Revisiting Jankélévitch's Dichotomy: Between Excusing the Ignorant and Forgiving the Wicked

By Fiasse, Gaëlle | Philosophy Today, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Revisiting Jankélévitch's Dichotomy: Between Excusing the Ignorant and Forgiving the Wicked


Fiasse, Gaëlle, Philosophy Today


Many authors start their analyses of forgiveness with the opposition between excuse and forgiveness. The reason might seem immediately clear. Forgiveness is preceded by a disapproval of the action. Both the act of forgiving and that of asking for forgiveness cannot be equated with an attempt at denying the blame. When we forgive, we recognize an offence, and thus in this sense we "accuse" someone of a wrongdoing; we never "excuse" them in the sense of exculpating.

In the same vein, Vladimir Jankélévitch in his book L'innocence et la méchanceté asserts that "we excuse the ignorant, but we forgive the wicked."1 1 have thus chosen this passage as a stereotype that I will unpack in order to revisit a twofold opposition in the analysis of forgiveness. The first is precisely the dichotomy between excuse and forgiveness; the second is the opposition between forgiving the wicked and excusing the ignorant.

While I agree that forgiveness never means exculpating (it is a point I do not doubt in my essay), part of my puzzle comes from another meaning of the word "excuse," according to which forgiveness can include accepting the "excuses" of the other. One meaning is a reason put forward to mitigate or justify an offence, which, were it included in the process of asking for forgiveness, would be offensive inasmuch as it avoids acknowledgment of responsibility. But another meaning is an apology, such as in the expression, "Please, excuse me." The latter is perhaps best exhibited by the French expression présenter ses excuses, which does not mean "lessening the blame" but "expressing regret of the harm done." For instance, to somebody who has been hurt by us, we knock on their door and say, "Je viens te présenter mes excuses." Here, the word "excuse" refers to the regret that we wish to convey. That's why one may also say, "His attitude was unbearable. I demand that he excuse himself." Another French expression goes even further: je vous prie de m'excuser, which literally states that it is the other who is to excuse us, not we who are to excuse ourselves. Therefore, I would like to insist on the second meaning of excuse when one offers an apology. Instead of opposing and separating excusing and forgiving, I will argue for a common point between them, which is the welcoming of regret, and in so doing I will emphasize the negative impact that a strong dichotomy between excusing and forgiving has on the analysis of forgiveness.

Apart from the common role of regret in excusing and forgiving, which often goes unnoticed, the second aspect of the passage from Jankélévitch that I will argue against is the opposition between excusing the ignorant, on the one hand, and forgiving the wicked on the other. Here, it is not the French context that will prove to be helpful, but Aristotelian analysis. While speaking about sungnômè, which I translate as forgiveness, Aristotle does not insist on the presence of knowledge but of regret. He does not address forgiveness of premeditated evil but, quite the opposite, tackles forgiveness (sungnômè) of involuntary actions,2 even though he also mentions forgiveness of incontinence (akrasia, 1 150b8).3 Moreover, Aristotle asserts that regret can be common to involuntary and voluntary actions. Beyond the problem of vocabulary, culture, and translation, such a contrast between forgiving wickedness and forgiving involuntary actions proves to be an instructive key in the analysis of forgiveness. I claim that focussing on the regret expressed in the case of involuntary actions (such as expressed when somebody apologizes) is helpful in understanding the process of forgiveness (both asked and received). In contrast, concentrating on wickedness as such cannot help a person to forgive, since the offended person expects or at least hopes that the culprit not only recognizes his evildoing but also conveys to her that he has the finn intention not to repeat iL Wickedness as wickedness cannot be the object of forgiveness.

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