"Sorry" and the originary concept of apology

1. Paradox of "apology"

What does the word "apology" mean? Today it means "say you're sorry". In Ancient Greece, as people say, the etymon ἀπολογία meant "a speech made in defense of something", and this meaning can also attach to the English word "apology".

Aren't these nearly exact opposites? Saying sorry is saying you did something wrong, and ἀπολογία is defending what you did, saying it's not wrong.

2. Uses of "sorry"

Some (overlapping, etc.) uses of the word "sorry":

  • Empathy ("Sorry we missed the train", as in "Ah, you might be feeling sad now, and I see that")
  • Sympathy ("Sorry to hear that", as in, "I'm sad that you're sad")
  • Expression of cognitive regret ("This outcome was bad by my lights")
  • Expression of emotion or stance (sorrow, sadness, grief, remorse, guilt, shame, regret, fear, submission)
  • Acknowledgement of harm ("Sorry that happened to you, I can see you've been harmed")
  • Acknowledgement of causing harm, or causal fault ("Sorry that you were distracted when I made a ptptpt sound", as in "I took this action, and that caused you that harm")
  • Accepting agential fault ("Sorry I'm disorganized and missed our meeting", as in, "It's a defect in me or my conduct that led to this outcome, and so I'm who should be corrected if anything")
  • Accepting blame / responsibility / accountability ("Sorry the project wasn't on time", as in, "I / we were, within the broader organizational goals, supposed to do this and we didn't")
  • Accepting guilt as the conclusive result of a deliberative judgement (e.g. a trial in court)
  • Accepting debt ("Sorry, my bad, I'll make it up to you")
  • Promising modification ("Sorry, I'll do better next time"; trying to repair/retain relationships)
  • [ironic uses, such as "Sorry I'm so great" or "Sorry that hurt your fragile ego"]
  • [dishonest or performative uses, e.g. pretending to feel sorrow, or formally accepting guilt as in a fake apology]
  • [malicious uses, such as to distract someone from actually processing in detail what happened, or to falsely disclaim intent]
  • [phatic or vague uses, such as "Sorry, where's the nearest bathroom?", sometimes interpretable as ritualized or abbreviated meaningful uses, as in "I'm sorry that by asking you where the bathroom is, I'm taking up your attention, where I could have tried to find it myself."]
  • [some of the above, on behalf of oneself, on behalf of a group (e.g. apologizing on behalf of a country), or for everyone (e.g. "Sorry, you didn't deserve that", sometimes as an expression of regret on behalf of the future synthesis of humane judgement, as in, "The global normativity of humanity would judge this outcome to be worse than you ought to get")]

Is there any throughline in these uses? Clearly they serve different functions. Why would they even use the same word?

As Wittgenstein might have it, maybe there's not more to say. One can't assume that there's something in common between all uses of a word. However, without disputing the value of that methodological motion or claiming that all uses of words are somehow equatable, nevertheless uses of words tend empirically to have interesting, non-obvious compactness behind them; where there's clusteredness, there's further undiscovered clusteredness; things have their Thingness.

3. Apologia as convergent

More etymology

Apology means "sorry", ἀπολογία means "defense", and the pastward etymon is ἀπόλογος, meaning "story, account". That word comes from ἀπό, "from", and λόγος, "that which is said", which in turn comes from PIE *leǵ- "to gather". So "apology" could be rendered as "a gathering from".

Apologia as story

The word apologia officially means "a speech made in defense", but it comes from ἀπόλογος, meaning "account, story". This originary concept of apology is the one that makes the most sense to me, that I most want to give and to receive. When some harm has been done, the first and most important thing I want, whatever my role in the outcome, is for there to be a proper apologia: a narrative that gathers, clarifies, distills, and retells the events, laying them out explicitly and together, as they happened.

Convergence of apologia

The variety of uses of "sorry" is very far from being contained in this concept of apologia. But I think they can all be viewed (allowing for defective derivation, such as a ironic, ritual, or phatic use) as coming from goals that have apologia as a principle, convergent subgoal. E.g.:

  • Empathy: simply explaining what happened serves to show that someone understands what you're feeling; for example, helping an upset child by narrating what happened and what about the events was upsetting.
  • Defense: explaining the context and thinking behind one's actions is often most of the work of defense.
  • Acknowledgements of harm, causal fault, and agential fault: these are laid out by the retelling of events.
  • Accepting guilt, debt, or blame are more problematic for this picture. They're certainly not contained in apologia. I'd say that the healthy versions have apologia as a principal component. On the other hand, unhealthy versions do not have to have apologia. For example, one can imagine an excessively fearful or deferential underling, always saying "sorry", in a way that seems disconnected or incorrect. That utterance could be reexpressed as: "Please do not be too mad at me; I would rather become more indebted to you than to have you mad, whether or not I really ought to be indebted to you by the facts of what happened; I will accept blame inappropriately and cooperate with my being systematically blamed unjustly, unresponsively to the facts of what happen." This could be taken as a test for healthy or unhealthy apologies: Do they clarify what happened, or obscure it?