A “New French Philosophy Event” at NYU last December, “co-sponsored by the departments of French and Comparative Literature.” presented Alain Badiou as
a philosopher, playwright, and author. His books include Logics of Worlds; Being and Event; Theory of the Subject; The Century and a host of treatises and manifestos on aesthetics, Arab Spring, love, and, most recently, mathematics.
This is not only inaccurate, it is internally inconsistent; both Logics of Worlds and Being and Event place mathematics at the center of Badiou’s philosophical system, and they are not “recent.” For several years, since Vladimir Tasic drew my attention to the situation, I’ve been puzzled by the contradiction between Badiou’s warm reception in departments of Comparative Literature around the US and the indifference of his literary fans to the importance of mathematics to his thought. (He gave two talks at Columbia and two at NYU last December, none of them remotely connected with mathematics.) Now that he has published Éloge des mathématiques, pictured above and, as far as I know, not yet translated into English, it may be time to solve this puzzle.
Badiou, as his picture makes clear, is not a youngster — he was born in 1939 — but his popularity in literature department in the US is relatively recent. One wonders whether this is because he is still alive and vigorous while Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Lyotard are not, or whether it’s because the mathematics in his philosophy, and his philosophical realism, was incompatible with the fashion of the 1980s and 90s. This will not be settled today; instead, I’m going to quote a few passages from Éloge des mathématiques, while I continue to prepare a longer treatment of the book’s main themes. First, after an allusion to Romeo and Juliet to illustrate his theory of love, he writes:
Now this need not have any relation to mathematics. But it’s by no means incompatible: if you do mathematics with someone you love, as has happened to me several times during my existence, if together you seek the solution to the same difficult problem, well, it’s an experience that is simultaneously amorous and mathematical. When you find the solution to the problem together, it’s a double joy, and you don’t know to which register it belongs.
And having argued that the teaching of mathematics “must absolutely” focus on
awakening among children, adolescents, and ultimately everyone, the feeling that what is extraordinary in mathematics is that, in an often surprising and unexpected way, one solves enigmas whose statement is quite clear and precise, but that are nevertheless true enigmas
he concludes the book the following suggestion for the place of mathematics and philosophy in the French curriculum:
Philosophy remains an endangered discipline in the last year of high school, and mathematics a boring technique [opérateur] of social selection. Well, I suggest that the last year of pre-school be devoted to the two of them: five-year-olds will surely make good use of the metaphysics of the infinite as well as set theory!
(I can add from personal experience that a five-year-old is perfectly capable of grasping the deep meaning of Zeno’s paradoxes, and indeed the meaning of the word “paradox.”)
For a quick introduction to Badiou’s thoughts about mathematics, I highly recommend John Kadvany’s review of Badiou’s 2008 book Number and Numbers. Kadvany is not convinced by Badiou’s metaphysical claims about numbers and set theory — neither am I — but he writes (and I agree) that
Badiou’s thinking on such matters is entirely consistent, marvelously, sometimes fascinatingly, so.… it’s a real vision, but quite gnomic, almost a private language of Being.
For an extended account of the role of mathematics in Badiou’s system, see Paul M. Livingston’s illuminating review of Being and Event.