First Understanding, Then Buggery

A Kant reading group recently prompted me to think about my motives for reading Kant:

  1. To try to understand more about how Kant’s overall system of concepts works.
  2. To better understand how other thinkers, especially Gilles Deleuze, have responded to, appropriated aspects of, and otherwise engaged that system of concepts.

When I’m grappling with a philosophical system, it often reminds me of learning a new programing language: Here are these terms that have meanings specific to this system, here are the specific ways in which these terms (concepts) interact with one another, here are the things you can do with this system of concepts.

For me, the final stage of this learning process (a stage I’ll never reach with Kant) is one where you know the philosophical system so well that you can hack it. That you understand it so intimately that you can start fucking with it, putting elements of it to unexpected, unintended uses. 

To me, this is a much deeper and more satisfying way of engaging with a thinker than jumping straight to the flaws and criticisms (a kind of reading where your key aim is looking for reasons to dismiss the thinker.)

Two worries about such quick dismissals:

  1. You miss things in the thinker’s work that can be of use, and most deeply of use if you make it to the stage of “hacking.”
  2. You may underestimate the extent to which you may remain influenced by the system you think you’ve successfully dismissed. You can criticize a point here and there, but still be thinking with (or actually within, inside of) some its concepts. Instead of a knockout punch, you barely landed a glove. (In fact, you’re still in the ring.)

What I call “hacking,” Deleuze referred to as “buggery”: 

My way of getting out of it [received philosophical truisms] was, I really think, to conceive of the history of philosophy as a kind of buggery … I imagined myself getting onto the back of an author, and giving him a child, which would be his and which would at the same time be a monster.

It is very important that it should be his child, because the author actually had to say everything that I made him say. But it also had to be a monster because it was necessary to go through all kinds of decenterings, slips, break-ins, secret emissions, which I really enjoyed.

Anyway, those are my motives: first understanding, then buggery.

3 thoughts on “First Understanding, Then Buggery

  1. My favorite example of your dismissal worry #2: a roomful of Reed students unconsciously using Freudian theory to dismiss the value of Freud’s thought. I hardly said a word in college classes, but on that day I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

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