Gift economy worksheet for philosophical practice

The following is the latest version of the gift economy worksheet I’ve begun going through with new conversation partners. It’s been quite illuminating to go through the process of inquiring with another with the common purpose of reaching mutual understanding.



This worksheet is the result of about 2 years of thinking about how to create a more just small-scale economy that is in tune with leading a philosophical life. The purpose of the worksheet is to help us figure out how we can carry on well together. The reason I call it a worksheet is that it’s intended to take us through a set of procedures in the hope that we’ll arrive at a good enough answer to the question: “How much is it appropriate to give?” That answer may change with time and as a consequence of further considerations, but the first answer, being good enough, gives us a good enough place to begin.


A gift economy is a flow of givings and receivings. The gifts the giver offers are of the kind that they are meant to meet the other’s material needs; the receivings are acts of gratitude to the one in virtue of his having offered the right kind of thing.


There are two main reasons why it would be a good thing to participate in a gift economy. The first is that it seeks to re-educate us so that we come to focus our attention more and more on the social relation (which is held together by genuine human needs) and less and less on the commodity form (which is meant to satisfy narrowly construed self-interests). The second is that it gives us the opportunity to cultivate the virtue of generosity. If forms of giving and receiving shape much of social life, then we’d want to learn how to offer and receive properly: to consider how much is owed to whom and for what reason. In ancient philosophy, this was known as dike, or justice.

Basic Ingredients

1. Generosity
2. Onus
3. Wholeheartedness

Questions and Remarks

Question 1 of Generosity (Q1): How much are you able to give in order to meet some of my material needs?

In answering this question, you’ll need to focus your attention on the social relation holding us together, not on the incorrect thoughts that you’ve purchased some commodity or that you’re being billed for some service rendered. You’re not paying for a conversation, for some insight, or whatever; rather, you’re helping to maintain my philosophical form of life.

Some people offer gift contributions after each conversation; others do so weekly, monthly, or quarterly. If it helps in your considerations, you can invite me to inquire about my own particular material needs. These would include housing, food, energy, travel, health, and communication (notably, Internet). Since January of 2013, I’ve been supporting two of us: my love Alexandra and me.

A number of conversation partners offer gifts in the form of checks or increasingly via PayPal. The gift contribution goes  directly toward meeting our material needs so that we can live simply and in accordance with philosophical life. We seek, above all, to be living examples of this beautiful way of living.

Question 2 of Onus (Q2): Would giving this much make it difficult if not impossible for you to care properly about what matters most?

Early on, this question is not always easy to answer, since it may seem as if you have lots of ongoing expenses and a number of outstanding debts and thus that any amount would be an onus. However, your considerations should be squarely on what truly matters for a life to be good. If you desire the wrong kinds of things or are dissatisfied with certain aspects of your life, then it’s likely that your expenses will be high. You’re spending due to a lack of self-sufficiency or out of an overestimation of the value of certain objects.

If you’re feeling confused about what could be burdensome for you, then I’d encourage you to draw a distinction between desires for the right kinds of things (love, friendship, contemplation, etc.) and desires born out of dissatisfaction and in search of the wrong kinds of things (licentiousness, excessive wealth, fame, social recognition, status, etc.). It’s worth pointing out that the nature of these desires will become clearer over the course of our philosophical conversations.

Question 3 of Wholeheartedness (Q3): Would you be able to give this much without reserve or hesitation, in a fully considered Yes rather than out of half-heartedness?

The term ‘wholeheartedness’ is intended to capture a sense of being properly motivated that is akin to but not the same as (say) being a good parent. The good parent is ‘all in.’ He or she gives out of plenitude, as if by necessity; not out of fear born of scarcity. The good parent does not feel as if he or she is being duped or robbed or is getting a ‘raw deal,’ nor is he or she looking to get the most by offering the least. The good parent offers freely ‘just enough.’


Consider moving from Q1 to Q3 with the goal of arriving at a good conclusion. The process may require that you go through loops before you’re able to come up with a good enough answer.

Q1 helps you to come up with a reasonable candidate offering and to test that offering for generousness. If, given your available means, the offering is too little, then it would not count as being generous or as being generous enough. Consequently, you’d need to ask Q1 again in order to supply a new answer.

Q2 allows you to test the offering arrived at by the end of Q1 to see whether it is too much for you. If offering this much would count as a burden for you, then you may need to reconsider your possible gift by entertaining another candidate answer to Q1. This new candidate would then be tested by asking Q2 again.

After the first two questions have been answered and both tests have been passed, then you should have arrived at a level (for Aristotle: ‘the mean’) of proper generosity. This would be neither too much (onus) nor too little (stinginess) but rather just enough.

Q3 invites you to consider the spirit in which the offering is made. Can you offer this much with open, outgoing hands? If, after hitting upon the mean, you can’t give this much without feeling self-conflicted, without vacillating, or without sensing scarcity (as if the gift were depleting your stores), then we’d need to inquire into what reasons there might be for your feeling this sense of half-heartedness or lingering disquietude.

Mutual Understanding

The aim of this worksheet is to arrive at mutual understanding: one offers a gift wholeheartedly to another and the other is able to accept the gift just as wholeheartedly. The worksheet, accordingly, is an example of seeing to each other by seeing each other. The process is intended to take place in ‘living speech,’ it can be slow-going, we may need to return to earlier questions more than once, and there are bound to be hesitations, pauses, and uneasinesses before there is graceful ease. And yet, the beautiful thing about this process is that it allows us to put words to what often goes unverbalized, to unearth assumptions that often go unnoticed till later on, and to think together in a way that is compassionate and resolute both. Mutual understanding certainly feels like seeing eye-to-eye.

Unfolding of the Gift Economy

The initial wholehearted gift and the wholehearted acceptance of the gift do not constitute a binding contract, promise, or invariant arrangement; the gift, given wholeheartedly, is accepted wholeheartedly. However, the amount of the offering may change over time and with reason. At certain times and due to changing circumstances, it may make sense for you to offer more, less, or something else. We’d want to inquire about your reasons for wishing to explore this change. And yet what needs to be underscored from the outset is that the more your life comes to order, the easier it will be for you to give freely.

Further Reading

Elucidation of Conditions

Philosophical Justification

Visions of being human: Contemplation and action

I’ve been trying to understand what makes a certain joke funny. It is: “I’m a person. [pause] I get things done.”

The pause between personhood and the completion of actions allows for one to be surprised by the identification of a person with successful action. This joke is not too far afield from Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Action was not always the center of human life, the point around which life turned. Contemplation was. Thus Plotinus writing in the 3rd CE:

And indeed men, whenever they become too feeble to contemplate, undertake action as a shadow of contemplation and reason. For since the weakness of their souls does not make contemplating fit for them, not being able sufficiently to grasp the object of contemplation, and through this not being fulfilled, yet desiring to see it, they are brought to action, so as to see what they cannot grasp with intellect. Thus whenever they make, they themselves want to see it and they want others to contemplate and perceive whenever their intention as far as possible becomes action. We will find then in all cases that making and action are a weakness or a side-effect of contemplation, a weakness if one has nothing after the action, a side-effect if one has something else that is superior to the action to contemplate it. (Ennead IV.31-43)

How did we go from a conception of human beings as, at their best, contemplative animals to one in which they are creatures who act for the sake of getting things done?

‘Beauty of soul, according to nature’: A short course at Schumacher College

I have been invited by Schumacher College, which offers “transformative courses for sustainable living,” to teach a short course in November 2013. The following is my first attempt to make out what the course will be about.

Philosophical Background

Ancient philosophers held that a good life was one lived according to nature. Notably, ‘according to’ carries a stronger sense than legal compliance or behavioral conformity; a more intimate sense than logical consistency or pure rational assent. It involves living one’s life in such a way as to be in harmony with or generally attuned to nature; to bring one’s life into complete agreement with nature’s ways; perhaps, in some cases, to yearn to restore a sense of unity that has been lost between human beings and the natural world. As my friend David E. Cooper has argued in Convergence With Nature: A Daoist Perspective (2012), the key to the Daoists’ account of a good life is that a person cultivate a set of virtues or excellences (de) that accord with nature’s course (dao).

Throughout the week, I wish to make clearer the relationship between a particular kind of admirable person (namely, a beautiful soul) and a metaphysical picture of reality (a course, a Way).

Course Description

In this course, ‘Beauty of Soul, According to Nature,’ our subject matter is beauty of soul, a subject introduced by Plato and famously discussed by Plotinus. Our manner of proceeding throughout the week will be through philosophical inquiry. Our aim, however, is not to become better informed about a certain conception known as beauty of soul (or whatever) but rather how, through practicing the art of inquiry, we can be put on the path to becoming beautiful souls ourselves.

The term, ‘beauty of soul,’ is intended to highlight the split between the good and the beautiful evident in the modern world as well as to bring the two back together. Quite recently in ‘Beauty of Soul: A Conversation’ (forthcoming, 2013), my friend David and I spoke about this connection. A beautiful soul, we said, is an individual who has achieved a harmony of virtues such as humility, patience, and openness, and who exhibits beauty in his or her appreciation of beauty. In this week-long course, I would like to explore further how cultivating beauty of soul requires a certain convergence with nature. How might a greater and more sensitive understanding of our various conceptions of nature–as source of all that exists, as the name for transient beings that come into and go out of existence, as the world that knits together transient beings, and so forth–be necessary for a person who longs to achieve harmony and tranquility of mind and effortless, graceful action?

The Nature of Philosophical Inquiry

We will need to understand more fully what is this mode of inquiry that I call philosophical. Each philosophical inquiry is about some subject matter but is also ‘of’ itself. That is, an inquiry about courage must also and at the same time be an embodiment of, or performance in, courage–perhaps the courage to follow a dangerous line of thought through to the end in spite of one’s uncertainty concerning what could come next or this might mean. Similarly, an inquiry about attentiveness must also be an exercise in being attentive (e.g., to the tenor of the other’s voice, to the hues of the birdsong). In which case, learning how to inquire, in a philosophical manner, about something you care about invokes the virtues that make undertaking this inquiry possible in the first place and that sustain it along its course.

In this course, we will thus have to inquire into what virtues make a beautiful soul beautiful. Some candidates could include openness, compassion, courage, patience, and humility. These may or may not be the right ones, and there may or may not be others in need of elucidation.

Excursus: Gracefulness and Aggression

I want to say that gracefulness–or maybe gracefulness together with a light sense of humor–is the demeanor of a beautiful soul. The beautiful soul acts gracefully and cultivates gracefulness. However, one question that has emerged in various conversations with philosophical friends has been whether my understanding of beauty of soul (or, what is the same thing, radiance) can allow for moments of disruption and cases in which aggression may be warranted. If beauty showing forth in goodness is the main orientation for this person’s life, then where might one put the sublime, the disruptive force of confusion, the times of struggle and despair? And isn’t the right emotional response to be angry when one is faced with injustice, to be properly aggressive with one’s lover when one is sexually aroused?

This is a good question we may consider at some length this week.

Spiritual Exercises

How might the week go? It should consist of spiritual exercises. Pierre Hadot writes that spiritual exercises are modalities whose end is to transform our perception of the world. I provide examples of spiritual exercises in this post. I take it that philosophical inquiries consist of any number of spiritual exercises.

During the five days we spend together, I anticipate undertaking inquiries in the following ways: going on nature walks, performing sitting and walking meditations, writing love letters, reading short passages from the Daodejing and from Plato’s Symposium, undertaking individual inquiries in front of the group, learning to speak directly and earnestly, learning to eat mindfully and contemplatively. And yet, even if there needs to be some idea of what we might do before the week begins, I tend toward the unrehearsed, the unrecited, the improvised for reasons I give here.

(For me, this post is a meditation, a spiritual exercise in ‘what it is like to…’)

On 3 moments of freedom

Let’s examine a few different conceptions of freedom in hopes of arriving, in the end, at where we began.

In his famous essay, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” the contemporary philosopher Harry Frankfurt states, “According to one familiar philosophical tradition, being free is fundamentally a matter of doing what one wants to do.” This conception of freedom seems to make sense of a child’s experiences in which he does what he wants to do and it would seem that so long as he does what he wants to do he is satisfying his desires. He wants to go outside and play and he does; he wants a treat and he grabs a cookie; he wants to draw and he starts drawing. And it would seem also that he is unfree in cases where what he wants he does not do (e.g., he wants to but does not get to go outside to play in the rain) and in cases where he does not want what he ends up doing (e.g., he does not want to eat vegetables but ends up eating them anyway).

If doing what one wants to do just is freedom, then what are we to make of an adult’s experience of doing what he should do despite the fact that he does not want to do it? It would seem that this is precisely freedom, for in these cases I am not motivated by my desires but by my reasons. I may perform my filial duty to care for my ailing father who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s despite my desire to go out to dinner with my friends. I reason that what I should do takes priority over what I want to do in cases where I am responsible for others, where I ought to fulfill certain duties, and where it would be right for me to restrain my inclinations in the face of higher demands.

The danger in the first conception of freedom is that one never grows up because one is unable to recognize the claims of others. Yet the trouble in this second conception of freedom, it seems, is that I may end up doing typically or only what I should do, never or rarely what I want to do, with the result that I am torn between my duties and my pleasures. It may seem as if I have left, so to speak, my self behind. What now?


We could regard these first two conceptions of freedom as moments in the itinerary of our spirit. The first conception cues us into what we want. The second conception suggests that what we want may not be ultimate or determinative: that we may need to learn to see other reasons for acting if we want to grow into ourselves. But, by my reckoning, the latter cannot be the final stage of consciousness since it may bring us to exhaustion. Instead, we would need to return to the first conception of freedom and ask: Could it be that freedom just is doing what I really want to do with this “really wanting to do” meaning that I have broadened my set of considerations to such an extent that I am going again along with the way?

To see how this might go, let’s consider an example of someone who thinks in terms of thinness. In the first moment, I might ask, What is it I want?

A: I want to be thin.

I could then live out a conception of freedom in which I was doing what I wanted to do in making myself thin. Later on, I might come to an awareness that I want things that I should not want. Then, in the second moment, I might ask, What should I be doing if what I want is to be thin?

A: I should, e.g., count calories, restrain myself, exercise X many hours, hire a personal trainer and life coach, etc.

In this moment, we have been introduced to the stern voice. The stern voice (the ought) commands the servile voice (desire) to execute certain tasks. This moment of consciousness is crucial because it brings us to an awareness of our self-division, strife, and tiredness. Our freedom according to this conception rests on rejecting or renouncing some part of ourselves, on some stern performance of the will on behalf of something higher.

Out of exhaustion and during a moment of insight, we can ultimately return to the first question, which is now properly reformulated: when I examine myself, what do I really want?

A: What I really want is to be at home in my body when my body is actually flourishing.

Once we can figure out what this means, we will know what it is involved, in a different key, in doing what I want to do or–what is the same thing–in living according to nature.


The summary of the inquiry could run:

1. What do I want?

2. What should I do when I want the wrong thing?

3. When I say I want…, what do I really, ultimately want?

Of tree climbing and tree-hugging

In this corner of rural Pennsylvania, there are no rocks to climb. But there are trees to sit near the top of. Beyond prospects and horizons, tree climbing presents feels. A lot of back stepping, open hands, heel hooks, and mantling. Some lines of bark running in north-south pinches. Some textures like dried coral.

You go and climb a tree because you want to live deliberately. You want to take responsibility for a life that can only be yours if you are awakened to danger, risk, to the nothingness. You go to the tree because you want to feel your body fully engaged, your fingers rounded into sloth claws, your thighs holding yet relaxed, your heels exacting and happy. You would not go up to propagate an idea of the picturesque, to gain a distant view of some proverbial setting sun. For even when you ascend thirty feet, your attention remains with the near, the close up: the partial attention and partial relaxation of muscles, the natural sounds of moving pant legs and breathing.

You do not shimmy up a tree out of fear or boldness but out of reverence. The form of attention you cultivate is caution. Not tentativeness or reserve but exactness, steadiness, stillness. Not calculation or measurement but ‘only this far.’ In some cases you go up, pause here, and down-climb; in others, you examine a tree for climbability. You pull on the tree bark, it breaks off in your fingers or scrapes off with on toes, you walk around the back, and then you walk away quietly, hands in pockets.