for truths (necessarily in the plural) and the subjectivation of militant fidelity to truths. McLennan, while “taking pains to do justice to both thinkers,” admits to “giving a slight edge to Badiou in the conclusion”—a conclusion that I will challenge below. (5) Though in many ways McLennan follows Badiou in framing their dispute, he practices philosophy much like Lyotard, interrogating their respective ontologies, concepts of philosophy and sophistry, and accounts of ethics and politics, withholding his ultimate verdict until the closing pages of the book.

From the outset McLennan rejects the idea that philosophy ought to justify itself according to its utility, restricting its scope to a liberal democratic framework and applying itself to problems therein. Restricting its scope would render philosophy oblivious, in Lyotard’s terms, to the possibility of a differend or a wrong—such as the wrong that occurs in the many formulations of the self-evident intelligibility of the Western philosophical tradition that rely, in part, on excluding other philosophical traditions. (While this point is implied by McLennan’s militant idea of philosophy, it is not explicitly explored). McLennan focuses, then, on the other conflicts: between philosophy and sophistry and between Badiou and Lyotard.

Both Badiou and Lyotard draw on sophistry to subvert philosophical pretentions to totalizing knowledge, acting as the master discourse or science of all sciences that organizes and delimits the other sciences in order to proclaim the Truth of the whole. The operant question, especially in chapters 3 and 4, is whether Lyotard’s philosophy, in maintaining its vigilance toward the interminable search for the rule, lapses into sophistry. Lyotard, from the 1970s through the composition of The Differend, draws on sophistry in order to distinguish between philosophy as a practice and what McLennan calls its “theoreticist deviation,” which presumes that philosophy is a master discourse: “Lyotard the philosopher fights alongside the sophists, using sophistical tools, against philosophy’s reification into Platonic, Hegelian and other systems.” (71) Lyotard neither opposes philosophy to sophistry, nor on his terms does he side with sophistry; instead, he opposes pragmatics of genres to the philosophical architectonic. In this approach, which is similar to deconstruction, Lyotard shows how the rules, protocols, and axioms for establishing proof or truth within an architectonic system or master discourse undermine themselves when faced with what he calls “retorsion.” McLennan glosses retorsion in the terms of Hans Albert’s Münchhausen trilemma: Lyotard shows how the master discourse’s appeal to first principles falls afoul of either

(a) infinite regress (on what other principles do your principles rest?); (b) circularity (on what ground other than your principles can you defend the claim that your principles are self-evident?); or (c) arbitrariness (on what grounds have you broken off the search for first principles here?). (73)

When, however, Lyotard turns the protocols of Plato’s philosophy (see 75–78) or Kant’s critical architectonic (see, for example, his analysis of the Kantian sublime) against themselves, he does not assert a new master discourse; he aims to undermine the pretentions to philosophical mastery in favor of a militant vigilance toward witnessing the differend.

Badiou, by contrast, may be the contemporary epitome of philosophy’s theoreticist deviation. In the preface to the English translation to Being and Event, Badiou claims Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, and Hegel as his philosophical company. Indeed, Badiou characterizes his project as a “Platonism of the multiple” that defines philosophy in relation to the truths of its four conditions. This Platonism, though, refers not only to the idea of truth—since one could lay claim to truth by virtue of a fidelity to the ways that emancipatory political struggle has laid claim to truth in opposition to political oppression—but also to Badiou’s claim that only set theory can think the pure or inconsistent multiple, which is to say an ontology attentive to the event, truth, and subjectivation.

However, despite the Platonic program, Badiou sets out, like Lyotard, to detotalize philosophy. In the Manifesto for Philosophy and the first chapter of Conditions, “The Re(Turn) of Philosophy Itself,” Badiou “reckon[s] with the inherently sophistical character of much post-Heideggerian thinking,” Lyotard included. (81) Rather than conceding the “end” of philosophy, in the wake of the totalitarian and terroristic disasters of the 20th century, Badiou argues that a philosophy of truth, the event, and subjectivation is necessary if philosophy desires to think its contemporary situation. He maintains, in the wake of, and (in some sense) in fidelity to, post-structuralism, that philosophy must constitute its task through its rivalry with sophistry. Sophistry, broadly defined, deposes of truth in favor of genealogical critique reducing philosophy to a discursive genre. Badiou contends that by engaging with the sophistry of post-structuralist French thought philosophy can reinvigorate its fidelity to truth without lapsing into the disastrous consequences of believing to possess the Truth. When philosophy claims to possess the Truth, it treats Truth as what Badiou characterizes as ecstasy (an initiation to Truth), the sacred (the sacralization of the name of Truth), and terror (exclusive possession of Truth). Thus when philosophy treats truth as ecstasy, the sacred, or terror, it “cedes ground with respect to multiplicity, heterogeneity and moderation.” (110) The sophist, for Badiou, is correct to argue against Truth. However, philosophy must insist, against the sophist, that there are truths (multiplicity), that there are multiple names—such as May ’68 or the Paris Commune—of truth “seized” from philosophy’s four conditions (heterogeneity), and that philosophy constructs an open place for truth without claiming possession of the Truth (moderation).

McLennan argues that, in examining the dispute between Lyotard and Badiou and the rivalry between philosophy and sophistry, “the very dispute over who is doing philosophy is philosophical.” (122) Thus I will conclude by examining what we might extract as McLennan’s concept of a militant philosophical vocation. The first two features of this militant philosophy, common to both Lyotard and Badiou, are: first, a principled resistance to reducing philosophy to socio-economic utility; and second, an openness to the event, in its multiplicity and heterogeneity. When McLennan argues that Badiou’s philosophy has the “slight edge” over Lyotard’s, his verdict turns on their respective political and ethical characterizations of this openness to the event. Lyotard’s philosophy is marked by an openness to singularity, experimentation, and alterity, but it is increasingly marked, especially after The Differend, by melancholia. Just as Lyotard practices philosophy as an interminable search for its rule, he practices ethics as what McLennan calls an “anthro-paralogy,” which seeks to “multiply testimonies to the effect that the individual human being and perhaps the human as such, if there is such, is constitutively resistant to totalizing genres.” (103) While he evinces some sympathy toward this “rigorous vigilance,” McLennan notes that Lyotard’s ethics is itself vulnerable to retorsion: either ethics is one genre among others and holds “no pre-eminent place, or ethics is a kind of meta-genre and therefore one which, paradoxically, commits wrongs.” (102)

McLennan, therefore, grants Badiou a slight edge over Lyotard for maintaining the category of truth. He writes: “the category of truth is essential to the element of revolt, i.e. it is essential to interrupting the interminable economic circulation of codes;” a truth functions as an “absolute fulcrum from which to demonstrate capital’s injustice or its inessential being.” (124, my emphasis on that quasi-Cartesian metaphor) He draws from Badiou a concept of truths that is by definition subtracted from the status quo or state of the situation. That truth is subtracted from the state of a situation means: first, that it cannot be reduced to the knowledge accepted within the consensus of the status quo, and second, that it is by definition opposed to the State (given that Badiou plays upon the equivocal meaning of state) of the situation. Then, given that truth is subtracted from the state of the situation, that it is the “absolute fulcrum” of militancy, subjecting it to retorsion would be incoherent.

Here, I agree with McLennan, although I would phrase such a claim to truth through Rancière’s egalitarianism. That said, I would like to challenge—from within the framework immanent to McLennan’s analyses—the synecdoche, established by Badiou, that links truths, militancy, and ontology. While in the conclusion McLennan opposes Lyotard’s ethics and politics to Badiou’s, when he first formulates his verdict in Chapter 4 he appeals to ontological grounds: he argues, following Badiou, that Lyotard’s melancholy politics is a consequence of the fact that Lyotard was not “entirely faithful to the pure multiple,” that there is, in Lyotard, nostalgia or desire for the One, the Moment or Event for which the historical moment has passed. (119) I think this appeal to a fidelity to the pure multiple must be challenged by retorsion. Badiou is, as a reader of Lyotard, cognizant of this problem; as McLennan notes, Badiou “tries to evade the ruse of retorsion with the help of the matheme, more particularly set theory.” (78) However, even if we grant that Badiou’s set-theoretical ontology evades retorsion (and this is by no means settled) Badiou’s use of the “pure multiple” as a synecdoche for a philosophy of subjectivation, truth, and event does not.

As McLennan notes, for Badiou, the recourse to ontology is an attempt to evade retorsion via set theory. But to judge politics or ethics on the basis of ontology, one must make what I will call an ontosectarian assumption: that ontology is “first philosophy,” that politics or ethics follow from ontology, and that insufficient politics or ethics follow from insufficient ontology. But then the question is: how do we judge the sufficiency of ontology across philosophical traditions—be they European, creolized, or non-European, canonical or non-canonical—when translating across traditions, especially when the Western tradition is treated as the norm, risks a differend? This opens a question that cannot be answered within the protocols of Badiou’s ontology: why is the pure multiple a desideratum? Badiou dehistoricizes this particular question when he treats the relationship between philosophy and sophistry as a perennial rivalry rather than a problem that arises in a specific historical conjuncture. Even if we grant Badiou that the pure multiple is, in the wake of French post-structuralism, the conceptual basis of a rigorous definition of militancy, truth, and subjectivation, it does not follow that in a different philosophical tradition that militancy, truth, and subjectivation must be faithful to the pure multiple. Moreover, as I have noted, it is equally possible to derive a fidelity to truth or militancy from emancipatory political struggle itself, to test politics with and against politics, ethics with and against ethics as well. Indeed, we find—despite his acceptance of Badiou’s ontosectarian verdict—that McLennan tests these other avenues in his investigation. Therefore, we can accept that truth is, as McLennan writes, the “absolute fulcrum” of militant philosophy while drawing from Lyotard the tools for constructing frameworks for thinking and reinforcing the common political goals of emancipatory struggles across potentially incommensurable philosophical and cultural principles. Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy as a whole is a robust demonstration of philosophical openness, patience, and generosity through agonism, and of an attentiveness to the idea that to speak truth to power requires a self-reflexive capacity to ask to, for, and with whom one speaks about truths.

Read Matthew McLennan’s review of Shaw’s Egalitarian Moments: From Descartes to Rancière here.