Towards a New Concept of Existence by Alain Badiou

Alain Badiou’s Philosophy in a Nutshell before the Immanence of Truths

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We can apply to existence the formal remarks of the previous part of my lecture.  If, for instance, the degree of identity of a thing to itself is the maximal degree, we can say that the thing exists in the world without any limitation.  The multiplicity, in this world, completely affirms its own identity.  Symmetrically, if the degree of identity of a thing to itself is the minimal degree, we can say that this thing does not exist in this world.  The thing is in the world, but with an intensity which is equal to zero.  So we can say that its existence is a non-existence.  We have here a striking example of the distinction between being and existence.  The thing is in the world, but its appearance in the world is the destruction of its identity.  So the being-there of this being is to be the inexistent of the world.  The theory of the inexistent of a world is very important.  I have shown that the situation of the inexistent is fundamental in Jacques Derrida’s work.

Often, the existence of a multiplicity in a world is neither maximal nor minimal.  The multiplicity exists to some extent.

To conclude I would summarize this abstract theory with a question linked to the concept of existence: the question of death.

To understand the question of death, it is essential to remember that it is only by its being-there that a being exists, and that this existence is that of a degree of existence, situated between inexistence and absolute existence.  Existence is both a logical concept and an intensive concept.  It is this duel status that permits us to rethink death.

We are first tempted to say that a thing is dead when, in the world of reference, its degree of existence is minimal, or when it inexists in this world.  Asserting that a thing is dead would be tantamount to concluding that identity of the thing to itself is equal to the minimal degree.  This would also means that death is the absolute non-identity to self.  But absolute non-identity to self defines inexistence, and not death.  Death must be something other as inexistence, because death happens, and this « happening » necessarily concerns an existent, and not the inexistent of the world.  We  define death as the coming of a minimal value of existence for a thing endowed with a positive evaluation of its identity, and not the minimal value as such.  All that can be asserted of “dying” is that it is a change in appearing, the effect of which is that a thing passes from an existence with a positive intensity—even if it is not maximal—to an existence that is minimal, that is to say null relatively to the world.  The whole problem is what does such a passage consist of? We limit ourselves to two remarks.

1) The passage from one identity or existence value to another cannot be an immanent effect of the multiplicity concerned.  For this being has precisely no other immanence to the situation, and consequently to its own identity, as its degree of existence.  The passage is necessarily the result of an exterior cause, which affects, locally or globally, the logical evaluations, or the laws of the Being-there-in-the-world.  In other words, what occurs in death is a change in the identity function of a given multiple.  This change is always imposed on the dying thing, and this imposition comes from outside the thing.  The precise proposition is Spinoza’s: “No thing whatever can be destroyed, except by an exterior cause.”  So it is impossible to say of a multiple that it is “mortal”.

2) It follows that the meditation of death is in itself vain, as Spinoza also declares: “The free man thinks of nothing less than of his death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, and not a meditation on death.”  It is because death is only a consequence.  What thought must turn towards is the event which locally transforms the identity function.

All of this indicates why we cannot agree with a philosophy of mortality and finitude.  There is no ontological status of death.  Of no existent we can say that it is a “being-for-death”.  Because existence is a transcendental degree and nothing else, we must ask with Saint Paul: “Death, where is thy victory?”  Dying, exactly like existing, is a mode of being-there, and therefore a purely logical correlation.  The philosophy of death is included in one sentence: Do not be afraid by the logic of a world, or by the games of existence.  We are living and dying in many different worlds.

Alain Badiou’s Biography

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This piece originally appeared in lacanian ink 29, which is now sold out.

SubSense

Tonight I am not going to engage in any kind of criticism.  Instead, I intend to propose a new concept of existence.  And I shall be as abstract as this intention forces me to be.  You can find a less arid but not complete exposition in a chapter of my “Briefings on Existence,” and a complete one in my last book, Logiques des mondes, which is out in French and will be published in English at the end of next year, I hope.

As all of you know perfectly well, the fundamental problem is to distinguish on the one hand, being as such, being qua being, and, on the other hand, existence, as a category which precisely is not reducible to that of being.  It is the heart of the matter.  This difference between being and existence is often the result of the consideration of a special type of…

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