« The Unsurpassable Dissensus: The Ethics of Forgiveness in Paul Ricoeur’s Work »

Ricœur keeps forgiveness marginal and this is shown in his philosophical distrust of love and any synthesis between the ethics of religions and of magistrates. Historical dissensus is the expression of democratic citizenship. Forgiveness is an acknowledgement of the depth of conflict of memories. But forgiveness is also the faculty to unbind oneself from promise, debt or mourning. These two aspects of forgiveness function as an horizon, as we see in Ricœur’s late acceptance of the matter in an epilogue, neither integrated to nor separated from his discussion of Memory, History, Forgetting.

At the outset, I would like to underline that forgiveness is a quite marginal figure in Ricœur’s ethics; it would be very difficult to hold that Ricœur’s ethics be one of forgiveness. To overestimate forgiveness in Ricœur’s ethics would be a mistake as bothering as that of reducing his philosophy to his hermeneutics, if only a critical hermeneutics. Let us only mention two examples: his philosophy of will extended to his philosophy of frailty and action overflows the question of forgiveness from all sides. In the same way his philosophy of language, of metaphor and narrative spreads out from hermeneutics on many sides. The theme of forgiveness is explicitly and methodically unfolded in the epilogue of Memory, History, Forgetting published in 2000,but I would like to resist the idea that this epilogue shows the very Christian meaning of the topics of subjectivity and history for Ricœur.

To illustrate how late he dealt with forgiveness, I shall tell how in 1989, when I came to ask him for a contribution to the collective volume I was then preparing on forgiveness[1], Ricœur answered me it was not a theme he was working at. I think it is only when he saw how carefully I was distinguishing between the conditions of the various levels of forgiveness, and even more so when he saw how Jacques Derrida after Jankelevitch took up the matter and did not hesitate to publish on this theme, that in a way he felt authorised to enter a debate which had already reached a good argumentative life – a level which he then knew how to bring further in the final pages of Memory, History, Forgetting, which we are about to comment upon. Here is a first fragment:

“Forgiveness puts a question principally distinct from the one which motivated our whole undertaking, that of representation of the past (…) it is on one hand the enigma of a fault able to paralyze the power to act of this “able man” whom we are; and in the way of a rejoinder it is on the other hand the question of the eventual cancellation of this existential incapacity, a cancellation which the term of forgiveness designates.”[2]

So, even in this very book, forgiveness remains marginal. It remains a theme very tangential to the major question of the representation of the absent past as to the other major question in the book, that of a just policy of memory or oblivion. This is because Ricœur objects to the idea of the policy of forgiveness: peoples are unable to forgive, to get away from the friend enemy relationships (pp 617-618 of the French version).

To make this point really clear, it is important to measure out Ricœur‘s extreme distrust of love and, more to the point, of any premature synthesis between religious ethics of reconciliation or even simply of compassionate agape and the magistrate’s ethics. This is already to be found at the end of Etat et violence, a text from the fifties, published in Histoire et Vérité. It may also be one of the first discreet occurrences of the theme. If there is no policy of forgiveness, it is because “love appears foreign to the world and for that matter, not only apolitical but antipolitical “(p 635 of the French version). Forgiveness, for Ricœur, belongs to love and he distrusts thoroughly this too magnificent theme (see his very fine Amour et Justice[3]); it always disturbs the semantic compasses and argumentative landmarks – whilst our author happens to be possessed as he himself admits, of an argumentative furore which does not put up easily with this kind of nebulosity. Whatever may be, love does not depend upon our will, cannot be argued with and does not know of the rules of judgment; it makes everything muzzy and confuses all matters. As usual, though along another way, Ricœur converges here with Hannah Arendt in this distrust of compassion which leaves no room for debate, distance, plurality, or even conflict and thus for its own rules.

On the other hand, the matter is not simply to bring the slider from memories and love towards history or justice. Now comes another distrust, that of anything which might present itself as a “last judgment” of a sort, a theological notion Ricœur frankly hates and holds to be a contradiction in terms. There are precisely various forms of impartiality, no absolute tierce, as if it were important to leave room for an antipolitical margin. I would even say that politics is here bordered by tragic ground, eventually antipolitical, authorizing complaint, even vengeance and forgiveness which the political realm cannot understand.

This shift is irreductible; it may be this anachronism which makes human time and history; it would then belong to the citizen to rebuild the depth of the tierce out of the tragical undoubling of optics or voices. Ricœur does not reduce the function of dissenssus to the pedagogical ceremonial and in some ways exceptional action of the major, mediatized trials. What is of concern to him is generalized dissenssus, ordinary dissenssus as diffused at all levels of democratic conflictuality. Let us work on this idea a little ahead.

The historical dissensus

We know that in France Ricœur has attracted the most critical readings on the point of the “duty of memory.” Not that he rejects it categorically like Tzvetan Todorov. The duty of memory has an importance for him, and is a concern for a project of justice, even imperative if it is about returning justice to the other (pp. 86-92 of the French version). Moreover, one will notice that for Ricœur there is no symmetry between memory and forgetting, and that he objects to the idea of a “duty of forgetting,” not only with regard to amnesty (pp. 500- 506), but even in the political project of restoring civil peace.

But Ricœur expresses reservations regarding the duty of memory, when it is excessively expanded beyond the sphere that we just addressed: these reservations arise from the difficulties in controlling memory, and from the danger of implementing a politics of memory that is inscribed in terms of obligations, rights and prohibitions. This is why there are not only abuses of forgetting but also abuses of memory. There are false memories, cardboard memories. And this is why he prefers to speak of a “work of memory,” where the memory of misfortune, far from deafening us to the misfortunes of others, opens us to them. This is how the indispensable and vital memory does not short-circuit history and critical distanciation, but rather releases repressed memories with its touch.

That is why he prefers to put forward the acceptance of the divided city[4], if not actual civic dissensus — not very far from the idea of a conflict of interpretations. The civic dissensus appears somewhere between the judge and the historian, but also litterature and cinema, in a common space open to discussion. A discussion that works tirelessly memory, argument, and even imagination, and of which we only know that the rules, boundaries, and audience are not the same; they depend on the spheres concerned. The historians and the judges both must certainly at times find support in the finality of the facts and in this practical perspective according to which history is not finished; but they do it differently. And

“the vow of impartiality must thus be considered in light of the impossibility of an absolute third party.” (p. 314 of the French version).

This point is very important both for the link between history and politics and for the link between history and memory.

About politics, it is exactly this dissensus that forms citizens able to stand in the absence of a last judgment, able to hold the tension of sharing responsibility between the singular imputation of fault to the guilty individuals, and the political imputation to a consenting community. The citizen appears when refusing that guilt be so tightly focused that all others can unload it onto a few guilty emissaries. But the citizen also appears when refusing that responsibility is so diluted, explained, compared, and relativized, that no one is responsible for anything (p. 330 of the French version). The citizen is moved to take the responsibility on himself and share it.

About memory, credibility appears from then on as indissolubly linked to the test and exercise of dissensus, of the feeling of discordant voices. As with the philosophy of ordinary language, the solution to the problem of scepticism is not found in an assured certainty, but in the confident acceptance of this uncertain situation, of this troubling strangeness of the ordinary, in the wonder that we nevertheless so often manage to understand one another, trust one another, without ever being able to force it to happen. Recall the formula:

“we have nothing better than testimony, in the final analysis, to assure ourselves that something did happen in the past.” (p. 147 of the French version)

I would gladly bring it closer to the famous words of J. L. Austin, in How to Do Things with Words: “Our words are our bounds.” That means that our bounds are only words, but that our words are bounds, as we see for the case of promise. How to trust language, but how to not trust language ? How not to credit the capacity of the ordinary actors, speakers, and narrators to express more or less what they do and feel, and to understand and want what they say?

So that we may perhaps need forgiveness so as to stop excess of useless words, and go back to the possibility of plain normal language. We may also perhaps need the other’s perspective on ourselves so as to be able to look at ourselves in a new way.

Narrative of the other

Although insisting upon the typically Ricœurian practice of discontinuity between problems, his critical way of distinguishing between them, I would still repeat that his philosophy of time, of memory, acknowledgment and oblivion is definitely not meant to stand as a footstool for morals of forgiveness – I oppose here any interpretation which would tend to suggest that the whole strategy of the book is meant to lead to forgiveness, to compel in a way to it, as if offering there the only outlet to the aporia of memory and oblivion. We shall see finally, how the theme of forgiveness is more matter of a discrowning, at least de-totalization, and incompletion.

I find in earlier works some occurrences of the idea of forgiveness, but not exactly thematized as such. To hear right the fragment quoted above, one must first call up Ricœur’s long work towards thinking out human capacity, man as able, and conjointly the vulnerability, frailty of man. Evil, especially culpability, offered the occasion to conceive of the articulation between these two faces of humanity. When characterizing the guilty man, the danger would be to believe that he fills out the gap, all the harm endured being the verso of an evil actuated. Once the evil is imputed to a responsibility, human unity could be restored through the magics of punitive retribution. On the contrary, what is important in this figure is the fact that it points to the regions where the able man comes out as unable, powerless, vulnerable; it also points to the regions where the vulnerable man, the victim must in turn be brought back into a position of capacity, a possibility to promise, to forgive, to stand as responsible and able. Thus, in Le juste (The Just) Ricœur studies particularly the notion of rehabilitation with a meaning bordering that of forgiveness.

We have to do then with a theme that belongs to practical wisdom, which, after it has put an end to the worst, searches for a get away from the tragic in a quest of appeasement. In an interlude preparing for practical wisdom, Ricœur reads Hegel and notes that forgiveness implies that “each party renounce his partiality”, the narrowness of his angle of engagement:

“Now it is precisely such conciliation through renunciation (/self-denial?), such forgiveness through acknowledgment, that tragedy – at least Antigone’s – is unable to bring forth. For the ethic powers served by the protagonists to subsist together, disappearance of their particular existence is the whole price to pay.”[5]

This disappearance gets done not in synthesis but in confrontation of acting with judging consciences:

“forgiveness brought forth from mutual acknowledgment of the two antagonists, each of them confessing the limit of his point of view and renouncing his partiality, designates the authentic phenomenon of conscience.”[6]

Forgiveness implies alterity within oneself of each of the two voices. But to get there, I must give room in my own narrative for the possibility of the other’s narrative. It is a theme Ricœur has little dealt with although it is made plausible by the whole of his work: appeasement implies settling in a multivoices narrative, where I also let the other narrate me, as if rightful memory was never solitary: one may not remember alone anymore than one may forgive oneself alone.

The theme of forgiveness would then be tied up to the third “stage” of the short ethics in Soi-même comme un autre (Oneself as another). He distinguishes here between three levels: 1) what is appraised as good; that is what he calls “ethics aim”, shared promise of life fulfilled, trust in virtues, desires and finalities which drive our actions. 2) what is compulsory and just, which he calls “moral norms” and resorts to rules limiting the harm we can inflict on each other. 3) What is simply wise, praticable in a complex and difficult situation when moral imperatives seem contradictory; what he calls “pratical wisdom” and may get away from tragics only through tragic-comic processes of minimization, of fondness for what is small, at our feet. One might then suggest that forgiveness oscillates between a radical figure of love of the neighbour and an ordinary figure of practical wisdom looking for small adjustments more than for total solutions. It is this equivocation which appeals to me in Ricœur’s work, as if forgiveness drew together far away spheres, and from this proximity drew new meanings.

But to link up forgiveness to ethics, one has to take up again and unfold the theme of narrative; because the identity of the subject, of the self won’t show but through its variations (this is the ipse-identity Ricœur distinguishes from the idem-identity, an identity that would always remain same as itself). Now this narrative identity draws two limits. It is a fact that with time ongoing as well as with the others, one becomes other than one-self; we deal with the unpredictable as much as with the irreversible and we deal with one-self as another. In this difference, the subject both seeks to hold to himself as “ipse” in spite of adulteration (and that is promise), and to make room for the other, and for himself as another (and that is forgiveness)[7]. The forgiver, and the forgiven alike, accepts himself as another. Both their identities imply a process of “unidentification”: it has to do with death of the self, with birth of another self; it also touches on the impossibility of this death and this birth as from the self alone. One must have been acknowledged as another to be made able to know oneself as a self. Hannah Arendt – and we know she sets in Condition de l’homme moderne (Condition of modern man) this double replication of promise as faced with imprevisibility of the course of action, and forgiveness as faced with irreversibility – remarks how difficult it is to perceive oneself otherwise, and it is one of the reasons why it is practically impossible to forgive oneself[8].

Forgiveness appears here linked up to a certain idea of the subject “who” has done this or that, but who is simply approved of existing. He is worth more than his deeds (in the French version of Memory, History, Forgetting p. 642) ant it is precisely what is comic. For what is worth most is precisely something all simple, like a singular, mortal, sexed body, like a being who wants to be, without knowing what he wants to be, without knowing what he does. Anyway, how could we get a trustworthy subject, one able to promise anything, able to tell his own story and to impute himself whatever it be, if we wholly dissolve the subject into his deeds and words; if there is not left even a small, emptied, unemployed, square, one of absent identity, purely interrogative and for which even fidelity be doubt? It is because there are mi-comic, mi-mystic times when identity is not what matters, that

“I do not see how the question who may disappear in the extreme cases where it remains without answer.” (in the French version of Oneself as another, p. 169).

The faculty to unbind

As an epilogue to Memory, History, Forgetting, the room allowed to forgiveness is in very close touch with old absorptions of mine[9], and I am very receptive to the remarkable equivocation where Ricœur sets “difficult forgiveness” as an Epilogue of the book. It is set inside his book like something stepping down from its unconditional height all the way across the whole set of institutions (juridical imprescriptibility, citizenship of historical responsibility) and exchanges (reestablishing possible reciprocity), before it comes back to itself in what I would call “negative acknowlegdment” of unbinding:

“to bind oneself by promise, the subject of the action had also to be able to unbind oneself by forgiveness ” (p. 595 of the French version).

Along the way, forgiveness must also face the test of justice and can’t cut it short (p. 602); and Ricœur speaks of “conditionality of the request for forgiveness” as well as unconditionality of forgiveness granted. To my mind, he does not unfold a fact he probably takes to be too obvious: there is also a conditionality of bestowed forgiveness; the forgiver is not just anybody, anytime, anyhow; which means conditions also have to be met, and displacement must be operated for him to be.

But precisely in the same movement he speaks of forgiveness as of an exceptional, unconditional, extraordinary “it is”, impossible because addressed to the unforgivable (p. 605s.). He speaks of “gestures unfit to be transformed into institutions” (p. 594 of the French version) and of abuses of forgiveness as there are abuses of memory (p. 607). This is a dissimetry we find all along the book, as Ricœur acknowledges a given function of the duty of memory as a duty of justice inside the wider and more difficult way of the work of memory; but he objects to any legitimity of any duty of oblivion.

Now, and this again is a reticence of mine, prescription, amnesty, all these judicial operations of forgetfulness, seem to me to be vested with an eminent function: to make way out of stasis, of the threats of civil war; it breaks off the logics of the worst and makes room for another temporality, that of a true multivoice work of memory. That follows from the way I tried quite early to integrate forgiveness into history and political conflicts[10], both these set in the various inextricable contemporary conflicts; that is when conflict between living memories is still raw, and also along the difficult work of substitution of one generation to another, or in the impossible dialogue not only between amnesia and resentment but also between the offspring of victims and those of the guilty as regards the irreparable itself. This, when Ricœur sets forgiveness in the margin of history, within-without.

Thus Ricœur, rather like in a Platonician dialogue, stages this disproportion, this radical dissymmetry, by the way of readings he sets over each other and combines, readings by which in a way he let himself be intrigued, before he works them into a plot and brings them to serve his montage. That is how he comes to borrow certain elements from my own analysis of moral dilemmas in horizontal forgiveness, and also borrows from Derrida some of the essential features of the height of vertical forgiveness[11]. It seems to me the framework he builds that way is like the limit-idea of the whole book; it sets memory and oblivion going one towards the other.

As well known and just recalled, Ricœur takes the notion of “work of memory” to be wider than the notion of “duty of memory”. He connects it to the work of mourning; and the notions of mourning and burial are constantly there in Memory, History, Forgetting. So, as in La recherche du temps perdu, there would be a kind of memory that comes back from mourning, an orphism of memory. We find in our memory nothing but what has really been lost. However, there is another side to the work of memory, a more lively one, inchoative, a side of incipient memory. Ricœur’s protest would be that one may not disjoint mourning from birth, and that even under history and oblivion, there is life. We may here be reminded that birth is a decisive philosophical theme about which Ricœur rejoins Arendt and quotes her on the way:

“Should we not hear a discreet but obstinate protest raised against the Heideggerian philosophy of the being-for-death? Should we not constantly recall that men, although they must die are not born to die, but to innovate? In that respect, “action looks like a miracle”. Calling up the miracle of action at the origin of the miracle of forgiveness seriously questions all analysis of the faculty to forgive. How are mastery of time and mastery of natality conjoined? That is exactly the question which starts again the whole undertaking and leads to drive the odyssey of the spirit of forgiveness onto the hearth of ipseity. To my mind, what the political interpretation of forgiveness lacks – something that secured its symmetry with promise at the very level of exchange – is reflection about the act of unbinding as a condition for the act of binding (p. 636 of the French version of Memory, History, Forgetting).

Forgiveness both brings in a bind, a bind of debt and mourning, and an unbinding, a rupture, a capacity to start again[12]. That is why we should not overestimate birth so as to make it into a kind of triumph of life, a ceaseless process of renewal, which would completely miss its tragic aspect[13].

The theme of birth comes up since Le volontaire et l’involontaire (Freedom and nature) as a more radical topic than that of death; it includes both the theme of vivid joy of the new, and that of mourning. Birth also is an orphan; it is a necessary border on this side of all experience, a founder limit. And I would readily say that the last pages of Memory, History, Forgetting underlining the undecidable character of the polarity which divides oblivion between the entropy in mourning of obliteration and the happy confidence in what Ricœur calls forgetfulness of reserve, bring that equivocation to its paroxysm.

If we give credit to the capacities of ordinary people over against time, we will not think of mourning without thinking of birth, that is to say the will to live — this is where Bergsonism doubtless harbours a discreet sSpinozism — a deeply affirmative orientation of the thought of P. Ricœur who ends his book with the notion of life, of incompletion. But this living continuity which, with the astonishing notion of a “forgetfulness of reserve”, he sets over against the discontinuity of deaths and births, as if it be of equal strength, does not designate something at our disposal, but something which disposes of us. Moreover, there is no representation of the past which could be a resurrection of it, although that is what an accomplished work of memory would doubtless desire (p. 649): mourning is there to separate past from present and make room for future, that is non-worry, self-forgetfulness.

That is where the Kierkegaardian final note comes from. As a matter of fact there is a point where one might speak of “idle oblivion”, and there Ricœur quotes the marvellous pages by Kierkegaard on the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air which do not work, nor compare but forget about themselves, and forget that they forget[14]. This unconcern, this loosening of worry for oneself, is still a forgiveness theme, not only because it means room is given to oneself as another, but also as an obliteration of oneself in front of the one who comes to be born, to appear in the world. It is precisely because there is melancholy, the very impossibility to bring mourning to its end, that there is birth which does not put an end to, nor makes up for this work, but makes it idle. What is difficult with forgiveness is neither to yield to the vertigo of entropy, to the oblivion due to usure, to habituation which relativizes everything and makes it all go back to indifference[15], nor to yield to the prestige of neguentropy, this negative entropy by which memory would tend to get everything back, sort it out, compute matters until nothing would ever be lost, in a total recollection and redemption of the whole past[16].

This is up to where I think it possible to draw the idea that the epilogue on forgiveness, as a parergon to Memory, History, Forgetting, is a limit, a paradox, a horizon[17]. It is precisely again a Kantian idea and it is as if once more Ricœur took up the defence of a Kantian view of human history.

The horizon of forgiveness

We have to go back and conclude on this place of forgiveness in an epilogue. In a booklet on Ricœur’s ethics, La promesse et la règle[18] (The promise and the rule), I had also slipped an epilogue on “love and justice”, where I attempted to show this equivocation, this vivid tension, the twisting he imposes on the golden rule (not to do to the other what I would not like done to me). Sometimes it works from outside justice like this old promise which constantly reopens the rules of procedural justice:

“disconnected from the setting of the golden rule, the maximin rule would remain a purely prudential argument, characteristic of all bargaining frames. Not only the deontological aim, but even the historical dimension of the sense of justice, are not simply purely intuitive; they result from a long Bildung out of Jewish and Christian traditions, as well as Greek and Roman ones. Cut out from this cultural history, the maximin rule would loose its ethical characterization.”[19]

Some other times, the golden rule formulates from within a principle of justice and reciprocity which, if separated from love, becomes perverse in its turn:

“Without the corrective of the commandment of love, the golden rule would indeed constantly be drawn towards a utilitary maxim, its formula being do ut des, or I give so that you give. The rule: give because you have been given something, makes right the utilitary maxim and saves the golden rule from an ever possible perverse interpretation.”[20]

That is probably why the just may sometimes cover opposition between legal and good, and sometimes be opposed to good which would point to infinite love[21]. Love may orientate the just through desire of good or rather exceed the just from all sides.

In the same manner, in Memory, History, Forgetting, forgiveness works sometimes horizontally as a request of reciprocity checked by rules and conditions; and it works sometimes vertically as the unconditional which may happen without us to be ever able not only to order but even to do it. We would thus have both to change place so as to take upon ourselves the responsibility of the request for forgiveness, to make ourselves able of it (which depends on conditions); and we would also have to accept the fact we are unfit for it, powerless: forgiveness should always be totally unselfish, but one never knows whether it is or not[22].

So the link between the epilogue and the remnant of the book is very doubtful, like a supplement of which it is not known if or how it belongs to the whole: Ricœur immediately announces it deals with another question than that of representation of the past which motivates the whole book. If forgiveness sets the tone for the epilogue, it is rather as a figure of tragic wisdom or like:

“An eschatology of representation of the past. Forgiveness, if it means anything and if it exists, constitutes the common horizon of memory, history and oblivion. Always withdrawing, the horizon backs out from hold. It makes forgiveness difficult: neither easy nor impossible. It sets the seal of incompletion on the whole undertaking.” (p. 593 of the French version)[23]

Ricœur indicated above that forgiveness had to be set aside from the text[24]. In the perspective of the book, the depth of “the fault belongs to parerga, to side-ways” (pp. 597s.), like all the borderline situations he examines in the epilogue. The word parerga, parergon may help us think about the equivocal place of forgiveness in an epilogue. An epilogue is not a conclusion. Ricœur speaks of incompletion. I would add that it is less a matter of reconnexion, which would allow for consolidation of all acquirements along the way, than of a kind of “detotalization”, sending back to the beginning – but of course then, one does not start again the same.

Kant uses the word parerga[25] in the final note at the end of the first of the four general remarks with which he ends the four parts of La Religion dans les limites de la simple raison (Religion within the limits of reason alone[26]). These four remarks deal with grace understood as what borders on religion and provides it with a framework but could not be an integral part of it. The idleness of grace must remain an external limit to religion[27]. In the same say, I would say that Ricœur sets his epilogue under the title of forgiveness (and of an economy of gift and loss), so as to situate it on that margin which is neither integrate nor separate.

Ricœur’s Epilogue[28] sets forgiveness on a limit which makes it a very Kantian notion – along the question:

“What may I hope for?”. To take up again the philosophical approximation of the theological vocabulary of La religion dans les limites de la simple raison (Religion within the limits of reason alone), one could say with Ricœur that

“forgiveness appears to be the eschatological horizon to the whole problematics of memory, history and oblivion”.

Would forgiveness finally be like the eschatological horizon of pacified memory, of happy oblivion? This, precisely, has immediately to be understood as a limit-idea and that is why Ricœur goes on:
“But this approximation of the eschaton does not guarantee any happy end for our whole undertaking: this is why we will only deal with a difficult forgiveness (Epilogue)” (p. 376).

So, one has to “to follow up with the examination, in a way outside the text, on the mode of an epilogue ” (p. 375).

This horizon is less defined as the fusion of horizons, following Gadamer’s meaning, than like a flight of horizons and incompletion (p. 537). The eschaton is not last judgment, which Ricœur distrusts enormously (it is for him a contradictory notion; even here, there is no absolute tierce), and the odyssey of forgiveness never reaches the Promised Land. That is what Ricœur demonstrates in his marvellous reading of hope in Kant, which requires

“adding to the object of its aim, so that it be whole, what it has excluded in its principle, so that it be pure” (“Freedom according to hope”, “La liberté selon l’espérance”, in Le Conflit des interpretations, Paris: Seuil, 1969, p. 407).

Radical evil

“is born on the way to totalization; it appears only in a pathology of hope, as a perversion, inherent to the problematic of accomplishment and of totalization” (ibid, p. 414).

To well understand this point of view, I would say that Ricœur does not conceive at all of forgiveness as of the crowning or theological reconciliation of history, but as an eschaton, a constitutive limit, and I would nearly be ready to say, an ordinary condition[29]. That is why, in my short article on “Le Pardon ou comment revenir au monde ordinaire” (Esprit, août-septembre 2000), I protested against a way to push forgiveness too far outside the world, into an extraordinary impossible; and I attempted to come back from a sublime and inaccessible forgiveness, to a less dramatic one. Eschaton, as a matter of fact, is not the end of the world, but the opposite. I wrote above that if forgiveness appeared like this detotalization, the inverted odyssey of a journey to acknowledgment, a way back to beginnings, one would not start again the same.

If I had to start again, I would do so from the accent Kant stresses in the Critique du jugement on the matters of receptivity. It is not only the feeling that beauty speaks, but that one does not know what it says (this might well be hope). It is not only that in the absence of a tierce, we may have room in ourselves for the possibility of another point of view, in a kind of widening of imagination (p. 414). It is rather the fact that judgment, memory and testimony cannot be constrained, compelled, commanded or enforced, and their very credibility and communicability, fragile as they are, depend upon the manner they confide in their receptors. Yet after the fashion of pleasure, joy or love, forgiveness cannot be commanded (p. 605); something happens there much like a journey across distrust and scepticism, not towards well assured and absolute confidence, but towards trust in the possibility to act and speak, and towards indubitable acknowledgment that “it has been” (pp. 556sq.). The oscillation of confidence due to it, is, to my mind, the throbbing heart of Memory, History, Forgetting. But this heart is never assured. Indeed, such is the place of forgiveness in Ricœur’s ethics.

Olivier Abel

Publié dans From Ricoeur to action : the socio-political significance of Ricoeur’s thinking Conference,
211-228 , London, Continuum, 2012 .

Notes :

[1] Le pardon, briser la dette et l’oubli, Autrement Paris 1991 (in which authors as diverse as J.Ellul, J.Baudrillard, P.Legendre, F.Smyth, J.Kristeva, A.Abecassis, S.Breton etc. had a hand).

[2] La Mémoire, l’Histoire, l’Oubli Paris Seuil 2000, p..593.

[3] Tübingen: Mohr 1990. Another text where he says he trusts of love is his commentary on “the Song of Songs” in Penser la Bible, Paris, Seuil, 1998.

[4] See Nicole Loraux, La cité divisée (Paris: Payot, 1997), p.256-277, and idem, La voix en deuil (Paris: Gallimard, 1999).

[5] Soi-même comme un autre Paris Seuil, 1990 p.288.

[6] ibid p.395.

[7] These are the two discreet themes with which Ricœur ends Soi même comme un autre.

[8] Ricœur takes up these themes again in La mémoire,l’histoire, l’oubli, Paris Seuil 2000, p.631, and p.642 of the French version (see Memory, History, Forgetting, University of Chicago press, 2004).

[9] Outside those quoted here, I would only point out: “L’irréparable en histoire”, Acts of the Colloquy about Histoire et Mémoire, ed. M. Verlhac, CNDP Grenoble, 1998 ; “Éloge de l’oubli, rupture et répétition” Le Supplément n° 211 (Atem), pp. 141-156 ; “Impossible pardon “, answering Wiesenthal, Les fleurs du soleil, Paris: Albin Michel, 1999, pp. 165-182 ; “Austin et la question éthique de la crédibilité”, Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, n°2/ 2004.

[10] « Ce que le pardon vient faire dans l’histoire », Esprit Juillet 93.

[11] V. Jankelevitch’s analyses, which Ricœur discovered late, are distributed on both axis.

[12] This unbinding is a thoroughly capital metapolitical theme, which refer to the puritan Reform and the right to unbind covenant and contract. At the same time, it is a comic theme, a theme of wisdom: now Ricœur develops elsewhere more tragic and epic theses, which do not allow so easily to think about unbinding the agent from his act – something Badiou reproaches Ricœur as a christian approach of the subject. Since then I had the opportunity to explain myself in an article published in the Cahier de l’Herne dedicated to Ricœur.

[13] It would also be a wrong reading of Hannah Arendt.

[14] By the way these are the pages with which for years, I ended my Ethics Nights.

[15] This is the meaning of Jankelevitch’s protest, but also Nietzsche’s critic of Schopenhauer’s unconcern. Deleuze writes a remarkable commentary about it that I used liberally in Le pardon, briser la dette et l’oubli.

[16] It is with this double movement, also probably marked by my reading of a text from Jean-François Lyotard about Hannah Arendt (Survivant, in his Lectures d’enfance) that I ended my “Tables de pardon” in a postface to Le pardon, briser la dette et l’oubli, Autrement Paris 1991.

[17] I would, on the same topic, have an opposite approach, as in my lecture in Lausanne (1996), “Le pardon, l’histoire, l’oubli” ; it started with an anthropological essay on necessary forgiveness, ultra-ordinary forgiveness in a way, before I came to proper ethical level of a conditional and delicate forgiveness leading to the dilemnas in history.

[18] Paris Michalon 1996.

[19] Translated from “Une théorie purement procédurale de la justice est-elle possible ?” in: Le juste, Paris: Esprit, 1995, p. 96.

[20] Translated from Amour et justice, in the French version p. 56-58

[21] Compare Lecture I, Paris Seuil 1986, p. 176 sq. and Le juste, Paris: Esprit, 1991 p. 113.

[22] Cf Jacques Derrida, quoted in the French version of Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 607.

[23] Elsewhere, Ricœur speaks of the horizon of accomplishment of historical knowledge as conscious of its limits (ibd. p. 646).

[24] “A partner is missing in the inquiry: forgiveness. In a way, forgiveness makes the pair with oblivion: is it not a kind of happy oblivion ? even more fundamentally, is there not the figure of a reconciled memory ? Definitely yes. However two reasons led me to follow up with the examination, in a way outside the text, on the mode of an epilogue ” (translated from the French version, p. 375).

[25] Title of an important anthology of Schopenhauer’s work ; used also by J.-S. Bach to define his work as a simple “ornament”.

[26] Paris: Vrin, 1965, p. 76-77.

[27] If grace was integrated with its effects, miracles, mysteries and means, to the works of religion, it would produce fanatism, superstition, illuminism and thaumaturgy: it would no longer be religion within the limits of simple reason.

[28] He must have hesitated a lot to adopt not this tone but this title: in Soi-même comme un autre, he spoke more cautiously of practical wisdom which crosses over the tragic to come back to itself in an acknowledgment that makes room for “plurality in the very constitution of the self” (Soi-même comme un autre, p . 344).

[29] Grace does not come to crown nature or history ; it preceeds them as a first unbinding, a new beginning, a first gift, towards which forgiveness is only gratitude and acknowledgment. That is why, in my Lausanne lecture, I adopted this different syntax and started with forgiveness.