Richard J. Bernstein, “Derrida: The Aporia of Forgiveness?” Constellations, Volume 13, Number 3, 2006, 394-406.
In the article “Derrida: The Aporia of Forgiveness?,” Richard Bernstein argues that Derrida does not do full justice to decision and responsibility because he neglects the role of judgment and deliberation. Bernstein looks to reflective judgment (Kant and Arendt) and phronesis (Aristotle) as two inherited concepts relevant to thinking about decision and responsibility which Derrida neglects, and that these two concepts would be helpful to “illuminate what Derrida tends to mystify with his appeal to aporias and impossible possibles” (404).
After identifying two issues that have spurred Derrida’s work on forgiveness – 1) the various “Truth and Reconciliation” commissions and 2) public requests for forgiveness by public officials – Bernstein picks up on a third issue – namely, the relationship between the forgivable and the unforgivable. Derrida agrees with that some things are unforgivable. However, unlike Jankélévitch and Arendt who say that we cannot and should not forgive such deeds, Derrida “affirms that the only thing that calls for forgiveness, the only thing to forgive is the unforgivable!” (395). Bernstein goes on to discuss our inheritance of “two incompatible heterogeneous ‘concepts’ of forgiveness” that are nevertheless “indissociable” – namely, conditional forgiveness and unconditional forgiveness (396). Conditional forgiveness is steeped in an economy of exchange that involves repentance, forgiveness asked for, forgiveness received, and leads toward reconciliation or healing. However, “Derrida insists that conditional forgiveness – taken by itself – is not forgiveness” (396). This is the case because simple conditional forgiveness fails to recognize that conditional forgiveness is indissociable from unconditional forgiveness. Unconditional forgiveness is pure, aneconomic forgiveness that seeks no finality. However, for unconditional forgiveness to “arrive” it must “engage itself in a series of conditions of all kinds” (Derrida, On Forgiveness, 44-45) and, therefore, while heterogeneous to conditional forgiveness, it is indissociable from it.
It is in the tension between these two irreconcilable and indissociable poles of forgiveness – unconditional forgiveness and conditional forgiveness – that “decisions and responsibilities are to be taken” (Derrida, On Forgiveness, 45). For Derrida, according to Bernstein, “there are no rules, no decision procedures, nothing that we can rely on in making decisions – including decisions about when, whom, and what to forgive” (398). This is what Bernstein calls “Derrida’s hidden (or perhaps it is not so hidden) existentialism” (398). We are faced with these two heterogeneous (yet indissociable) inherited understandings of forgiveness that both make a claim on us, and there are no ready-made answers for how to live in this aporetic tension. However, in this aporetic tension we have to make a decision and because there are no rules or ready-made answers the decisions we make while trembling in the abyss are our responsibility. We cannot pass the buck and blame some rule. This decision is our responsibility and can never be rationally justified. This aporia is where decisions and responsibilities are taken. As Derrida says: “For the responsible decision to be envisaged and taken, we have to go through pain and aporia, a situation in which I do not know what to do” (“On Forgiveness: A Roundtable Discussion with Jacques Derrida,” 62). Bernstein goes on to conclude his “sympathetic account” of Derrida’s understanding of forgiveness by following Agnes Heller’s remark that “[o]ne does not ask Derrida what he wants to say, but what he wants to avoid.” According to Bernstein, Derrida wants to avoid “the corruption and trivialization of forgiveness” by the hollow and often hypocritical public requests for forgiveness such as the first two issues that spurred Derrida’s recent work on forgiveness discussed at the beginning of the article. He wants to avoid the understanding of forgiveness in terms of economy and finality and its confusion with reconciliation. Furthermore, he wants to avoid “the illusion that we can ‘justify’ forgiveness” by appealing to some rule or standard. Finally, and most importantly, Derrida wants to avoid “any possibility of our thinking that the responsible decision to forgive is normal or easy” (399).
From here, Bernstein concludes his “sympathetic account” and moves to a more critical engagement with Derrida’s understanding of forgiveness. Since Bernstein finds “the same ‘logic’ at work, the same tracking down of aporias, and the same insistence on the way in which the unconditional and the conditional are heterogeneous and indissociable in his other conceptual genealogies,” he thinks that the “difficulties that [he] locate[s] in his reflections on forgiveness reverberate throughout [Derrida’s] thinking.” (399).
While Derrida says that forgiveness has nothing to do with judgment or knowledge (399. cf Derrida’s On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, 43 and “On Forgiveness” Roundtable, 70), Bernstein claims that “forgiveness has everything to do with judgment, and that frequently, knowledge is crucial for making a responsible decision to forgive or not to forgive” (399). However, after a clear exposition of Derrida’s understanding, here, Bernstein’s discussion becomes somewhat muddled. He begins by claiming that “Derrida’s analysis of forgiveness depends on making a ‘rigorous’ distinction between the forgivable and the unforgivable” (400). For Derrida, forgiveness forgives the unforgivable and he is in agreement with Jankélévitch and Arendt that certain things are unforgivable. However, Bernstein goes on to list certain events – such as Heidegger’s actions as rector of Freiburg University and Paul De Man’s failure to inform his friends that he wrote anti-Semitic articles as a young man – that, when it comes to whether they are forgivable or unforgivable, are more open to debate. Bernstein claims that deciding whether or not something is unforgivable is “always a contestable issue that is fraught with difficulties” and that these decisions are characterized by “arguments” and “judgments” which frequently involve “knowledge” (400). As Bernstein writes, “even if [we] were to accept Derrida’s aporia, ‘forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable’, we first have to make a judgment about what is truly unforgivable” (400). He then goes to make the same case about the “forgivable.” He concludes that the boundary between the forgivable and the unforgivable is open to dispute, that the decision between what is forgivable and unforgivable always involves judgments, and, in the spirit of Wittgenstein, “that there is no rigorous distinction between what is unforgivable and forgivable except the line that we draw” (401). However, I don’t think that Derrida would deny this and it seems that this is precisely what Derrida is talking about. We attempt to set up hard boundaries and say that anything on this side is forgivable and anything on that side is unforgivable. Derrida is trying to unsettle this arbitrary boundary and call us beyond it. It seems impossible to forgive something beyond this boundary, beyond this boundary is the unforgiveable, to this Derrida says “why not forgive it?,” forgiveness forgives the unforgivable. Unconditional forgiveness is unsettling the line we draw between the forgivable and the unforgivable and calling it into question. It appears that Bernstein is confusing the distinction between the forgivable and the unforgivable with the distinction between conditional forgiveness and unconditional forgiveness. This appears to be the case because directly after his discussion of the “rigorous distinction” between the forgivable and the unforgivable, Bernstein writes: “Suppose – for the sake of argument – we assume that there is a sharp, rigorous distinction between unconditional and conditional forgiveness” (401). But he never critiqued the sharp, rigorous distinction between unconditional and conditional forgiveness, so why is he granting Derrida the point and assuming this for the sake of argument? If Bernstein thinks the forgivable/unforgivable distinction is the same as the conditional/unconditional distinction, he has yet to make that point. The difference, as I see it, is that the forgivable/unforgivable distinction is the one that we draw, as Bernstein argues, but the conditional/unconditional distinction is the heterogeneous inheritance that calls the line we draw between, and the judgments we make about, the forgivable and the unforgivable into question.
Bernstein then moves to the question: How is one to decide when to forgive the unforgivable? For Derrida, according to Bernstein, this question is unanswerable as “there is no rule or algorithm for making such decisions” (401). Bernstein agrees “with this claim” but then asks us to “consider what we actually do when we ask ourselves should we forgive what is… unforgiveable” (401-402). We ask ourselves questions, deliberate, debate, argue, weigh the pros and cons, struggle with ourselves, negotiate, and make judgments (402-403). Derrida often uses this word “negotiate,” and Bernstein describes it (while he doesn’t see Derrida using it in this way) as meaning “that we are required to make careful discriminating judgments – to evaluate pros and cons – to consider what is relevant to this particular situation. This is a deliberative process” (403). Bernstein then asks what it means to face incompatible injunctions and suggests that “this is the experience of deliberation and judgment, the struggle to probe and assess the situation so that I can make a responsible decision” (403). Bernstein is still trying to critique Derrida’s statement that “forgiveness has precisely nothing to do with judgment” (On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, 43), so I think we should take a closer look at that. In this section (section III) of Derrida’s “On Forgiveness,” he is discussing the possibility of a politics of forgiveness. He writes that “[o]ne could never, in the ordinary sense of the words, found a politics or law on forgiveness” because “forgiveness remains heterogeneous to the order of politics or of the juridical as they are ordinarily understood” (39). He then goes on to discuss the “Truth and Reconciliation” commission in South Africa and Desmond Tutu’s recounting of a woman’s testimony before the commission (43). Tutu translates and interprets what she says as: “A commission or a government cannot forgive. Only I, eventually, could do it. (And I am not ready to forgive)” (43). The passage Bernstein quotes appears in the very next paragraph. Derrida writes:
These are very difficult words to hear. This woman victim, this wife of the victim… surely wanted to recall that the anonymous body of the State or of a public institution cannot forgive. It has neither the right nor the power to do so; and besides, that would have no meaning. The representative of the State can judge, but forgiveness has precisely nothing to do with judgment. Or even with the public or political sphere. (43, my emphasis).
Bernstein inserts a footnote when he first quotes Derrida as saying “forgiveness has precisely nothing to do with judgment.” The footnote reads: “Derrida does not qualify these remarks about forgiveness, judgments, and knowledge. But his remark about judgment refers primarily to judgment in the political or public sphere” (405, n. 10). It is rather odd that Bernstein has pushed this statement into a footnote. Bernstein recognizes the context of the quote, but pulls it out of its context in order to use it as a proof-text in the body of the paper while relegating this statement about the context of the quote to a footnote. This seems to be a rather back-handed way to make his argument run more smoothly. Nevertheless, Bernstein would have to show, and he doesn’t, why this remark about judgment refers “primarily,” and not “solely,” to political or public judgment. In context, Derrida is discussing how the State cannot forgive. The representative of the State can judge, there are courts of justice, but they have neither the power nor the right to forgive. They can judge, but forgiveness has precisely nothing to do with judgment, with the judgment of judges, with judicial justice. Bernstein says Derrida does not qualify his statement, but it seems that the context in which Derrida says it is qualification enough. At any rate, Bernstein bases his argument on a quote that he pulls from one context in which Derrida is discussing the State’s lack of both the right and the power to forgive and attempts to apply it to Derrida’s discussion of decision and responsibility. It seems to be a rather weak basis.
Bernstein’s basic critique of Derrida is that Derrida “does not do full justice to what is involved in difficult decisions – the role of deliberation and judgment” and that he moves to quickly to an “unwarranted Either/Or” (404). As Bernstein see it, Derrida is saying: “Either we think of our decisions as completely justified by the appeal to some knowledge, some rule, some calculation or we think of decision as involving possible aporias” (404). He agrees with Derrida that the first is unsatisfactory, but thinks that Derrida, by rejecting the “either,” accepts the “or” by matter of course. Bernstein argues that we should reject the Either/Or because it “mystifies” deliberation and judgment which are required to make responsible decisions. He then suggests that the inherited concepts of reflective judgment and phronesis would help “illuminate” what Derrida “mystifies” with his appeal to aporias and that they would help “illuminate” what “Derrida himself calls ‘negotiation’ when he speaks of negotiating between unconditional and conditional forgiveness” (404). He even sometimes thinks that Derrida might “fully agree” with him. Whether or not Derrida would “fully agree,” I cannot say. I think he would agree, mutatis mutandis. At any rate, if Bernstein thinks, as I mentioned above, that the “difficulties” he locates in Derrida’s understanding of forgiveness “reverberate throughout his thinking,” then perhaps he should look to some of Derrida’s other reflections in which he engages such difficulties. To begin, Bernstein should look at “The Force of Law,” where Derrida explicitly engages the role of judgment, knowledge, and deliberation in the aporetic experience (cf Derrida’s Acts of Religion, 251-258). Also, he should look to Derrida’s “Préjugés: Devant la loi” in La Faculté de juger (an earlier version of which is translated as “Before the Law” in Acts of Literature) in which he discusses judgment and phronesis in relation to Lyotard. He could also read chapter 5 of John Caputo’s Against Ethics, entitled “The Epoch of Judgment,” in which Caputo discusses Derrida’s understanding of judgment and offers a deconstruction of phronesis.
It seems that Bernstein’s argument that Derrida does not do full justice to decision and responsibility because he neglects the role of judgment and deliberation is based on a reading that doesn’t do full justice to Derrida.