Forgiveness, Sociality, and Community: The Contributions of the Early Phenomenologists

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Thomas Østergaard Wittendorff


KU Leuven


DKK 1,101,074




Internationalisation Fellowships


Revising the intellectual history of forgiveness as a post-Holocaust development, I set out to show how forgiveness had already developed as a philosophical theme during the periods just before and after World War One: namely, in the writings of the early German phenomenologists. Inquiring into their discussions of forgiveness as an intersubjective and a communal phenomenon, I test the hypothesis that this development arose out of their preoccupation with the peculiarity of social acts. Moreover, I will consider how they positioned themselves in the debate about "German guilt" that took place during the interwar period. Further, since some of my protagonists were women, and since the ideal of forgiveness is culturally feminine, I will consider their contributions from a gender perspective.


During the post-Cold War era, a widespread societal and academic interest in forgiveness emerged. This development is considered to have stemmed from (West) German declarations of guilt and remorse: and post-Holocaust thinkers such as Hannah Arendt are regarded as pioneers in theorizing public forgiveness. It is historically significant, then, that there was in fact a rich pre-Holocaust discussion of forgiveness, guilt, and responsibility as communal phenomena. Moreover, the early phenomenologists paid close attention to issues that are underdeveloped in the current debate on public and collective forgiveness, not least regarding the sociality of forgiveness, group formation, and emotional sharing. Their discussions therefore have the potential to break new theoretical ground.


By considering what early phenomenological sources might add to current discussion, I take my cue from the resurrection of early phenomenology that has recently been instigated by social philosophers: yet I differ from such endeavors in paying greater attention to historical contexts. Indeed, I make the case that historical-contextual inquiry is integral to understanding and evaluating the argument and philosophical content of these sources. In investigating the potential of my historically informed interpretation for clarifying the sociality of forgiveness, I will draw on methods developed in analytic philosophy - its systematic argumentation and conceptual analysis - along with a phenomenological descriptive focus and attentiveness to experiential and affective aspects.

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