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Badiou, Levinas and Differences

(Paper for the Leicester University Conference 2011 on Badiou and Business Ethics)


This paper’s subject will be: (business)ethics and dealing with differences. By taking that subject I follow on the suggestion in the call for papers that the way of dealing with differences was a factor in the development of the financial crisis, which also is a moral crisis. After this fiasco it does not suffice any longer, according to the call for papers with a hint to Alain Badiou, to think what we have thought until that crisis. Namely “that there are no fundamental clashes of ideologies or classes; that goodness can be assured if only we respect our differences from one another”.

This formulation of ideas that were dominant until the crisis suggests that many differences – often differences between people – that we encounter in our lives are mostly innocent and charming, but not fundamental. And the call for papers suggests that this thought is probably too easy. At least when you depart from Badiou because, he says, there really are differences that matter. For that reason Badiou wants to think through anew the way we deal with differences and to place fresh ideas opposite the ideas about difference that were commonplace around the last turn of the century.

With Badiou I share the view that differences can be important. I also believe, with him, that dealing with differences belongs to the core issues of ethics. Therefore my paper takes the theme ‘Badiou and differences’ as a starting point.

In addition, I bring the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas into the game. Because apart from the valuable analyses that Badiou gives about how we deal with differences, it turns out that in Badiou a significant category of differences is missing. Ie the category of differences at the micro level, which exist between two or three individuals. That is exactly the class of differences on which Levinas focuses in his work and which are also relevant for business ethics.

Subsequently I notice another gap in the work of Badiou. That gap relates to his enthusiasm for revolutions and social movements that are inspired by differences at the macro level. In his presentation of them he shows just little awareness as to the totalitarian tendencies that may join revolutionary movements. The question, based on that finding, which I raise is whether Levinas, with his focus on the micro level and on vigilance towards totalizing tendencies, could offer a valuable supplement to Badiou. That is because Levinas teaches us to be alert to the imperious way our minds deal with differences, and already so at the micro level of intercourse where two or three people are together. In such a way that in micro-situations – also within organizations – we can practice what at the macro level is needed to cope with the imperialism of thinking.

It may seem remarkable, within the framework of business ethics, to come up with some thoughts of Levinas. Indeed, Levinas himself did not speak about organizations or management, and even only occasionally about politics or social movements. Yet his name already for years continues to figure in philosophical studies on management and business ethics. As examples can be mentioned the articles by Samuel Mansell and Conceição Soares in Journal of Business Ethics, the special issue of Business Ethics A European Review 2007/16(3) to which among others David Bevan, Campbell Jones, Lucas Introna, John Desmond, Damian Byers and Carl Rhodes contributed, and the book Ethics and Economy: After Levinas by Dag Aasland (2009). Apparently Levinas’s work offers enough to be inspiring for business ethicists and organization studies scholars.

Badiou and differences

As mentioned, in pre-crisis thinking it was fashionable to think “that there are no fundamental clashes of ideologies or classes; that goodness can be assured if only we respect our differences from one another”. If, as announced in the Introduction, we want to confront these thoughts with Badiou’s thinking, in the latter we will have to look at the places where he speaks about social and political events. These constitute one of the four categories of events which Badiou distinguishes and which comprise apart from the socio-political events the categories of scientific events, artistic events and the events of love.

The two socio-political Badiouian i
deas which may be opposed to the mentioned thoughts refer to ways of dealing with differences. These ideas (Badiou 2001: 41-45) can be formulated as follows :

1. There are not just insignificant differences in the world, there also are differences that matter because they are fundamental.
2. These differences are fundamental only when ideologies or social classes are involved.

With the first of these two statements I fully agree: fundamental social differences do exist and to elucidate them is an ethical issue of the first order.

As for Badiou's second proposition, I agree with the first part of the sentence which links fundamental differences to ideologies. I don’t agree with the second part which links them by definition to social classes. The second part of the sentence suggests – and I find that confirmed in the work of Badiou, as far as I know it – that differences, if they are to be relevant, should always also take place in the interaction between groups of people.

I do not think so, precisely because I agree with the first part of the sentence: I think the differences between ideologies are important. And precisely because the role ideologies play is as big in relationships between individuals as it is in the relationships between groups of people. That’s to say, ideologies play a role on the micro ánd the macro level. This is because in my view there is question of ideology whenever thinking becomes fixed or dogmatic. And that happens as easily within and between individuals as it happens between groups of people. That means that in my opinion there is a class of non-futile differences that take place in the interaction between only two or three people. This seems to be a category of differences which is unknown to Badiou.

Which differences are known to Badiou?

First of all Badiou knows the category of differences which are cherished by the multiculturalists and which serve these multiculturalists in formulating their understanding of ethics. Badiou doesn’t like this category of differences. He tells us (2001: 26) “The objective (or historical) foundation of contemporary ethics is culturalism, in truth a tourist’s fascination for the diversity of morals, customs and beliefs”. According to Badiou there is nothing ethical to that. The embrace by the multiculturalists of the many-colouredness and multiformity of the human park does not differ fundamentally from the fascination of biologists for the multitude of forms in plants and animals. These differences just happen to be there and, according to Badiou, are not interesting.

The fashionable cult of respect for ‘the Other’ that multiculturalism presents has, according to Badiou, nothing to do with real differences, and therefore has nothing to do with real ethics. “[E]thics explicitly presents itself as the spiritual supplement of the consensus” (2001: 32). It is nothing but a clammy embrace of all that exists. To the extent that these embracers of the Other invoke Levinas they, in Badiou’s view, have not understood him well. Because the otherness that Levinas is talking about is much more radical in nature. If you strip off the radicalism, he says, you are left with a doughy porridge. “As a matter of fact, this celebrated  ‘other’ is acceptable only if he is a good other – which is to say what, exactly, if not the same as us?” (2001: 24). So in the eyes of Badiou the multiculturalist differences are fake differences.

Besides for Badiou there are differences that deserve the name. These are the great sweeping, monumental social differences. The understanding of these differences originates in what he calls an event, a sudden awareness of a political situation. Such awareness can trigger powerful dynamics and lead to revolutions. These are the ideological clashes of social classes. As examples, he mentions (2001: 41) the French Revolution of 1792, and the Cultural Revolution in China (1965-1967).

These events have their origin in people being gripped by harrowing differences which arise  between rich and poor and in unjust social and political situations. People’s thinking is then put into gear, for instance by political activists who manage to find words for a hitherto elusive statement which expresses everyone’s understanding of what the situation is about (2001: 45).

Which differences Badiou does not speak about?

What, in my view, is missing in Badiou are the ideological differences at the micro level of human interaction, that is in the interaction between individuals. By this I mean for example the difference between on the one hand the ideas that a manager may have about his organization and on the other hand the ideas that one of his employees has with regard to the subject. Or, another example, the different views two employees may have about their work. These are differences that are not clammy. They may be vehement, although there are no specific social groups behind the manager or the employees. And they constitute the stuff  business ethics is supposed to deal with.

Differences like these can not simply be brushed away. With respect to them definitely not the same can be said as what Badiou says of the fashionable multicultural differences which just celebrate the world’s many-colouredness. Namely that these differences happen to exist and are actually meaningless, because everything in creation is always different (2001: 27). Such a manager or employee may suddenly have the profound experience that what he takes for granted – automatically also for his conversation partner – turns out to be not obvious at all for his conversation partner; and that daily life gets colored by that difference. And when the manager allows this sensation and lets himself be surprised by it, then his world – if only for a second – may be turned completely upside down. Call it an event, what you experience at such a moment. Such a concrete situation, such a difference may, contrary to what Badiou says about it (2001: 27), surely and perhaps even only be clarified by the notion of the recognition of the other.

Badiou’s objections to Levinas

In what I said just now readers of Levinas will possibly discover a central Levinassian theme. But how then can the theme be missing in Badiou? Badiou, as we saw, is not infamiliar with Levinas. On the contrary, he speaks about Levinas and his ideas in a quite explicit and appreciating way. He refers to Totality and Infinity as Levinas’s major work (2001: 29). And, as far as their approach to ethics is concerned, there is a commonnality because they both prefer not to start from the perspective which considers people as victims but but from the perspective which considers them as perpetrators. Badiou opposes explicitly a lot of current ethics because it presents man as “the being who is capable of recognizing himself as a victim” (2001: 10). He recognizes a kindred spirit in Levinas because also in Levinas  “[e]thics is in no sense founded on the identity of the Subject, not even on his identity as recognized victim” (2001: 16, 17). Levinas speaks of man especially in his capacity as a potentially violent subject. For example in Totality and Infinity (Levinas 1991: 85-87) where he speaks about the arbitrariness and the imperialism of the knowing and thus world-conquering subject. Or his repeated characterization of the subject “as a force on the move” (une force qui va) (eg Levinas 1991: 171).

Nevertheless, Badiou explains a little further in his text that he can lay aside Levinas, for the following reasons.

Badiou’s first motive to ignore Levinas is that Levinas has had quite a lot of influence but that it produced the wrong effect. The impact of his writings has become particularly visible in the raving about the Other, written with capital, by the multiculturalists, who, as we saw, Badiou detests so much. Badiou (2001: 44) believes that their “ideology of a ‘right to difference’, the contemporary catechism of goodwill with regard to ‘other cultures’, are strikingly distant from Levinas’s actual conception of things”. Little remains of the authentic Levinas in the hands of those who have enlisted him, says Badiou.

But Badiou also understands that the fact that others ran off with Levinas never can be a justification for putting aside the authentic Levinas. His second, real motive to do so is therefore more substantive in nature: “The principle – but also fairly superficial – objection that we might make to ethics in Levinas’s sense is: what is it that testifies to the originality of my de-votion [dé-vouement] to the Other? The phenomenological analyses of the face, of the caress, of love, cannot by themselves ground the anti-ontological (or anti-identitarian) thesis of the author of Totality and Infinity” (2001: 21).

Although I personally never understand very well what philosophers mean by ‘grounding’ or ‘foundation’ – especially not in a context where it comes to totally unexpected events as is the case in Levinas and Badiou – it is the generally accepted consensus that philosophy must do precisely that: ground worlds of ideas. Well, Badiou finds that Levinas does not do so and that therefore he does not proceed in a philosophically satisfying way. He makes too little work of philosophical foundations and guarantees, according to Badiou: “[T]he ethical primacy of the Other over the Same requires that the experience of alterity be ontologically ‘guaranteed’ as the experience of a distance, or of an essential non-identity, the traversal of which is the ethical experience itself. But nothing in the simple phenomenon of the other contains such a guarantee. And this simply because the finitude of the other’s appearing certainly can be conceived as resemblance, or as imitation, and thus lead back to the logic of the Same. The other always resembles me too much for the hypothesis of an originary exposure to his alterity to be necessarily true” (2001: 21, 22).

But, says Badiou, Levinas cannot do without principles, foundation or think axioms. However, Levinas doesn’t look for them in philosophy. With the assumption of the principle of alterity of the Althogether-Other he finds his footing (2001: 22) but this is “quite obviously the ethical name for God” and thus a religious foundation. “In Levinas’s enterprise, the ethical dominance of the Other over the theoretical ontology of the same is entirely bound up with a religious axiom” (2001: 22). And Badiou does not like that, because this is no longer philosophy, but theology.

The real Levinas, according to Badiou (2001: 23), is essentially religious: “To put it crudely: Levinas’s enterprise serves to remind us, with extraordinary insistence, that every effort to turn ethics into the principle thought and action is essentially religious”. And thus he disqualifies himself, as far as Badiou is concerned, for philosophical discourse.

Affinities between Badiou and Levinas

The thesis I want to defend in this paper is that Levinas, despite the rejection by Badiou, can provide a valuable supplement to Badiou’s thoughts, especially when it comes to dealing with differences. That has to do with the category of differences at the micro level which Levinas knows about and Badiou does not.

In preparation to that I firstly want to enter into Badiou’s objection against Levinas’s religiosity. Subsequently I want to address the affinity they both have with ‘the event’ and with faithfulness (fidelity) to the event. Finally, I argue that Badiou is too careless regarding fidelity and regarding rigidly following the event. Levinas shows that one can remain true to an event, and at the same time be vigilant regarding the blinding effects of the event. Right there lies the value of the in-between-category of differences which Levinas focuses on. This is a field of differences, at once at the  micro level ánd fully ideological, that one should not ignore. Studying this field can help us learn to responsibly deal with differences.


When it comes to religion Badiou and Levinas may be closer to one another than Badiou thinks. It is probably true that Levinas is less religious than Badiou thinks and that Badiou is more religious than he himself thinks he is.

On the one hand, Levinas likes to emphasize in his work that he does not want to be read as a theologian but as a philosopher. True, Levinas gives cause, in particular in Otherwise than Being, to Badiou’s statement (2001: 62) that Levinas eventually makes the originality of the opening to the Other depend upon the supposition of the Altogether-Other. And that does look like a religious category. But at the same time there are passages, for example in Totality and Infinity (1991: 25), in which Levinas describes the encounter with the other and otherness as an experience. As the pre-eminent experience indeed. That is to say, precisely not as rooted in a priori assumptions such as faith uses to be, but as an empirical perception of something external that overcomes us. Indeed, fairly akin to the kind of incommensurability that Badiou is talking about, for example, in his dialogue with Zizek (Badiou, Zizek 2005: 13).

Conversely, in the work of Badiou I come across traces of what I would call religious thinking. I in particular have in mind his emphasis on ‘the void’. In Ethics (2001: 68) Badiou speaks about the situatedness of the event and in that context he says: “It means that at the heart of every situation, as the foundation of its being, there is a ‘situated’ void, around which is organized the plenitude (or the stable multiples) of the situation in question”. I am inclined to view this void as a religious category, akin to the void of which mystics speak who very consciously seek that experience. It is that void which, according to Badiou, is at the basis of genuine universality. “The void, the multiple –of-nothing, neither excludes nor constrains anyone” (2001: 73). It is no coincidence that Badiou in the context of that void refers to religious traditions like Judaism and Christianity.

The event

What Levinas and Badiou have in common is the importance they assign to the event. Even though Levinas mostly situates the event in a way different from Badiou (namely, in micro-situations) and though Levinas does not use the word ‘event’ but ‘confrontation’ or ‘encounter’, yet the phenomenon in Levinas has many similarities with the event in Badiou.
One of the matching features is that in Badiou the event causes a break with previous knowledge. It introduces new forms of knowledge (2001: 68, 69). Its truth ‘passes’ through that known multiple that someone embodies (2001: 46). This corresponds to what Levinas says about the breach brought about by the encounter with the other: it breaks through forms of knowledge and creates new ideas.
The study of the intelligible, but also the manifestation of critical essence of knowledge begins when the subject feels itself to be put into question by the call of the Other (Levinas 1991: 84).
As far as Badiou is concerned, by force of the event something new is put in motion. The event arouses engagement with a particular matter, releases energy for involvement and calls for fidelity to the design of new initiatives in line with the event. Levinas, in turn, speaks emphatically about the encounter with the other in terms of a break with the dullness of being and as the possibility for something new to break through (for example, Levinas 1998: 157-159 and Levinas 1991: 55-56 and 218).

Moreover, both Badiou and Levinas describe the event as something external which happens to the subject. “To enter into the composition of a subject of truth can only be something that happens to you” (2001: 51). Levinas heavily emphasizes the exterior character of the other person who breaks in to you. The very fact that you could not have invented yourself what that other person saddles you up with, indicates that there is something new in this confrontation. Both Badiou and Levinas speak in this regard of the voice of a ‘master’ (2001: 52, Levinas 1991: 86).


An event touches you, that goes for both Badiou and Levinas. Both authors hold that an event, through the force with which it affects you, asks for a sequel. Badiou calls this: be faithful to an event. “There is always only one question in the ethics of truths: how will I, as some-one, continue to exceed my own being? How will I link the things I know, in a consistent fashion, via the effects of being seized by the not-known” (2001: 50). This consistency, that is faithfulness and fidelity (2001: 47).

Badiou says in this regard that fidelity is never something automatic that comes naturally from the event. Fidelity “is never inevitable or necessary” (2001: 69). Levinas says something similar when it comes to the shock of the encounter and the obligation towards the other which originates there. Whether or not you respond to the appeal remains a choice of the one to whom it happens (Levinas 1991: 198, 199).

Both speak about a certain alertness against the newly acquired insights and the fidelity that connects itself with them. The fidelity should not you carry one away and become a new dogmatism. Badiou says in this regard “Rigid and dogmatic (or  ‘blinded’), the subject-language would claim the power, based on its own axioms, to name the whole of the real, and thus change the world” (2001: 83). And he states: “Every absolutization of the power of a truth an Evil” (2001: 85). On the part of Levinas many texts with this purport can be quoted, but in its  most succinct form Levinas’s concern about dogmatizing and totalizing tendencies manifests itself in the fact that he called his first major work Totality and Infinity.


Objections to Badiou

Although Badiou, as we saw just now, speaks words of warning with regard to blind fidelity and totalitarianism, yet at this point Badiou and Levinas part. This is because in this respect Badiou, except those words of warning, says other and entirely different things. First of all (2001: 27) he is very definite about a once found truth: such a truth applies to everyone. “Only a truth is, as such, indifferent to differences. This is something we have always known, even if sophists of every age have always attempted to obscure its certainty: a truth is the same for all”. An obvious question then is of course who decides whether a truth has been found and Levinas would point to the possibility that you might get pretty much surprised if you think your truth is also somebody else’s truth.

Badiou’s emphasis on the non-abandoning of a once found truth is very pointed indeed. Truth, he says, is powerful and introduces new forms of knowledge. “If a truth is never communicable as such, it nevertheless implies, at a distance from itself, powerful reshapings of the forms and referents of communication (...) Of course, these modified opinions are ephemeral, whereas the truths themselves, which are the great creations of the classic style, shall endure eternally” (2001: 70). Levinas points out, however, that no category of knowledge or truth is inviolable, that is, exists for ever. Not even the knowledge that comes from the event of the encounter. To speak knowingly consists in “an incessant recapture of instants that flow by” (Levinas 1991: 69). Or in the terms of Otherwise than Being: all Said (ie all facts and truths) must always be assessed in the Saying.

And in a passage on the French Revolution, Badiou gives the impression that truth-based and virtue-based terror exists and is justified. There he says that terror may be linked to the exercise of fidelity to fake events (simulacra). He rejects this terror, but he stresses the distinction of this terror from justifiable terror which he describes as “the political concept of Terror, linked (in a universalizable couple) to the concept of Virtue by the Immortals of the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety(…)” (2001: 77) . This is something Levinas would never be able to agree with.

I think – with Levinas – that this type of relentless persistance in one’s fidelity as propagated by Badiou in some passages is dangerous. After all, did not Karl Popper teach us how difficult it is to determine a proper position vis a vis the major events of history and certainly of your own time. Who could judge adequately in this respect, and timely? Badiou suggests that a criterion exists for distinguishing a real event from what he calls a ‘simulacrum’, a fake event. A real event, as Badiou is concerned, is rooted in a situation of void. Thus exactly the opposite of what the Nazis called their event, their revolution. The Nazis wanted to be rooted in abundance, namely “the absolute particularity of a community, itself rooted in the characteristics of soil, blood and its race” (2001: 73). Because of the attractiveness of that abundance and because of unfamiliarity with the criterion of the void it could happen that a great mind like Heidegger made the wrong choice. He was misled by formal similarities through which the event is named ‘revolution’, “despite the fact that this nomination (‘revolution’) functions only under the condition of true universal events (for example the Revolutions of 1792 or 1917)” (2001: 73).

At this point a larger dose of healthy skepticism is required than Badiou shows us. The cunning of our thinking and our desire to be swept along by the enthusiasm for our own ideas - however well intentioned - causes us to step into the trap of the illusions of our own thinking before we realize. We then blindly persist in our endeavours. Popper – however you judge his personality and his own conduct – understood this well. In The Poverty of Historicism (Popper 1975: 9) he acknowledges how hard it is for all of us to be critical on our own ‘ordinary’  mistakes. The micro context of our direct contact with our neighbours close by is often difficult enough for us: we keep making errors, however good our intentions may be. How much more difficult is it to persevere in a critical attitude when it comes to major social issues in the macro context.

In addition, as noted above, the category of the void is a fairly vague notion evoking associations with mystical and religious texts. If then Badiou assigns to the presence of a void the role of criterion in the arduous job of distinguishing between good and dangerous utopias he does not contribute to the persuasiveness of his argument. It seems to me that Badiou does not take the dangers of utopian enthusiasm really seriously, despite his warnings against it.


Addition to Badiou

This is very much in contrast to Levinas. Indeed, one might very well say that Levinas’s  concern for the totalizing tendencies of thought and enthusiasm is his central theme. He  addresses the problem of how it is possible that well-meaning and passionate people seclude themselves from criticism and make such large assessment errors when it comes to dangerous totalitarian social movements.

I think these Levinassian concerns are proper and adequate. They do not necessarily lead to what Badiou fears for, namely exaggerated shudder for recognition of the Good because that recognition would necessarily result in totalitarianism. “To forbid [man] to imagine the Good, to devote his collective powers to it, to work towards the realization of unknown possibilities, to think what might be in terms that break radically with what is, is quite simply to forbid him humanity as such” (2001: 14).

As far as Levinas is concerned these fears are unnecessary. Because with all his critical vigilance Levinas keeps his own utopia. He does so by linking to that first question about deafness to criticism (ie how is it possible that well-meaning and passionate people seclude themselves from criticism?) a second question, namely: how can we adjust this deafness to criticism, that is: how can we sharpen our judging power, how can we allow ourselves to be open to criticism, beyond all ideology? “How can the spontaneity of the freedom that is manifested in certitude be called in question?” (Levinas 1991: 90).

Considering the fact that the latter is terribly difficult anyway, says Levinas, we should not start looking at this problem on the side where this is most complicated: at the macro level, that of pernicious social trends. Because there is nothing more difficult than catching your own blindness in this societal area. (Note by the way that this is the position of Levinas, despite the fact that he saw what Heidegger did not see, and even in time. Already in 1934 Levinas took a stand against what he called ‘Hitlerism’ in his article Reflections on
the Philosophy of Hitlerism.)

A less difficult way to detect the blinding effect of thinking and its dogmatism in ourselves is: being hit by a another person at the very moment you with your well-meaning ideas walk over that person. Then we find ourselves at the micro level, on which the interaction takes place between individuals: your well-meaning thinking is being caught before your eyes in its ideoligizing and totalizing operation. Namely because the other in one way or another makes clear that you injured him.

But that is precisely the level of human interaction and of human differences that Badiou does not mention. There the human dogmatism appears in its prototypical manifestation, hence primarily there we can identify the pitfall in our dealing with differences. But also primarily there we can practice the alertness that is needed for the proper handling of differences. There, in my view, lies the added value of Levinas’s concentration on the micro level.

With respect to Badiou’s focus, which concentrates on the monumental societal divisions, this is a significant addition. Precisely because Badiou does not convince me when it comes to assessing the dangerous or desirable aspects of broad social movements, the exercise in judging power that Levinas offers through his analysis of the micro level of interaction forms an important addition to the work of Badiou. Because dealing with differences is something we need to learn.



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