An Interview with Alain Badiou
“Universal Truths & the Question of Religion”
S. Miller, Journal of Philosophy and
JPS: Would you describe your reading of Saint Paul as non-hermeneutic?
And if so, in what ways is it not hermeneutic?
I think that my reading of Saint Paul is, in fact, not hermeneutic.
I can say that because my reading is a direct reading of the text.
It is, strictly speaking, a reading. My goal is not at all to discover something that is obscure,
something that is hidden in the text of Paul, or to develop a
revelation. I don’t care for that. My goal is only to read exactly
what Paul has said. So my reading of Saint Paul is absolutely
on the surface of the text and in this way it is not hermeneutic.
I think that in the same way my reading is not in the field of
religious hermeneutics. My relation to Paul does not involve faith
or the church. It is, strictly speaking, a relation to the text
of Paul and nothing else.
JPS: Is your decision to read Paul in a non-hermeneutic way tied to your
conception of truth as something that is itself necessarily non-hermeneutic?
Yes. I think that my reading of Paul is a reading of Paul as something
like a testimony about a new conception of truth. I read Paul
not at all as a sacred text, as a revelation or something religious.
Instead, I read Paul as a text about a new and provocative conception
of truth and, more profoundly, about the general conditions for a new truth. This
is why I do not read Paul differently than I would a great mathematical
text or a great artistic testimony. I read Paul as a human creation
in the field of the question of truth.
JPS: Your book on Saint Paul is provocatively subtitled, “The Foundation
of Universalism.” Could you describe your notion of universalism
and the way that it differs from, or is similar to, traditional
conceptions of universality?
Naturally, I agree that “The Foundation of Universalism” is a
provocative subtitle though I say in the book that we can’t
understand that sort of provocation too literally. Universal truths,
of course, existed before Paul. There is something like a universalism
in Chinese and Greek thought. So the foundation is, to be more
precise, the foundation of an explicit conception of universalism.
It would be more exact to say that the formation of universalism
as such is, in this case, the formation of a new conception of
what universalism is.
is this new conception? For me, something is universal if it is
something that is beyond established differences. We have differences
that seem absolutely natural to us. In the context of these differences,
the sign of a new truth is that that these differences become
indifferent. So we have an absorption of an evident natural difference
into something that is beyond that difference.
striking example, which is completely different from the Pauline
example, is the example of the creation of a new physics by Galileo.
Before Galileo, there is a clear difference between natural movements
and abstract mathematics. From Aristotle to the 16th century natural
movement is conceived of as something with local determinations,
as a kind of movement that is part of a closed cosmology. With
the Galileo-event we have a completely new conception of movement
in which the difference between concrete, natural movement on
the one side and mathematical analysis on the other side becomes
indifferent. This happens because Galileo declares that the world
itself is written in mathematical language. The old difference
simply loses its pertinence.
universalism is conceived as the realization of a universal judgment
about some real thing. This is something like a grammatical conception
of universalism. Universality as a judgment is something that
you can find from Aristotle to Kant to analytic philosophy today.
conception is, on the contrary, a creative one. Universalism is
always the result of a great process that opens with an event.
To create something universal is to go beyond evident differences
and separations. This is, in my conviction, the great difference
between my conception of universality (which, of course, is not
only my conception) and some traditional
conceptions of universality. It is also the difference between
a grammatical conception of truth and my conception of truth as
a creation, a process, an event.
the fact that with a new truth there is always something like
the becoming indifferent of some evident differences is, in my
opinion, very important. It is true in the example of Galileo.
It is true in all the examples of a new truth. Just this morning,
Daniel Boyarin, a fine critic of my work, asked a question about
whether or not the difference between Jews and Greeks was relevant
to the Pauline situation. Paul, of course, knows perfectly well
that there are people who are Jews and people who are Greeks.
But the new truth exceeds the evident difference between the Jew
and the Greek. We can only completely receive a new truth by going
beyond such differences. But this does not mean for Paul that
they need to change their customs and practices. Instead, there
is a becoming indifferent to this difference.
is why Paul does not say that circumcision is bad though
he also does not say that it is good. In light of the event, circumcision
is nothing and uncircumcision is also nothing. Circumcision is
not something good that becomes bad. That is the interpretation
that comes after Paul. There is certainly something like an anti-Semitism
in primitive Christianity, but not in Paul. Paul is only saying
that something that constitutes a difference in his world becomes
indifferent in light of the new event. So we do not have a change
of evaluation where bad becomes good or good becomes bad. Rather,
it is something much more like Nietzsche where the difference
is beyond good and evil. This is the same thing for Galileo. Galileo
does not say that there is no natural movement or that we can’t
have an experience of natural movement, but that from the point
of view of the new physics, the distinction between natural and
artificial movements is no longer pertinent.
JPS: What do you make of Agamben’s explicit contention in A Time
that Remains that, contra your position, Paul is not
an advocate of universalism but of radical separation? As Agamben
puts it, Paul is instead advocating “a separation to the second
power, a separation of separation itself, which divides and traverses?”
I know that Agamben’s reading of Paul is very different from mine,
but is this difference really a contradiction? I ask because,
in fact, the question of separation belongs to the question of
universalism. There is not, in my view, necessarily a contradiction
between the two.
separation is conceived of as a closure, as a closed separation
(take, for example, a closed church), when you completely separate
yourself from your enemies, the new from the old, then this is
not at all like a universalism. The formation of a new particularity,
a new closed group, leads exactly, for example, to anti-Semitism.
in Paul there is an interplay between separation and universalism.
For Paul, there is certainly a kind of separation necessary for
his universalism because we have separated ourselves from the
old man. We have, out of this separation, a newness of life. But
it remains a universalism because there is no limit to this separation,
there is no closure. The Pauline conception of the church is not
at all the realization of a closed separation. Instead, it proposes
something that is open to everybody, a collective determination,
the realization of a separation in a universal field. So, naturally,
there is, for Paul, in the process of universalism, something
like division but this is a division internal to the subject itself.
It is not an external division between the subject and others,
but a division within the subject. Every subject has to cross
a sort of intimate division between the old man and the new man,
between the power of death and the power of life. So I perfectly
understand that universalism can take the form of a separation.
There is always something like an intimate division when universalism
takes the form of a separation.
there is also always a risk that this separation may become closed
and turn universalism against itself. This is always a risk. This
is true not only in the religious field but also in the revolutionary
field. Look at what happened when the Leninist party became closed.
But in the beginning it was not at all closed. It was something
completely open to the situation, the newness, the movement, and
so on. But there is never the pure opposition of universalism
and separation because there is something like the becoming separate
of a universalism.
JPS: How do you respond to Žižek’s charge in The
Ticklish Subject that religion tacitly operates for you as
a fifth generic procedure (in addition to
politics, art, science, and love) that occupies a privileged position
in relation to the other four because it “gives body to the generic
as such”? (144)
think that it is a question of published books. The English translations
of my work appear in a certain order: first, Manifesto
for Philosophy, second, Ethics,
and third, Saint Paul. But the fundamental book, Being and Event, is not yet translated.
So we have an isolated reading of my work
in which my clearest example of a truth procedure is religious.
From this it is assumed that it is only in religion that we can
find something like a generic assertion. But this is not true.
I find in the religious example not really an example of truth
but an example of something like a non-philosophical conception
of truth. For Paul the distinction is the distinction between
the philosophical point of view and something else. This something
else is not a new type of truth (as iek appears to
say), but a new way of conceiving truth that is explicitly opposed
to the Greek philosophical tradition.
read Paul not at all as a philosopher but as a new experience
of what is probably something like a truth. And so Paul is not
at all in the same field as my examples of truths in politics,
art, science and love. Religion is simply not in the same field.
There is something in my friend Slavoj’s consideration that is
not completely precise because the comparison is not between political
revolutions, artistic creations, new theories of science, new
experiences of love, and Paul. The comparison is between philosophy
and Paul; that is, between my conception of truth and the Pauline
conception of truth. So religion does not make a fifth on the
list of politics, science, art and love. We cannot say that Paul
occupies a privileged position any more than Plato, Hegel, Kierkegaard,
or Pascal. I make some comparisons between Paul and Nietzsche
or between Paul and Pascal because Nietzsche and Pascal are also
on the borderline of philosophy, somewhere between philosophy
and anti-philosophy. So there is no body of the generic as such
to be found in Paul, though there is a theory of the universal
address of a truth. My
reading of Paul is that he offers a new conception of truth in
general. He offers to us a formal conception of truth.
JPS: In general, what do you take to be the decisive difference between
your position and Žižek’s?
The difference between my position and iek’s is a
very complex question. Sometimes I am very near to iek,
sometimes I am not exactly in agreement. I think, in fact, that
our projects are not the same.
think that the brilliant work of iek is something
like the creation of a conceptual matrix that has the power to
shed new light on a great field of cultural facts: movies, books,
sexual differences, sexual practices, psychoanalysis, and so on.
And so I read iek as a strange and completely new
composition, the composition of a conceptual nucleus between Lacan
and German Idealism. He is an absolutely singular unification
of Lacan and Kant, Schelling, and Hegel. With this sort of conceptual
nucleus, with this conceptual matrix, iek can interpret
anything in the world. You can ask him, ‘What do you think about
this horrible movie?’ And he will have a brilliant interpretation
that is much better than the actual movie because his conceptual
matrix is very strong and very convincing.
is, in my opinion, why iek is not exactly in the field
of philosophy, but in the field of a new topology, a new topology
for the interpretation of concrete facts in a situation, political
events and so on. Though, here, I mean interpretation not in the
hermeneutic sense, but in the psychoanalytic sense. iek
offers us something like a general psychoanalysis, a psychoanalysis
that exceeds the question of clinics and becomes an absolutely
general psychoanalysis. This is the first time that anyone has
proposed to psychoanalyze our whole world.
work is ultimately much more classical. It belongs to the field
of philosophy, to the field of ontological propositions, and concerns
a theory of the relation between truth and the subject. So my
fundamental concerns are things like being qua being, the event, the subject, truth, and the distinction between
constructed multiplicities and generic multiplicities. My work
is systematic philosophy in the great tradition of systematic
philosophy that stretches from Plato to today.
JPS: Jacques Derrida, despite his professed atheism, has, over the past
15 years, attracted a great deal of attention from religious thinkers
who have gone on to adopt many of his positions while remaining
expressly theistic. When you participate in conferences such as
this [Saint Paul among the Philosophers, Syracuse
University, April 2005], do you feel nervous about a similar kind
of religious co-opting of your work, an adoption that wouldn’t
take the apparent necessity of your own atheism seriously?
I don’t feel nervous, but the religious co-opting of my work exists.
It exists, however, for profound reasons. It is not only the result
of my reference to Paul. It exists because when your work concerns
the relation between truth and an event you are necessarily exposed
to a religious interpretation. You cannot avoid it. You are exposed
because you are no longer confined to the strictly empirical or
ontological field. You cannot reduce truth to grammatical correctness
or to an experimental correlation between languages and facts.
You have to understand that there is something in the becoming
of a truth that exceeds the strict possibilities of the human
mind. There is something in truth that is beyond our immediate
capacities. In a new truth there is something that is beyond the
established differences between languages and facts. This is what
the example of Galileo shows us. So there is always somebody with
religious convictions who is saying, ‘I am interested in your
work because of your correlation of something like a radical event,
a newness of life, with truth.’
so I have to deal with this sort of religious co-opting of my
work and I have to propose a subtraction of my work from it. But
I accept the discussion. I accept the discussion because I think
that in the present world the great and fundamental problem is
not between the religious way and the non-religious way. Certainly,
it is, finally, very important, but it is not our principal problem.
We know that today there is religious conviction that takes the
way of sacrifice, religious conviction in the way of enjoyment,
and religious conviction in a third way. So we can see that the
distinction between religious conviction and non-religious conviction
does not determine the topology of our world. We are not in the
same position as in previous centuries. Today, religious conviction
is important, but it is not the central problem. The world cannot
be divided into the religious and the non-religious. So the discussion
is, for me, a positive discussion.
and edited for fluency by Adam S. Miller.