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  • On Alain Badiou
  • Simon Critchley (bio)

It was her voice that made The sky acutest at its vanishing. She measured to the hour its solitude. She was the single artificer of the world In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea, Whatever self it had, became the self That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we, As we beheld her striding there alone, Knew that there never was a world for her Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Wallace Stevens, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’.

I have two questions in this paper: What is ethical experience for Badiou? What can be said of the subject who has this experience in his work? The hopefully significant consequences of these questions for our understanding of Badiou will emerge as we proceed. But first I need to explain what I mean by ethical experience and how such experience implies a conception of the subject. What, then, is ethical experience?

The structure of ethical experience and the ethical subject (Kant, Heidegger)

Let me begin to answer this question by trying to pick out the formal structure of ethical experience or what with Dieter Henrich we can call the grammar of the concept of moral insight (Einsicht).1 Ethical experience begins with the experience of a demand (Anspruch, adresse) to which I give my approval. Approval and demand: that is, there can be no sense of the good (however that is filled out at the level of content, and I am just understanding it formally and emptily) without an act of approval or affirmation. That is, my moral statement that ‘x is good or bad’ is of a different order to the veridical, epistemological claim that ‘I am now seated in a chair’. This is because the moral statement implies an approval of the fact that x is good, whereas I can be quite indifferent to the chair I am sitting on. If I say, for example, that it would be good for parrots to receive the right to vote in elections, then my saying this implies that I approve of this development. Practical reason is in this way distinct from theoretical reason, the order of the event is distinct from the order of being.

(A naïve initial question I have for Badiou is whether his dualism of être and événement risks repeating and reinstating some version of the Kantian distinction between theoretical and practical reason, more particularly the version of this distinction that one finds in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, where the order of being is explicable through logical form, but where that which is really important for Wittgenstein is the order of the event, about which nothing meaningful can be said, the domain of ethics, aesthetics and religion.)

To return to the argument: if the good only comes into view through approval, it is not good by virtue of approval. Namely, that the approval is an approval of something, that is, of a demand that demands approval. Ethical noesis requires a noema. In my example, my approval of parrots receiving the right to vote is related to the fact that, at least in my imagination, parrots make a certain demand, namely the demand for political representation. Ethical experience is, first and foremost, the approval of a demand, a demand that demands approval. Ethical experience has to be circular, although hopefully only virtuously so.

Leaving parrots to one side, in the history of philosophy (and also in the history of what Badiou calls anti-philosophy), this formal demand is filled out with various contents: the Good beyond Being in Plato, faith in the resurrected Christ in Paul and Augustine and Kierkegaard, the fact of reason or the experience of respect for the moral law in Kant, the certitude of practical faith as the goal of subjective striving (Streben) in Fichte, the abyssal intuition of freedom in Schelling, the creature’s feeling of absolute dependency on a creator in Schleiermacher, pity for the suffering of one’s fellow human beings in Rousseau or for all creatures in Schopenhauer, eternal return in Nietzsche, the idea in the Kantian sense for Husserl, the call of conscience in...

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