I have recently noted the difference between conceptual labor and critical labor: one generates new ideas, new connections, and new avenues of thought by creating, modifying, and rearranging concepts on a conceptual plane of immanence; the other organizes, unifies, and evaluates ideas. Critical labor often implies previous knowledge of a discipline or a field, especially in today’s highly specialized academic world, but even in critical writing I would argue that a good essay should make clear even to a non-specialist the stakes of the argument (indeed, in the days before and soon after the invention of print, it was often impossible to assume that your interlocutors would know all the texts you were referring to, so extensive summary, quotation, and explication was the norm: that’s why so many fragments of lost philosophers, the Stoics especially, survive in texts by their opponents and critics).
But leaving critical reading and writing aside, I want to insist unilaterally that any properly conceptual
text can be read on its own with no prior knowledge.
Now, before the knee-jerk responses start, take a careful look at that statement again, and notice that I said without prior knowledge
, not without prior training
. The reason you study philosophy should be
to learn conceptual modes of understanding and explaining the world, whatever part of the world you happen to be interested or invested in, whether all of existence or weird knotty logic problems. These conceptual modes of thinking, whatever they happen to be, should prepare you to do your own philosophical reading and thinking with existing modes as examples, alternatives, and options, not as rules and regulations. You learn philosophy so you can read, think, and write philosophy. If you’re getting the kind of preparatory training you should be, you’re learning how to read texts, extract concepts from them, debate concepts, and build and refute arguments. Everything else is just window dressing.
And again, a caveat. There are three
different activities we need to distinguish between: thinking, learning to think, and studying an existing discipline professionally. It goes without saying to anybody who’s ever studied anything in the humanities that the model I’m presenting isn’t quite how the story goes. There are a lot of intro courses, and required reading, and terminology you’re supposed to be fluent in. But a lot of that is just jargon and professionalization. If you make a genuine effort to read across disciplines, you find that in many cases very similar ideas are being expressed in slightly different form. So we’ll leave aside the process of professionalization and disciplinary training, of which I have a separate critique, and focus on the first distinction, between learning about conceptual work and doing conceptual work; that is, between training and knowledge.
So again - I’m not denying that a certain apprenticeship and training is required to understand many canonical texts in the history of philosophy. But I also want to categorically insist that which texts and traditions you use to undergo or provide that training don’t matter as much as the quality of the student’s thinking and the quality of the teacher’s pedagogy. The point is to teach students how to find and use concepts, and it doesn’t really matter which texts you learn philosophy through
. This is an entirely separate question from the history of philosophy, and the disciplinary organization of the canon. So, yes, by all means learn to read basic philosophy before you take on Difference & Repetition
. But there is not a particular text that you *have* to read before you can access this or that other text. Yes, it might be helpful to prepare, just like reading Dubliners
and A Portrait of the Artist
is a useful thing to do before tackling Ulysses
. But does anybody who genuinely loves Joyce’s work want to defend the position that you can’t pick up Ulysses
with no previous knowledge and just enjoy
the text, enjoy Joyce’s language, and the puns, and the dirty jokes, and the stink of Dublin in the summer? The precondition of enjoying Ulysses
is learning to read, not learning to read Shakespeare. If you’re a specialist and you disagree, consider the possibility that professional pride or your own ego are clouding your judgment.
Obviously, literature is not philosophy and I’m by absolutely no means recommending an “impressionistic” approach to complicated philosophical texts. But the point is simply that learning to read is not the same precondition as reading a particular text or texts. You don’t have to read Hegel before you read Derrida. And it’s probably useful to read Hegel before you read the Derrida texts that deal explicitly with Hegel. But if you’ve never read Hegel or Heidegger and you know Freud really well, you should be able to clearly follow the argument of a text like Archive Fever
. I’m not saying previous knowledge isn’t useful: I’m saying *there is no single “true” or “proper” way into a particular thinker’s work*. You have to find your own way in.
The ultimate purpose of this long story is to respond to the many, many replies I got to this post
about what to read and what not to read. Ignoring for the moment the responses that came from people who didn’t even read the fucking text, many people responded smugly both privately and publicly that I was obviously an idiot because “it’s impossible to read the philosophers on the left without knowing the philosophers on the right.” This is complete and utter nonsense. I mean, seriously. It’s great that you’re 20 and your professor just told you that in your intro class, but I’ve been doing this since before you had pubic hair and I’m here to tell you that Spinoza’s Ethics
begins clearly and distinctly from first principles and every argument is clearly laid out in geometric manner - which is the whole point of the text - so that no previous knowledge is required to read it.
And once again - because people always seem to ignore my caveats and focus on the headlines - I’m not denying that preparation is useful. Will reading the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione
and the Short Treatise
help prepare you to read the Ethics
? Yes, they will. Reading Aristotle’s Physics
before reading his Metaphysics
is probably a good idea. Duh. But any truly great conceptual thinker lays out all of their positions from the ground up, so that no previous knowledge is required if you know how to think conceptually. Aristotle, Avicenna, Maimonides, Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche, Bergson, Freud, Eve Sedgwick, Elizabeth Grosz: all of my favorite conceptual thinkers allow you to think alongside them without previous knowledge, because they give you everything you need right in the text. Sure, maybe the parts of the Treatise
where Hume discusses ancient modes of thought will be way
more boring if you don’t know the philosophies he’s critiquing. But if you’re prepared to take Hume at his word without reading the proofs and demonstrations, you can certainly skim through those parts and still understand the arguments of the text. You read secondary literature to help you
read the book: but by that very logic, the amount of “help” you need is inversely proportionate to the amount of labor you’re willing to undertake on your own. If something occupies your interest sufficiently, you keep working at it until you crack the code.
When I was 14 I bought William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch
because Kurt Cobain said it was his favorite book. I read it. I didn’t understand anything past the first scene with the cops. I jerked off to the sex parts (holy crap, she fucked him with a what
?!?). But I didn’t understand a fucking thing. Except I definitely knew there was something important going on there, so as soon as I finished the book I flipped it over and started from the beginning. I still didn’t understand anything. But I have a sentence etched on my memory from that second reading that I will probably remember until the day I die: “Lesbians sipping spinal fluid through alabaster straws.” I didn’t know what the fuck world that was, but I knew I wanted in. So I kept gnawing at the text, and read other books by Burroughs, and read other books by other writers, and long story short here I am. I had a similar experience a few years later, my first year of undergraduate study. I bought some book off Amazon.de and this other book came up that sounded pretty interesting called Anti-Oedipus
. In the sincere and productive naivete of a freshman I bought Deleuze & Guattari’s masterpiece without knowing anything about them or it and started to read it. Didn’t understand a fucking thing. Put it away for a while. Started again. Still didn’t understand a fucking thing, but got a lot further. Again, I kept gnawing at the text. That one took me about 10 years to digest. And I did a lot of other reading in between, sure. And a lot of thinking. But the point is, you find something that speaks to you; that part is just a sensation. Then the true work begins. But there’s no specific prerequisite to doing that work.
Practice, train, start modestly and work your way up. But if you know how to think, no conceptual treatise should be opaque to you, no matter what you have or haven’t read. Unless, of course, the author himself doesn’t know how to think.