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”

On lived logic and speculative philosophy

The Stoics enjoined their pupils to live according to nature. The dictum, in essence, says that metaphysics is the way of ethics. If my way of my life is not in harmony with the way of the world, then I shall be overcome with strife, believing either in the power of my will to crush and bend back, in the crushing power of nature to lash and destroy, or in the demonic mystery of all things unintelligible to the last. For the Stoics, by contrast, an ever-present awareness that reality was fated to be as it was and could not be otherwise entailed what Nietzsche would later call amor fati.

I must love fate, thought the Stoics, for when I do so then I am free. To illustrate this conception of freedom, they related the story of two men. One man, seeking to pull himself away, gets dragged along by fate. The other man, because he  follows the way of fate, is tranquil. But how could this be? It is because he desires nothing except what comes to pass. The thought, which owes to Epictetus, is even more rigorous. It is that for the one who desires that which comes to pass that it come to pass, for him there comes freedom.

For us, this fatalistic metaphysical vision is not reconcilable with the structure and frame of the modern world. As a result, ethics and metaphysics, the way of the self and the way of the world, have become severed, with the result that how I lead my life seems to bear no relation to however reality is cut up. For how could reality being made up of atoms or DNA or whatever figure into my understanding of myself in anything more than a highly intellectualist manner? It would seem that reality is whatever the best science says it is and that ethics is either the maximization of my preferences (utilitarianism), the fulfillment of my duties (Kantian deontology), or the satisfaction of my desires (hedonism).

This could be no more wrong. As it happens, the results of my life being understood in one set of terms and ultimate reality being rendered in some other set of terms displays a strong “vitalist” recoil and bears profound marks on our practices. In the rawest existential sense, on the coldest days I may feel quite alone and unable to find anything I can lean on. For me, life seems without ultimate support, akin to floating or falling, an experience one philosopher named “metaphysical horror.” Yet might we make amends? If so, how would we compensate for this cosmic cleavage?

One approach would be to elucidate a conception of a “lived logic.” One on level, we might imagine an individual’s life unfolding according to the trying out of an array of background options given to him. Suppose, for example, that P comes from a well-to-do family in which being a banker, a lawyer, or a doctor is immediately given as a final end. Then, attending an elite college is also a given, as is attending elite K-12 schools, and so on. Of course, it it up to P to perform well on the tests placed before him; of course, P’s parents will arrange to have the best test prep tutors, and of course there will be any number of scenarios from which P can select as his life unfolds. And yet, unless P becomes a wanton or a prodigal, a peddler or a pimp–ideas that, on P’s understanding, are scarcely conceivable, “options” that have been ruled out from the start–there will remain a basic sense in which P’s life is also structured according to a lived logic. Relative to this lived logic, anything else is unthinkable and doubtless unendurable.

Suppose, years later, P has indeed become a banker. It would be quite natural for us, who have, all the while, been looking on like gods watching a comedy of errors, to show P how it came to pass that becoming a banker was “in the cards.” It is only now that P is ready for philosophy, only now is he prepared to see that he may not be satisfied with the shape of his life. From one vantage point, in any case, it could be said that P chose to become a banker, and that might not be entirely untrue. From another vantage point, however, there is a lucid logic–one stepping stone here leading to another one there, a kind of following the way set out before him that would have required dragging his heels like a dog to avoid–that is visible as the way of working within the institutional realities given to him. From the outset, P’s life had the “mark” of near inevitability.

Once we have told him this story, the first lesson in P’s path to self-understanding would be to say to himself, “Ah, of course. Now I can see how my life would have unfolded in this way and not in some other. Given X, Y would likely follow. Given Y, then Z. Thank you, good philosopher. For now I can make much more sense of my life. It is as if the whole thing had been fated, as if my life were a drama many of whose roles I once played to the best of my ability.”

P’s education is not quite over since the first lesson would have to be supplemented by a second, an even more abstract one at that. For here we would want to show P that the history of western civilization (and we may be more modest, not wishing to go back too far depending on any number of factors) led to the birth of modern institutions, that these institutions are working just so well, that they define us in manifold ways, and that they too develop and help us flourish or degrade and diminish us according to a lived logic. That is not to say, as the Stoics would, that institutions could not have been built otherwise; clearly they could have. But it is to say that they too “opted,” as it were, under the constraints given them to follow certain paths. And we are the products of those paths.

For the those of us who have understood these two lessons, there comes self-understanding of the kind that puts us back into nature, broadly understood. Behind our backs, as it were, we have lived according to nature. Recognizing that our lives unfolded as if they could not have, so far, been otherwise is thereby freeing. It is a gift which, supposing it could speak, would say, “Knowing thyself is, once again, in line with knowing the modern world. You see both at once, you see yourself in and through all this at once. Be grateful. Be humble and grateful.”

With these two lessons, both of which are at the heart of my way of practicing philosophy, I am doing no more than explicating the good book of Hegel:

Hegel thought [I wrote elsewhere] that in order to know ourselves we had to learn how we fit into the order of things. The story of a individual’s life, he says, is the story of a civilization. But you can’t just skip to the ending even though most of your life has been and may well be spent out of sorts. Have patience. Keep going. Because your story and mine are one, because yours and mine are ours. But to see this, you’ll have to live the whole story through but then once you’ve done this you’ll find yourself at home with yourself, with me, and with all that is and was.

These are not the final lessons, only the first two. Let’s sit and be patient, for we have much to learn. For now, let’s listen to the birdsong and sing the morning hymn.

Thanks to Allie Stewart who, during a recent conversation, said that her perspective on life shifted once she changed the question from “What’s wrong with P?” to “What’s wrong with the world?” I would only modify the latter slightly to read: “What’s wrong with the world is reflected in what’s wrong with P, and vice versa.” Thanks also to Antonio Dias for a lovely conversation yesterday whose leitmotiv was the symmetry of self-integration and world-integration. And thanks finally to many conversation partners in my philosophy practice without whom I would not have been able to work out my current understanding of “lived logic.” Thinking well together is the blessing of friendship and a reminder of wholeness.