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Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration [Paperback]

Charles Griswold
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Book Description

3 Sep 2007
Nearly everyone has wronged another. Who among us has not longed to be forgiven? Who has not struggled to forgive? Charles Griswold has written the first comprehensive philosophical book on forgiveness in both its interpersonal and political contexts, as well as its relation to reconciliation. Having examined the place of forgiveness in ancient philosophy and in modern thought, he discusses what forgiveness is, what conditions the parties to it must meet, its relation to revenge and hatred, when it is permissible and whether it is obligatory, and why it is a virtue. Griswold argues that forgiveness (unlike apology) is inappropriate in politics, and analyzes the nature and limits of political apology with reference to historical examples (including Truth and Reconciliation Commissions). The book concludes with an examination of the relation between memory, narrative, and truth.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 268 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (3 Sep 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521703514
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521703512
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 576,898 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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'Rarely has a philosopher offered his fervent students and readers such depth, knowledge and sensitivity as Charles Griswold has done in this volume that deals with one of the most urgent topics facing humankind today.' Elie Wiesel

'Griswold's arguments are deep, far-reaching and all the more effective for the many interesting examples, drawn from recent events and biographical accounts. He sets a paradigm before us, in which one person injures another, seeks forgiveness and then receives it … Griswold tells us much about forgiveness, about the mental processes involved in it, and the way in which interpersonal relations are shaped by it.' Roger Scruton, Times Literary Supplement

'This carefully reasoned, highly insightful and beautifully written book is essential reading for anyone interested in forgiveness, apology and reconciliation, in the private or public sphere. Accessible to the general reader and practical politician as well as to scholars, it will undoubtedly set the parameters of debate on forgiveness and apology for years to come.' Geoffrey Scarre, Times Higher Education Supplement

'Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration is a masterful treatment of a central issue in moral philosophy. Well-written, penetrating, and rich in details, this book discusses a number of related topics including interpersonal forgiveness, political apology, pardon, and civic reconciliation … it is clear that this book is a remarkable achievement that will undoubtedly shape, in enormously beneficial ways, future philosophical debates on the topic of forgiveness.' Ernesto V. Garcia, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

'One of the lessons of modernity is that there is no consolation in the human condition, unless perhaps it consists in somehow reconciling ourselves to evils so sublimely absurd that at each new moment they test our capacities for acceptance. In such a world, an understanding of forgiveness - the concept of it, the varieties, its human sources and limits - is more central to life than ever before. Charles Griswold's clearheaded and perceptive new book explores forgiveness both analytically and realistically, helping us toward all these forms of understanding.' Allen Wood, Stanford University

'Forgiveness by Charles Griswold is a philosopher's attempt to hone the complexity of interpersonal and political forgiveness to make them accessible. The book honors sources both historical and current, and while it is not primarily religious nor psychological it includes both as it integrates an enormous range of material with deep intelligence and insight. The book is well referenced, quite readable and taught me things about forgiveness I did not know.' Frederic Luskin, PH.D Director Stanford Forgiveness Projects, Director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project ( and author of Forgive for Good

'Charles Griswold's Forgiveness is a truly wonderful book, which not only wisely and eloquently treats a significant feature of the moral life and moral psychology, but also sheds unexpected light on moral theory and the history of ethics. The book also includes a fascinating discussion of the role of apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation in political life during the last fifty years.' Stephen Darwall, University of Michigan

'This in depth study of a topical issue will be accessible and of great interest to public library patrons as well as scholars, and it is highly recommended for both.' Leon H. Brody, Falls Church, Virginia

'Anyone who wishes to reflect more deeply on the nature of forgiveness and reconciliation will find the book essential and hugely enriching reading. I cannot recommend it highly enough.' Network Review

'One finishes Griswold's Forgiveness wanting to continue the conversation, to find out yet more. that the account raises so many questions is a clear strength of what is also a wide-ranging text that somehow manages to discuss Ancient notions of forgiveness, offer its own positive and countercultural account and engage with contemporary politics, and all in a refreshingly accessible fashion.' Journal of Value Inquiry

Book Description

This is the first comprehensive philosophical book on forgiveness in both its interpersonal and political contexts. Having examined the place of forgiveness in ancient philosophy and in modern thought, Walton discusses what forgiveness is, its relation to revenge and hatred, and why it is a virtue.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book 12 Nov 2009
This is an excellent book which I would wholeheartedly recommend. It should certainly be of interest to a professional philosopher, those involved in public life and the caring professions. We live in an imperfect world and the ability to forgive is an important part of living a reasonably decent life. For this reason Griswold's book should interest the more general reader. I believe his book is accessible to such a reader with a little effort. Currently it is fashionable to express regret, forgive and apologise at the drop of a hat. However if fashionable regret, forgiveness and apology are to be meaningful concepts rather than mere rhetoric, then these concepts need to be fleshed out and disentangled. Griswold does this admirably. Those who are interested in a more detailed critique of some of the issues raised in Griswold's book might wish to visit wooler.scottus.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tough but Rewarding Read 28 May 2008
By A. Omelianchuk - Published on
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Griswold's project is primarily an analysis of forgiveness from a purely secular standpoint. Though he acknowledges religious influence, he seeks to keep his terms precisely defined for a non-religious paradigm that not only is relevant to private and personal matters, but to public and political as well. The book is both stimulating and insightful in that it offers much wisdom in the way of how interpersonal relationships can be restored, and it offers a rigorous logical construction of the dynamics of apology in both public and private affairs.

Essential to Griswold's argument is that forgiveness is a virtue expressed within a moral community. Such a community is interdependent; it is not reducible to the individual and his or her behavior. The consequences of this mean that "the offender depends on the victim in order to be forgiven, and the victim depends on the offender in order to forgive" (pg. 49). With this supposition in mind, Griswold lays out six conditions for the wrongdoer to meet in order to obtain true contrition: 1) responsibility, the offender takes the moral blame for their actions; 2) repudiation, the offender disavows the wrongful deeds; 3) regret, the offender must show remorse for the aberrant actions; 4) reform, the offender must commit to being a different person and express that it is unacceptable to repeat the offense; 5) Reimagination, the offender shows an understanding of how the injured party feels; and 6) retelling, the offender is able to recount the events that lead the wrongdoer to do wrong without making excuse or minimizing the issues relevant to the wronged (pgs. 49-51). If these conditions are sufficiently met one may warrant forgiveness.

In order to forgive the wronged must also meet certain conditions. She will not dismiss the wrongful acts as merely actions detached from the actor, because the acts and the agent are conceptually connected and cannot be separated. To so would fail to properly forgive the person who committed them. Secondly, forgiveness cannot be contingent upon the administration justice. The outcome of legal consequences differs from those of morality. An adulterer breaks no civil law by committing adultery, but he or she may not warrant forgiveness. Conversely, a thief may be sentenced to jail time and yet warrant forgiveness if the appropriate steps are taken to amend. Third, re-framing the offender, not by separating him from the offense, but by seeing him as a whole person in new light of his repentance revises judgment. Fourth, the wronged commits to forgiving the wrongdoer recognizing that it would be inappropriate to bring up the matter at a later time. Fifth, the wronged releases herself from the self-concept of victimhood and swears off moral superiority. Lastly, the wronged verbally grants forgiveness to the wrongdoer.

Griswold goes on to examine other pertinent subjects that he would consider to be "imperfect" such as forgiveness from a third party, forgiving the dead, the unrepentant, and forgiveness of the self. In each of these cases he examines how forgiveness is a muddled subject that does not fit the paradigm as delineated. He acknowledges that in the world we live it is safe to assume that not all the conditions will obtain. The question is whether these forms of forgiveness are defeated by logical deficiency. In the cases where the wrongdoer is unavailable or unwilling to meet the conditions of repentance, the wronged may engage in meeting "baseline" conditions of "imperfect" forgiveness: 1) a willingness to lower resentment towards the wrongdoer, 2) a willingness to forgive if the wrongdoer were to meet the criteria of repentance, and 3) seeing the wrongdoer being humanly forgivable (pg. 115). In each case he sees the impurities of excuse, condonation, amnesia, or self-interested pardon that militates against the inherently relational and interdependent virtue of forgiveness. Forgiveness "for self" is an intelligible and sometimes necessary practice, but it is often subject to abuse, and creates problems with identity as it tries to reconcile the injured and injuring self into some sort of psychological harmony. The forgiveness of an unrepentant wrongdoer may lapse into the morally objectionable state of condonation where the wrongdoer is not held responsible for his actions. The classic example of spousal abuse is relevant here as the abused "forgives" her abuser though he has no intention of changing.

However, on an intuitive level some of the claims seem incorrect. The supposition that forgiveness is interdependent upon both the wronged and wrongdoer seems to belie the very obvious imperative people sense that to release those who have offended us from contempt is a good thing. Contrary to it simply being an act done out of "insecurity" it is an act of virtue that tempers resentment bringing it down from loathing to distrust that puts the matter to rest in one's consciousness. It does not condone the action, it holds the wrongdoer responsible. It recognizes the pain the wrongful action caused and feels its impact. It asserts that one will not be not be held hostage to another's refusal to make amends, and it moves forward tolerating the wrongdoer's right to make his or her own choices, though not recognizing them as trusted members of the moral community.

Moreover, there is an impression of incongruity in trying to imagine a "paradigmatic" world where forgiveness perfectly obtains all twelve of its conditions. Such a world seems about as likely as one where a person would never need to forgive because they are impervious to harm. The fact of the matter is that we don't live in such a world, and it would seem that true forgiveness is about as likely as being morally angelic. If forgiveness is a virtue it is so because it strives for the good in an imperfect world. If this is so, forgiveness should not be confused with reconciliation--a state of resolution--which is truly interdependent. Forgiveness, if a virtue, is one that imposes itself on the wronged, not the wrongdoer, and therefore is an individual virtue.

Yet with these criticisms in mind, it would be a mistake to conclude that Griswold's argument is invalid. Many things pass as forgiveness in our personal relationships that rarely if ever live up to the character forgiveness. We should be able to hope, however, that our efforts at reconciling, though imperfect, will eventually bring peace.
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