One way of reading a philosopher is not so much in terms of the letter of what the text says, but rather in terms of the problem to which that text responds. This was the reading method that Deleuze prescribed. Many are familiar with Deleuze’s description of the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery, but elsewhere he says something, I think, far more profound. In his interview “On Philosophy”, Deleuze remarks that,

The history of philosophy isn’t a particularly reflective discipline. It’s rather like portraiture in painting. Producing mental, conceptual portraits. As in painting, you have to create a likeness, but in a different material: the likeness is something you have to produce, rather than a way of producing anything (which comes down to just repeating what a philosopher says). Philosophers introduce new concepts, they explain them, but they don’t tell us, not completely anyway, the problems to which those concepts are a response. Hume, for example, sets out a novel concept of belief, but he doesn’t tell us how and why the problem of knowledge presents itself in such a way that knowledge is seen as a particular kind of belief. The history of philosophy, rather than repeating what a philosopher says, has to say what he must have taken for granted, what he didn’t say but is nonetheless present in what he did say. (Negotiations, 136)

While a “problematic reading” of a text everywhere grapples with the letter of the text, such a reading nonetheless looks for something that is everywhere present in the text but which the text does not itself say. Put a bit differently, a problematic reading seeks the horizon, the problematic field, that render the concepts invented by a philosopher as solutions. Such a reading strives to reconstruct the problem that renders a particular constellation of concepts intelligible as solutions.

This point cannot be repeated or emphasized enough. The problem to which the concepts of a philosophical text respond nowhere is articulated in the text. Even when a philosophical text says something like “the problem to which this essay responds is…”, the problem that the text articulates, the “intra-textual” articulation of the problem, is not the problem to which the constellation of concepts inhabiting the text intra-textually responds. The problem is not that. Or, put differently, a problematic reading must even account for the problematic field that leads the philosophical text to articulate its problem in this way. Put in terms of object-oriented ontology, then, the problem that inhabits a text is always withdrawn from the text.

read on!

There are a couple of different ways of thinking about this. On the one hand, uncovering the horizon or problematic field that generates a set of concepts might be thought as akin to identifying the rule for a sequence of numbers that tells you how to proceed:

1, 4, 9, 16, 25,…n

Presented in and of itself, this series of numbers looks more or less like a random collection or a heterogeneous set. However, when the rule governing this series is uncovered– Xn = n2 —both the reason for this particular collection of numbers and no other and the way to proceed appears. The rule, in this case, is the problematic horizon, the problematic field, that structures the appearance of these particular numbers. This example, incidentally, should dissuade any consideration of problems as a force of negativity that is to be abandoned or kicked away, or that disappear once they’re solved. Rather, problems are a positive entity structuring particular phenomena.

Another way of thinking about problematic reading would be in terms of archeology. The archeologist– and the ethnographer as well –is above all a master of problematic reading. When the archeologist unearths an artifact from an ancient, long dead civilization the problem to which that artifact responds is not given in the artifact itself. Rather, the archeologist must construct a horizon, a problematic field, in which the function or use of this artifact becomes intelligible. Likewise, when the ethnographer doing field work encounters a cultural practice with which she is unfamiliar, she must painstakingly construct a problematic field or horizon that renders the practice intelligible. Where initially the practice seems like an “arbitrary custom” that has no meaning whatsoever and which even seems bizarre (both to the ethnographer and the members of the group that practice the custom), the ethnographer gradually reveals the manner in which the practice begins to a dense field of meanings and relations that render the practice intelligible or part of a system. That field is the problematic field.

Deleuze’s method was not “buggery”– though a good problematic reading of Deleuze must show why he elsewhere once articulated himself this way –but rather problematic reading. Emphasis on Deleuze’s remark about buggery as a philosophical technique of reading has been extremely damaging as it tends to authorize free associative reading that throws things together without ever really creating anything. By contrast, problematic reading has a certain rigor and structure to it, not unlike detective work (which Deleuze praises in the preface to Difference and Repetition), that becomes a fount of creation (more on this in a moment). Everywhere, whether Deleuze is investigating the work of an artist, a novelist, a poet, or a philosopher, Deleuze deploys this method of problematic reading. Thus, for example, from cover to cover, Deleuze’s reading of Francis Bacon in The Logic of Sensation is the gradual archeology of the problematic field that animates Bacon’s painting.

The advantages of a problematic reading are threefold. First, problematic reading opens the possibility of immanent critique. Some philosophers seem to think that critiquing a philosophy consists in the activity of pointing out contradictions or invalid arguments in their reasoning. These philosophers behave like civil servants and bureaucrats worrying over whether the paperwork has been filled out correctly. Everyone knows that thought does not rise or fall with whether or not it contains a contradiction or with whether or not a conclusion validly follows from its premises. Spinoza’s system does not rise or fall with whether or not proposition 11, of Book I of the Ethics, can be validly derived from propositions 9 and 10. Other arguments can always be marshaled in defense of a claim (Descartes gives a few different proofs for the existence of God), contradictions can always be smoothed out. If anything, invalid arguments and contradictions are always symptoms, as Freud and Derrida taught us, of the problematic field, of the real principle, that animates a philosophy, not the ruin of the philosophy. They are signs that something else is at work.

A problematic reading, by contrast, gives us the means of evaluating a work. Based on a problematic reading, Deleuze is able to evaluate the work of Francis Bacon. Through the uncovering of the problematic field that animates Bacon’s art, Deleuze is able to evaluate those points where Bacon’s art falls short and why it transitions into a new form of art at different points. Likewise, through a problematic reading of Foucault, Deleuze is able to show why Foucault’s thought transitions at the points where it transitions, how it creates or gives new problems for itself, how various conceptual constellations fall short, and so on. Where the reading of texts in terms of whether or not they are logically consistent and composed of valid arguments brings extrinsic criteria to bear in the evaluation of the text, a problematic reading provides us with immanent criteria for the evaluation of the text. Does the text, work of literature, or work of art respond to its own problem? Moreover, a problematic reading now reveals the reason these contradictions and invalid arguments inhabit the philosophical text. It reveals the agency that maintains these contradictions.

Yet all of this is still a largely scholarly affair. The second advantage of problematic reading is that it is the space of our freedom. Non-problematic scholarly reading is always authoritarian in the precise sense of tying us to the authority of the text. “Yes I agree with that text!” “No I disagree with that text!” It’s all so dismal. “You use a hammer to pound nails, damn it!” We are forced to become Lacanians, Kantians, Deleuzians, object-oriented ontologists, Hegelians, and Spinozists. We become disciples able only to ape the solutions that the master has provided. By contrast, when I understand the problem to which a hammer responds as a solution a space of freedom is opened up. Now a minimal gap between solutions and problems appears, such that the hammer and the text are subject to critique. Why? Because a problematic field is always in excess of any of its solutions, allowing for a variety of different solutions. Is a hammer the best solution to this problem? Are there other solutions available or that are possible? Is Kant the best solution to this particular problem? Are there other possible solutions?

The archeology of a problematic field is not simply an adventure in speculative history, but is also a space of invention. Through the uncovering of a problematic field, invention becomes possible. The artificial intelligence designer might note that “walking on two feet is one solution to getting about, but it also causes hemorrhoids and all sorts of back problems and presents all sorts of problems with respect to gravity. What about slithering along the ground? What if we instead created a modular snake robot where each module has its own intelligence and autonomy, sensing the environment in terms of its own local conditions, and that slithers across the ground?”

The archeology of a problematic field opens a minimal gap between problems and solutions, allowing for the invention of other solutions. Our freedom resides not in the solutions, but in the problems precisely because problems always contain an excess of possibilities over and above possibilities. Thus, for example, Derrida presents an exemplary problematic reading or archeology of Husserl in Speech and Phenomenon. In Speech and Phenomena Derrida uses the power of contradiction, tension, and invalidity not to debunk Husserl, but rather psychoanalytically to uncover a problem that animates Husserl’s thought. As a result of this, Derrida is able to propose an alternative solution to Husserl’s problem that allows us to dispense with the transcendental ego as the ground of synthesis or unification, instead proposing an auto-synthesis of traces that presides over such unification. As a consequence, he’s able to broach an entirely new field of research. This is not scholarship or a bureaucratic regulation of forms, but invention.

Finally, third, problematic reading opens the possibility of critiquing problems themselves, such that a space is open for the posing of new problems. Graham has come down pretty hard on the philosophical maneuver of “debunking false problems”, but I cannot entirely agree. There are, of course, facile philosophical gestures of the sort that Graham denounces. Dennett and the Churchlands tell us that the qualia problem is a false problem, but those of us who remember our Locke and the distinction between primary and secondary qualities still wonder how electro-chemical reactions can produce the smell and taste of citrus and an orange. Far from a false problem, they seem not to have understood the problem. There are thus facile denunciations of problems and all too often the denunciation of a philosopher arises from a facile inability to understand the problem that haunts the philosopher’s solutions. Strangeness and violations of common sense in a philosopher’s conceptual constellation should not be taken as counting against the philosopher, but as symptoms of the profundity of the problem that the philosopher is haunted by.

Nonetheless, there are false problems. There are problems that are undetermined, poorly formed, poorly structured, that are missing key elements, and all the rest, and that, as a consequence, generate monstrous and horrifying solutions. Perhaps racism, homophobia, and anti-semitism are solutions to problems of this sort. Perhaps the Tea Partiers are solutions to problems of these sorts. Solutions such as this would be reflective of problems that are missing various variables and functions (in the mathematical sense), thereby producing monstrous, malformed, horrifying “solutions” as a consequence. The archeology of a problem would thus be a means of freeing us from false problems, of escaping false problems and the sad monsters they engender, creating a free space in which other problems can be invented and new solutions can be invented as well. Through a dis-attachment to poorly formed problems, the possibility of posing new problems is open. This posing of new problems would never be the exercise of a will or an intentionality, but would rather be what wills within the will. Yet for willing within the will to take place behind our backs, the clearing of such bramble has to take place.