Ricoeur on Forgiveness

The epilogue to Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting is entitled “Difficult Forgiveness” (after this I’ll return to the beginning).  Forgiveness is “an eschatology of the representation of the past.  Forgiveness – if it has a sense, and if it exists – constitutes the horizon common to memory, history, and forgetting.  Always in retreat, this horizon slips away from any grasp” (p. 457).  

Forgiveness results in “unbinding the agent from the act”.  “In order to be bound by a promise, the subject of an action must be able to be released from it through forgiveness” (p. 459).   Nonetheless, some acts are completely unjustifiable; in particular, crimes against humanity.  In these cases, “justice must be done” (p. 473).  “My thesis here is that a significant asymmetry exists between being able to forgive and being able to promise” (p. 459).   In general, we should not too easily forgive ourselves.  And “The commandment to love one’s enemies begins by breaking the rule of reciprocity and demanding the extraordinary” (p. 482).  “[F]orgiveness has a religious aura that promising does not” (p. 487).

Ricoeur recalls Jacques Derrida’s paradox that “forgiveness is directed to the unforgiveable or it does not exist” (p. 468).  He returns to the theme of “fault”, originally developed 40 years earlier in Fallible Man: “[S]elf-recognition is indivisibly action and passion, the action of acting badly and the passion of being affected by one’s own action” (p. 462).   His analyses have been “an exploration of the gap opened between the unforgivable fault and this impossible forgiveness” (p. 490).  He agrees with Derrida that “forgiving the guilty person while condemning his action, would be to forgive a subject other than the one who committed the act” (ibid).  

Still, he thinks there could be “a more radical uncoupling… at the heart of our very power to act – of agency – namely, between the effectuation and the capacity that it actualizes” (ibid).  This would be an instance of Aristotle’s distinction between actuality and potentiality.  Several times in his later works, Ricoeur pointed out the importance of actuality and potentiality in Aristotle, though he tended to assimilate potentiality to a more Platonic notion of power in the sense of “power to”.  This is what is in play in Ricoeur’s oft-expressed concern for “the capable human”.  Plato’s association of being a being with this kind of “power to” was already richly provocative, but Aristotle took the same word dynamis and gave it a much more subtle and developed meaning, which I summarized as “multiple alternative concrete possibilities of realization already implicit in current reality” (see The Importance of Potentiality).  But either way, forgiveness can be understood as a kind of trust in someone’s potentiality over against past actuality. (See also Fallible Humanity; Middle Part of the Soul.)