Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Forgiveness and Subjectivity

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Forgiveness and Subjectivity

Article excerpt

To forgive is as infinite as it is repetitive. . .

Julia Kristeva1

Hannah Arendt predicts that "without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, [as it were,] be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer's apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell" (1959 213). To conceive of forgiveness as a "magic formula to break the spell" requires thinking beyond our everyday conceptions of forgiveness and guilt. Philosophers of forgiveness, Hegel, Arendt, and more recently Derrida and Kristeva, have in various ways made forgiveness a threshold of humanity : To be human is to forgive. If forgiveness is essential to human life, more specifically to human subjectivity and agency, then conversely, we might conclude that the absence of forgiveness undermines humanity, subjectivity, and agency. Here, moving from Hegel's phenomenology of the role of forgiveness and confession in the dialectic of mutual recognition, through Kristeva's psychoanalytic notion of forgiveness as a support for sublimation and psychic life, to Derrida's hyperbolic ethics with its postulation of the impossibility of pure forgiveness, we will develop a theory of forgiveness as a definitive feature of subjectivity and agency.

Re-reading Hegel's account of forgiveness in Phenomenology of Spirit with and against Derrida and Kristeva, gives us a sense of the role of forgiveness in constituting the subject as both individual and as belonging to a community. Going beyond Hegel's dialectical conception of individual and community, Derrida's analysis of forgiveness shows us the importance of thinking forgiveness outside of an economy of property and sovereignty. By supplementing both Hegelian and Derridean theory with a notion of the unconscious, however, only a psychoanalytic approach to the role of forgiveness in subjectivity allows us to imagine forgiveness without sovereignty, thereby moving outside of an economy of property. Using Kristeva's suggestions about the role of forgiveness in psychoanalysis, we can postulate that the sublimation and revolt necessary to psychic life presupposes forgiveness, not forgiveness from a sovereign agent who forgives, but rather forgiveness as a social dynamic that enables and creates both sovereignty and agency. Still, hyperbolic ethics is necessary in order to bring the psychoanalytic notion of forgiveness into social theory by insisting on ethical responsibility even for that over which we are not sovereign. And, only a notion of the unconscious can make that responsibility radical enough by holding ourselves responsible not only for our actions and beliefs but also for our unconscious desires and fears. As we will see, by not accounting for the role of the unconscious, even Derrida's discourse of purity and contamination threatens to put forgiveness back into an economy of property.

Hegel's discussion of confession and forgiveness in Phenomenology of Spirit is a first step in understanding the relationship between subjectivity and forgiveness. For Hegel, forgiveness and confession are necessary for the constitution of the subject as an individual connected to the community. The dialectic of forgiveness and confession produces a subject who transgresses the community in order to become an individual and through that process realizes the necessity of belonging to the very community that s/he transgresses. For Hegel, consciousness becomes individuated-that is to say we become subjects-through forgiveness and reconciliation, a reconciliation that, as we will see, Derrida rejects.

Hegel concludes the Spirit section of Phenomenology of Spirit with a discussion of forgiveness and confession that (again, temporarily) reconciles action and judgment, the Particular and the Universal, the unconscious and the conscious, which began in this section as the opposition between woman (Antigone) and man (Creon) that gave rise to the ethical order. …

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