Philosophers have a temptation to build systems, although periods of anti-systematic impulse recur from time to time, literary critics (which is where someone like myself, first trained in biblical criticism, may still be located) slip into perpetual searches for new methods, historians attempt wholesale reconstructions when they have the nerve and are not distracted by yet another pile of archives. I must admit to being fascinated by the daring of such efforts as well as the risk and devotion they entail. For example, Badiou’s single-handed recovery of grand systems is as riskily breathtaking as it leaves him open to attack. Platonic in its scale, it draws in a vast array of topics – Greek tragedy, poetry, Lacan, mathematics, the New Testament, theology (Pascal and Kierkegaard), politics, art, and on and on – in a way that leaves him open to criticisms where he falls short, such as the class associations and anti-democratic tenor of Plato’s elitist thought, the untroubled classicism, the dismissive polemics against ‘sophists’ (who invented democratic theory) and the Romanticism of the event and its truth. Yet the fidelity to his own philosophical event can only be admired, and I find myself drawn to his bemusement, the shy flicker of a smile at being ‘discovered’ so late, especially when he made a virtue out of his solitary extremity to modes of French intellectual and political life. But I would find that a singular exploration of the vast territories opened would become a drag in the long term.

And there are too many systems that have collapsed before they barely were thrown together without adequate structure or mental fortitude. Dühring’s effort in the late nineteenth century merely required Engels’s firm shove and it came tumbling down in a pile of girders and dust. Many have been the apparent new ideas of a life’s work that have deflated with one simple prick. I think of my Hebrew teacher, Barbara Thiering, who constructed a whole edifice concerning the origins of Christianity among the Qumran (Dead Sea Scroll) sectarians, only to find that carbon dating comprehensively removed the Dead Sea Scrolls from the first decades of Christianity (they were written much earlier). Some have shown distinct insight with a single idea, such as Girard’s mimetic desire, only to founder with the effort to make it universally explanatory, along with the desperate attempt to include within that system his religious conversion with a ‘miraculous’ healing from cancer after prayer.

So I prefer the comments of Adorno and Bloch. Adorno was wont to quote Nietzsche’s adage:

I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.

Adorno goes on to characterise system-building as provincial, naïve and caught in the past. It is like a cottage industry in a village, where the village stands in for the whole world and the system produced can pretend to have comprehended all knowledge, or at least provided a key to it. Philosophers continue to feel that they can construct a theory of the universe with a pen, paper and their own thoughts while sitting by a cosy fire in a cottage in the woods, even though they have not noticed how stale the air has become. Adorno is of course having a dig at Heidegger, but he has little time for the provincialism of philosophical systems. As for Bloch, he notes the fading dreams and perpetual retreats of the great planners of systems, preferring in their stead detours, offshoots and accidental discoveries: ‘Just as a detour in life so often turns out not to have been one at all, just as a little offshoot can provide the revitalizing contribution, so does the plan resign and overgrow itself at the same time in many first (and many late) masterpieces’. He gives the example of Cervantes’s small beginning, who wanted merely to mock chivalric romances in Don Quixote, only to find he had created a parody of humanity. Or Hegel, who set out to write a conventional textbook on philosophy and ended up with the Phenomenology. As for a grand system of life, history, the universe and everything, Bloch gives the example of ‘someone who wrote a philosophy of the postal system in three volumes, which was certainly an epochal idea at the time’.