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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Derrida deconstructs forgiveness

In this video, Derrida makes the case for the impossibility of forgiveness. For those of you unfamiliar with Derrida this short video clip is something of an example of deconstruction.

Let me paraphrase Derrida, while extending his thought a bit:

Forgiveness cannot be "pure" forgiveness unless you are forgiving the unforgivable.

If you are forgiving something that is a “forgivable” offense, then it seems to imply that there really wasn’t anything significant to forgive. Or, we might say that you were not wounded deeply enough or not offended enough. For example, if someone slaps me on the face but “it really didn’t hurt all that bad” then have I really forgiven that person? Well, some might say that I have forgiven them. But on the other hand it also appears that I was not wounded very deeply.

The only time that forgiveness is “pure” forgiveness is the time when we are so deeply offended and so intimately violated that the crime is “unforgivable.” Only at the moment that we run up against an offense so deep that we cannot forgive it – only then do we have the opportunity to grant “pure” forgiveness.

Derrida also distinguishes between "reconciliation" and "forgiveness." Reconciliation usually has some goal in mind: That we can be happy together, or stop killing each other in wars, or experience some positive emotional/therapeutic effect, etc. Reconciliation involves some sort of calculation. Reconciliation is a very good thing, but for Derrida reconciliation does not equal "pure forgiveness."

Is Derrida “pure” nonsense? Or is there something to learn here?


d said...

Part of the confusion of post modernism, it seems to me, is much the same as the confusion at Babel, except then different words meant the same thing, ie a different language, but now the same words mean different things. Words like forgiveness are suppose to convey thoughts, but this article forces me to re-evaluate my understanding of this word so as to ensure that the meaning he is attaching to it is the same as what I understand it to mean. If forgiveness for Derrida means that I no longer suffer or hurt from the offense, then he would be correct I suppose. It never ceases to amaze me however the extent to which anti-Christ thinkers expect Christ like behavior.

Jonathan Erdman said...


It's true. And that seems to be much of what Derrida's project was about: The questioning of the "meaning" of words and concepts, which might be ordinarily taken for granted. Derrida seems to want to drive home the idea that language has a great deal more instability built into the way it functions....I'm not yet sure where I stand in regards to that, but in this video clip it is interesting because he says that he is a "philosopher" who is interested in defining words....So, maybe Derrida is trying to simultaneously stabilize and destabilize language.

ktismatics said...

Derrida's comment reminds me of a recent discussion on this blog: is it possible to be good without God? Or an even more recent post: is it possible to know truth without God, or to transcend the human condition without God? The usual evangelical answer to questions like this: no, it's not possible. Is it possible to forgive without God? Again, many evangelicals would say no. Derrida is in agreement with the evangelical position here -- he just doesn't have a God to make the impossible possible. So he's pointing out the inherent limitations of the human condition without offering a solution. Or at least that's my read on it.

I get the sense from the end of the video that Derrida wasn't a big Seinfeld fan. This is a clip from a whole documentary film that came out a few years ago, which I thought was pretty good but not great either at exploring the ideas or getting to know the guy. Still, if you're into Derrida at all it's kind of cool.

Jonathan Erdman said...

That's an interesting thought, K.....from your perspective Derrida is almost restating some of the church's positions on original sin and total depravity in the sense that we are limited in our ability to do "the good" by the very nature of our condition and the nature of relating with one another....Who can claim to have "purely" forgiven another?

Melody said...

Alot of it just sounds like Derrida is playing with words.

Nothing is more aggrivating than a philospher who takes a common word and says, "Even though everyone who speaks this language uses the word to mean this - it really means something else entirely."

Forgiveness implies that someone has done something against you and that you are taking it off the record. The word does not become invalid based on the size of the offense.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Alot of it just sounds like Derrida is playing with words.

That would be a fair assessment!

Nothing is more aggrivating than a philospher who takes a common word and says, "Even though everyone who speaks this language uses the word to mean this - it really means something else entirely."

Dude, that's what philosophers get paid to do!...But seriously, though, sometimes words and concepts and ideas become so "common" that they lose their original force and meaning. This is especially true in our conservative Christian circles where we get really, really comfortable with words like "sacrificial atonement", "truth", "the cross", etc. to the point where they start to get drained of significance. We repeat them over and over and preach them to death. We write them down in creeds and mission statements and they become "untouchable." In the meantime culture changes and the way people are thinking and viewing life changes and all of a sudden these terms that meant so much a few generations back now seem kind of silly. So, thinkers come along and add new nuances and sometimes completely redefine the terms and concepts so that they have more meaning to the contemporary mind. Of course, this doesn't make the establishment happy. In fact, they get quite po'd. "The old terms were quite fine the way they were!" And hence you have a lot of tension....Such is the situation in the church today with so-called "modern" and "postmodern" thinking.....

samlcarr said...

Derrida was fun for me coz that's the first time i really thought about how fuzzy language is. Words that we use convey so much more than what we may consciously intend.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Are you suggesting that we can write things and that the text that is written might be more than we consciously intended??? Would that mean that it is theoretically possible for a reader to understand a text (or parts of a text) better than the author him/herself???

Jonathan Erdman said...

It amazes me how many conservatives are still living about 100-200 years in the past and believe language is a basically stable science. So many brilliant philosophers have done some of the most brilliant work on language and the philosophy of interpretation, and yet so many of my conservative, biblical exegetes are in the dark about these guys.....Those conservatives who have progressed a bit have a lot of fascinating interpretive issues to discuss. This is why I am such a big advocate of books like Hermeneutics at the Crossroads. Conservatives (per the usual) need to do a lot of work to catch up with the rest of the world.

Joe Rivera said...

Amen Erdman to that last statement. I get mad at Conservatives (with whom I associate myself)because they are so obscurantist regarding postmodern philsoophy and its linguistic/hermeneutical implications. If you like that Vanhoozer book "Cross-roads" then you might like "Radical Orthodoxy". Have you heard of these guys? They are amazing...John Milbank, Graham Ward (who I really like) and Catherine Pickstock. this "movement" is very cool. I am guessing you know that James K.A. Smith put out an book introducing this movement. Have you read it?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yea, I am familiar with the "movement" (if one can classify it as such), though I am not intimately familiar. It's definately something that interests me enough to do more in depth study.

Jamie (James K.A. Smith is his "offical" title) is a young guy and hits up the blogs every once in a while. He stopped in here at Theos Project and weighed in a bit on my analysis of his essay, Limited Inc/arnation. (Ktismatics took him to task, however, and I think Jamie got scared away by the power of K's infinite powers of reason!)

What impresses you about RO?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Quick Comment: Interesting that there are many of us still willing (and unashamed!) to call ourselves conservatives, yet hoping there will be a bit more speed in getting up to date. Kevin Vanhoozer, the last I saw, refers to himself as post-conservative. I've never felt the need to alter it. I'm a conservative and I'll go down with the ship, if needs be!!