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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Frege ridiculed the formalist conception of mathematics by saying that the formalists confused the unimportant thing, the sign, with the important, the meaning. Surely, one wishes to say, mathematics does not treat of dashes on a bit of paper. Frege's idea could be expressed thus: the propositions of mathematics, if they were just complexes of dashes, would be dead and utterly uninteresting, whereas they obviously have a kind of life. And the same, of course, could be said of any propositions: Without a sense, or without the thought, a proposition would be an utterly dead and trivial thing. And further it seems clear that no adding of inorganic signs can make the proposition live. And the conclusion which one draws from this is that what must be added to the dead signs in order to make a live proposition is something immaterial, with properties different from all mere signs.

But if we had to name anything which is the life of the sign, we have to say that it is its use. – Wittgenstein

To read Badiou for the first time is a confusing experience. The vocabulary, for one – it seems to mix terms of art from radically different spheres. There is something especially daunting about the use of mathematical terms and concepts. Partly, this is due to LI’s shaky knowledge of mathematics – the last time we did a geometric proof was about the same time we were drooling over the girls on the Drill Team. We’ve never been highly math literate. However, as the years go by, we have acquired some knowledge about the philosophy of mathematics. If we have no talent for equations, we like to think we are ace in the pattern recognition department.

But partly this is also due to our sense that the intrusion of terms of art, here, is unwarranted. We are reminded of Johnson’s strictures on the metaphysical poets:

“Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.”

Or, to quote that scene in Apocalypse now:

" They told me that you had gone totally insane and that your
methods were unsound."

" Are my methods unsound?"

" I don't see any method at all, sir."

Badiou has written about this reaction to his work:

“My father was an old student of the Ecole Normale Superieure specializing in mathematics; my mother was an old student of the Ecole Normale Superieure specializing in French. I am an old studend of the Ecole Normale Superior specializing in.. well, what? Philosophy, meaning, without a doubt, the only possibility of assuming that double filiation, of circulating freely between literary maternity and paternal mathematics. It is a lesson for philosophy itself, as I conceive it, and that I have summed up in the following declaration: the language of philosophy always occupies, or always constructs, its own space between the matheme and the poem, between the mother and the father, that’s all.

"There is someone who has seen this very well: my colleague Jacques Bouveress of the College du France. In a recent book where he did me the honor of speaking of me, he compared me to a hare with eight paws and said, in substance: this eight legged hare, Alain Badiou, hurries as quickly as he can in the direction of mathematical formalism, and then suddenly, under the impulse of some incomprehensible aim, he turns around exactly and with the same speed hurries to throw himself into literature.” Well, yes, this is how, with a mother and father like mine, one becomes a hare.”

For LI, this is an important passage – not philosophically important, but important insofar as it allows us to have a retain a certain patience with Badiou. And it especially explains the way in which, in his mathematical mode, Badiou can sometimes appear to be a martinet -- one imagines the math teacher in the provinces bearing down on his charges.

It is easy to be impatient with philosophers – first, they write in atrocious jargon, and second, they often say things that seem so obviously wrong that the first impression becomes impenetrable. The French, obviously, haven’t adopted the tales of Uncle Remus to their heart – as they have Edgar Allan Poe – or the natural reference, here, would have been to Bre’r Rabbit and the Tarbaby, one of LI’s favorite of all tales. In my dictionary, lievre is defined as a “mammifère qui vit en liberté.” Well, like Elmer Fudd, we are going to catch that wabbit, but we are also going to pursue it with the full knowledge that there is something cartoon like about the whole hunting metaphor.

Next post (perhaps) is going to be about Badiou’s idea about ‘truth” and art. We’ll look at what he has to say in this interview, as well as in his fifteen theses. We are more concerned by the place held by truth in his philosophy than his aesthetics Badiou’s peculiar conceptualization of truth is the core of what makes us think that Badiou is not, philosophically, on our side, much as we'd like him to be.

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