What Does Alain Badiou Mean by Antiphilosophy?

Alain Badiou identifies an alternative tradition running through the history of philosophy: thinkers who attack the very activity of philosophy and suggest we do something else instead.

Mar 5, 2023By Moses May-Hobbs, BA Art History w/ Philosophy Concentration
what does alain badiou mean by antiphilosophy


Antiphilosophy is a term borrowed by Alain Badiou, from Lacan, that describes the thought of a scattered but unified set of writers from the history of philosophy. The term identifies a hostility, in these thinkers’ work, towards the activity of philosophy, insofar as the latter is defined as the ‘metaphysical search for truth’ (Bosteel, Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, 2019).


In addition to this hostility, Badiou suggests that antiphilosophy is defined by its proposal of an alternative and superior activity to philosophy, something our time would be better spent doing than hunting down the kinds of truth that philosophy has conventionally thought, truths concerning being, identity, experience and so on. Together, this mixture of critique and redirection picks out a series of thinkers, each of whom took it upon himself to attack the foundations of philosophical thought, concluding – with sincere vitriol – that philosophers are variously repressed, nonsensical, stupid, and sinister.


Alain Badiou on Antiphilosophy and the New Duty of Philosophy

alain badiou portrait
Photograph of Alain Badiou in 2012, via Wikimedia Commons.


Badiou’s assessment of this phenomenon, it should be noted, is coming from an avowed philosopher – somebody interested in precisely the activity derided by antiphilosophy. This does not, however, entail that his position is one of mirrored derision or dismissal. Rather, Badiou finds in the antiphilosophical tradition he identifies a series of important and, moreover, difficult tests for philosophers to navigate. The relationship is described as a deliberately Socratic dialectic, antiphilosophy raises insults and questions that demand of the philosopher not only that they defend their position but that they expand it to account for the objections and counterproposals of antiphilosophy.


These counterproposals are essential to antiphilosophy as Badiou describes it. While Badiou creates a clear analogy between the opposition of Plato and the Sophists, and philosophers and their contemporary antiphilosophers, he is explicit about the difference between sophistry and antiphilosophy. The difference lies in the former’s sarcasm and the latter’s open hostility, but more significantly in antiphilosophy’s proposal of an alternative activity: something more worthwhile, and more valuable than philosophy. This alternative activity, which claims to be useful, beautiful, powerful, or honest where philosophy remains impotent, ugly, and self-deceiving is the animating reason to write antiphilosophy, the suggestion that warrants the full-scale attack Badiou finds in the words of Nietzsche, Lacan and Wittgenstein.


ludwig wittgenstein photo
Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose philosophy and antiphilosophy form the touchstone of Badiou’s book (via The Paris Review)

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For Badiou, the alternative activity proposed by antiphilosophy is usually emphatically “of its time”. The antiphilosopher offers up their alternative not only as something we could better use our time doing, but also as a criticism of philosophy: a means of highlighting that which philosophy cannot account for or grapple with. Whether it is in the sphere of art, politics or science, Badiou suggests, the antiphilosopher’s proposed alternative is always acutely contemporary – a new alternative that accuses philosophy of failing to address the world around it.


Badiou therefore welcomes antiphilosophy for challenging philosophy to justify itself, and for forcing philosophy to keep up with its world, to make itself compatible with precisely those activities venerated by antiphilosophy, without retiring its own striving towards truth.


In this sense, Badiou writes, antiphilosophy ‘states the new duty of philosophy’ – the things it must now make itself familiar with and think about, or else lapse into the irrelevance and impotence of which antiphilosophy accuses it. Out of this challenge, and the response it demands of philosophy, Badiou spies the emergence of new and more adequate philosophy, and so takes seriously the accusations – however vitriolic – of the antiphilosopher. ‘Philosophy’, he writes, ‘is always the heir to antiphilosophy.’ (Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, 2008)


Who are the Antiphilosophers?

death of socrates
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787 via the Met Museum.


Wittgenstein is not alone on Badiou’s list of antiphilosophers. Indeed, the interplay between antiphilosopher and philosopher is – in Badiou’s assessment – perhaps as old as philosophy itself, stretching back at least as far as Protagoras and Gorgias, working in sophistic opposition to Socrates.


Saint Paul, a figure of persistent fascination for Badiou, features in a series of seminars delivered by Badiou at the École Normale Superieure in Paris, each addressing a notable antiphilosopher. As Badiou elaborates upon in his book on the subject (Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, 1997), Paul rejects both the prophetic Jewish ‘discourse of the sign’, and the Greek discourse of philosophy and wisdom, in favor in pure faith. Paul’s antiphilosophical gesture consists in the establishment of an absolute and irreducible distance between human wisdom and God, repudiating the former’s claims to ascertaining absolute truths. Paul declares:


“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? […] For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (I Cor. 1: 20-25)


Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan photographed in 1975, via Wikimedia Commons


Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, however, is concerned primarily with a modern antiphilosophical tradition, whose chief thinkers are Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Lacan. Though this list indicates the antiphilosophers treated at length in Badiou’s seminars, there also exists in Badiou’s writings an extended one (including mere sophists as well as antiphilosophers proper) including the likes of Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty, and any number of philosophers of language who take Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations as their jumping-off point.


While Badiou is adamant that antiphilosophers share an important structure, the differences and interrelations between them sometimes make Badiou’s complaint look much vaguer.


In writing against the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy, and with even greater vitriol about ‘ordinary language philosophy’, Badiou sometimes slips into non-specific lament about relativism, and about the very idea of paying attention to language on the way towards (or out of, as the case may be) philosophy, as if simply impatient with the need to deal in language at all.


Nevertheless, in Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Lacan, Badiou identifies a more particular common structure, linking each with a major kind of antiphilosophical counterproposal. Badiou notes the activity proposed by antiphilosophy as a replacement for philosophy is always posed as something that either furnishes with more utility (Nietzsche), more divinity (Saint Paul, and perhaps Wittgenstein) or more truth (Lacan) than philosophy ever could. The activity, however, need not have any straightforward relation to the area of philosophy being critiqued.


Thus, Badiou says, Nietzsche’s proposed alternative is political, Wittgenstein’s aesthetic, and Lacan’s scientific. Further, Badiou claims, the antiphilosopher always proposes a hyper-saturated version of this activity, an abstraction that exceeds any existing practice. Thus, he says, Wittgenstein counter proposes that we engage in an aesthetic activity more beautiful and literary than any actual art: an act that is what Badiou terms “archiaesthetic” (Nietzsche’s is correspondingly “archipolitical”, and Lacan’s “archiscientific”.


Wittgenstein and Antiphilosophy

saint paul rembrandt
Rembrandt, The Apostle Paul, c.1657 via Wikimedia Commons


Badiou concentrates his discussion of Wittgenstein almost solely on the Tractatus, finding in it (rather than in the Philosophical Investigations, or other later writings) the most potent expression of Wittgenstein’s challenge to philosophy. Here we again see Badiou addressing antiphilosophy insofar as it is a tool or test for philosophy proper: the Tractatus holds Wittgenstein’s strongest indictment of traditional philosophy – that it constantly trades in nonsense – and is therefore of the most urgent interest to the philosopher.


But Badiou is also fascinated by the lingering philosophical impulse in the Tractatus, and in the text’s equivocation about the possibility of showing truths. Among Wittgenstein’s dismissals of philosophy’s questions and answers (above all for its tendency to cram purported truths into senseless propositions) there is a mystical alternative, which evades language but seems to take on the gravity and eternity that philosophy seeks in truth.


mengs truth painting
Truth by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1756, via Google Arts & Culture.


This ‘mystical element’, if it is to be shown or approached at all, is not – for Wittgenstein – to be sought by philosophy. Badiou lays out Wittgenstein’s antiphilosophical position as a replacement of the category of truth with that of sense. What results is a whole host of philosophy that deals in nonsensical propositions, forms of purported thought that prove impossible even in the broad field of the virtual (all those states of affairs that could be true), and a few empty tautologies:


“6.1: The propositions of logic are tautologies.

6.11: Therefore the propositions of logic say nothing.”

(Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921)


When Badiou tries to summarize Wittgenstein’s antiphilosophical position in the last pages of his book, he traces it back to the mystical element, and Wittgenstein’s ideas about the right way to try to show it. The wrong way of course, is philosophy.


Quoting a letter from Wittgenstein to von Flicker, Badiou highlights the existence of two kinds of sense in the Tractatus. On one hand there is sense within the world: the sense of propositions. This sense is built out of atoms and grammar, rigorous and logical and constrained by possibility. On the other, there is the sense of the world, its meaning, which lies outside of language. When propositions in language violate the rules of the former, in attempting to stretch itself out towards the latter, you have babbling: ‘Babbling is philosophy in its metaphysical sense.’ (Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy)


Alain Badiou’s Project

nietzsche photo
Photograph of Nietzsche by Friedrich Hermann Hartmann, c. 1875, via Wikimedia Commons


The activity of philosophy, for Badiou, is a very narrowly bounded thing. Indeed, part of the value of reading and tangling with antiphilosophy, he states, is that it reminds the philosopher just how specific his or her activity really is. Antiphilosophy, by foregrounding politics, art, and science, reminds philosophy that it is precisely not these things, and that it should not endeavor to produce ‘truths’ in the ways they do.


Throughout Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, Badiou lays out the parallels between the antiphilosophers with the ancient sophists on one side, and himself with Plato and Socrates on the other. Insofar as he aligns himself with Platonic philosophy, Badiou describes his project as ‘the difficult thing’:


“That non-being constitutes the rule for being is something flaunted by the sophists. But the difficult thing to do is not to state this and cheerily deduce from it the rhetorician’s “democratic” legitimacy; it is to manage to think this and mathematically to deduce from it the laborious existence of some truths.”
(Badiou’s review of Barbara Cassin’s ‘Logologie contre ontologie’, 2012)


The difficult thing that is philosophy, and the labor it performs for its meager but – we assume – noble reward, is contrasted with the easy thing that is sophistry, and – to a lesser extent – antiphilosophy.


The sophistic conclusion is easy because it does not require us to perform the mathematical and logical labor of philosophy, and flattening – because it reduces the depth of the philosophical activity to a purely linguistic exercise, free from any special relationship with the world or what lies beyond it. It is not however, and this appears to extend to antiphilosophy, so readily dismissed as paradoxical, immoral, or otherwise wrong. The underpinnings of philosophy, then, are strange: are we to philosophize simply because it is difficult?

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By Moses May-HobbsBA Art History w/ Philosophy ConcentrationMoses May-Hobbs is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His writing focuses on aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and film criticism. He is currently working as a contributing writer and editor, while writing in his spare time on the philosophy of language, perception, and affect.