‘Therefore, I tried the hammer…’: On how not to receive a gift

The impetus for the following letter was a guffaw. Last week I ordered a copy of Hubert Dreyfus’s Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time and, by mistake, had had it shipped to my conversation partner’s residence.  Here: a non-gift for you! Thanks!

In his turn, he had mailed the book to me. On Monday, I noticed that the package was heavy, and when I opened it, I saw that he had included a cache of Harvard Loeb Edition books (if you’re not familiar, these are the creme de la creme). A true gift then! Ah!

In the letter, the literary persona makes an allusion to the color green. The Harvard Loeb books are this lovely shade of mint green.

Dear W,

I noticed first that the box was heavy. Almost immediately, I ruled out the possibility of your sending sandwiches. Also telling against the sandwich hypothesis was the cost of shipping. Who in his right mind would spend $21 on the delivery of sandwiches for one philosopher? I felt convinced that sandwiches could not be the items inside. In fact, I was sure of it.

The thought of sandwiches lingered. As I opened the package, my mind began leaning–perhaps an apter word is tipping–so then my mind began tipping toward exercise equipment. My apartment, I considered, could always use a decent kettlebell. I have pictures of lakes, of swans, a picture of a 50 yr. old view of the Mississippi taken in spring. In addition, I own a foam roller, a couple pair of Tom’s, but yet no kettlebells. So far, I have not given into despair.

Let’s return to the box, shall we? By now, I have managed to lug the heavy thing upstairs, up all 5 flights of stairs. By now, I was dog tired, the light was shining gaily, the doves were doing their coo-cooing, a new afternoon was blossoming like a child’s second set of teeth. I realized the time was right to act swiftly and decisively, and so I did the latter.

First I tried prising apart the package with the aid of my bare fingers. The tape, sturdy and true, did its job, twice it appears: once to hold items inside, a second time to keep prying fingers without. I yanked, the tape stretched, the package yawned, but nothing budged or broke or gave forth. Mussels, clams, first loves dot dot dot.

I admit, I felt frustrated. (Add an adverb here, if you please.)

Next, therefore, I tried the hammer (I lie). No, I went for the scissors that were scintillating near the cutting board. I tried them, and the tape yielded, as if by the Dao. Just as good wood bends without breaking, it is said, so good scissors cut without shaking. By God, I thought. What scissors, I exclaimed. What magical, incisive scissors. I sat and thought long about the properties of scissors. I thought of silver blades and of razor’s edges. I thought of dawns and of new worlds, but mostly I thought of cutting.

After this moment of pure bliss, nirvana, and whatnot and after a 2 hr. conversation with one conversation partner about bliss, nirvana, and whatnot, I returned to peer inside. It seemed time, so I gave myself full-bore and whole hog to the task at hand. Inside, I found Dreyfus’s book. In the end, it came through unharmed. Hurray!, I said. Hurray! So this is what was weighing everything down all along. I felt lighter, as if I had been relieved of a very heavy burden.

Doubt is like that, I suppose, heavy until it is light. Unbearable otherwise. Know thyself.

I took the box to the recycling bin, a few green threads hanging loosely out the back, and thought how fortunate we humans are to have the capacity to reason deductively and, failing that, to proceed inductively. You see how I have managed to make it in NYC so far.


Some Educational Notes

1.The literary persona, above, is an unreliable narrator, modeled partly on Swift’s narrator from A Tale of the Tub. If you missed this, then consider re-reading the letter with this conceit in mind. (Incidentally, there’s also more than hint of the mock heroic and the melodramatic about the piece.)

2. Among other things, what is being dramatized is the failure to receive a gift properly. Also a set of moral defects: garrulity, self-absorption, self-deception, insincerity, lack of attunement to reality (consider all the cliches and heavy-handed language).

3. The letter exhibits a series of reasoning errors: errors in deductive reasoning first, then errors in inductive reasoning.

4. A meta-level consideration: by writing such a letter to a conversation partner who is himself an excellent writer (a writer far better than I), I’m attempting to thank him in a form that could prove suitable. (Then again, could also be a second error…) Playful and suitable and fun.

5. One job of good jokes, I gather, is to put our reasoning errors on full display. Laughter is a signal that (a) “we all get it” (mutuality), (b) we acknowledge the error, and (c), by acknowledging the error, we are on the way to repairing it. We are learning to see cues for it next time, to keep an eye out for this kind of error in the future. Laughter, on this construal, is a first step on the road to reasoning better.

Gift economy explained, justified, and defended

Gift Economy Explained

1. Suppose A gives B a gift wholeheartedly. (By “wholeheartedly,” I mean without reserve or hesitation, without holding back or misgivings. Positively, I mean: “giving forth freely or receiving plentifully.”)

2. Then B receives the gift wholeheartedly.

3. It follows that B is goodly indebted to A. The debt is lighter, not onerous, because of being indebted for having received well and fitting.

4. It is now B’s turn. In order to discharge the debt, B can explore 1 of 2 options (or both separately or at once).

(a) In due course, B can give a gift wholeheartedly to person C or entity D (an organization, e.g.).

(b) In due course, B can give a gift wholeheartedly to A.


1. B must avoid the common misconception of taking the discharge of debt to be thoroughgoing and final. To the question, “What am I giving a gift for?” B must keep the answer hopelessly vague, “For the purpose of discharging (some of) my debt.” It is not, however, a final discharge because once B gives a gift to A, A is then more deeply entangled with A than ever before. The paradox is that the more A and B give to each other, the more they’re entwined with each other. The more B gives to a third, the more the third is entwined with A and B both. (This is but one articulation of the expansive feature of a gift economy. Giving can also be inviting.) The more entwined, the more they come to rely upon each other. Oh, goodly messy social life!

2. B mustn’t regard his gift as being equivalent in value to the gift originally received. The rule, “Always find an equivalence such that X=Y,” is not the worst definition of justice, to be sure, and yet it cannot hold court in a gift economy. It cannot have a place outside of market exchange (money for good, money for service, etc.). “How much should I give?” is a question that is so poorly formulated that it cannot find purchase in a gift economy proper, only in donor models such as NPR. So the directive that B might follow could be: “Give in the right spirit with the greatest lightness! Give to meet A’s or C’s life needs!”

3. B has to learn not to be in a rush to offload his debt. This is not easy; we are often impatient and believe that we mustn’t be “under another’s thumb.” (NB: a gift economy gets rid of thumbs, having no use for them.) On the other hand, B cannot “hold out” without also removing himself from the gift economy proper. The gift economy gives B the opportunity to exercise phronesis (what gift to whom in which way at what time).

4. A, a mutually dependent creature, must learn patience, since it is not exactly clear where the next gift will come from. I like to say that A must learn to receive blindly, the gift being “just around the corner.” Of course, B could, in his turn, turn and give a gift to A, but then B may also give a gift to C instead. (Is the “instead” warranted here?) Clearly, a gift economy builds in uncertainty (who to whom when?), yet it also works to establish a network of ground level trust. A may not know from whom the gift will come, but A, through experience, has found subsequent gifts to be “just around the bend.”


1. A gift economy models good givings and receivings: good givings and receivings of words, gestures, actions, objects, and money. Accordingly, it is an ongoing exercise in friendship and love. (For more on this line of thought, see my short post on material inferences. It’s a good, short piece. If you live according to good material inferences, your life will be changed for good.)

2. A gift economy acknowledges, more openly than other financial models, the extent to which human animals are dependent upon each other. P’s claim to Robinson Crusoe-esque self-sufficiency is contradicted any time P swipes a credit card or uses the subway. A gift economy points us in the direction of analyzing how mutual dependency can be made good, as opposed to exploitative, miserly, sweet dealing, winner takes all, and so on.

3. A gift economy can let us accept money as one kind of gift among others, and it does not rule out the idea that A and B may give each other the same sort of gifts (a gift amount on a regular basis, say) time and again. The hope is that, through active participation in a gift economy, we will learn how to defetishize commodities.

One of Marx’s greatest insights remains his claim that commodities have become “fetishes” in the sense that an economic exchange foregrounds the objective relation between items (my money for your mangoes) at the same time that it obscures the subjective relation between persons. When I go in search of the “sweet deal,” I reduce my considerations to the simple calculation of getting the most while giving the least. In so doing, I have lost sight of the history of making, of the creative agent who made the product or who made the product possible. (The factory model points us to Marx’s other great thesis about social alienation: the estrangement of the agent from her work.)

The fetishization of commodities, Marx held, has become near universal (below, however, I consider “nook” and “cranny” exceptions) with the consequence that we no longer look, when we consider the objects that make up our everyday world, to the human powers behind and within them. An iPhone is “ghostly,” therefore, because it seems to have no past, no history, seems to arrive in our hands and work as if by magic.

A gift economy tries to “wind back the clock,” showing what hands and minds were necessary for me to receive this check from you. To this extent, the gifts I receive are “aestheticized” through and through. The stamp and the wave across the stamp; the envelope; the writing on the check; the card marked up with flowing pen; the labor you had to undertake to put this check in my hand: all of these are parts of the gift, all parts that I must acknowledge as fully as possible.

4. A gift economy invokes phronesis as a virtue of justice, not justice according to which each receives exactly the same. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks of a muscular man needing more food than a scrawny man. He says that the “mean,” which amounts to a rule of thumb, should guide our apportioning of food. It is a gross mistake in justice to believe that each can be given the “exact same” in all things; humans start off in diversity and become more diverse with age and experience. Instead, phronesis tells us to use good judgment in giving to each person in the right way for the right reason toward the right end. A gift economy is great practice in this: lots of oopses, a few errant passes, and just enough adjustments and amends-makings.

5. As already implied, a gift economy establishes a moral-economic order based on trust and trustworthiness. As she becomes an adept in a gift economy, the agent signals that she is trustworthy. Conversely, a moral-economic order breaks down when a sense of social trust is shaken to the core. “When trustworthiness is lacking, then there is lack of trust” (Daodejing 17).

Objections and Replies

1. It has been said that a gift economy is Pollyannaism. To begin with, one can’t possibly live like this, unless one is being financially supported by some other means. In addition, it assumes that people are angels rather than devils: self-interest, not other regard, trumps all other considerations.

I reply: The implication seems to be that I am going “high-minded” because I couldn’t cut it “low-minded.” This implication is not warranted: in the past, I’ve charged as much as $250/hr. Without blinking, except to consider whether it wouldn’t be more prudent to charge more. This the first riposte. Now a second: insofar as I am able to make a decent living within a gift economy and without resorting to some other means, I embody the counterexample. Third, I assume that people are neither angels nor devils. I assume only that, qua mutually dependent beings, human animals are capable of giving and receiving. The solution to Pollyannaism is actually fairly simple: surround yourself with virtuous and friendly kindred spirits. By my lights, a gift economy in the modern world is “esoteric,” not “exoteric.” The gates to entry are high, yet the life within is good. Within are friends whom one can–and must–learn to trust.

2. It has been argued that the one bestowing gifts (say, the philosopher as gift-giver) is merely giving something for nothing. And everyone knows that anything that is free isn’t worth valuing. Simply look at content on the Internet. Why pay when writers are giving it away for free?

I reply: A gift is given freely (=wholeheartedly) but is not free in terms of content or obligation. A gift, as already noted, entails a debt. The recipient owes a gift, which is to be given to the same or to another. Far from being “something for nothing,” the recipient-cum-giver is in the strange position of having to give, as it were, infinitely: infinitely because wholeheartedly.

3. I grant that gift economies do manifest themselves but then only under extraordinary circumstances. When every house on the block is on fire, then everyone grabs a pail of water and chips in without hesitation or a moment’s notice. That is, a crisis that affects all requires heroic efforts from all. This spirit of we’re-all-in-this-together, however, is the exception that in no way proves the rule.

I reply: We have grown quite cold, haven’t we?, if we don’t see the “extraordinary circumstances” mentioned as longing to be ordinary. It takes no heroic exertion of the will to act beside one’s neighbors habitually, no great strain on the imagination to perceive that without the subway or highway or railway one cannot get to work. Without potable water, one would die of thirst. Without shopkeepers and farmers (now but 1% of the workforce!), we would starve. We are living in a unique period in history when the thought that we are not in this together has led to an economic order that is looking shabbier by the day. Some have too much, most not enough. The Daodejing speaks of having enough as being the basis for being generous. I have found this to be true in my life. As I have come to have just enough, my generosity has grown  infinitely. Having too much or too little uproots generosity.

 4. It has been said that it would be overly optimistic to believe that, in the current economic order, everyone could live in a gift economy. Men have children to feed, and mothers have bills to pay. What of them? Surely, you don’t claim that they too would do well to embrace a gift economy.

I reply: I concede the point, though I don’t recall advocating or recommending a gift economy as a one size fits all model for healing our economic woes. In fact, I would advise a freelancer to sharpen her elbows when she goes to negotiate contracts with corporate entities. I would counsel the project manager to heed the call of prudence. Now, the purpose of this post is to be an apologia for a way of life. It implies that there are nooks and crannies within the economy we have inherited. These nooks and crannies are small in scale, “invisible” in relation to a wider gaze, and open to friends. A gift economy is a small scale experiment, a worthy adventure. I doubt that it is scalable.

When I was reading Chris Bertram’s excellent review of David Graeber’s book on debt, I was struck by the fact that he had reached a similar conclusion: “We cannot take the beast on in a direct assault, and nor should we, but we can work together to develop a more human society within the nooks and crannies of the commercial one.”

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Philosophical Life as Gift Economy; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gift (a Year in Funding Review)”

On a good friend being a good introducer

One of my friends, Dougald Hine, told me once that a good friend is someone who senses when to introduce who to whom. (I take him to be talking about action, not about grammatical constructions.) Let’s parse this statement.

First of all, an introduction is not a recommendation, i.e., not a “should” statement, but a “here you are, go on, carry on” speech act. If it’s done properly, then the introduction is also a leave-taking. (No vanity, just a putting together and then getting off stage.)

Second, a good introduction has a “mood” to it. You cozy the two parties up to each other by making each look sufficiently attractive to the other. (Then hand them drinks and don’t snoop.)

Third, it’s a knack for “paring,” i.e., for sensing that P would go together with Q. “Knowing” would be too strong of a word to get a handle on this knack. “Sensing” is just about right. “I can see how it’s possible that P would go together with Q. I could see how P would be well suited for Q and vice versa. I can imagine P and Q collaborating in myriad ways together. What might P and Q talk about? I don’t know, but their conversation would undoubtedly be interesting.” The stress lies on the knack, a way of seeing that is honed through experience, associating one thing with another, and experimentation. (For the neophyte, there are lots of past oopses.)

Fourth, there is the timeliness to the act. Certain times may be too early and others too late. The remedy for the “too early” is patience. The tonic for the “too late” is Three Stooges. (I jest.)

Fifth, the introducer needs to be able to forget. Provided he hasn’t exercised poor judgment and put together two nasty persons, his responsibility ends with the introduction. So do his expectations. What happens from here on out is anyone’s best guess. He needn’t feel ashamed or be disappointed if “nothing happens” for P and Q. It’s possible that “nothing happening” for P and Q is the lesson for P and Q. (Zen me!)

I’ve no idea what learning to be a better introducer would entail, and I can’t make much of the idea that one could be taught to be a good introducer. My guess is that, with time, the introducer-in-the-making develops rules of thumb and may even learn to be more cautious. (And isn’t growing old about getting the knack for not shooting from the hip?)

Now think fast!: Brief reflections on the making of ‘Despatches from the Invisible Revolution’

The very idea of the book is undergoing a paradigm shift before our eyes. For the life of me, I can’t tell exactly what a book is, what it is supposed to do, how it is meant to loop into or out of our cultural moment, or what purpose it will likely serve in the coming years. But I’m curious, ever so, and I think too that Hegel would have been equally so. It is said of Hegel that he finished the final pages of The Phenomenology of Spirit as Napoleon came dashing on his horse and, as the saying goes, changed the course of history.

I think Hegel would have wanted to know what it means for a book to be made for and written, as it were, to its time. (This, undoubtedly, is why my philosophy book is not yet finished. If I don’t know what a timely book is, then I also don’t know quite how to shape and craft it. I sit with thread in hand.)

When we don’t know what exactly is to be done but yet we can hear the demand to reflect, we try something out and gauge how well it works. With due daring, my friends Dougald and Keith have put together a collected volume, Despatches from the Invisible Revolution, in which my essay on philosophy of education appears. I would like to share with you some rather rudimentary reflections not on what I wrote but upon the making of the book.

The first thing that struck me was the speed with which the book was able to go from conception to completion. I see that the call for submissions went out on Nov. 27, 2011. Dougald also sent his friends a group email on Dec. 2. The book was completed a few days before Feb. 21, and the first contribution was made publicly available on  Feb. 23. The book is to be launched on Feb. 29 at a free public event, the Free Word Centre. As of this morning, Pam at Pedia Press has informed me that my copy has already been dropped in the mail. (NB: I’m including all these links in order to give you only the faintest hint of the network conceit, a prominent leitmotiv of the book. [Don’t worry, longtime reader. My fuddy-duddy self wrote many words about St. Benedict and none at all about networks.] I have  not even mentioned the near infinite speed at which all the tweets have gone out, crisscrossed, been retweeted, got crossed up, and generally caught their recipients in mid-breath or mid-swallow. A swallow, a swallow, a mere flesh wound.)

By my tally, the process took about 3 months, give or take a few days, from start to finish. Equally striking is the fact that the book will be dissemmated in a variety of formats at once: in paperback and hardcover; as an e-book; and as blog installments posted once monthly on the New Public Thinking website. Also of note is how the book was edited and assembled: mainly through wikipages and real time editing (though Dougald himself did most of the editorial work) and by very few people in total. Finally, we might simply roll our eyes over the speed of conception, delivery, promotion, distribution, and review. (There is some talk, though how serious I don’t know, of getting the economist Paul Mason to have a look at it and see what he thinks. You’d be surprised to hear how connected the contributors are to each other and to other well-appointed others in the UK and abroad.)

(Pause and just think: we’re only 2 months into 2012. The contributions were reflections on 2011. Only now is Napoleon’s horse leaning down to drink.)

This, then, is but one line of thought concerning the material production of thinking fast. Bang! OK, people, think fast!

Another is how the writers–eclectic characters and motley figures all–will respond to the events that circled around them. I can’t tell you because I’ve not yet read any of the pieces except for Dougald’s. How well did the contributors do at thinking fast? How did they manage to think in situ as well as post facto? How, in their piece, did they make it out in one piece? How responsive are they or have they been to the questions looming large in our time? Above all, have they thought quickly but not too quickly? If too quickly, then philosophical clarity gets lost. If too slowly, then the time has been lost, the moment missed, the fugitive stillness unfelt. I don’t want any widening gyres unless there are poets on set.

This last about timeliness goes to the preamble I posted on Facebook yesterday. “I can’t help,” I wrote there,

but take glee in the concerted activity occurring at New Public Thinking at the moment. Reminds me of baseball: of long afternoons, of a center fielder patting his glove in the outfield, flicking his cleats against the grass, smelling the buttery air. Nothing… nothing… nothing, the world slowly turning or turning quickly but turning, as it were, without him. The world groping, immobile, other. And then, the sound the bat makes against a ball wound so tightly and then the center fielder and his teammates all moving and moving about with the utmost grace without which they’d surely fall into despair. The wise ones, due to long preparations amid the contemplative silence, now move about gracefully, moving around, round and round each other with concerted steps. Now the world lies open to them, and now they move with it. They hope to avoid disaster.

In my philosophy practice, I see individuals regularly who are stuck–struck stuck–and who yearn to act quickly. “Quick! Get me out of this!” Here, instead, I caution: acting quickly is likely to make you more stuck, stuck in the exile of ceaseless, futile activity. Repeat repeat repeat.

To me, “Now think fast!” can only be attuned to the current historical moment if it has already undergone the long spiritual preparation, those slack, listless, contemplative months, those unrelenting yet vital forms of ascesis. Unless this is so, thinking nimbly and acting virtuously just now! would be either impossible or lucky.

In all honesty, I don’t know what will come of this book–“doubtless not much,” says the betting man off to my right–but I think, at a minimum, it shows careful daring. Over email (think fast!), I offered my full-bellied gratitude:

Another round of thanks and applause to Dougald and Keith for putting this whole thing together. (Here a space in which to insert all the names of people I’ve left out with that forlorn ampersand.)

I’m already imagining some stern-browed craftsman hard at work, lovingly stitching together my hardbound edition and carrying it delicately in his handmade satchel across the icy Atlantic. I expect the book to arrive with due prescience: before the world as we know it collapses.


Hospitality in actu: A search term poem

First Digression

Last night I dreamed I was surfing idly on the internet. Pretty quickly things got dicey. When I entered search terms or a URL into Google Chrome, I was immediately re-directed to a page of ads. “No,” I thought. “This can’t be right.”

No, that’s not quite it. It was rather that “andrewjtaggart.com” did not lead me to my cozy little home, but the name had been thieved and I was held hostage by a wall of ads and text. That page, filled with noise and fuzz, was andrewjtaggart.com.

I thought, “So this is Hell 2.0.” I thought, “So, this is how people experience this site.”

 Second Digression

I glanced at my Dashboard this morning and noticed that someone had searched “resume cv professor andrew taggart.” If you’ve been reading my work long enough, then I hope you’ll laugh at the whole string of characters. (Well, perhaps, the Christian name “Andrew” is not that funny but I digress.)


The poem below is stitched together from search terms that brought some readers to my website over the past couple days. I fear they came away empty-handed. I hear they are demanding their money back.

The purpose of my modest literary experiment is to see whether, in this threadbare tapestry, this withered linen cloth, I can glimpse something of the diversity of human experience; whether I can enact compassion in the enmeshing; whether I can take the dangerous, the rather dangerous and lewd desires alluded to, and hold them up so tenderly; and, most of all, whether I can let in the vulgar, let in the guttural and raise it up too, allowing it to realize its essence in a higher form. Just as knuckles plead to be wrists, so lust sings to be love.

I do not say that the poem is good. I say only that the poem is right-spirited. Let us say: its heart is in the right place.


knuckles feet wrists
arrogant steps
touching breasts
touching lovers breasts
lovers touching breasts
breast touching
breasts touching
breasts touching before
lovers breasts touching
lovers breaths touching marriage
integrity, integritas

Further Reading

I take this to be one example of spiritual exercise (ascesis). The curious reader may learn more about ascesis over here. Scroll down about halfway and, while you’re at it, why don’t you be a good sport and grab the tissue on the floor at your feet.