Jacques Derrida on forgiveness



The material here is not based on Derrida’s original text, but on an article by Chris Kaposy that seeks to understand and critically evaluate Derrida’s analysis of forgiveness. The analysis that Kaposy presents is interesting and quite unusual. I will refer to it as Derrida’s analysis, assuming that Kaposy’s interpretation is well-founded. Before coming to it, I present an Aristotelian account of forgiveness, which it is useful to contrast with Derrida’s account.


An Aristotelian Account

To my knowledge, Aristotle did not write about forgiveness, but we can extend his thinking about virtue in general to the topic of forgiveness. The virtuous person, for Aristotle, responds appropriately to situations.


A person who is angry when the situation merits anger, but also in many situations which do not, is not a virtuous person for Aristotle. There is an excess of anger. A person who is never angry at all, even when the situation merits anger, is also not a virtuous person. There is a deficiency of anger. The virtuous person has dispositions which are such that when a situation merits anger, they respond with anger, whereas when it does not, they are not angry.


Extending this thinking to forgiveness, there are situations in which the appropriate reaction is forgiveness. In these situations, the virtuous person is prepared to forgive. But there are other situations where what has been done is something that should not be forgiven. In these situations, the virtuous person does not forgive. The excess here would be to forgive in even these situations. The deficiency would be to never forgive, even when forgiveness is appropriate.


Derrida’s Account

According to Derrida, forgiveness is a rare act. If something seems very hard to forgive, yet it is subsequently forgiven, then we may speak of forgiveness.


But even these acts of forgiving are only approximations. There is an ideal of forgiveness and these act come close to that ideal – that is what is meant here by ‘approximation’ – but they do not realize the ideal itself.


The ideal is something paradoxical and impossible to realize: forgiveness forgives the unforgiveable.


In explicating Derrida, I don’t think Kaposy distinguishes between two senses of unforgiveable:

(i)    X is unforgiveable = X cannot be forgiven;

(ii)  X is unforgiveable = X should not be forgiven, whether or not it can be forgiven.


I think Kaposy’s Derrida is working with the first sense, since he writes of what is impossible to forgive (2005: 206).


A background assumption of the Aristotelian account, as it would normally be understood, is that forgiveness is possible. On this account, it should happen only when the situation merits this reaction. On Derrida’s account, forgiveness in its ideal form is impossible. There are acts that come close to forgiveness in its ideal form, which we can acceptably call forgiveness, but these are merely approximations to an ideal and the ideal itself is unrealizable.



Kaposy, C. 2005. ‘Analytic’ reading, ‘continental’ text: The case of Derrida’s ‘on forgiveness’. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 13; 203-226.