Nythamar de Oliveira

Originally published in the Encyclopedia of Love in World Religions. Edited by Yudit Kornberg Greenberg. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

The English noun “guilt” stems from the Old English term “gilt, gult,” through the Anglo-Saxon “gylt,” akin to “gieldan,” to pay, and to the English verb “yield,” originally signifying crime or the fine paid for an offense, eventually meaning the offense itself. This ambiguity is interestingly preserved in the German “Shuld,” signifying both “fault” and “debt,” as noted by Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Both the legal and moral senses of guilt may be also distinguished from the feeling of guilt, allowing for cultural, religious, and psychological approaches, both in individual and in collective terms. Overall, the existential sense of guilt inevitably refers to the idea of inwardness and correlated concepts of consciousness, conscience, and the unconscious, as observed in religious, moral, and juridical conceptions of guilt, even before further developments in cultural anthropology and psychoanalysis. Hence the correlated ideas of criminality and the consequent exposure to punishment, resulting from a deliberate disobedience of the moral norm or institutional law, are better understood in light of the cultural, religious background that historically constitutes so-called “guilt-based” societies, such as modern, Western societies, as opposed to “shame-based” societies, such as the Japanese, according to the interesting distinction introduced by Ruth Benedict. In effect, most so-called primitive cultures and even the Ancient Greeks, as E.R. Dodds has argued, valued public honor over collective shame without any indication of a guilty conscience, as attested by many Greek myths and writings such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Therefore, the internalization of sin (Greek hamartia), as the failure to achieve the right end to be pursued or falling short of a moral obligation, is only much later on explicitly articulated, especially after the emergence of Christian theology, notably after Augustine resorted to the idea of culpa [guilt] to explain the doctrine of original sin, contrasting with the Jewish theology of creation and its conception of evil. It is thus reasonable to reconstruct the shift from shame towards guilt and culpability by approaching the correlated problems of the emergence of moral conscience in Western civilization and the modern views of inwardness, reflexivity, and subjectivity. Both Jean Nabert and Paul Ricoeur have suggested that a phenomenology of the will can help us better understand the distinction between the inward and outward dimensions of the guilt phenomenon, or between subjective guilt and objective imputability, insofar as it brings together the social, cultural horizons of communitarian existence and psychoanalytical, existential analyses of the human finitude, self-deception, and the quest for meaning. Of particular interest is, furthermore, the relational, intersubjective aspects of an interdisciplinary phenomenology of guilt as they unveil the incessant search of an identity of the self in terms of love-hate relations with its other, starting with the authority imposed by the father figure or parental roles vis-à-vis the child, the latter’s subsequent fear of being punished, and her desire to be accepted and protected.

Sigmund Freud’s contributions to this field of research were certainly decisive, as well as posterior developments in psychoanalysis and their interdisciplinary appropriations in cultural anthropology, comparative literature, and religious studies. According to Freud, “originally this sense of guilt was a fear of punishment by the parents, or more correctly, the fear of losing their love; later the parents are replaced by an indefinite number of fellow-men.” (Freud, 1914, p. 97) The dependence of this sense of guilt upon the concept of the superego as the ultimate source of moral conventions remains, however, as controversial as Freud’s reduction of religious phenomena to a primordial parricide. Because of the fear of loss of love, such a pathological sense of guilt, according to Freud, turns out to be a necessary correlate of civilization, as an unconscious need for punishment. Hence the dynamics of guilt betrays both a submission to authority and an unconscious desire to be punished, just as religion reflects developmental neuroses. Existential analyses of guilt tend likewise to rely on the correlation of fear of death and desire to overcome finitude. Heidegger’s conception of guilt is thus based on the assumption of an identity between finitude and guilt: humans experience themselves as guilty simply in virtue of their individual existence, as Dasein (human existence qua Being-in-the-world) has debts and is responsible for others in its very facticity (thrownness) and existence (projection). “This implies, however, that Being-guilty does not first result from an indebtedness [Verschuldung], but that, on the contrary, indebtedness becomes possible only ‘on the basis’ of a primordial Being-guilty.”(Heidegger, 1962, p. 329)

Freud’s and Heidegger’s analyses of the feeling of guilt (German Schuldgefühl) are somewhat akin to Nietzsche’s attempt to approach this phenomenon from a pre-moral, intersubjective standpoint. In the second essay in his Genealogy of Morality, “‘Guilt,’ ‘Bad Conscience,’ and the Like,” Nietzsche argues that the concept of guilt stems from a non-moral conception that equates fault and debt. One who is in debt is said to be “guilty,” as the creditor could make good on the debt by punishing the debtor for failure to honor an obligation, in a joyful affirmation of cruelty which is inherent in the very social, agonistic nature of human existence. According to Nietzsche, such an affirmative action may in effect be guilt-ridden in the innocent becoming of humans who direct their bad conscience against the life-denying forces that suppress human instincts, in contrast with the bad conscience of moral codifications, especially the slave morality and resentment of Christian asceticism. Both Catholic and Calvinist expressions of guilt (e.g., confession of sins) in response to God’s judgment seem to allow for a rapprochement, according to this view, with the Buddhist conception of repentance, insofar as they share in a common ideal of self-denial in the acceptance of divine love, even though the latter cannot be reduced to the asking for divine forgiveness.

Both the Hebrew Bible and Christian theology make an important distinction between guilt and finitude, so as to allow for a compatibilism between human responsibility and the recurrence of sin in the human condition, or between free will and the concrete reality of radical evil within human nature. Moreover, finite creation is said to be originally good (Genesis 1:31) and it is only because of evil that human nature is tainted with envy and the propensity to sin and for wrongdoing. Contrary to the popular understanding of the Christian dogma of original sin as the erotic self-indulgence or the self-righteousness of the human creature vis-à-vis the Creator, Ricoeur seeks to use Biblical symbols of evil to unveil the very idea of human responsibility that underlies the pathos of guilt: “Moreover, each of us finds evil already present in the world; no one initiates evil but everyone has the feeling of belonging to a history of evil more ancient than any individual evil act. This strange experience of passivity, which is at the very heart of evildoing makes us feel ourselves to be the victims in the very act that makes us guilty.” (Ricoeur,1988: p. 200) Guilt is to be thus understood as an inward manifestation of evil that reflects the self-alienation of sin or wrongdoing, insofar as there is no guilt without a self and its implicit sense of responsibility, be it active or passive. Humans are ultimately responsible for any evil or wrong they do, so that even the pardoned criminal remains a guilty person, as the past cannot be altered. Therefore, deliverance from evil cannot be equated with salvation from guilt or forgiveness of sins.


References and Further Reading

Benedict, Ruth. 1967. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. New York: Meridian.

Dodds, E.R. 2004. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1953–1974. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of

Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey and A. Freud, 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press.

Freud, S. 1914. On Narcissism, vol. XIV.

Freud, S. 1923. The Ego and the Id, vol. XIX.

Freud, S. 1927. The Future of an Illusion, vol. XXI.

Freud, S. 1930. Civilization and Its Discontents, vol. XXI.

Glei, R., M. Ritter, M. Laarmann, J. Köhler, A. Köpcke-Duttler, 1992. “Schuld,” [Guilt] in Historisches Wörtbuch der Philosophie [Historical Dictionary of Philosophy]. Basel: Schwabe & Co., vol. 8, pp. 1442-1472.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 1962. Trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. New York: Harper & Row.

Lacroix, Jean. 1977. Philosophie de la culpabilité [Philosophy of Guilt]. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Lewis, H.D. 1972. “Guilt,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. P. Edwards. New York: Macmillan, vol. 3, pp. 395-397.

Mensching, G., Th.C. Vriezen, E. Lohse, K. Stendahl, E. Kinder, W. Joest, and W. Rott. 1962. “Sünde und Schuld” [Sin and Guilt], in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart [Religion in History and Present Day], 3rd. ed. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, vol. 6, pp. 476-505.

Nabert, Jean. 2001. Essai sur le mal [Essay on Evil]. Paris: Cerf.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1994. On the Genealogy of Morality. Trans. Carol Diethe. Cambridge University Press.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1988. The Symbolism of Evil. Trans. Emerson Buchanan. New York: Harper.


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