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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Ricoeur vs. the Leviathan

By a happy coincidence, three items crossed my path during the Christmas holidays: a DVD of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film, Leviathan, Kissinger’s World Order and Ricoeur’s Kluge speech. Well, I had been puzzling over how best to present this speech for a long time. The other two items were presents for the family; one of which did end up wrapped under our Christmas tree, though the other never did, despite good intentions, and even having cut out some wrapping paper for it.

Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), was awarded the Kluge prize in December 2004 by the US Library of Congress, in recognition of the humanism attributed to his life’s work, and in his acceptance speech, he reflects on the bases of this humanism. Encapsulating a lifetime’s work in a few minutes, his speech is entitled “Asserting personal capacities and pleading for mutual recognition“.

Here, he speaks of the two ends of the pole of human relations, the capacities a human agent attributes to him or herself, and the recourse to others required to give this personal certainty a social status, and he ends with the context in which this takes place, the social bond.

And this is where the Leviathan comes in. Being a speech, Ricoeur naturally leaves out references. And at the end of a busy work year, one’s brain and memory is in that suspended state where one cannot quite place a thing. So, when he proposes an alternative hypothesis to the myth of all against all in nature, it took both the film, and soon afterwards, an explanatory passage in Kissinger’s insightful history of international relations, for the penny to drop – Hobbes! We are so used to believing in Hobbes’ theory of all against all, that we forget it is merely a theory.

Ricoeur, when he speaks of good will, generosity and recognizing oneself in the other, and hearkens back to the ancient activities of gift exchange and celebration (a concept of Marcel Mauss’s which he studies in depth in The Course of Recognition, 2005, 225-245)* is proposing an equally valid scenario. One of compromise in the unpredictable encounters between fallible human beings.

By recognizing the other as oneself, do we perhaps not come nearer to Buber’s I and thou, instead of oneself and another?

*In an earlier section (161-171) of this work, Ricoeur devotes some thoughts to Hobbes, which will be the subject of a future blog post.