There are three (and only three) key philosophers in the history of Western metaphysics: Plato, Descartes, and Hegel. Each enacted a break with the past: nothing remained the same after they entered the scene. Plato broke with pre-Socratic cosmology in search of the inner harmony of the universe and introduced metaphysical idealism; Descartes broke with the medieval vision of reality as a meaningful hierarchic order and introduced two basic ingredients of philosophical modernity – the notion of infinite and meaningless mechanical material reality, and the principle of subjectivity (“I think, therefore I am”) as the ultimate foundation of our knowledge; and Hegel broke with traditional metaphysics – idealist or materialist – and introduced the era of radical historicity in which all solid forms, social structures, and principles are conceived as results of a contingent historical process.
Each thinker casts a shadow on those who followed him, but in a specific negative way. Foucault (1926-84) said that the entire history of Western philosophy could be defined as the history of rejections of Plato: even today, Marxists and anti-Communist liberals, existentialists and analytic empiricists, Heideggerians and vitalists are united in anti-Platonism. And the same holds for Descartes. He is decried by ecologists, feminists, cognitive brain scientists, Heideggerians (again), pragmatists, the proponents of the ‘linguistic’ turn in philosophy … Finally, Hegel is the ultimate bête noire of the last two centuries of philosophy, criticized by Marxists, liberals, religious moralists, deconstructionists, and Anglo-Saxon empiricists (among others).
Does this status of Plato, Descartes, and Hegel not provide the ultimate proof that, in each case, we are dealing with a philosophical Event in the sense of a traumatic intrusion of something New which remains unacceptable for the predominant view? In an Event, things not only change: what changes is the parameter by which we measure the facts of change, i.e., a turning point changes the entire field within which facts appear. This is crucial to bear in mind today, when things change all the time at unheard-of speed. But beneath this constant change, it is not difficult to discern a dull sameness, as if things change so that everything can remain the same – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. In capitalism, where things have to change all the time to remain the same, the true Event would have been to transform the very principle of change. Such a notion of Event which cannot be reduced to simple change was developed by Alain Badiou: a contingency which converts into necessity, i.e., it gives rise to a universal principle demanding fidelity and hard work for the new Order. An erotic encounter is the Event of love when it changes the lovers’ entire lives, organizing them around the shared life of a couple; in politics, a contingent upheaval (revolt) is an Event when it gives rise to a commitment of the collective subject to a universal emancipatory project, and sets in motion the work of restructuring society.
Can we still imagine such an Event when, with the new millennium, the Left entered a profound crisis? In the years of prospering capitalism, it was easy for the Left to play Cassandra, warning that prosperity was based on illusions and prophesizing catastrophes to come. Now the economic downturn and social disintegration the Left was waiting for is here, and protests and revolts are popping up all around the globe. But what is conspicuously absent is any consistent Leftist reply to these events, any project of how to transpose islands of chaotic resistance into a positive program of social change.