Gift giving and the historian

In his last major work, The Course of Recognition (2007, p. 238), Ricoeur sees historians’ work as providing a valuable corrective to the more theoretical concept of ideal types.

Ideal types are simplifications of real life phenomena. The danger being that sometimes one forgets that these are merely theoretical aids. Historians through their enquiries dissolve these rigid boundaries, and endeavour to show the complex interactions that took place, in other words, providing the nuances.

The example that Ricoeur gives in this connection takes place in a discussion on gift giving and mutual recognition. He explores Marcel Mauss’s seminal work, the Gift (1925), and looks further into the spirit of a gift and the differences between a gift and merchandise, and when a piece of merchandise turns into a gift, i.e. a non-commercial good. In this connection, he refers to how Nathalie Zemon Davis’s The Gift in 16th-century France, provides a valuable corrective.

In cases of spontaneous gifts in acts of friendship and neighbourliness, gifts on festive occasions- do we have to give a gift of equal value in return? When is a gift considered gratitude for a service rendered and when corruption? What is the borderline between a gift and a sale? And when an author acknowledges and dedicates a book, which is then sold commercially by the publisher? Questions that have accompanied us throughout history. For celebrations, festivals and gift giving have been part of human life since time immemorial. Sacrificial offerings to the gods, gifts to family, friends and neighbors, spontaneous gifts, gifts from duty or compulsory gifts, gifts come in many sizes shapes and purposes. According to Ricoeur, it all seems to depend on the spirit in which the gift is given.

Despite the historical enquiry being confined in time and space, he observes that we can draw valuable conclusions from her findings: about the different beliefs that lie at the heart of the spirit of gift giving; the confusion between the giving of a gift and the selling of a good or service; and the unintended drawbacks of the practice of giving a gift.

In other words, Ricoeur’s view of history as a useful corrective in a sense embraces both fundamental aspects of history as describing how things exactly were, and how history can provide examples of how and how not to act in certain situations.

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