In Action and Interaction, Shaun Gallagher phenomenologically locates the experience of human autonomy in human interaction. Crucial to the development of Gallagher’s argument is his analysis of Hannah Arendt’s conception of the relationship between autonomy and forgiveness, which Gallagher situates in contradistinction to a Hegelian conception of autonomy. Although Hegel, like Arendt, likewise locates human autonomy in human interaction, for Hegel the achievement of autonomy is the result of a prolonged struggle for recognition. That is, one achieves autonomy only when one succeeds in the struggle of moving out of a period of “undifferentiated” interaction with another and into a period of interaction, in which the other recognizes oneself as autonomous. Arendt, according to Gallagher, locates our experience of autonomy not in a struggle for recognition between interacting parties, however, but in our experience of being given the “gift” of forgiveness, which frees us from being “infinitely” bound to the consequences of our (mis-)actions.
Although Gallagher is correct in recognizing the relationship between autonomy and forgiveness in Arendt’s thought, I will nonetheless argue that we can come to a fuller understanding of Arendt’s conception of autonomy through an analysis of her conception of promise. According to Arendt, the failure to fulfill a promise can only be forgiven when both parties of the promise are mutually vulnerable to the risk of the promise’s failure. While the promisee is vulnerable to the risk of the promise’s failure vis-a-vis the benefits of the promise should it be fulfilled, the promiser is vulnerable to the risk of the promise’s failure vis-a-vis her or his identity. As Arendt writes in The Human Condition: “Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities.” In other words, the promisee and promiser are equally vulnerable to the risk of the promise’s failure, but for different reasons: the promisee for the sake of the promise’s benefits; the promiser for the sake of her or his self-identity.
Once the phenomenon of mutual vulnerability is understood as foundational to Arendt’s conception of promise, a fuller account of Arendt’s conception of autonomy can be developed. When two individuals are mutually vulnerable to the same risk, their experience of autonomy is not merely a consequence of being forgiven. Rather, when two individuals are mutually vulnerable, they grant each other greater freedom to act unconventionally or unpredictably. This is for the reason that mutually vulnerable individuals will be confident that one individual (in spite of their potentially unconventional or unpredictable behavior) will not willingly put the other individuals at risk, precisely because to put the others at risk would be to put oneself at risk. In conclusion, I will argue that it is not the phenomenon of forgiveness that is central to Arendt’s account of autonomy, but the phenomenon of mutual vulnerability.