Number and Numbers

by Alain Badiou, translated by Robin Mackay
POLITY: NEW YORK, 2008, 240 PP., US $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7456-3879-9. FIRST PUBLISHED IN FRENCH AS LE NOMBRE ET LES NOMBRES, EDITIONS DU SEUIL, 1990 REVIEWED BY REUBEN HERSH

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he name ‘‘Alain Badiou’’ may be unfamiliar to some readers of The Mathematical Intelligencer, but Slavoj Zizek calls Badiou ‘‘much more than the most influential French philosopher at this moment,’’ and his work ‘‘announces a new epoch in philosophy’’ (back cover). Zizek, of course, is the ‘‘most formidably brilliant recent theorist to have emerged from Continental Europe’’ (The International Encyclopedia of Philosophy). To readers of the New Left Review, Badiou is well known as a post-Maoist revolutionary thinker. After retiring ´ ´ from the Ecole Normale Superieure ` and the College International de Philosophie, Badiou became affiliated with the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. Although this isn’t a new book, it’s newly translated into English. As far as I have been able to learn, it has so far received little notice in the Anglophone world, either by mathematicians or philosophers. An excellent review by John Kadvany did appear in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review. Badiou isn’t what Anglophone academia calls a ‘‘philosopher of mathematics.’’ He pays no attention to old bickerings between Brouwer and Hilbert or Quine and Carnap. He’s after bigger fish, as they say. His question isn’t, ‘‘What is mathematics?’’ but rather, ‘‘What is Being?’’ And his answer is, ‘‘Being is Mathematics.’’ The big news, in brief, is that Alain Badiou is in love with John Conway’s surreal numbers! Badiou is not a deconstructivist or postdeconstructivist. He’s a metaphysician, a creator of speculative systems in the tradition of Leibniz, Hegel and Heidegger. His concerns are Being and

Event. Being, I think, is roughly the same as ‘‘All that Is’’ or perhaps ‘‘Pure Existence’’ or simply ‘‘Absolute Reality.’’ ‘‘Event,’’ on the other hand, seems to mean, I think, the unpredictable inexplicable radical break from Being, which is exemplified by the sacred and ineffable highest moments of Art, Science, Love, or Revolution. Badiou’s earlier masterpiece, Being and Event, helpfully includes a dictionary. I found no entry for ‘‘Being,’’ but here is the definition of ‘‘Event:’’ An event—of a given evental site— is the multiple composed of: on the one hand, elements of the site; and on the other hand, (the event).— Self-belonging is thus constitutive of the event. It is an element of the multiple which it is.—The event interposes itself between the void and itself. It will be said to be an ultra-one (relative to the situation) (pp. 506–507). If this sounds quite unfamiliar, it may in part be because Anglophone philosophy has for a century or so been controlled by the descendents of Bertrand Russell, who practice something called Analytic Philosophy, which aspires to be Scientific, is obsessed with Logic and Language, and has long ago kicked Metaphysics, including Ontology, into the garbage can. But Badiou is practicing Ontology and Metaphysics! Not, however, in the traditional vein of Hegel or Heidegger—he does it with Mathematics. He is after a version of the surreal that doesn’t show any trace of human hands, a version that one can believe is eternal, extra-human—pure Being. This book starts out with interesting philosophical summaries and critiques of Frege, Dedekind, Peano and Cantor. There follows a careful and, so far as I can tell, correct presentation of the system of ordinal numbers, using the construction often attributed to von Neumann. Starting with the first ordinal, as represented by the singleton {U}, one then gets the second ordinal, with its representative {U, {U}}, and then continues to build the next ordinal by adjoining to any given ordinal a new, final element, namely, itself. After one gets up to the familiar ordered set ‘‘x’’ of natural numbers, comes the decisive step: One constructs the next ordinal by introducing a new element as the last

element—namely, x itself! Then begin again, and continue, defining, after any given ordinal X, the next ordinal, namely: {X, {X}}. And again, after doing this a countably infinite number of times, create a new ‘‘limit ordinal’’ by defining a new last element following this new countable infinity. This construction is explained in five chapters, with admirable detail and patience. I would be tempted to recommend it for beginning students of set theory, except that they would be deterred, not to say repelled, by Badiou’s extravagant Heideggerian metaphysical language. But, you say, what does this standard set-theoretic material have to do with Conway’s surreal numbers? As presented by Conway, the surreal numbers don’t seem at first to be about the ordinals. They’re about the ‘‘cut’’—Dedekind’s famous trick, by which he created the real numbers out of the rationals. Conway starts with NOTHING, and uses a kind of cut to create 0. Then, cutting away, he gets 1, and -1, and the integers, and the dyadic fractions, and finally, of course, like Dedekind, the real numbers. But why stop there? Make one more cut—0 on the left, and the positive reals on the right—and what do you have? An infinitesimal, of course. Contrariwise, make a cut with all the reals on the left, and what do you have? A positive infinite surreal number! Go all the way, cut as many times as there are ordinal numbers. You get a new incredibly rich and complex number system—the surreals. These surreals are what Badiou wants, but he doesn’t want them in this step-by-step, bottom-up ingenious and elegant constructive fashion of Conway. No, Badiou has a metaphysical ax to grind, an ontology to establish (as well as a political-social agenda). ‘‘Our philosophical project designates where Number is given as the resource of being within the limits of a situation, the ontological or mathematical situation. We must abandon the path of the thinking of Number followed by Frege or Peano, to say nothing of Russell or Wittgenstein. We must even radicalise, overflow, think up to the point of dissolution, Dedekind’s or Cantor’s enterprise.’’ (p.212) If we truly wish to establish the being of number as the form of the pure multiple, to remove it from the
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Ó 2009 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, Volume 31, Number 3, 2009

’’ past omega. A simple trick. is traced as historical consistency in the interminable movements of mathematical refoundations. ‘‘What prescribes. first imagine the familiar binary expansions of the reals to be ‘‘continued’’ or ‘‘extended. These manipulations. we must distance ourselves from operational and serial manipulations. one would try to ask a question: ‘‘Since this decision is ‘our’ free. which are defined on some set. ‘‘Our’’ choice. My first objection is based on the fact. for a presentation. and a regime of the count-as-one. Badiou seems to actually say that the Multiplicity of a Situation is a complete description or specification of it! On the contrary. is grossly inadequate and insufficient to represent. it is a decision that ‘‘we’’ make. Badiou is right. as {+. 522 of Being and Event. This seems to me to be the key fallacy of Badiou: This bare statement that the general form of every presentation is multiplicity. 58) Since Badiou rejects the bottom-up constructive point of view. (The empty sequence is included as a possibility. Prof. From the point at which we presently find ourselves. all the way through the ordinal numbers.’’ And ‘‘Multiplicity. Reality or All That Is. regardless of ‘us’ and independent of ‘us’?’’ ’Now to the second. A structured presentation is a situation.’’ We also have a definition of structure. and Multiplicities are completely catalogued and described by ordinal numbers and surreal numbers. Now to get the surreals as Gonshor does them. Any consistent presented multiplicity. He defines the surreal numbers in a way intrinsic to Being. you can elevate it to the high metaphysical level of a Badiou surreal {A. he is lucky that Harry Gonshor provided an exposition of the surreals that takes the ordinals as given and then defines a surreal number as a mapping of an initial segment of the ordinals into the pair {+. Badiou is ready for his big coup. the 1. the operations. arbitrary choice. as the binary sequence which is 0 in all the finite positions. nor of disorder. We demand an immanent determination of its being. B} where A is any ordinal number. in an intrinsic fashion. so tangible in Peano. in its inconsistent excess. or structure. One of his important terms is situation. But this admission destroys the whole claim that Being is manifested in the ordinals and the surreals! If one had the privilege of presence at Prof. that can be grasped outside of all serial engenderment. we must abandon the idea of well-orderedness and think of ordination. I have two distinct objections to this claim of Professor Badiou. I take ‘‘situation’’ to stand for any concrete specific manifestation of ‘‘Being. Cantor’s decision and ‘‘our’’ decision. B} simply by choosing as B the subset of A which receives the value +. -} valued sequences (up to arbitrarily far out in the ordinals). it is solely a question of a fidelity to that which. free 68 THE MATHEMATICAL INTELLIGENCER from any construction or representation! How does he do it? I’m afraid his answer is quite a let-down. once one assumes that the One is not’’ (p. the view of mathematics as a calculus. instances of Being are Multiplicities. that the concept of number presents itself to thought. thus a multiple. thereby creating the whole system of ordinal numbers. and B is any subset of A. to extend Number by the repeated use of limit ordinals. and ‘‘we’’ could decide otherwise.schoolroom (which means also to subtract the concept from its ambient numericality). is not compelled. In the opposite direction. and even more fundamental objection. a decision that reveals the opening of a new epoch for the thought of being qua being…’’ (p. founds numericality? We do not want to count. To proceed.’’ ‘‘Being’’ perhaps is just the sum or union of all possible ‘‘situations. or number system based on a wellordered set. Badiou can say that the surreal numbers are sufficient for a complete description of Being. describe or model Being. we want to think the count. -}. This simple relabeling is presented by Badiou as a deeply significant achievement in the understanding of not just Number. project onto the screen of modern infinity the quasisensible image of our domestic numbers. and 1 in the final position that comes after all the finite positions. ‘‘We’’ could decide otherwise. followed by 2.) To understand this. as also the construction of the surreals. 212–213). or a session of the 9 members of the U. 514). it takes on the form of a most precise task: the ontologisation of the ‘universal’ series of the ordinals. It is merely ‘‘our’’ decision. multiple: General form of presentation. the regime of the count-as-one.’’ and ‘‘situation’’ is the ‘‘Being’’ that is present perhaps at any particular time and place. My second objection is based on the fact that any well-ordered set. I quote Badiou: ‘‘There exists no deduction of Number. Then. starting with a surreal number given. Supreme Court— all equivalent. as a mapping of an initial segment of some ordinal A into the pair {+. Going beyond the countably infinite is just a decision. replace 1 and 0 by + and -. (p. a la Gonshor. or the first 9 prime numbers.… These concepts arise from a decision whose written form is the axiom. that the construction of the ordinals. and since he dislikes. by either experience or logic. how can it claim to be a mirror or picture of Being. with respect to multiplicity. not to say despises. we find a definition: ‘‘Situation. we would get the first infinitesimal. It is not as a measure of order. But by saying that a situation is simply a multiplicity. but of Being itself! Why? Because. to get back from Badiou to Gonshor. and then the rest. for example. Having presented the surreals in the Gonshor way. take the subset B as the places in A which receive a +. As to the first objection. And so for us the question now formulates itself as follows: which predicate of the pure multiple.S. So much more so is any ‘‘real-world’’ situation described by many more attributes than its mere multiplicity! Take these three ‘‘situations:’’ a bowl of 9 apples. and take the rest of A (the complement of B with respect to A) as the places which receive a -. Badiou’s claim that the surreal numbers suffice to represent or depict Being itself? Here his dictionary is helpful. On p. that which IS. He says a surreal number is just a pair {A. Badiou’s lecture. What is the basis for Prof. The establishing of the correct distance between thought and countable manipulations is precisely what I call the ontologisation of the concept of number. and indeed are already an aspect of . ordinality. is not compelled by either experience or logic. which precedes 3. admitted by him. -}. for Badiou. How does this work? Well. even a mathematical situation beyond abstract set theory is described mainly by the relations.

He has characterized Being. now or ever at any time. he means the numbers that Capital uses to oppress us. H. 213) Well and good. thus making any two entities comparable in value. I see Badiou as a modern Pythagorean using the latest incarnation of Number to provide objects of adoration. K. J. above and beyond all human knowledge! To my mind. 1976. 1996. constitute but one small sector of the vast field of mathematical tools and concepts that Being demands of us. T. Kadvany. W. Capital brings the commodification of all aspects of human life.). that of Capital. He calls himself a Platonist. ‘‘In our situation.edu Ó 2009 Springer Science+Business Media. he will find that our best attempts to model Reality (or Being) require all the resources of mathematics as it has advanced so far. But according to a well-established Marxist insight. J. as a way of caricaturing reality. An Introduction to the Theory of Surreal Numbers. no matter how extended or how refined! If it weren’t presumptuous to advise the most influential philosopher in France. Conway. Princeton University Press. this one-dimensional reduction of reality to a well-ordered set is embarrassingly simplistic. New York. Conway and R. but not a religious Platonist—a Materialist Platonist. Volume 31. Mathematics used in a serious way to study nonmathematical reality cannot limit itself to any one-dimensional scale. Princeton. then we escape the one-dimensional thinking of our time. London. in ranking everything (even mathematicians). to me his rhapsodic ‘‘Meditations’’ on Set and Number are a bit reminiscent of Georg Cantor. Indeed. On Numbers and Games. 1986. for instance.’’ the reign of Capital. By the numbers (little n). Harvard. Department of Mathematics and Statistics The University of New Mexico Albuquerque. impressive and beautiful as they are. Springer-Verlag. H. Guy. and even the surreal numbers. (10:2).) Nevertheless. they are multi-dimensional. London. The Book of Numbers. 2006. It puts a price on everything. or even by just leafing through the beautiful new Princeton Companion to Mathematics! If he checks around among the mathematicians there in Paris or Switzerland.unm. REFERENCES A. How much benefit he would gain by learning some geometry. J. which is the essence of the ‘‘Free Market. Number 3. in his metaphysical-ontological representation.’’ (p. Originally published in ´ ´ French as L’Etre et l’evenement. as manifested. Georg Cantor. By Number (big N). Editions du Seuil. LLC. New York. Cambridge University Press. If we reject this commodification. you see. 1979. Yet it is the reign of Capital that Badiou imagines he repudiates! Badiou repeatedly explains the opposition between ‘‘number’’ (small n) and ‘‘Number’’ (big N). 2009 69 . the reign of number is thus the reign of the unthought slavery of numericality itself. Harvard University Press. 1988.’’ Notre Dame Philosophical Review. or in the tyranny of grades and tests in school. NM 87131 USA e-mail: rhersh@math. of IQ in psychology. it is in essence already too familiar. even infinite-dimensional. Review of ‘‘Number and numbers. in its commercial-militaristic degradation of humanity. 2008. Set theory. I’d be tempted to suggest that Professor Badiou go beyond the set theory which he has mastered so well. Academic Press. this putting a price on everything. H.Being—independent of ‘‘our’’ knowledge or understanding. Gonshor. J. Dauben. who knew that his mathematical infinite was the theological infinite of the Lord God. he means the surreals. 2008. Gowers (ed. Being and Event. Anyone acquainted with Marxist analysis will recognize its similarity to the onedimensional universal ranking of everything by Price. Badiou. They are admirable and excellent. etc. Continuum. Princeton Companion to Mathematics. His Mathematics and Philosophy of the Infinite. (Multiplicity is a material phenomenon. Real situations are not one-dimensional.

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