Philosophical life as gift economy; or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the gift (A year in funding review)


I’ve revised the Philosophical Counseling tab so as to reflect the changes in philosophical life. Over the year, I’ve been making revisions, but this one is the whole hog. Please have a look at it and tell me what you think. You can leave comments beneath this post or drop me a note via email. Questions, objections, smirks, eye rolls, murmurs, doubts: all are welcome. Especially objections. As I write, I’m still finding the conclusion I’ve reached thoroughly uncanny (Unheimliche). The trouble with good reasoning is that, if the argument is sound, you have to assent to the conclusion. I can’t say that it’s not unsettling, however, since it doesn’t square at all with common sense. I have to remind myself that I was once a very practical boy who grew up, a lifetime ago, in the midwest. Ubi sunt: where is that towheaded, sensible child now?


1. Always start with the conclusion and then work your way backward. It’s poor form in storytelling, I know, but just the thing for philosophical sense making. By my accounting, the latter trumps the former, and the truth of the matter is as much Hegelian as it is Eliotian: “In my beginning is my end.”

2. The end therefore at the outset. I would like to share with you two uncanny experiences I had a few weeks ago in early January. On two separate occasions, I went to make bank deposits. Twice, I looked at the amount, which (for all those concerned and puzzled by how ends make themselves meet–more anon) was in a fine state, and thought, “This bank account is not mine. It’s ours.” What a puzzling statement to make. A reeling, disorienting, whirligig statement. What could the voice making it possibly mean, and why, of all people, was the voice addressing me? I’ve been trying to make sense of the voice’s conclusion–not a revelation but, more accurately, a conclusion of an as yet unconstructed argument–for weeks. I went in search of the premises.

3. But first a few good words about my friend Hegel and his tragic sense of life.

Over the past year, I’ve held, because I’ve painfully learned the hard way which is also the only way, that our lives follow certain “lived logics.” My dictum has become that “we must live things out before we rule them out.” By making this claim, I may be vulgarizing Hegel, but I’m not doing him a disservice. (Hegel nods his head in approval.) For, according to Hegel, we inhabit certain forms of consciousness (that is, certain ways of being in the world that help us make sense of things) in which certain strategies for fulfilling our ultimate desires make sense to us. Yet as we move through form of consciousness (call it, A), something peculiar happens: we keep running into a contradiction; we experience, through our entire being, the pain of living with P and not-P. The pain we experience is concomitantly intellectual and vital. (I love this woman but loathe this woman all at once.)

To dissolve the contradiction in order to retain form of consciousness A, we deploy various strategies. I don’t mean to ruin the story, but I’m going to hasten to the end. Each strategy will fail, does fail, cannot but fail. Each particular strategy will run us into a contradiction, as if it were bumping, then ramming, then smashing its head against the wall. If we’re courageous enough, however, we’ll grant that form of consciousness A simply can’t fulfill our most ultimate desire (this is a very strong can’t: can’t period!). Hopefully, through an act of cunning or casuistry (sometimes translated as “sublation” or “supersession”), we’ll hit on a way of overcoming the contradiction by leaping into some new form of consciousness, say, B. B is great and wondrous because it promises to overcome the contradictions in A even as it refines and cultivates our ultimate desire. B is a marvel. In the leap, which is not a blind leap but a skillful leap, we have changed, become new but old, old but new. But then B will also lead to its own set of contradictions, and away we go again. Point 3 can be aptly summarized in a single word: life. (If you don’t see point 3, then I’m not sure you’ve lived.)

4. The first corollary to this Hegelian line of thought is “slapstick.” On the one hand, while we’re committed to a form of consciousness A (for days, months, years, half a lifetime, and so on), we just can’t see our way out, just can’t imagine any other way of being in the world. No other way “lights up” for us, remaining dark and unintelligible and offstage, so offstage as to take the idea of being offstage with it. On the other hand, after we’ve made the leap to form of consciousness B,  everything now seems so obvious, as if we should have seen it all along, years ago. To us looking on from B, it is now so self-evident why form of consciousness A couldn’t work–not just didn’t work but couldn’t possibly work–and why B possibly can. B is like love.

If we’re not careful, though, this “as if we should have know better well before” can mislead us into thinking that we really should have seen this all along. Nonsense. Patent, illogical nonsense. Hegel shows us that we couldn’t have and, moreover, that it’s OK that we couldn’t have. It’s beautiful how our lives fall into order and glorious that we are now here, here and now, who we are. It’s beautiful that we’re not gods. Now, we can know ourselves better.

5. The second corollary to this Hegelian line of thought is that, for the courageous few, tragedy begets comedy. Prima facie, we do seem dim-witted, having to live out one strategy of retaining what we’re committed to after another after another, before we can let go of A. But the letting go of A is also a “comic leap” into some new form of life. Most will remain in A because they lack the courage, understanding, and imagination. We, in B, should learn to pity those in A.

6. The final conclusion to the Hegelian story must be that the right form of consciousness is the one that puts us, finally, at home in the world. “Absolute knowing,” in the all too human sense, is not man becoming god but man sitting right with the world, with himself, with himself in the world. It–this form of life–is not conflict-free or a state of ultimate perfection. Not Aristotle’s unmoved mover contemplating himself for all eternity. Not absolute bliss. Rather, it is a goodly human way of being in which the most fundamental, structural contradictions have disappeared.

7. Points 1-6 (this but one example of educare) should be seen as stepping stones on the path of money talk. Points 1-6 a prolegomenon to money. Now for the money proper. The money talk.

The question I wanted to ask myself finally became clear at the end. The question, which presented itself like a pigeon on a branch, was what economic model would not contradict my main premise: “We’re trying to lead philosophical lives–fully integrated, meaningful, self-reflective existences”? Notice the “we” rather than the “I.” Also, focus your attention on the words “fully integrated,” that is, on the wholeness condition. It turns out that every funding model but a gift economy yields a lived contradiction inasmuch as it falls afoul of the claim to wholeness. I know because, Chaplin-esque, I’ve lived them all out, then ruled each out in turn. I’m a very slow learner, but then so are all of us. Let’s remind ourselves, here, that that’s OK. (A note about education: learning, pace our educational system, is not about getting right answers at the start. The smart kids make for unwise adults. Learning, rather, is about loving all our errors because they have led us, like stepping stones, to where we are today. Being complete, in one sense, means understanding our story all the way through.)

In the following brief review, I place each model in the proper logical form and then show how a contradiction leads me to try out the next model. Three words are in order. First, “right logical form” means that, in actuality, I mashed together many forms in different ways, tried more than one model at the same time, etc. Arranging them in the right logical form helps to elucidate the muck-ups and the next steps more perspicuously. Second, the inset remarks apply to models above. E.g., the first inset mark applies to i) and ii). Etc. Third, remember to pause and laugh where appropriate.

i) Hourly Rate–Stipulated

ii) Hourly Rate–Negotiated/Sliding Scale

Contradiction: How much should I charge for a post-script? If the question sounds absurd, that would be because it is. Suppose I’m writing a letter reply. If this conversation lasts exactly 1 hr., do I bill “the client” for a postscript? But the postscript is written after the hour is up. The premise is that the philosophical life runs exactly 1 hr. My experience is that the philosophical life runs over 1 hr. But how can the philosophical be both an hour long and more than an hour long? Contradiction.

Remarks: First, provided I assent to the conclusion, this also rules out having an office, because the latter is the space in which “the hour dwells.” And supposing a philosophical day weren’t cut into hours–what then? Second, if the point about post-scripts seems rather trivial, I’d invite you to think again. It’s actually quite painful. Having a philosophical thought but being forced either to keep your mouth shut (after the hour’s up, mum), to open your mouth and make it an act of “good will” (then the other feels bad indebted), or to open your mouth and bill for it (then you feel small and petty: felt that). The whole thing is rather sad, a microcosm of our current, self-dividing, freelancing economic model. It’s shitty.

General Observation: You can see that this is not about money per se but about separateness and togetherness.

Proposed Solution: Adjust the basic unit such it is is not an hour but a conversation.

iii) Conversation Rate–Stipulated

iv) Conversation Rate–Negotiated/Sliding Scale

v) Conversation Rate–Fair & Reasonable Standard

Contradiction: How long pray tell is the philosophical life? How long is a discrete conversation? The contradiction is that a conversation X that runs from T1-T2 is set over and against “that which is not a conversation” which runs from T2-Tn. But a philosophical life also takes place from T1-Tn. So, a philosophical life does and does not take place from T2-Tn. (Same problem: if I write you a note after our conversation is over, how much do I charge for that? Etc.)

Remark: The pain I experienced was the pain of feeling as though we had arbitrarily drawn a line between the examined life and the unexamined life. The line either kept us apart, or we violated it and apologized. Something had to be amiss here.

Proposed Solution: Funding more like tithing. Payment made monthly, quarterly, etc. for supporting my philosophical life.

vi) Tithing

vii) Gift (original view)–Supporting My Philosophical Life

Contradiction: The proposal seems to be that you’re paying to fund my way of life. That’s not entirely untrue, but it is incomplete. The trouble is that this is very much a charity model, according to which I benefit while you give freely. This model implies that your life is not  philosophical or not thoroughly philosophical, but mine is. But then how can it be that philosophical life exists and doesn’t exist when we’re together? Or is it that it goes away for you when we’re apart but stays with me throughout?

Remark: The implication is that there is, still, a sense of as-yet-overcome estrangement in models vi) and vii). And, by now, I hope you’re seeing that models i)-vii) are really just one attempt after another to overcome alienation. Each fails because each, given the terms provided, is doomed to fail. They simply can’t work, and each, logically enough, gives rise to the next. The new attempt broadens the old attempt but not wide enough.

Solution: Change “I” to “we.” This is what Hegel was saying all along.

viii) Gift (modified view)–Supporting Our Philosophical Life

Remark: The gift economy is “absolute knowing” in the human, all too human sense. By now, what you should be noticing is this magnificent plenitude, the spreading out from i)-viii), the abrazos of life. Giving wholeheartedly is giving without reserve or remainder. Giving wholeheartedly is the overcoming of alienation and the embracing of wholeness within and without (integritas). The gift says that we get in touch and stay in touch even during our good-byes.

How obvious now that philosophical life is not mine alone or yours alone. If it is to be philosophical life, it must be ours. Hence, my bank account is not my bank account. It is, because it must be, because it cannot not be, ours together. How obvious now.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “On Lived Logic and Speculative Philosophy”

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