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Platonism as Praxis Revised

Platonism as Praxis Revised

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11/14/2012

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Platonism as Praxis: The Ancients & the Moderns
My philosophy [is] an
inverted Platonism
: the further removed from true being, the purer, the more beautiful, the better it is. Living in appearance [
 schein
] as goal. —Friedrich Nietzsche, draft for 
The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music
When man embarks on the investigation of the nature of things, he realizes at length that he cannotarrive at that nature by any means, for he does not have within himself the elements from whichcomposite things are constituted. ...Man then turns this fault of the mind to good use, and creates twothings for himself through what is called “abstraction:” the point that can be drawn, and the unit thatcan be multiplied. But these are fictions: the point, if you draw it, is no longer a point; the unit, if you multiply it, is not entirely a unit. Moreover man arrogates to himself the right to proceed fromthese fictions to infinity….By this device, he creates a kind of world of shapes and numbers whichhe can embrace entirely within himself. ….When the mind gathers the truths of the things itcontemplates, it cannot do so except by making the truths it knows. Of course, the physicist cannotdefine the things themselves[;] …that is God’s right but is unlawful for man. So he defines thenames themselves, and creates the point, the line, the surface following the model of God, withoutany substrate and as though from nothing [
tamquam ex nihilo
]—as if they were things. …Therefore…the most certain sciences are those which, redressing the defects of their origin,resemble divine knowledge in their operation, inasmuch as in them the true is convertible with whatis made. …[But] the mind does not make itself as it gets to know itself. —Giambattista Vico,
On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians
I.2The one who is conscious of himself as an individual has his vision trained to look upon everythingas inverted. —Søren Kierkegaard,
 Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing 
Ch. 13
In the
 Discourse on Method 
, Descartes relates the story of his own self-education. In particular, he reportsthat
…above all I delighted in mathematics, because of the certainty and self-evidence of its reasonings. But Idid not yet notice its real use; and ... I was surprised that nothing more exalted had been built upon suchfirm and solid foundations.
1
Descartes decided to so build, attempting to duplicate the certainty attendant upon mathematicalconclusions in other cases, including the reliability of the senses, the dynamics of physical bodies inmotion, and the existence of God; but his starting-place is the famous “Cartesian doubt” which refuses togrant anything as known unless it is utterly certain either in itself (the cogito) or grounded upon such acertainty by reliable chains of inference.
1
 
 Discourse on Method 
, ch. 1
1
 
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In his lectures on Kant's first critique, translated as
What is a Thing?
, Heidegger summarizes his accountof Cartesian dubiety like this:
Descartes does not doubt because he is a skeptic; rather, he must become a doubter because he posits themathematical as the absolute ground and seeks for all knowledge a foundation that will accord with it.
2
For Heidegger, the skepticism which founds the modern moment of philosophy is thus intimatelyconnected to a particular conception of being. It is well known that Heidegger believes this conception to be a distraction from the real question of Being; that he sees the mathematical, conceived as thenumerical, as a distraction, a decisive moment in the “forgetting of Being.” I want here to spell out somespeculative consequences of thinking through the “remembering” of Being Heidegger wants to call us to,which arise when we consider it in conjunction with re-engaging with Plato’s conception of mathematics.I will do this by arranging a series of conjunctions between the thought of Alain Badiou and that anumber of other thinkers, who besides Heidegger include Stanley Rosen, Alexander Kojève, EmmanuelLevinas, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Badiou’s onetime student Quentin Meillassoux. I have chosen Badiounot only because his thinking is characterized by an admirable breadth, systematicity, and rigor 
3
, but because the terms of his thinking are avowedly both “Platonist” and “mathematical.” I will wind upquestioning his right to both adjectives, mainly by recourse to the way in which Plato’s mathematics has been reconstructed in the work of Ernest McClain
4
. But before we get to McClain, there will be others toengage in order to show what is at stake. I can only apologize for the inadequacy of my elucidation of each of these thinkers’ work, which I have relied upon rather piecemeal; a more sufficient exposition of them would have turned this paper into a library. Nonetheless, there is some unavoidable preliminaryexegetical work to be done to present the outlines of Badiou’s philosophy, which is not yet as familiar toAmerican readers as earlier French thinkers like Bergson, Sartre, or Derrida.
Alain Badiou: Mathematics as Ontology
Badiou has made an emphatic, even militant, point of reclaiming the Platonic mantle for philosophy after a century in which the most vehement and prolific developments in philosophy were explicitly anti- platonic. This goes for the analytic philosophy of the Vienna Circle, the various existentialisms takingtheir lead from Sartre (or Nietzsche), the “ordinary language” work inspired by one reading of lateWittgenstein, Popperian philosophy of science, and post-structuralism. As Badiou notes, not the least of these anti-Platonic forces has been the thinking of Heidegger himself, who identified “platonism” with thegenesis of onto-theological “forgetting of Being.” Badiou’s counter-move is to regard Heidegger “as
2
Heidegger,
What is a Thing?
, tr. Barton & Deutsch, p 103
3
There is every sign that Badiou is already the “next French import” to American universities, as those who like to grumbleabout such things have been saying for some time now. Such a complaint about the industry of publishing and the trends of academia can be comprehended, perhaps with sympathy; but to substitute a dismissal (whether breezy or grouchy) for a philosophical engagement is beneath contempt.
4
Although I have not made frequent references to it here, the mostly unpublished work of John Holthouse on ancient philosophyand music has also been decisive for this effort. Holthouse is able to demonstrate an isomorphism, sometimes indisputably closeand always very provocative, between the categories of ancient music and ancient philosophy, from the presocratics through theneoplatonists. The collection and publication of this work is a great desideratum.
2
 
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commonplace.”
5
Badiou does indeed seek to think through the “question of Being,” but in a very differentkey than does Heidegger: specifically, he wants to
demystify
this question, to scrub it free of any aura of magic or summons such as one can easily think adheres to it, at least when reading Heidegger. For Badiou, there is no mystery about Being, and one need not speak of it in hushed tones or with any “pietyof thinking;” but at the same time, one need not capitulate to the flattening of logical positivism whichtried to laugh Heidegger out of court. In a sense, indeed, Badiou regards not only Heidegger but alsoCarnap “as commonplace.” He does this first by stipulating, and then by very patient spelling out theconsequences of, a remarkably simple and audacious equation: ontology
is
mathematics; and Being
is
themathematical.This (all too?) elegant formula means that insofar as anything
is
, its structure is in principle completelydelimitable in the language of mathematics. It is the task of mathematics—not philosophy—to elaboratethat language. What
is
, is simply the multiple as such; mathematics
is
ontology, and ontology
is
mathematics. An entity is always an ensemble, and its orderedness (what makes it an entity rather thanmerely scattered random things) is, in the language of mathematics, its status as a
 set 
. Yes: for Badiou,the formulations of set theory provide the best language for ontology available.
6
 In his application of settheory, Badiou carefully takes its axioms and shows how each one unpacks into a clear and applicable philosophical procedure. The axiom of extensionality, for instance, states that two sets are equivalent if and only if their elements are the same. It is clear, says Badiou, that this axiom pertains directly to the old problematic of the same and the other, or identity and difference; it not only states the terms of the problematic, but also give a precise formula for resolving it. The axiom of extensionality is thus revealedas a proposition about Being. The same is shown in
 Being and Event 
for each of the axioms of set theory.Badiou’s recourse to mathematics has an overtly philosophical motivation: it is his express desire torehabilitate the notion of 
Truth
. Truth, like Plato, had a hard time of it philosophically in the 20
th
century,and on the contemporary scene one might be excused for thinking that its critique was pretty well finallyestablished. About the world, human beings, and the way to live, the widespread and unstated publicconsensus is that Nietzsche got it right: there are no truths, only interpretations. One may fairly quicklylay out the problem with this easy and unthinking relativism, ostensibly revolutionary (according to itsapostles from the counterculture of the 1950s to the political correctness of the 1990s): de facto, it alwayscapitulates to the status quo. Either it is incapable of sustaining its revolutionary intuitions into practice because it cannot formulate a coherent self-rationale; or it winds up overtly drawing the only logicalconclusion: that of Thrasymachus in the
 Republic
, which of course, needs no coherence or rationale, because it is only a practice, not a discourse. This reveals why one often finds it, with a little pushing,even among people of ostensibly “conservative” positions, who one might expect to take a morerigorously realist position with regards to politics or ethics. Nine times out of ten, it suits the conservative just as well to defend the status quo in relativist terms as to insist upon argument from shared premises; ittakes far less time; it disarms the opponent, who usually agrees with relativism himself; and while it isless bald than saying “I am stronger than you,” the results are the same.
5
Badiou,
Manifesto for Philosophy
 pp 47-52
6
This is the case at least in Badiou’s first great book,
 Being and Event 
. In a second installment,
 Logics of Worlds
, Badiou hasalso made extensive use of category theory. In some important ways, this second book, subtitled
 Being and Event II 
, nuances theapproach of the earlier work, but the fundamental thesis, that of the equivalency of ontology with mathematics, is onlyelaborated, never gainsaid.
3

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