A Problem With Analytic Philosophy: The Case Of ‘Forgiveness’

‘Forgiveness’ is a ‘big topic’ in contemporary philosophy–part of its current preoccupations in moral psychology. A quick search of journal articles, books, book chapters, edited collections, conference proceedings, and invited talks throws up many titles and topics; clearly, philosophers are working on a topic of great interest in the personal and moral domains. Forgiveness, healing, regret, guilt, anger–this cluster of concerns animates many. Present company included: I bear grudges, I carry around the anger of unresolved personal disputes within me, I regret my many moral errors and omissions, I seek to introduce healing into my many conflicted personal relationships–forgiveness plays a crucial role in addressing these personal zones of conflict and contestation. Philosophy is doing salutary work in addressing these in its current ruminations. So far, so good. 

But how does contemporary philosophy really ‘tackle’ forgiveness? Here is one wholly impressionistic take. 

I once attended a talk on forgiveness by a noted contemporary philosopher; s/he began by talking about ‘two kinds of forgiveness’ and after offering definitions of the pair, then went on to argue that in fact, under some kinds of conditions, the ‘two kinds of forgiveness’ collapsed into one, or entailed the other. Or something like that. Pardon my vagueness here, but that is merely a reflection of the fact that my attention had drifted, away and out of the seminar room. I went into the seminar expecting to find something that would resonate with my personal experiences of moral and political domains where forgiveness, or its lack thereof, played a crucial role. I found instead an exploration of the various logical and conceptual relationships that obtained between various definitions of forgiveness. The descriptions of the conditions under which these definitions of forgiveness were to be shown to be identical or logically related was mildly interesting but nowhere in any of this was to be found any of the emotional dimensions of forgiveness or of any of the human encounters that make forgiveness so interesting to a ‘normal’ human being. 

The problem, as I saw it, was quite simple: analytic philosophy is concerned with all the right topics; it delves into the domains of perplexity that are rightly of great and enduring interest to mankind; in this regard it is fulfilling its ‘social function’ and also its ‘cultural responsibility”; but,  it employs a style of argumentation and reasoning and, er, analysis that ensures its efforts fail to engage the concerns that animate those folks–i.e., most of us–who grapple with forgiveness in their lives. 

Forgiveness is a difficult business; perhaps among the most perplexing of all in human relationships. We cannot build structures of family and friendship without dealing with its challenges. But we will find no guidance in this regard from formal analytic philosophy. If I need guidance in my struggling with forgiveness in a crucial relationship, I will not turn there–and neither, I suspect, will anyone else. (Literature, the movies, perhaps a good play–all of those would be more useful.) In this moral domain, as in many others, analytic philosophy simply makes itself irrelevant.  

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