Review by Nadim Bakhshov
Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds & Firebrands (Bloomsbury, 2015), pp. 288
Standing in the shadows of Scruton’s book is Ludwig Wittgenstein, the enigmatic thinker par excellence, the thinker who has been co-opted by both the analytic and continental traditions. Aside from Scruton’s ad hominem journalese – interesting if you want an alternative history of the academy since the 60s – the philosophical tool Scruton deploys the most is the ‘language-game’. Originally conceived by Wittgenstein as a metaphor to help unravel structural relations in language it went on to play a number of contradictory roles in philosophical history: for the analytical tradition it was partly used as a critical model of language and to challenge referential theories of language and meaning. In the continental tradition, however, something of a split occurs. In some quarters it was combined with early Heidegger and seen as a richer, more concrete situated analysis of existence, linking to developments in semiotics and cultural hermeneutics. In other quarters it became the operating frame to support perhaps the single most exciting development of contemporary philosophical thought: the deliberate invention of new concepts, metaphors and critical theoretical tools, partially inspired by Heidegger’s neologisms and critical insights out of Kojève’s Hegel and Marx’s critical writings.
New concepts and theories require grammars of use and new vocabularies – what we might legitimately call new language-games. Once a language-game is set up it provides both the operating frame and freedom to explore the new concepts it enfolds. The purpose is not to play new academic games but to explore new concepts and theories of language, politics, reality and truth in the hope that some of these developments will, when applied to real and concrete issues, open up powerful new ways of looking at and understanding the world. These thinkers enacted a model of the humanities we might call pure or theoretical (much like we have pure or theoretical physics). This categorical innovation may be their greatest legacy yet.
The problem for Scruton is a problem for a thinker who assumes conceptual innovation has no real place in the academy, a thinker for whom there are plenty of conceptual and theoretical tools already bequeathed to us by the philosophical tradition and little need for the totally new. In short, there may be a conservative drive here. For this type of thinker contemporary innovation is superfluous, dangerous and a distraction from real philosophy. Scruton, in particular, tends to conflate the ideas of many of these thinkers as essentially postmodern, as essential non-ethical thinkers who wish to relativize truth and play academic games. Badiou would surely disagree that he is postmodern in this trivial sense. For Scruton, these are not radical thinkers trying to counter the hegemony and complacency of academic orthodoxy but immature and cynical anti-academics. According to Scruton, it was during the 1960s that academia became infected with this ‘intellectual virus’: the overriding preference to invent new language-games, new words and metaphors rather than conduct rational debate. Scruton adds:
“The revolution of the 1960s was…a revolution conducted in laboratory conditions”
The politically charged atmosphere of the 1960s was “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Academics set up shop as “gurus” and peddled their own thought in deliberately meaningless and obscure neologisms (“nonsemes” is Scruton’s term) and talked revolution. According to Scruton, the more obscure and impenetrable the more popular they became. Althusser is described as a cultish figure, unable to engage in reasoned argument, dismissive of any thinker who challenges him. Lacan was an exemplary “guru”, going so far as inventing pseudo-mathematical forms (mathemes) to mask his vacuity:
“Today then I must keep to the wager to which I committed…in which the object a is the most evanescent in its functioning of symbolizing the central lack of desire, which I have always indicated in a univocal way by the algorithm (-ϕ)” (Lacan, quoted in Scruton)
Scruton may be right in some ways: application of new metaphors in differing contexts can lead to nonsense and some metaphors simply do not work – but unless you explore them, test them out, set up language-games, agree grammars you will not discover anything. But is that a reason to say their enterprises were vacuous? I think not. I would call these dead-ends and cul-de-sacs a natural consequence of innovation and intellectual exploration.
Most of the thinkers Scruton explores are now dead and their legacies have splintered and fragmented. What has their legacy been? It is too soon to say. New metaphors and theoretical machinery need time to enter the broader cultural matrix. It is interesting to look at the legacy of Jacques Derrida since his death. At one point deconstruction was seen as the bête noire of the analytic tradition and Derrida was seen as the poster boy of these radical thinkers. Recently, however, Derrida and his philosophical ambitions have been rehabilitated through the recognition that his conceptual innovations were a form of ethical.
So what of the current generation? Those who are still alive and have grown in importance in the last twenty years? Scruton does indeed discuss several of them. The most difficult and promising figure of this generation is Alain Badiou. Badiou is a “Platonic” system builder with a twist, a revolutionary Maoist with an onto-mathematics and, ethically, a formalist coupled with Sartrean existentialist. In all respects a thinker with something great to offer – to paraphrase Zizek: “Badiou is our living Hegel”.
What does Scruton think?
Badiou is a philosopher who forms a bridge between the analytical and continental traditions, a philosopher who moves comfortably between discussions of Wittgenstein’s logical atomism and Heidegger’s phenomenology. For Scruton, Althusser and Lacan have crippled Badiou. Scruton’s reasoning can be seen when discussing Badiou’s move to onto-mathematize parts of philosophy. The step is bold and is, in the spirit of his intellectual forbears a radical gesture of real force even if you disagree with it. Badiou’s ethics and revolutionary politics start with mathematics and set theory. Mathematics is ontology. A political ontology is logically derivative of a mathematical structure/ontology. Those who follow Deleuze will recognize this idea. In Badiou’s case this means set theory. The question, for Scruton, is whether Badiou has had really had a Platonic insight or whether he has developed a language-game in which the moves and rules are derived from set theory. For Scruton it is the latter – a post-Lacanian language-game dispensing with mathemes, replacing them with a significant borrowing of a substantial mathematical edifice. In my reading this no more undermines Badiou’s project as it does endorse his theoretical configuration against say that of Deleuze or even Lacan. For Scruton, however, the issue is one of style and writing. Scruton finds no rational argumentation at work and, like Althusser and Lacan, finds Badiou invoking the language of set theory at crucial junctures of his exposition. Scruton is frustrated because he cannot tell whether Badiou is using mathematical models and concepts as metaphors or actually telling us that question of the nature of being are really questions of mathematics. In Scruton’s words:
“The prose slips promiscuously from mathematics to the empirical world and back again; the crucial terms, lifted from technical contexts that are only partially or allusively expounded, are given no clear meaning in their extended use, and the reader has the inescapable impression that Badiou is not applying mathematics but hiding behind it.”
Overall, the book is a polemic that has its insights and insightful questions – but which also suffers from lots of ressentiment (Deleuze). What I perceive to be a hostility to conceptual and linguistic innovation in philosophy were a sticking point for me, at the end.
Nadim Bakhshov is author of Against Capitalist Education (Zero Books) and the creator of a post-metaphysical skeletal art form, lying at the intersection of neo-conceptual art, mathematics and ultra-theoretical philosophy