Philosophy in the Present

Discussing the place of philosophy and intellectual engagement today, Philosophy and the Present is an exciting addition to contemporary thought in our new century. 

This short transcription of a public discussion between Slavoj Zizek andAlain Badiou centers around a point about discussion. For these thinkers, thinking is not primarily about discussion, but a situation that calls for intervention. Thinking is not simply an academic discipline, which can encumber the capacity to think the present in its singularity.

Badiou tells us it is a false notion about philosophers that they can speak about anything and give society answers on contemporary problems. Rather, the philosopher is the inventor of new “problems”. A  “philosophical situation” consists of a moment where a choice is elucidated between two terms of a relation with nothing in common to make them equatable: a “paradoxical relation”. The philosophical situation is constituted of possibilities and real differences, which demand a binding decision and outcome that appears to be undecidable, where one cannot remain “neutral”. Thus he explains low voter interest in politics: there is no real difference between candidates, there is no break with the state of things. The “genuine philosopher” is someone who him/herself proposes universally for all, what the real problems of the day are, or are not. But this is, contra cynicism, “not worth an hours effort if it is not based on the idea that the true life is present”. Badiou’s optimism is refreshing, while resisting naiveté. 

Zizek tells us, similarly, all successful philosophical dialogues are based on misunderstandings. Similar to the psychoanalyst’s relation to the patient is the philosopher’s relation to society: the demands are false demands, but they indicate real concealed problems. Thus, philosophers cannot simply give “philosophical fast-food answers”, but must help clarify our questioning. Zizek uses “the war on terror” to illustrate a “disjunctive synthesis”, or “false alternatives”: such uncritical discussions as demanding that a society chooses either security or liberty, in light of terrorist attacks which are used to legitimate the force of this choice. These are “seeming opposites”, which ought to be responded to by changing the basic coordinates of discussion altogether. He urges us to “break with the dream that there is a normal philosophy”. He condemns some contemporaries for failing to rise to the call of thought when, for instance, opportunities arise to rethink “human nature”, in light of discussions of bio-medical engineering. The fundamental message of philosophy is that “you can immediately participate in universality, beyond particular identification”. 

All in all, it is an excellent, thought provoking and lively read for the philosophically initiated or not. And while the book leaves the reader wanting more in quantity, its spontaneous quality more than makes up for that: this reviewer highly recommends this text.