requiem for certainty

Working Definition of Problematization

with 7 comments

I have now been working with the methodological or analytical device of problematization for long enough that I am comfortable offering a (merely tentative!) ‘definition’ or ‘specification’ of this device of inquiry.

Problematizations are formed by congeries of conceptually-specified vectors which intersect one another in such a way as to create tensions and instabilities that both render old practices problematic and provide bases for the elaboration of new practices.
– Problematizations are thus complexes.
– Problematizations are thus formed by tensions between different vectors or levels, e.g. power and knowledge.
– Problematizations are thus objects with dual functionality in that they both render problematic and provoke solutions.
– Problematizations are thus hinges of historical emergence and descent.

As I understand it, problematization is a mode of inquiry developed primarily in the work of Michel Foucault, but also in other work by Gilles Deleuze, and also in other work by certain contemporary philosopher-historians working in the Foucault-Deleuze tradition, most notably Ian Hacking, Arnold Davidson, and Paul Rabinow.

One way of inquiring into the complex vectors which enable the emergence of problematizations (particularly clear in the work of the three contemporaries just noted) is by way of the ‘objects’ (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition) and ‘practices’ (Foucault, “Introduction” to The Use of Pleasure) which are taken up and worked over in a given problematization.  We can study a problematization, in other words, by studying that which is being problematized.  Foucault in his last two books, for example, studied the problematization of sexuality by inquiring into the specific practices which were taken up as vexed objects of difficulty in certain periods of historical emergence and descent.  These practices/objects are themselves complex and formed by intersections of diverse vectors.  The intersections of these vectors form these practices/objects in such a way that they appear problematic, both in the sense of obviating prior practices/objects and calling forth new practices/objects.  The practices/objects which are the focal points of problematizations thus offer us a potential view into the conditions of the possibility of both the egress and the emergence of certain historical formations.


Written by Colin Koopman

December 5, 2007 at 3:13 am

7 Responses

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  1. […] “Working definition” of problematization […]

  2. This is awesome !!! Good work


    February 6, 2009 at 1:24 pm



    May 18, 2009 at 8:59 am

  4. Could you offer this as a help to the Wikipedia entry. It lacks the clarity and historical context to Foucault etc.


    November 4, 2012 at 3:54 am

  5. Colin,

    These are great. Thank you! I was recently in conversation with a friend who was working through Wiegman’s ‘Object Lessons’ and they were expressing what a great follow up to Deleuze and Foucault’s methodology the text is. However, what really struck me in this discussion, was how Deleuze’s own understanding of problem-questions and their relations to their ‘solutions’ plays the two fold character of being at once that which is the index of relevance for the philosopher’s creation of concepts, while simultaneously being the *desire* for the creation of concepts in the first place. Here I am reminded of Deleuze’s definition of the event in Logic of Sense where he says that ethics means being worthy of the events which happens to us (‘my wound existed before me, I was born to embody it’). I wonder if this is what you had in mind when you mentioned the dual functionality of problematization as methodology. Also, I’m curious to hear what you think problematization offers us readers of Deleuze and Foucault in searching for ways of articulating positive political projects (specifically related to the dual functionality of problematization since it seems to be a political project which seeks to create Events, or ruptures, within capital itself).


    December 29, 2013 at 6:14 am

    • My sense of the dual functionality has something to do with what you are drawing out of Deleuze, but I think moreso it’s a response to a somewhat ‘generic’ question of philosophical ontology through which the specter of ‘realism versus antirealism’ will get raised. Yes, problematizations are already there (so they are real), but also, yes, the work of the critical theorist involves an intensification of problems (so they are constructed). I think that trying too hard to answer that question will lead down garden paths, however.

      The question of articulating positive projects is, to me, the really interesting one. As I try to show in Chapter Four of my book on genealogy, problematization acts as a ‘positive invitation’ to the work of reconstructive and meliorative work.. That said, as I also argue in Chapters Six & Seven of the book, that reconstructive work gains more clues (or what Rabinow calls ‘equipment’ to be more precise) from Dewey and Habermas than it does from Foucault and Deleuze (or so I would argue, without attributing that view to Rabinow, who I suspect might dissent on this point).

      Thanks for the comment!

      Colin Koopman

      January 4, 2014 at 12:57 am

      • I’ve been trying to promote the idea/potentials of proto-types (as opposed to arche-types) and worry some that Dewey’s valorization of scientists (and his lingering Hegelianism in general) doesn’t go far enough to foreground how much context/complexity/process make a difference (part of why I think Rabinow highlights our ecological ignorance which I always tie into Caputo’s work after-Foucault on a hermeneutics/ethos of not-knowing).


        January 7, 2014 at 5:55 pm

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