In his essay, “On Forgiveness,” Derrida discusses the paradox of granting forgiveness: true forgiveness consists of forgiving the unforgivable.  Throughout the essay, Derrida is working within the realm of contradictions. He negotiates the terrain between pure and mediated, conditional and unconditional, and individual and collective forgiveness.

Both forgiveness and reconciliation are concepts that have secular and religious interpretations.  Although there is a trend towards an attempted liberalization and secularization of reconciliation discourse, the theological undertones of reconciliation continue to play an important role in the way in which reconciliation takes place. As Derrida illustrates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s role as Chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission undoubtedly influenced the public’s perception of reconciliation in relation to forgiveness. The tensions between religious and secular conceptions of reconciliation also foreground the roles of individuals in comparison to those of the collective. Secular ideas of reconciliation tend to emphasize tolerance on the individual level and see amnesty on the collective level as a valid way to proceed. Religious conceptions of reconciliation, however, emphasize the idea of forgiveness and national healing.

Derrida argues that the concept of forgiveness is misplaced when used in relation to a national trauma. For example, he writes that “forgiveness must engage two singularities: the guilty (the ‘perpetrator’ as they say in South Africa) and the victim” (42). If a third party steps in to mediate this process (such as a national truth commission or juridical entity), pure forgiveness is no longer possible. Forgiveness then stays in the domain of the individual, not the state. And once the process of reconciliation has begun, pure forgiveness is no longer possible. Because once one embarks on a process of understanding the Other, the guilty, the perpetrator, the irreducibility and incomprehensibility of the Other is shattered. For Derrida, pure forgiveness “must plunge, but ludicly, into the night of the unintelligible” (49). Because reconciliation works to make sense of this unintelligibility, it drives one away from forgiveness.

At the end of this essay, he explores the implications of granting forgiveness. The granting of forgiveness implies a legitimate claim to power in order to do so. Derrida asserts that this form of power must be divorced from forgiveness; pure forgiveness is one without sovereignty (59). 

Derrida himself notes that he is ‘torn’ between the “ethical vision of forgiveness” and the practicality of reconciliation (51). His ruminations on forgiveness do not imply that reconciliation as part of a political process is impossible, nor that it should be avoided. Rather, he is arguing against the conflation of the two terms: forgiveness and reconciliation.

Derrida, Jacques. “On Forgiveness.” On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. New York: Routledge, 2001.

See VanAntwerpen for a fuller discussion:

VanAntwerpen, Jonathan. “Reconciliation Reconceived: Religion, Secularism, and the Language of Transition” in The Politics of Reconciliation in Multicultural Societies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 25-47.