What Exists and How Do You Know?

From what I understand of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, this book about his work, The Clamor of Being, is not helpful. It seems to deliberately obfuscate rather than clarify Deleuze’s thinking, though that could just be the au courant style of French philosophy.  I managed to wrest some useful ideas out of this short essay, but I can’t recommend it as an exegesis.

Author Badiou was a co-founder of the University of Paris VIII, along with Deleuze, and with Michel Foucault and Jean-Francoise Lyotard. Quite a crowd of eminent founding fathers! Deleuze committed suicide in 1995, presumably in despair over his quality of life, which was marred by respiratory illness.

In my comments, I understand ontology to be the study of what exists. I understand epistemology to be the study of knowledge. Can things exist that you don’t know about? Of course. Can things exist that are unknowable, such as Kant’s “Things-in-themselves” or Freud’s “id?” That’s difficult to say.

Can you know about something that doesn’t exist? That depends on what you think “exist” means. I know about Mickey Mouse. How knowledge is related to what exists is a fundamental problem of philosophy.

This book seems to me Badiou’s attempt to articulate his own ontology by contrasting it to the views of Deleuze. But I understand Deleuze to be first an epistemologist. While Deleuze’s analysis of knowledge does inevitably lead to a study of what’s “there” (e.g., what one knows), Badiou wants to start with ontology and derive epistemology from it, a doomed endeavor, in my opinion.

Deleuze’s main work is considered by many to be Difference and Repetition (1968), in which he inverts the traditional relationship between being and knowing. Traditionally, one says that X is different from Y, which presupposes that X and Y exist, and the only question is how they differ.

Deleuze said, no, X and Y are defined by their differences. One comes to identify them as X and Y after detecting differences, or discriminating patterns in the flux of experience.

For example, one might decide, “wine tastes good!”  After some experience one discriminates that some wine is gold, other is purple, some fruity, some tannic, and so on, and eventually, one comes to see that there are white and red wines. The identity of the two classes arose from discriminated differences in experience. X and Y did not exist until differences were noticed and labeled.

By Deleuze’s account then, epistemology precedes ontology. It’s like baseball umpires comparing how they call strikes and balls. One says, “I call them as I see them.” Another says, “I call them as they are.” The third says, “They’re nothing until I call them.” The second umpire is correct, according to Deleuze. I would choose the third guy.

As a student of American psychologist James J. Gibson, I learned that from a perceptual point of view (the only one we have), the world is composed of invariant features detected over change. A world that does not change, quickly disappears from view. From change, we notice the features that change more slowly than others. Those are invariants. From invariants, we conceptualize what exists.

Badiou wants to argue that one must start instead with what exists, and worry about perception and knowledge later. He claims (wrongly, I believe) that Deleuze did the same.

He says Deleuze believed in a single, unitary Being (noun), something like the Platonic forms all mashed into one big one (though Platonism is vehemently denied). This One Being is sub-personal, so we have no direct, conceptual  (epistemological) relationship to it.

Instead, we are familiar with the multifarious forms of being (gerund and noun), very similar to Heidegger’s Dasein (although Heideggerian ontology is vehemently denied). From being, we infer knowledge of the One Being.

This is all well and good, I say, except for one small detail. Without  consideration of epistemology, how could Badiou know these things? Is he magic? Mere declaration of what exists is authoritarian fiat. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong. Without a defined epistemology, you can’t know.

This is the fundamental problem with any philosophy that begins with ontology rather than epistemology. You’re left only with grand pronouncements. That worked for the Old Testament, but it’s not so good as contemporary philosophy.

This, and many other objections to the book, forced me to confront my presuppositions, always a good thing, and that’s how I managed to learn from Badiou, despite my rejection of his presentation. The main insight, which I came to reluctantly, is that there is a sense in which ontology does precede epistemology, and that is the sheer givenness of the world.

Before I embark on an intellectual inquiry, I sit at my desk with a cup of coffee and face my computer. Wait, what are those? Desk, coffee, computer? Are those things that exist? Yes. They must exist and I must believe in them at a pre-philosophical level or I cannot even begin the investigation. Ontological fact has preceded everything.

What Husserl called the “natural attitude” is taking the world “for granted,” as most of us do, most of the time. The “philosophical” or better yet, the “phenomenological” attitude that one uses for doing philosophy, is a special state of mind that comes later, and is built upon, and transcends, the natural attitude.

Nevertheless, I argue that if you are going to write a philosophy book, as Badiou did, you are entering the scene in the philosophical attitude and it is disingenuous to pretend you are starting with a pre-philosophical, pre-epistemological ontology. So I am still annoyed at Badiou and his book, even while I admit I gained significant insights from it.

Badiou, Alain (2000). Deleuze: The Clamor of Being. Louise Burchill, trans., Volume 16 in the Theory Out of Bounds Series. Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minn. Press, 142 pp.

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