A Theory of Gift Exchange

25 December 2011

Sunday


There is a tension and a paradox at the heart of gift exchange. The pure gift is given without thought of reciprocity and out of generosity for its own sake, but the very idea of a gift exchange implies that two or more parties will engage in a ritualized and mutual transfer of gifts. Thus in gift exchange, there is an expectation of reciprocity and even of symmetry: gifts are expected to be of roughly equal value, except in special circumstances. And the fact that there are (tacitly acknowledged) exceptions to axiological symmetry is a nod to the fact that gift exchange is a calculation, and nothing is farther from the spirit of a pure gift than the spirit of calculation.

Still, we try, and sometimes we are successful. Moreover, sometimes we are surprised by the unexpected generosity of the other. Sometimes we are presented with a gift completely unexpectedly, from someone we had no expectation of gift exchange. In such circumstances, we are not prepared to give anything in exchange, so we are “forced” to accept the pure gift, for to refuse it would be inexcusable in most circumstances.

Still, unexpected gifts are sometimes refused. It is not uncommon for an individual who looks to another as a potential romantic partner will give an unexpected gift as a way to announce their interest in that person. In a sense, announcing one’s interest in another with a gift is much like announcing one’s intentions and expectations of future exchange. Thus such a gift may well be refused for the implicit contract of future exchange that it suggests. Charitable person will be polite about this and say things like, “Oh, I could never accept such a present, it is much to expensive.” Perhaps they might also add, “I would feel obligated if I accepted a gift like this.”

In this way — and while I have used the example of a gift exchange between potential romantic partners, but it is by no means limited to the romantic dyad — even a forced pure gift, exempt of necessity from immediate exchange, can in fact be part of a gift exchange when understood in a larger context, and therefore fails to constitute a pure gift.

The model of a pure gift is grace, and so the pure gift may be exclusive to theological contexts. While a pure gift may be a rare thing, to what extent can we approximate a pure gift? May be come so close to approximating a pure gift that our gift is, for all practical purposes, a pure gift? I suspect so, as I expect that the more closely a gift approximates the ideal of the pure gift, the more rare it becomes.

Nietzsche wrote the following in his Mixed Opinions and Maxims:

How duty acquires splendor.–The means for changing your iron duty to gold in everyone’s eyes is this: always keep a little more than you promise.

This last suggestion — always keep a little more than you promise — has stayed with me ever since I first read this many years ago. Nietzsche formulates this in the context of duty, and duty is not only a reciprocal and symmetrical relationship, it is usually felt to be a burden. Nietzsche has asked himself, “How can this burden be transformed into something welcome to all?” The surprising answer he gives to this self-posed question is, “Transform duty into a gift” — for when you keep a little more than you promise you go beyond duty in keeping your duty. This is a Nietzschean transvaluation of values of an unexpected sort.

One finds this same idea of Nietzsche’s in the New Testament, in famous admonition, “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” (Nietzsche was, after all, a preacher’s son, and he absorbed some of the radical character of the gospels.) In the Holy Land during classical antiquity, a Roman soldier could legally compel a Jew to carry his pack for one mile. Only one mile was required, after which the Jew impressed into such service was free. Obviously, the Jew felt this law to be a humiliation. The obvious response to such an unjust law would be its repeal. The radical response, the response of the gospels, is not only the go the mile without complaint, but to go an extra mile.

If we can inform our duties, including our duties of gift exchange, with the spirit of keeping a little more than you promise or going the extra mile, our duties are transformed into gifts, and since these gifts grow out of duties, they are unexpected and therefore approximate pure gifts. But there are few who have the moral strength to overcome the feeling of humiliation and moreover to transform this humiliation into what Nietzsche called “golden.” This the world is more marked by impure than pure gifting.

Impure gift exchanges are undertaken with no pretense of being given out of pure generosity. Most gifts are of this kind. When an employer plays an employee more than he strictly has to pay that employee, and the employee works harder than they strictly might be expected to work, economists call this a “gift exchange.” I realized recently that we can narrow this and call it an “economic gift exchange” and contrast it to other forms of gift exchange.

Recently in the Financial Times I read the following in David Pilling’s column, Modern China is yearning for a new moral code:

“Day to day, most Chinese people are able to put aside the broader moral confusion to perform the little acts of kindness and decency that make a society function.”

What Pilling describes here as the little acts that make a society function constitute what we might call a social gift exchange: in a smoothly functioning society individual citizens do more than a narrow interpretation of their social and legal duty would stipulate, and the presumptive exchange for this is to live in a society than is better than that which fulfills the minimum social and legal requirements.

There are many kinds of social gift exchange: a teacher who makes an extra effort to teach and a student to learn, a social worker who goes the extra mile for a client and a client that responds by making an extra effort, and when people yield the right of way for each other in traffic, or when pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicles do so mutually and on the large scale (and, just as importantly, the anonymity) of urban population densities.

There are also many instances when social gift exchange fails, and people behave rather badly with each other. I’m sure that anyone reading this can recall many instances from their own experience when others gave only the minimum but demanded an extra measure for themselves in return, or when people engage in conflict over who is and who is not abiding by the minimum social and legal standards.

This idea of social gift exchange can be used to define a healthy and fully functioning society: in a healthy society, social gift exchange is routine and unexceptional; in a pathological society, social gift exchange is mostly absent. In the big picture, it is to be expected that most societies fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum stretching between the pathological and the healthy, though it is also be expected that in smaller, culturally and ethnically homogenous societies that social gift exchange functions more easily because of shared expectations and a shared understanding — what sociologists call normative consensus.

Thus out of the impure giving of gift exchange, even when undertaken in a spirit of reciprocity and axiological symmetry, something truly noble and socially beneficial can emerge. A social gift exchange that is moreover informed by the spirit of capitalism, that prioritizes delayed gratification as the sure way to wealth, is all the more powerful, since one is not looking for an immediate and symmetrical payoff of one’s social gifting.

As I see it, then, what Marx called “callous ‘cash payment’” and “icy water of egotistical calculation” may be in fact the thin edge of the wedge for a more just and even a more human social and moral order. Of course, as we practice it, it is imperfect in the extreme. Whether or not we might perfect social gift exchange brings us to the traditional question of the perfectibility of man. Yet, short of the perfectibility of man, we can still sensibly ask about, say, the betterment of man, even if short of perfection.

This, then, is the challenge for the large and diverse societies of contemporary nation-states (presumptively established on the basis of nationhood, but in fact established on the basis of the territorial principle in law): how can social gift exchange be encouraged to flourish in a context in which shared expectations and shared understanding may be absent?

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Temporal Illusions

28 September 2009

Monday


Another World, a woodcut print by M. C. Escher

Another World, a woodcut print by M. C. Escher

Everyone is familiar with optical illusions. A mirage of water on the horizon on a hot day, or the appearance of a stick being bent when it is put into water, or Fata Morgana, are examples of optical illusions that are so familiar that we learn to disregard them. There are also optical illusions that can be generated by a carefully crafted illustration, as in the works of M. C. Escher. Specialists of optical illusions make many interesting distinctions within the category, but we will not recount these here.

M. C. Escher, Fish and Waves

M. C. Escher, Fish and Waves

There is a sense in which optical illusions are also spatial illusions (mostly), while some of the optical illusions that involve movement could be said to illustrate temporal illusions. In movement, both space and time are involved so that properly optical illusions that involve motion are spatio-temporal illusions. But a spatio-temporal illusion suggests the possibility of purely temporal illusions. The very idea of a temporal illusion is unfamiliar, but it is a worthwhile conception and once we become familiar with the idea it can be useful to explain experiences for which we have no adequate language.

Once we think in terms of temporal illusions it is not difficult to think of experiences that involve temporal illusions. The most obvious example of a temporal illusion is when time feels as though it passes more slowly when one is waiting for something. There is an old saying to illustrate this: a watched pot never boils. The opposite observation is that time flies when you’re having fun. Psychologists have identified what they call “flow states” in which a person becomes so involved in their work that they cease to notice the passage of time. This is an instance of a temporal illusion.

For my part, I have noticed that when I drive down an unfamiliar road, and then am forced to backtrack along the same route, that the outbound drive always feels as though it takes significantly longer than the return drive. I have always assumed that this is because in the initial drive everything is unfamiliar and one never knows what to expect, while driving back out the same way one remembers at least some of the route. In other words, in a new experience one has a flood of new sensations that populate one’s subjective time consciousness at a higher level of density than familiar experiences. If this explanation has any bearing, it is merely a mechanism, but it does nothing to explain the feeling of time passing more slowly on the first leg of the drive as compared to the second leg of the drive.

The most abstract illusions pose the greatest difficulty for us. Those optical illusions that involve a Gestalt effect such as the Kanizsa triangle, in which one perceives a white triangle that is not an explicit part of the drawing, pose theoretical problems that are not posed by simple optical illusions such as a mirage. (I can imagine a quasi-Platonic explanation for the Kanizsa triangle that would appeal to the receptacle of a triangle that is embodied in such drawings — the receptacle plays a significant role in Plato’s Timaeus.)

A Kanizsa triangle.

A Kanizsa triangle.

The most abstract illusions of all are those that occur without reference to our senses, nor even to space or time. These are the illusions of our minds, of our conceptual scheme. This may sound a little beyond the concerns of most of us, but abstract illusions are actually quite common. We call them paradoxes. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote that paradoxes are the optical illusions of the eye of the soul. I haven’t had time to follow up on this and flesh it out, but the obvious extrapolation would be that purely conceptual illusions like paradoxes are the theoretical basis of all illusions, and if we could formulate a complete theory of illusions we would find that sensory and experiential illusions could be explained by their basis in abstract illusions. Maybe. That remains to be seen.

Kant is remembered as an especially difficult philosopher to read, but we note that Kant elaborated the idea of purely conceptual illusions in the Critique of Pure Reason. In some translations such illusions are called transcendental illusory appearance. This is actually quite a good formulation to encapsulate the idea. Kant was driven to formulate transcendental illusory experience to account for the famous antinomies of pure reason that are central to the argument of the Critique. Kant argued that traditional metaphysics up to his time was bogus because when pure reason attempts to apply itself to matters upon which it is not competent — like the ultimate structure or origin of the world — it falls into paradoxes from which it cannot extricate itself.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a pioneer of abstract illusions.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a pioneer of abstract illusions.

Kant clearly not only saw the danger of abstract illusions, but mapped them out as well as he could with the intellectual resources available to him. After Kant, major conceptual upheavals like the development of non-Euclidean geometry and relativistic physics based in part on non-Euclidean geometry (Einstein used Reimann’s elliptic geometry as the setting for general relativity), as well as Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers, called into question some of the specifics of Kant’s exposition, but the basic idea remains sound. However, contemporary re-statements of the Kantian position such as P. F. Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense and several phenomenological attempts to rehabilitate Kant’s philosophy of mathematics don’t have much to say about transcendental illusory appearance. This seems to me like a potentially very fertile field for philosophical research.

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