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I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies (2008)

by Nick Smith

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The issue of forgiveness is a particular hobby-horse of mine, so I was very interested to read this book on the related topic of apologies. According to Smith, a lawyer turned philosophy professor, the subject of apologies has been virtually ignored by his colleagues, the last work being written in the 12th century by the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides.

Smith sees apologies as originally heavily influenced by religious concepts of repentance, which are now fading. On the other hand, some religious thinkers believe that forgiveness is the duty of a believer, with or without an apology. After the tragic shooting at an Amish school, the Amish immediately announced that they forgave the gunman, although, being dead, he had not apologized. According to the book Amish Grace, they consider that to be required for all offenses. According to Smith, Maimonides, on the other hand, believed that there could be no forgiveness without an apology, although an apology made it mandatory.

This book was very uneven. It is divided into two parts, one on personal apologies and one on collective apologies. Smith establishes rigorous standards for a robust, categorical apology. The penitent must specify exactly what the apology is for, no vague generalizations about harm that may have occurred. He points out that the multiple uses of the word "sorry", which can express compassion without implying guilt mean that "I'm sorry" doesn't necessarily constitute an apology. Then, there must be an agreement that the behavior was wrong, and strict avoidance of any further re-offense.

I found this section interesting and thought-provoking, although the full-fledged apology must be rather rare. It put into words a lot of the reasons that I have been unsatisfied with some of the apologies that I have received. Or for that matter, the times when I am not interested in an apology.

The second section, on collective apologies, was rather opaque and repetitive. I actually put the book down and read a mystery before coming back to it. It ended up convincing me that a collective apology is almost impossible. Smith points out many difficulties. How can one parse the individual guilt of all members a large group? Can anyone truly speak for a large group of people, some of whom may not be in agreement? Can one speak for the dead, or for one's successors? Smith sees the usefulness of collective apologies in reconciliation, but seems to be left with the conclusion that often only a declaration of intentions and principals can really be issued.

The notes are well done, with enough overlap between the note headings and the running titles to make matching them up easy. The notes are informational as well as bibliographical. There is no bibliography per se, but there is an index.

Somewhat heavy going, I don't think this is likely to join the ranks of self-help and spiritual books, but it is very interesting for someone who wants a serious work.

Smith intends to follow this with a work on the legal aspects of apologies. ( )
  juglicerr | Sep 8, 2008 |
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Epigraph
Please forgive me,sir,
for getting involved

in the music --
it's my innate weakness

for the cello: so human. Please forgive me
for the attention

I've given your wife
tonight, sir

I was taken by her strand of pearls,
enchanted by the piano
riff in the cortex,
by a secret

anticipation. I don't know
what came over me, sir.

After three Jack Daniel's
you must overlook

my candor, my lack of
sequitor

I could talk
about Odysseus

& Athena, sexual
flowers, autogamy
or Nothingness

I got carried away
by the swing of her hips.

But take no offense
if I return to the matter
as if hormonal.
I must confess
my love for black silk, sir.
I apologize for
the eyes in my head.

Yusef Komunyakaa, "When in Rome -- Apologia," from Neon Vernacular
Dedication
For Nicole and Ulysses
"over and beyond ourselves
In which our love will outlive us"
First words
Maimonides' Hilchot Teshuvah, compiled between 1170 and 1180, arguable provides the most recent philosophical mongraph devoted to apologies. (Introduction)
Much of our private and public moral discourse occurs in the giving, receiving, or demanding of apologies, yet we rarely make explicit precisely what we expect from a gesture of contrition.
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"Earlier versions of some of the arguments in the text appeared in the Journal of Social Philosophy." Acknowledgments
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0521865522, Hardcover)

Apologies pervade our news headlines and our private affairs, but how should we evaluate these often vague and deceptive rituals? Discussing numerous examples from ancient and recent history, I Was Wrong: On The Meanings of Apologies argues that we suffer from considerable confusion about the moral meanings and social functions of these complex interactions. Rather than asking whether a speech act "is or is not" an apology, Smith offers a nuanced theory of apologetic meaning. Smith leads us with a clear voice though a series of rich philosophical and interdisciplinary questions, arguing that apologies have evolved from a confluence of diverse cultural and religious practices that do not translate easily into pluralistic secular discourse. After describing several varieties of apologies between individuals, Smith turns to collectives. Although apologies from corporations, governments, and other groups can be profoundly significant, Smith guides readers to appreciate the kinds of meaning that collective apologies often do not convey and warns of the dangers of collective acts of contrition that allow individual wrongdoers to obscure their personal blame. Dr. Smith is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. A graduate of Vassar College, he earned a law degree from SUNY at Buffalo and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Vanderbilt University. Before coming to UNH, he worked as a litigator for LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene, and MacRae and as a judicial clerk for the Honorable R.L. Nygaard of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He specializes in the philosophy of Law, Politics, and Society and he writes on and teaches aesthetics. He is working with Cambridge University Press on the sequel to I Was Wrong, applying his framework for apologetic meanings to examples in criminal and civil law. His writings have appeared in journals such as Continental Philosophy Review, Social Theory and Practice, The Journal of Social Philosophy, Culture, Theory & Critique, The Rutgers Law Journal, and The Buffalo Law Review.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:08 -0400)

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