What kind of person forgives?

I’m doing some thinking about the foundations of our practice of forgiving others, what I’m calling forgiveness’ ‘material conditions’. The practice of forgiveness occurs within relations between persons. As such it is derivative upon (although not completely determined by) the material conditions that enable personal existence. These conditions can be really quite fundamental things, like temporality and spatiality: conditions of our environment without which the concept of ‘relation’ (let alone ‘person’) would be unthinkable. Temporality provides an obvious case in point: the practice of forgiveness appears be a response to the irreversibility of the past. The past can’t be rewound and past wrongs uncommitted. If it could, the practice of forgiveness would not arise. And yet, the practice of forgiveness is not mandated by temporal irreversibility: other responses are possible and do exist. The practice of forgiveness thus also responds to various features of personal sociality that are founded upon these fundamental conditions: capacities like communication and memory. In some cases the limits of these capacities will also place limits on the practice of forgiveness. Memory might be a good example of this relationship: can something be forgiven that isn’t remembered somewhere in some fashion? But even here the relationship is more complex than it first appears. The physical, neural structures through which human memory functions may not only prescribe the limits of the practice of forgiveness, but also provide conditions that influence the shape of the practice. For example, if certain kinds of memory are laid down and recalled in temporal/narrative structures in the brain, forgiveness may be understood as a response to these structures and itself function as a form of narrative recontextualisation.

But then I ran into something interesting… the heritage of thinking about forgiveness, influenced by Christian and Jewish theology, has always assumed that the class of ‘persons’ who might engage in the practice of forgiveness would include divine persons as well as human. And (obviously) the material conditions under which these different kinds of persons operate are themselves (wildly!!) different. (Or are they?)

This then throws up a tension I keep struggling with in my work: the relative priority of divine or human practice for the study of the concept. I keep find myself pushing up against the limits of philosophy, wanting to cross over into theology, and facing the choice to self-censor.

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