Bogus philosophy. The ideal of the French philosophe de cafe, which owes so much to Sartre, retains a hold over our imagination. But, Edward Skidelsky writes, it has ceased to have any basis in reality

Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil

Alain Badiou, translated by Peter Hallward <em>Verso

We have an ideal image of the French philosopher. He is engage, preferably a communist, though mistrusted by the party apparatus. He rails incessantly against the French state, while at the same time holding a prestigious and well-paid post at a grande ecole. His taste in art is avant-garde, his sex life complicated. But above all, he is entertaining. In his versatile hands, weighty questions of being and nothingness acquire a certain buoyancy. They no longer seem quite so irrevocably opposed to Chanel No 5 and Chateau Lafite.

The philosophe de salon has his origins in 18th-century Paris, although his modern successor, the philosophe de cafe, owes most to Jean-Paul Sartre. He is despised by his British counterparts, who cultivate their notorious dullness mainly in order to distinguish themselves from him. But for the British reading public, he retains his allure. Shorn of any disturbing radicalism, he is recognisable in our very own Alain de Botton.

But while this image of the philosophe de cafe keeps its hold over our imagination, it has ceased to have any basis in reality. The last surviving giant of French post-structuralism, Jacques Derrida, is in his seventies. The younger generation of French philosophers are more sober and professional. Analytic philosophy, with its emphasis on logic, is gaining in popularity. But this new trend is barely represented in British publishing. We demand that French philosophers live up to their exotic reputation. The more like us they become, the less interested we are. Such is the power of cliche.

Ethics, by Alain Badiou, is guaranteed to satisfy our taste for all that is trivial and bogus in French philosophy. Badiou conforms to the stereotype outlined above in almost every respect. He teaches philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, where he occupies Althusser's old position. His radical credentials are impeccable: he has graduated from Leninism and Maoism to membership of the shadowy Organisation Politique. His passions include 12-tone music and occupying factories. About his sex life I can't speak, although some dark comments to the effect that "sexual pleasure as such is inaccessible to the power of truth" hint at hidden complexities.

Ethics resembles an intellectual circus. The mangy old beasts of French structuralism - Lacan, Foucault, Althusser - are paraded round the ring for our applause. Badiou has added a few new acts of his own. Allusions to mathematical set theory provide an acrobatic accompaniment to the main performance. Both the cultural revolution in China and Alexandre Grothendieck's creation of topos theory are "events" that compel "a new way of being". But even this is not original: it partakes of the French fashion - famously dissected by Alan Sokal - for drawing spurious analogies with half-understood scientific theories. More surprising are the occasional references to grace and immortality, although the recent theological turn of Derrida, Slavoj Zizek and others points to a precedent.

All these circus animals, old and new, have been dressed up in uniforms designed by the ringmaster himself. Badiou clearly has ambitions to found his own school and, to this end, has invented an entire vocabulary of "situations", "events" and "truths". But these terminological innovations cannot conceal that Badiou has nothing original to say. For all its elaborate syncretism, the basic structure of Badiou's thought is very traditional. It derives not so much from the "anti-humanism of the 1960s", to which Badiou pledges allegiance, as it does from the Marxist existentialism of the 1940s and 1950s. Visible behind the smokescreen of jargon is the familiar face of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Ethics is primarily a polemic against the newly fashionable ideology of human rights. To the ethics of human rights, Badiou opposes his own "ethic of truths". Badiou's truths are not the universal truths of human nature on which the advocates of natural rights stake their case. His truths are revealed only in extreme "events", which lie outside the circuit of ordinary life. A truth is always a "break" with the "prevailing language and established knowledge of the situation". It is unique and incommunicable. It cannot be known, only "encountered". Ethical action consists in "fidelity" to such truths.

Badiou offers as an example of "fidelity" the decision of a doctor to treat illegal immigrants in defiance of the law. This cannot be justified in the universal language of human rights, because if all doctors acted similarly the health service would collapse. Nevertheless, the doctor's actions express "a clear vision of this situation"; they are a correct response to an "urgent, singular situation of need". Fidelity is, in short, the old existentialist notion of "commitment". It refers to a decision that cannot be justified in universal terms, but which is still passionately believed to be right.

Badiou's example of fidelity is calculated to appeal - who cannot be moved by the good doctor who defies bureaucratic protocol in obedience to his Hippocratic duty? But the existentialist notion of commitment/fidelity takes on a less attractive aspect when one considers that it is formally identical to the Leninist notion of "revolutionary justice". Both operate outside the realm of universal laws. "If I want to be faithful to the events of the 'Cultural Revolution'," writes Badiou, "then I must at least practise politics [ . . . ] in an entirely different manner from that proposed by the socialist and trade-unionist traditions." Existentialist commitment and Leninist cynicism naturally unite, as they did most famously in the person of Sartre.

The problem Badiou faces is this: if ethical action (fidelity to a truth) cannot be justified in universal terms, how are we to distinguish it from plain wickedness? This is the dilemma that confronts any version of existentialism. It was posed in striking terms, but never properly resolved, by Kierkegaard. How does Abraham know for sure that it is God, and not the Devil, who is calling him to sacrifice his son Isaac? The problem is particularly acute for Badiou, because he admits the possibility that truths may call forth their own "simulacra", which are "formally indistinguishable" from the truths they imitate. Thus the Nazi "simulacrum" borrowed much of its rhetoric and technique from the Bolshevik "truth". It is this circumstance, Badiou adds, that led Heidegger astray. He thought he was being called by God; in fact, he was being called by the Devil.

Badiou believes that he possesses the answer to this dilemma. Truths such as the Bolshevik revolution can be recognised by their "universal address"; simulacra such as the Nazi revolution are distinguished by their rejection of universality and their "invocation of blood and soil". This distinction is historically dubious. Badiou seems to accept without question the orthodox Marxist equation of the proletariat with the "universal class". Yet Nazi theorists were equally adamant that Germany was a "universal nation". On what grounds does Badiou accept one identification and reject the other?

But this historical oversight is nothing compared to the philosophical howler that accompanies it. Badiou is here helping himself, without any recognition of inconsistency, to the notion of universality that he previously rejected. He begins by condemning the bourgeois fiction of a "universal human subject" and ends by condemning fascism because it fails to recognise the very same subject. Universality is good when it is communist, bad when it is bourgeois; particularity is good when it is communist, bad when it is fascist. Such are the subtleties of dialectical thinking.

The only conclusion one can draw from this hodgepodge is that Badiou's philosophy is entirely at the service of his politics. Indeed, Ethics is nothing more than political autobiography dressed up in metaphysical terms. When Badiou defines ethical action as "fidelity to an event", what he is really talking about is his own fidelity to the events of May 1968.

His ethic is that of an ageing Marxist for whom the supreme commandment is: "Keep going!" The worst thing one can say about such a conception of philosophy is that it is wretchedly parochial. Philosophy - which for Kant was inspired by wonder at "the starry heavens above" and "the moral law within" - has here been reduced to the role of political journalism. This criticism has often been levelled against French philosophy; it is sad to see it once again confirmed.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A spin too far