Research Early Career Research Spotlight: James Bahoh

Early Career Research Spotlight: James Bahoh

James Bahoh is a VolkswagenStiftung and Mellon Foundation Postdoc Fellow at the University of Bonn’s International Centre for Philosophy. He received his PhD from Duquesne University in 2016 after defending his dissertation on Martin Heidegger and Gilles Deleuze’s theories of events. His work is primarily on French and German philosophy from Kant onward, though he also has interests in early modernism and ancient philosophy. Bahoh has written a book on Heidegger’s philosophy of events, which is under contract with Edinburgh University Press. He is currently working on a new project looking at the relation between twentieth-century theories of events and the critique of representation in classical German philosophy.

You describe your methodology for understanding Heidegger as ‘diagenic analysis’.  What does this mean, and what does it add to Heidegger scholarship?

First of all, thanks for the invitation to do this and for your questions!

So, I’m interested in ontology and I’m convinced that Heidegger still has a lot to offer to the field. However, in my view a lot of the available Heidegger scholarship doesn’t do his work many favors when it comes to explaining the ideas he produced after around 1930. I take this to be a consequence of failing to keep straight different concepts and accounts he developed at different stages of the evolution of his philosophy. The result is that many of the important ideas he advanced are poorly understood or even totally unrecognized. What I call ‘diagenic analysis’ is a method for dealing with Heidegger that tries to remedy this, based on what I argue is the methodological engine driving the development of his ontology.

In short, that engine is a ‘productive logic’ (Heidegger’s term) in which his concept of ‘ground’ is connected to the problem of being, that is, to the central problem his philosophy deals with. This logic is productive because it produces a series of new and ostensibly better-grounded accounts of being. That series is the track of the development of his ontology. It begins in his conception of ‘Dasein’ in Being and Time (1927) and, in my view, ends in his conception of being as ‘event’ in his later work.

Diagenic analysis works by tracking the evolution of Heidegger’s ontology along what I call ‘diagenic axes’ and clarifying the different terms he uses according to their relations on these axes and on their counterpart, ‘syngenic axes.’ A diagenic axis is an axis along which are arrayed terms that operate at different levels of grounding. If term A is the ontological ground of term B, and B is the ground of C, then A, B, and C are arrayed along a diagenic axis. For instance, Being and Time argues that chronological ‘clock’ time is grounded in the distended temporal structure of Dasein’s existence. In turn, a few years later Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event) (1936-38) argues that the latter is grounded in something Heidegger calls ‘time-space.’ In this example, there are three diagenic levels at work. A diagenic axis can in principle have any number of levels of grounding. In contrast, a syngenic axis is an axis on which are arrayed terms that operate at the same level of grounding. If X, Y, and Z share A as their ontological ground, then X, Y, and Z are on a syngenic axis. To continue the example from above, the two elements that Heidegger calls the ‘having been’ (i.e., past) and ‘futural’ dimensions of Dasein’s temporal structure are on a syngenic axis relative to one another, and both are grounded in time-space.

I argue that the evolution of Heidegger’s philosophy occurs along a lengthy diagenic axis – moving to increasingly profound levels of ground – while at each stage of this evolution he elaborates a variety of syngenically related terms. Because of this, we can properly reconstruct his philosophy and clarify the meaning of his often-opaque terms by working out the positions of those terms on diagenic and syngenic axes, and by clarifying their diagenic and syngenic relations. In contrast, if we conflate diagenic levels or if we mistake the diagenic position of a term and treat it as if it operates at a different level, then we confuse the function and meaning of the term and we’ll have a very difficult time trying to clarify what Heidegger is saying about it. Obviously, Heidegger wrote about a variety of topics and if we just line up his texts, we don’t get a singular diagenic progression. Rather, there are different diagenic axes operating in different texts (e.g., in his 1930 essay ‘On the Essence of Truth’ and his 1935-36 essay ‘On the Origin of the Work of Art’), and in fact even in different parts of individual texts. Yet these axes converge and contribute to an overall progression along a unified systematic diagenic axis since each is ultimately concerned with the question of being, even if in different conceptual registers like those of truth or art.

There is a danger that the approach I’ve just outlined could seem arbitrary. After all, Heidegger doesn’t describe his work in these terms! Why focus on relations of grounding rather than something else? Let me expand a bit upon why I think diagenic analysis the right approach. First, for reasons I’ll have to skip over here, in his ontology there is always an excess of being over any account generated of it. A complete and final account of being is impossible because there is something self-problematizing about the structure of being that drives aspects of it beyond each account we give. It might seem that this would undermine the project of ontology, but it simply makes ontology ongoing and open-ended. This open-endedness has an important impact on Heidegger’s methodology. We can see how via his distinction between two different modes of science (Wissenschaft). According to him, the parameters of a science are defined by the subject matter it investigates. Physics investigates the most basic properties of the physical world, psychology investigates the psyche, linguistics investigates language, ontology investigates being, and so on. The core task of each science is to produce a set of basic concepts (Grundbegriffe) that articulate its subject matter at the most fundamental level: the laws of physics, the basic elements of the psyche, etc. Once a science establishes a set of basic concepts, they can play an axiomatic role defining more derivative operations. The basic concepts of the laws of physics, for example, are used to do things like launch rockets into space. In this mode, a science’s basic concepts themselves aren’t in question. Heidegger calls this ‘positive science.’ In contrast, a science can function in a different mode, and this usually happens when an insufficiency is found in its basic concepts. He describes this mode but doesn’t name it, so I call it ‘radical science.’ If a science enters a radical mode, it targets its basic concepts, problematizing them in order to produce a more fundamental, better-grounded account of its subject matter.

Now, in Heidegger’s philosophy, since ontology is aware of the self-problematizing structure of its subject matter – being – and of the consequence that no set of basic concepts will be final, it is continually driven to operate in a radical mode. His ontology evolves by developing an account of the problem of being, elaborating a set of syngenic basic concepts to articulate the features of being that are understood. Then, recognizing that aspects of being have escaped the account produced, he is driven to generate a new and better account. The way this is accomplished is by the diagenic move of inquiring into the ontological ground of whatever features the initial basic concepts describe. Once he develops an account of that more profound ground, its new terms can redefine those features in a better-grounded, more sufficient way. Or, depending on the case, the initial terms might be left in place to express a derivative level of their problematic (e.g., this is the case in Heidegger’s account of the relation between the form of propositional truth and its ontological ground, phenomenological truth, in §44 of Being and Time).

Heidegger’s ontology evolves in this way. Each subsequent stage is meant to improve on the previous by articulating the problematic of being in a better-grounded way. But this means that the terms of one stage can’t be carried over directly to the next without explaining the evolution they undergo in doing so. This is what diagenic analysis enables us to do. The engine of Heidegger’s ontology drives it along an extended diagenic axis, yet this eventually leads to a difficulty if we want to connect his ideas with current debates. In his later work especially, he tries to move to a ground prior to some of the mainstays of traditional philosophical analysis – things like the principle of identity and the model of propositions based on subject predication. This forces him to develop new and often strange-sounding technical terminology. No doubt, Heidegger says a lot of unusual things in his later work. I think in some cases they’re philosophically untenable. But a lot of his bizarre later terms are highly precise and form carefully developed concepts. Even though his language can sometimes be irritating, that isn’t a good philosophical reason for dismissing his work if we want to do ontology today. The problem is that when the diagenic and syngenic relations of his terms are glossed over, their functions and meanings become opaque. A lot of scholarship on Heidegger’s later philosophy inadvertently collapses his concepts into more or less one diagenic level. But this makes word salad out of the ideas he presents. Diagenic analysis allows us to parse the relationships of Heidegger’s terms, define their roles in the overall evolution of his ontology, and thereby reconstruct the accounts he gives at different stages of that evolution in a precise way. I think that this is necessary if Heidegger scholarship is going to move beyond its hermetic world and have something to say in current debates in ontology.

A big part of your analysis rests on a proper understanding of the relationship between Heidegger’s different works, and you explicitly reject the idea that they should be compared chronologically.  What is your proposed alternative, and how did you uncover it?

Yes, I think that the philosophical relations of Heidegger’s works should be understood in terms of their roles in the evolution of his ontology. And I think it is a mistake to index the evolution of Heidegger’s ontology onto the chronology of his texts, lectures, etc. Yet this is a widespread practice, even though it is ironically inconsistent with his theories of history and time in Being and Time, where he argues that chronological time is a derivative order grounded in the temporal structure of Dasein’s existence. In other words, the relevant point is that when it comes to explaining the order of being in Heidegger’s work, chronological sequences don’t cut it. Regardless, as I see it, the chronological approach leads to a more direct problem. Namely, it confuses the methodological order of progression in his ontology with the timeline of his life. In this view, a version of concept X that Heidegger offers in, say, the 1960s will be taken as more definitive than a version of X given in the 1930s. The result is that features of the earlier concept that might seem inconsistent with the later are marginalized. Now, I certainly recognize that in some cases Heidegger simply changes his mind or says something incompatible with the rest of his philosophy, but this is a different matter. And I of course don’t think that Heidegger’s chronologically later works never give more philosophically advanced accounts of some topic than earlier works. I’m just saying that if they do, it is not because of their chronology. This seems to me to be an obvious point, but one that is nevertheless disregarded pretty often.

In my view, the accounts and concepts contained in Heidegger’s different texts should be arranged according to their positions on a diagenic axis. I say ‘the accounts and concepts contained in Heidegger’s different texts’ and not simply ‘Heidegger’s different texts’ because his texts themselves contain various diagenic levels. A good example of how this works is the following. In the 1957 lecture ‘The Principle of Identity’ he gives an account in which the concept of ‘event’ designates a reciprocal co-appropriation of being and Dasein. But earlier in Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event) (1936-38), ‘event’ is a concept for being and Heidegger argues that being (as event) is in a technical sense independent of beings, including Dasein. So, which one is his position? Is he contradicting himself? I don’t think so. According to the chronological interpretation, the version from 1957 should be given preference. This approach resolves the contradiction by either dismissing the earlier version as preliminary or by injecting the 1957 definition into the earlier text and forcing an interpretation of that text in conformity with the borrowed definition. I think both moves are mistakes. Instead, the relation between these two versions of ‘event’ should be explained diagenically. The seeming contradiction appears when we treat the two accounts as if they operate on a syngenic axis. But they don’t. The account in Contributions is further advanced on a diagenic axis, even though it is chronologically earlier. It is an account of the ontological ground on which the correlative relation of being and Dasein addressed in the later account is purported to be able to occur at all. In the chronologically later text, Heidegger has retreated to a more derivative level of his ontology and deals with his terms in their form appropriate to that level. The two versions of ‘event’ are consistent because of the way they are related on a diagenic axis.

If we analyze the relations between the accounts in Heidegger’s different works in terms of their positions in the overall diagenic evolution of his ontology, we avoid a variety of confusions that arise from arranging them on a chronological axis. But this means that sometimes the accounts in chronologically earlier works hold positions that are more advanced in the evolution of Heidegger’s ontology than accounts in later ones. My view about this is of course a result of developing the method of diagenic analysis described in my response to the first question. In general, although this all sounds complex I think it offers the best way to reconstruct Heidegger’s work in a clear and methodologically consistent way. In turn, I think this gives us the best shot at bringing Heidegger’s ideas to bear on current debates in ontology and evaluating them in that context.

Heidegger is often said to have revolutionized the study of ontology, at least in the continental tradition.  You say this is true with regard to his understanding of ‘event.’  Can you expand Heidegger’s theory of event, and the impact it had on later continental philosophy?

First and foremost, the term ‘event’ in Heidegger’s use does not refer to just anything that happens, like a tree dropping a leaf or me meeting a friend for coffee. I argue that it has two specific senses: I call them the ‘historical’ and ‘ontological’ senses of ‘event.’ I should point out that I take the 1957 version of the concept mentioned above to fit into the historical sense, even though explaining why goes beyond what I can do here. In the historical sense, ‘event’ names a transformative rupture in history; in the ontological sense, it is a term used to describe the nature of being. In my judgment, most commentators on this theme in Heidegger’s work have glossed over this distinction. They usually collapse the ontological sense into the historical sense. I think this has led to a conflation of many of Heidegger’s related terms and, consequently, rather severe confusion about what his account in fact is. However, the diagenic method parses this distinction clearly and allows us to better work out the relations of the terms Heidegger uses to articulate the concept of event.

According to Heidegger, Western history over the past 2,500 years has been defined by a transmission and transformation of errors set in place by the ancient Greeks. These errors define both 1) the scope and nature of the philosophical science we now call ‘metaphysics’ and 2) the form of the lengthy historical ‘epoch’ in which we live. Since these formative errors eclipse our exposure to the question of being, Heidegger calls the history of metaphysics the history of the ‘forgetting’ of being. A central and well-known concern of his, then, is to deconstruct the foundations of metaphysics in order to bring the question of being into focus and not lose sight of it again. His concept of an historical event provides his most far-reaching attempt to do this. In its historical sense, often referred to in the terminology of ‘seynsgeschichtliche Denken’ or ‘beyng-historical thinking,’ ‘event’ names a fundamental rupture within the history of metaphysics that has the potential to generate what Heidegger calls ‘another beginning’ – a radically different framework for the intellectual and practical lives of human beings. To be clear, the historical sense of event also has an ontological dimension in a precise sense: it has to do with the ontological constitution and transformation of history. However, this is not to be confused with the second and properly ontological sense of ‘event.’

The second, ‘ontological’ sense of ‘event’ pertains directly to the nature of being. Importantly, the idea here isn’t that being is like an event that happens in time. Rather, one of Heidegger’s claims is that being as event forms the genetic ground of time, of history, and of the world of temporal and historical beings. Neither, though, is it the point to claim that being/event is metaphysically transcendent, located in some other domain than our own. Instead, it is to designate a structural instability that forms the engine driving time and the temporal individuation of beings. Since being/event in this sense is the ground enabling history, the rupture with metaphysics designated by Heidegger’s historical event is diagenically consequent upon it. In part, the reason Heidegger characterizes being with the term ‘event’ is to combat our traditional metaphysical tendency to think of being in static terms, for instance in terms of substance or identity. In such a picture, events are often thought of as modifications of the attributes or predicates of a substance or subject. If I am two-armed today and one-armed tomorrow, an event has occurred, which is represented by the modification of the accidental attributes belonging to my substantial self, that is, to the thing that I essentially am, my being. Heidegger’s move to characterize being as event places the change – or more technically, a concept of difference – in a position ontologically prior to semi-stable identities making up the recognizable world we are used to. In developing his concept of event, he argues for a conception of difference that is even more basic than the famous ‘ontological difference’ between being and beings that framed his early work. This new concept of difference is more advanced on a diagenic axis, forms the heart of the concept of event, and is the basis for an onto-genetic account of the world of beings. Consequently, the logic of being as event is to be understood on the basis of the logic of this difference. In this account, being/event is a process manifested by this difference.

The influence of Heidegger’s concept of event has been rather widespread. Someone could easily write a full book mapping it. In the early- to mid-twentieth century, he was one of a few dominant philosophers who began to argue that ‘event’ ought to be a fundamental term – or even the most fundamental term – of ontology (Whitehead and Bergson suggested similar ideas in different ways, too). The main points of impact have of course been in so-called ‘Continental’ philosophy, beginning especially in the post-phenomenological discourse of 1960’s France, which often melded elements of Heideggerian philosophy with structuralism and varieties of formalism generated by early-century French philosophy of science. Many of Heidegger’s most detailed texts dealing with the concept of event were not published during his life. They have been trickling out, released by the editors of his Gesamtausgabe over the past few decades. Consequently, work engaging his concept in new and interesting ways has been emerging right up to today.

Generally speaking, this work often shares a commitment to the idea that a logic of change, difference, or rupture is ontologically prior to – and often generative of – the logic of identity or stability we find in the world of well-constituted things. Heidegger’s concept of event is a major point of reference for this type of position. In 1966, for example, Derrida employed the idea when describing a transformational disruption in the structural foundations of metaphysics: the ‘event’ of the decentralization of structure. Other work by Derrida argues that things like concepts and democracies bear an inherent structural openness to a heterogenous ‘other.’ This mirrors Heidegger’s notion of an historical event, according to which metaphysics bears an openness to its non-metaphysical ontological ground claimed to make possible another beginning for thought. In 1968, Deleuze’s landmark Difference and Repetition appeared and included a substantial, but mostly incognito, engagement with Heidegger’s philosophy of difference, which was tightly linked to his concept of event. Difference and Repetition works out its own philosophy of difference and understands events to be fundamental and transformative differential processes in the theory presented. Alain Badiou was of course active in the intellectual life of Paris at that time, too. A bit later, some of his main treatises (e.g., the 1988 Being and Event) cite Heidegger as a major programmatic influence, though they move substantially beyond Heidegger, for instance by integrating the ontology of events and set theory. More recently, ‘the event’ has become a dominant topic in Heidegger scholarship itself. In North American scholarship, for example, it marks a point of disagreement between Richard Capobianco (Stonehill), who uses it as part of an argument that Heideggerian thought supports a certain type of realism, and Thomas Sheehan (Stanford), who uses it to argue that Heideggerian thought is anti-realist. In Germany, it remains a central topic in the Heidegger crowd, and beyond this sub-field its impact is growing. Claude Romano (Paris IV) has developed a new phenomenology of events that engages Heidegger but expands the concept to transformative ruptures in the lives of individual human beings. Catherine Malabou (CRMEP Kingston) uses the concept extensively in her work on change. Krzysztof Ziarek (Buffalo) has incorporated it into his work on the philosophy of language. And in the growing set of philosophers who reject the Analytic-Continental divide as an artifact of the twentieth century, several have found Heidegger’s notion of event to be of importance. Markus Gabriel (Bonn), for instance, engages it in his development of ‘transcendental ontology,’ and Paul Livingston (New Mexico) connects it with the work of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel as part of a discussion of what he calls the ‘metaformal dynamics’ of sense, truth, and time. This overview could be expanded a lot, but I hope it gives a sense of the plurality of ways that Heidegger’s concept of event has had an impact in philosophy over the past 50 or 60 years.

How has your scholarship influenced your teaching and service activities?

In several ways, really. I’ll stick to two here.

First, I take seriously the idea that the best approaches to current philosophical issues are well informed by the history of philosophy. Both my research and my teaching reflect this idea. In a lot of the courses I teach, I work through tricky texts from the history of philosophy with my students. It is important to me to help students develop an understanding of the ideas presented by an author 1) in relation to the historical context in which the author was working, 2) in the ways that those ideas contribute to defining problems that are active in philosophical discourse today, and 3) the way those ideas might – or might not – offer good ways to address those problems. On the research side, this is exactly my approach to working on a figure like Heidegger.

Second, I see a great deal of value in the teacher-scholar model that was imparted to me during my graduate work. Rather than looking at teaching and scholarship as two separate parts of my work, I view them as inherently bound together – as parts of a larger effort to cultivate and contribute to an intellectual community, be it that of the university, the city, or the profession. Because of this, I try to get my students to engage in philosophy outside the classroom as often as possible. I sometimes ask them to form discussion groups that meet after class and I always make a point of urging students to attend public lectures by visiting speakers and to talk about the ideas presented afterward. I find that these types of activities encourage students to start thinking of philosophy not as an abstract discipline, but as part of the discourse of life. As an extension of this, a service activity that I very much enjoy is organizing conferences and symposia. I have, for example, co-directed a couple of week-long summer symposia at Duquesne University and I am currently organizing a similar one on the philosophy of events at the University of Bonn. I like doing this because it brings together students, postdoc researchers, and junior faculty from universities around the world on the basis of interest in a common research topic. This generates an intense exchange of ideas, establishes scholarly connections, and helps to form a broad intellectual community. It offers a good opportunity for students at the host university to be a part of cutting-edge philosophical debate, and it plugs them and the faculty into new international research networks. I’ve had a wonderful time with these types of communal activities, and some of the most productive research dialogues that I’ve had were begun in them.

 

You can ask James questions about her/his work in the comments section below.

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1 COMMENT

  1. What would interest me is a clarification of the relationship between philosophy and reason.

    To me, the average man in street, the above discussion seems a good example of philosophy.

    A good example of reason might be a request for evidence that the above discussion and those like it provide anything of value to the average man in the street, that is, those who are typically paying the salaries of professional philosophers.

    Another example of reason might focus on the language of such communications.

    If a philosopher’s work can only be communicated to other philosophers, how does that work deliver value to the larger society? The electrical engineer can deliver value in the form of the light bulb, the light switch etc, thus there’s no need for the public to understand electrical engineering terminology. How does the philosopher whose only product is ideas deliver value to society if those ideas are presented in a language few in society can understand?

    Apologies, there’s nothing about Heidegger here, but that’s because the case for the value of Heidegger has not yet been made.

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