Theologians ruminate among inherited concepts and images, seeking to clarify their history and judge it critically. To establish a perspective in which even a single such concept can be brought into question or deconstructed is no easy matter. To bring the entire tradition into perspective and retrieve it in a well-founded way, as Heidegger aimed to retrieve the tradition of Western metaphysics, is a prodigious task. Recently, a larger context for that task has emerged, as Christians learn that their entire tradition is only one fibre in the texture of the human religious quest. The old closures of identity become inoperative and at the same time the security of our origins is withdrawn. Foundational notions such as ‘creation’, ‘election’ (chosen people), ‘kingdom of God’ (promised land), ‘divinity of Christ’, or ‘resurrection’ become increasingly nebulous, as they are put under erasure by the scientific, evolutionist world-view on one side and the critical historical study of Scripture on the other. Metaphysical definitions of these notions yield to the ‘softer’ language of ‘phenomenon’, ‘event’, or ‘process’. Faith may still use the old terms, suitably reinterpreted, to open itself to a gracious ultimate reality, but the texture of the net of faith has become looser (since a tighter net can no longer succeed in holding our minds).
One concept that seemed to be surviving well, and that seemed rather to increase in vividness as the others withdrew, was the notion of grace. Indeed, grace—as phenomenon, event, process—could fill in for all the other notions that had become so elusive, or could provide the key for their post-metaphysical retrieval. Instead of talking of an omnipotent, omniscient Creator, one could speak of a gracious drawing that brought the universe into being according to laws inscribed within it (Teilhard). Incarnation, redemption, resurrection could all be ‘reduced’ (in something like a phenomenological reduction) to an event of grace (and of course the entire vocabulary of the Spirit feeds into this reading). It is against the background of this phenomenological turn in theology that ‘the theological turn in French phenomenology’ (Dominique Janicaud) has had such an electrifying impact, promising a new alliance between faith and philosophy. Jean-Luc Marion’s theological writings do not fuss about ontological claims of classical dogma but initiate the reader into a space, an enveloping event, something like Teilhard’s milieu divin. In this space it makes little sense to define ontological foundations. Rather one discerns its dimensions from within the space itself. Marion’s discussions of the divine distance—a gracious withdrawal to which we are oriented by the icon or by the Cross—and of the call and the gift as fundamental existentials that relate us to God are aspects of this total event, which could be considered a transcription of Heidegger’s Ereignis into the key of grace.
The space that Heidegger explores is that of the togetherness of thinking and Being, that in which mortals ex-sist in the openness of world, and the condition of that space is identified as the ‘quiet power of the possible’ which lovingly grants Being. Being is discerned, in its Jeweiligkeit, its constant temporal arising, to be essentially a gracious event, a gift. In Zeit und Sein (1962), Heidegger spoke of the ‘it’ that grants being, the ‘Es’ in ‘Es gibt Sein’ (‘There is Being’), which is his equivalent of Parmenides’ esti gar einai: “Esti gar einai—‘For there is Being’. In this saying lies concealed the initial mystery for all thought” (GA 9:354). Heidegger had been magnetized by the Parmenidean dictum as early as 1922. The Parmenidean resonances in the 1962 lecture not only steer the career of his thinking to end where it had begun, but might be seen as closing the entire Western career of the thinking of being with a recall of its origin. For the vocabulary of being is receding in later Heidegger, and still more in Levinas, Derrida and Marion, as well as among thinkers inspired by Neoplatonism such as Jean Trouillard, Joseph Combès, or Stanislas Breton, for whom Being would be merely the ‘trace’ of an ineffable ultimate, as in Plotinus. The phenomenological exploration of the given is no longer enveloped by the notion of Being.
If in theology the notion of grace has expanded to envelop and surpass the solid substantiality and sharp definitions of traditional dogma, in phenomenology the notion of givenness (donation) has expanded to embrace and surpass Being. The notions of grace and givenness share certain strengths. They are unitary notions: all the other key notions of theology and phenomenology respectively can be parsed and ordered in reference to them. They are critical notions: they serve to dismantle reifications and dissolve metaphysical blockages. They are charged with immediacy: led back to grace and givenness, theological and phenomenological thought is set in a fresh relationship to its theme and converted away from the merely theoretical to an existential engagement with the given in its givenness.
But the objection that immediately arises is that these notions are convenient abstractions, and that the unity they impose on the vast pluralism of activities and languages of giving or of grace is a metaphysical construction, in fact opposed to the spirit of phenomenology. Marion’s admiring critics—Janicaud, Derrida, Jean-Louis Schlegel or Jocelyn Benoist—find here a basic problem. Since the publication of L’Idole et la distance in 1977, theologians have found in Marion a resource for the overcoming of metaphysics in Christian tradition, but his own vision could also be seen as restoring metaphysics in the key of phenomenology. His donation is as comprehensive as esse is for St. Thomas: the analogy of being is retrieved as an analogy of donation. As in neo-scholasticism, philosophy has a rapport of mutual reinforcement with theology, with no prejudice to the autonomy of the two disciplines.
A questionable feature, again redolent of the metaphysical, is the omni-competence implicitly claimed for the phenomenological approach. In theology, it would be impracticable to reduce the entire content of Christian teaching to a set of phenomenological data. The events attested in Scripture are indeed a Sache selbst to which one may appeal to overthrow inappropriate theoretical perspectives of later theology. But the questions posed to theological judgment cannot all be answered simply by pointing to ‘the phenomena’. Critical theology reassesses the various strands in the web of tradition, using various methods of critical reason, phenomenological reduction, or deconstructive reading as the issues require. To privilege phenomenology as the sole or even as the primary path of thinking is a metaphysical decision that can turn against phenomenology itself and that in theology can actually lead to a distortion of the biblical phenomena. Phenomenology is a method at the service of theological judgment, but it cannot pre-empt the role of judgment, as a free and responsible activity of the reflective mind.
The history of metaphysics can be told as the story of Being, and a rich phenomenology of Being can be construed by reading that history against its grain, as Heidegger does. Similarly the history of theology can be told as the story of grace, and a rich phenomenology of grace can be construed by reading that history against its grain, as Lutheran theologians might attempt to do. The great moments in the history of philosophy are those in which Being is remembered anew, and the great moments in the history of theology are those in which grace is remembered anew, whatever the limits or deviations of the remembrance in both cases. But if we step back from these histories we meet the suspicion that both Being and grace as unitary phenomena are in fact fictional constructs, and that, moreover, no discourse of grace or of Being has been or can be purely phenomenological but all are necessarily imbued with doctrinal presuppositions.
Being is what all things have in common—koinon pasi to on estin (Met. 1004b20). When one tries to give more concrete content to this notion, as in theories of the analogy of Being that introduce varieties or degrees of Being, the suspicion arises that one is no longer talking about Being as such but simply about different kinds of reality. Only where there is a firm metaphysical framework that is first agreed on can one proceed to differentiate humans, animals, angels, and God, in terms of their degrees or kinds of Being. Phenomenology offers no evident support for such a framework. When phenomenologists draft something like it, they seem to be drawing on the expired account of metaphysical habits of thought. Whether the same must be said of Marion’s project is a basic question, to which the answer should not be given a priori but on the basis of close frequentation of his oeuvre, and especially of the central work, Étant donné. Even if the overall structure of Marion’s arguments shows up as a crypto-metaphysics, one may still draw on their rich texture for a post-metaphysical mapping of the contours of reality, in a more pluralistic mode than Marion would himself be ready to countenance. (I understand ‘post-metaphysical’ to mean not that metaphysics or onto-theology is dead or untrue, but that it no longer provides the governing horizon of all thought. The ‘step back’ to prior and more comprehensive phenomenal and linguistic contexts inaugurates a thinking that cannot be fully retrieved by metaphysical reason.)
GIVENNESS: A PROBLEMATIC CATEGORY
Just as ontologists cannot talk for long about Being in itself, but need to refer to concrete beings to flesh out their discourse, so Marion cannot talk for long about givenness in itself, but needs to bring in concrete phenomena—not only ordinary everyday phenomena in general but particular phenomena of a higher order, such as the ‘event’, the ‘call’, or the ‘gift’. He interrogates the gift in view of its givenness just as the ontologist interrogates beings in view of their being. To do so he must construct a unitary theory not only of givenness but of the gift as well, as we shall see.
Granel argues that in order to speak of time-consciousness, Husserl is obliged to invoke elements from the banished realm of perception and intentionality (other than the immanent intentionality of the retentions and protentions of pure time-consciousness). Marion’s discourse of pure givenness may face a similar dilemma. Givenness and phenomenality are one and the same, but phenomenality is more concretely focused and more fruitfully parsed when conceived as givenness, which Marion sees as the pure process of phenomenality, unencumbered by Being. But when one starts to differentiate degrees of givenness, recognizing that not all objects are given in the same mode, univocally, there arises the temptation to consign ordinary phenomena to a lower realm, leaving pure givenness to emerge only at the exalted level of saturated phenomena. Such phenomena instantiate givenness “without the mediation of objecthood or beingness (as, for example, the painting)” (Etant donné, 252). The world becomes transparent to its own givenness; the gift is entirely absorbed in its gifthood. Alternatively, if one says that pure givenness is already realized in common phenomena, must the higher phenomena not then introduce some new factor that cannot be brought under the rubric of givenness? If this new factor is described as givenness raised to a higher power, there is a danger that the unitary, analogical conception of givenness will break down into equivocity.
A unitary notion of grace faces the same tensions. It fares well if one presupposes a metaphysics of creation. All that God has created is his gift, so all is grace. The first theorist of grace was Philo of Alexandria. Grasping Being itself and every human capacity as a gift of the ‘One Who Is’, he identified grace as the supreme archê, determining the nature of God himself and the functions of His powers. His sense of dependence on God, and of creation as a gift, is rather dulled by the wooden metaphysical explanation that all things have God as their supreme Cause (Plant 31), and the modern reader might wish that Philo had followed through on his insight in a more consistently existential style. “All things are a grace of God... All things in the world and the world itself is a free gift and act of kindness and grace on God’s part” (Leg 3:78). “God gives not only the gifts, but in them gives the recipients to themselves. For he has given myself to me and everything that is to itself” (Somn 2:224). Even ordinary perception and thought are impossible unless God opens up the senses: “it is God who showers conceptions on the mind and perceptions on sense, and what comes into being is no gift of any part of ourselves, but all are bestowed by him, through whom we too have been made” (Cher 127; cf. Proverbs 20:12). Thinking of grace has also been supported by a metaphysical anthropology: humans are finite and can act beyond what their finite resources allow only with a supplement of power coming from God, an ontological boost we call grace; humans are also wounded by sin and can be healed and freed from this only by the intervention of grace.
All of this is luminously evident within the metaphysical framework of classical theology. It lies at the base of Augustine’s consistent thinking through of the doctrine of grace, a doctrine closely interlinked with his ontology in his earlier writings, though becoming more tautly and narrowly biblical in the anti-Pelagian tracts. The Reformation shifted the emphasis to a situation of encounter with grace, marked by paradoxes that are not immediately reducible to the classical ontology, notably the idea of an extrinsic justification conferred on the sinner, who is mantled with Christ’s righteousness that remains extra nos. This undercuts the ontological unity of the subject, replacing it with a situational or dialectical identity; the believer is simul iustus et peccator, at each moment condemned by the Law and forgiven by the Gospel, a sinner when he looks to self, righteous when he looks to Christ. Grace is no longer a universal ontological principle, but simply (in the exegesis of Erasmus and Melanchthon) the event of the divine favor, experienced by sinners in existential contexts. The universal principle of grace has become as much an abstraction as talk of being in general. In both cases, the traditional metaphysical account is transformed into and replaced by a plurality of situational discourses. Marion’s phenomenology of a divine call that dislodges the ego, that locates one as a ‘me’ before one is able to say ‘I’, has much in common with the Protestant dialectic of grace; though the more exclusive regime of ‘givenness’ in his recent writings may have diluted this (as J. Benoist suggests in Philosophie 78, 2003).
“What have you that you have not received?” (1 Cor. 4:7). It is attractive to enlarge this question to the most universal level and to make it the basic principle of being. The Japanese begin every meal (and accept money) with the word ‘itadakimasu’, ‘we receive’. It could be claimed that grateful consciousness of receiving lights up a universal feature of all being. But a phenomenology of receiving and its attendant metaphysics court the danger of essentialism. Can one really formulate it as a simple, universal ontological law, on which to build a philosophy of givenness or a theology of grace? To do so seems to override the contributions of interpretation and of faith to this construction of reality. One chooses to interpret the world as gift or to see everything as grace. And each culture develops that act of faith according to its own style of interpretation. If the Japanese, in Shinto mode, interpret the rice as a gift of the Gods, when they put on their Zen Buddhist thinking cap they may interpret the rice as an impermanent phenomenon revelatory of emptiness. Eating the rice as a meditative exercise is no doubt a way of living the moment as a gift. But if a language of gifthood is developed here, it is quite different from and irreducible to the Shintoist one. Christians might claim that their language of gifthood, of thanking the Creator, is the only fully true language, and the phenomenologist might claim to have isolated the essence of gifthood and the correct phenomenological disposition of receiving (perhaps in a Denken that is a Danken) within or beyond all these religious languages. Even if all these languages stake a claim to transcendental comprehensiveness, the mere fact of their particularity and plurality suggests that they are all culture-bound interpretative constructions. Just as we have different kinds of music and poetry, so we have different cultures of giving and receiving, which secrete different ways of projecting a sense of transcendental givennness or gifthood.
‘God is the giver of all that is’. Yes, our experience of receiving grounds this utterance and makes it a useful and convincing one. But it is an utterance of a metaphorical order, an anthropomorphic projection. One can reformulate it rigorously as a metaphysical theory of the communication of being; but this, too, is a culture-bound way of speaking, that may also be useful and convincing on occasion. It is a wholesome exercise to thank God for all that comes from God’s hand, but we less and less understand the meaning of this idea. If the reception of a gift is as difficult or more so than the granting of a gift, as Ricoeur has remarked, the same is true of the reception of life and the world as a gift from God’s hands. To adopt correctly the posture of receiving involves reflections just as complex as those involved in the gracious conferring of a gift, and when the donor is God, the reflections take on a theological character that need not make for simplification—witness the immense controversies about grace, in which it is not at all clear that those who simply threw themselves into the role of pure receivers hit quite the right note. Sometimes we may adopt an alternative approach and allow the things of the world to confront us in their enigmatic thereness, suspending the idea of God as the one who creates and grants them. Our dominant religious vision may need to be supplemented and qualified by rival ones for its own sake, for it risks becoming a convenient simplification, cutting us off from the diversity of the empirical.
I cannot determine here the extent to which Marion’s thought does justice to these perspectives of a historicizing, pluralistic and relativizing hermeneutics, or the extent to which he effectively counters them. My impression is that they represent a real threat to his thought and indeed to any phenomenology that aims to uncover fundamental structures for which universal validity is claimed. This impression is intensified as I examine his recent discussion of the gift, for this theme, which at first promises to enrich and anchor the meditation on phenomenality as givennness, turns out to have an irreducible quirkiness that makes it a treacherous guest within the citadel of phenomenology.
THE PLURALISM OF THE GIFT
The drive towards unity in Marion’s thought needs to be supplemented, or even positively thwarted, by a more thorough attention to the pluralism of the phenomena it seeks to illuminate. His phenomenology of the gift needs to attend to the variety of the practices of giving in various cultures and epochs, as explored intensively in recent decades, even if the result is that phenomenology itself comes to grief. A phenomenologist is likely to intuit the essence of the gift, as if the gift were a reality that presents itself to the mind in its pure form, rather than a complex institution that has no one pure form. What anthropologists report is messier: “we know almost nothing of the system of the gift, because we have failed to apprehend it in appropriate models” (J. T. Godbout, L’esprit du don, La Découverte, 2000, 287). To be sure, Marion’s chief theme is the ethical gift, a private and interior matter, to be distinguished not only from the economy, but from the public institutions of ritual giving, whether the tribal practices studied by Boas, Malinowski and Mauss, or their modern avatars—reciprocal invitations to dinner, wedding gifts, etc. (See M. Hénaff, Le prix de la vérité, Seuil, 2002, 156, 188.) But even in the ethical realm there may be a historical and cultural variety of styles and conventions of giving, and of imagining the act of giving, so that its essence is not easily isolated.
We have no difficulty with the idea that money—buying and selling—is an institution. Only capitalist ideologists talk of economics as a product of human nature. Of course it has some roots in human nature, but to identify these is a difficult task, likely to remain a matter of pluralistic debate. Economic arrangements vary greatly from epoch to epoch and from culture to culture. To say that giving, in contrast, is something immediate and natural would be a mystification. Indeed, in our culture many people are more at ease in economic relationships than in relationships of giving and receiving. To step out of the role of being consumers or employees into the role of being givers or receivers is not experienced by them as a welcome return to something more basic and natural, but as a disturbance of a habit that has become second nature. Giving transcends the calculations of finance, but it demands equally refined reflection on another order of implications. It is not a release into unaccountability. Marion’s ‘giving without counting’ is by no means as natural as breathing; it is in fact an apotropaic gesture, calculated to keep calculation at bay. It is because the accountability of the gift is greater than that of the sanitized financial exchange that the figure of the beggar is a troubling presence on the landscape of a consumer society. ‘Beggary should be abolished’, Nietzsche thought. ‘You feel guilty if you don’t give them anything and you feel guilty if you do’. We may resent paying a bill, but necessity spares us having to think about it. We may not resent our lavish expenditure on a gift, our subscription to the other order of exchange, but that is not because of some blanket ‘unaccountability’ but rather because of the affection we feel for the recipient and that we do not feel for the payee of bills; or because we respond to the socio-ethical imperative of generosity as a nobler form of ‘investment’ than merely complying with the rules of the financial system; or for the apotropaic or cathartic motive mentioned above. To give is to invest something of oneself, whereas to pay is a vulgar action excluding individual creative initiative. To give is ennobling, to pay debasing. Sometimes there is an ethical tinge to one’s decision to pay as an act of honesty or not to pay as an act of protest, but the measure of the action is still the cold quantity of the coin of the realm, whereas the measure of a gift has only a tangential relation to the price paid for it.
One could argue then that the institution of the gift is in fact more complex and elaborate than the economy. But is it not at least clear that there is a qualitative distinction between the two orders? The order of the gift, centred on mutual recognition, and the order of commerce, centred on commodities, have different and contrasting functions. This would appear to provide a solid platform for a philosophy that would unveil the values implicit in the gift and oppose them point by point to those of the economy. However, I wonder if the distinction is sufficiently radical and sufficiently waterproof to serve as a foundation in first philosophy. The frontier between the economy and the gift shows signs of being quite porous. Some say that the expression ‘free gift’ or ‘gratuitous gift’ is a pleonasm. But giving is not a purposeless activity; it seeks to achieve something; and this of itself limits purist claims to utter gratuity. Moreover, we often speak of people giving themselves in service, even though they are paid for it. For the gifts that the apostles receive from the faithful, Jesus uses an economic metaphor: ‘the labourer is worthy of his hire’ (Luke 10:7). The ‘honorarium’ is a form of payment that marks the porous frontier between the mercenary and the gratuitous.
Derrida uses the impossibility of pure giving as yet another deconstructionist argument against essentialism. Just as ‘meaning’ and ‘truth’ never constitute themselves purely but are produced and undercut by the milieu of archi-writing, characterized by dissemination or différance, so the ‘gift’ is produced in a system of exchanges that abolishes its pure constitution and dooms it to remain undecidable. This seems to be what Derrida means by talking about the activity of giving as aporetic or impossible, in the style of Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” (The Unnamable). As in the case of meaning and truth, the phenomenological status of the gift is ephemeral; it disappears in the very act of appearing. A broader and more concrete view of the culture of giving might avoid these strenuous paradoxes, and simply trust in the processes of giving and receiving, in all their unpredictability and in their occasional interaction with ordinary economic exchange. Nonetheless, it does seem that the phenomenology of the gift, when pursued as a quest for essence, foundation, or originariness, runs up against just the kind of snag that deconstruction – or even ordinary hermeneutics – delights in pointing out.
In Marion, far from being reduced to a provisional moment in the web of différance, phenomenology is a stable procedure, establishing basic structures of phenomenality and extending its writ to everything without exception, since everything is given as a phenomenon. Phenomenology, he is confident, can discern the essence of gifthood and thence clarify the essence of being or phenomenality as givenness. The emphasis on the purity of the gift cuts off interest in the impure forms of giving which abound on every side. These invite the attention of an applied hermeneutical phenomenonology, but do not offer much encouragement to a refoundation of phenomenology as a science of essences. Without attempting to master the phenomena of giving by reducing them to a single essence, such an applied phenomenology could draw on the various idiosyncrasies and paradoxes of giving to open up paths of thought contrasting with those suggested by the varieties of economic behaviour. It could explore a variety of hints concerning a gracious reality and the possibilities of using the language of givenness in order to speak of it. But such a phenomenology would never get around to constructing anything like a ladder of analogy between the homely and the transcendental or transcendent usages of the word ‘gift’. The pluralism of the everyday practices and language of giving carries over to the use of this language when speaking of Being or of God. It is a language or a cluster of metaphors that we find useful for orienting ourselves in relation to ultimate realities, but it does not provide a metaphysical map of these realities.
Yet if the theme of the gift complicates the task of phenomenology by forcing it to think pluralistically, its phenomenological promise is such that the phenomenologist cannot afford to neglect it either. If it is a treacherous guest in the household of phenomenology, it is also a guest who cannot be sent away, a gift that cannot be given back. Anthropologists and philosophers are fascinated by the theme, because the activities of giving and receiving open up a realm that is not reducible to technological or utilitarian rationality. Hence the gift is the showpiece of the MAUSS group (Mouvement anti-utilitariste dans les sciences sociales). In the midst of the everyday, with no religious overtones, people continue to give and receive according to an economy (in the wider sense of the word) that cannot be reduced to calculations of profit and loss. Gifts entail and sustain relationships of a different order from those of rationalized urban life. Financial transactions are objective and quantitative, and oriented to an equal balance; giving and receiving are personal and qualitative interactions, with an element of spontaneity and asymmetry that aims not at a return to equality but at a constant spiralling of the process in an ever widening network of relationships. A traveller in Crete relates how he wanted to repay a man who had gone out of his way to help him. ‘Look at the wheel!’, he was told; ‘you will give to someone else in turn’. The wheel of giving is not a closed circle, but forward movement on an open road. “The pleasure of the gift includes the possibility and sometimes the hope of a return, but no guarantee, and certainly no control of the subject over the operation” (Godbout, 182).
Commodity exchange is the machinery of society, but gift exchange is the language of community. Archaic societies may have a merchant class, and be well aware of economics. But “the order of merchandise is deliberately prevented from becoming autonomous in relation to its total social context” (Godbout, 173). Even in advanced societies such a containment and contextualization of the economic order may be found. An admirable feature of Japanese life is that the rituals of giving and receiving are so carefully cultivated. They involve a certain strain, but the Japanese evidently cling to them in order to preserve communal bonds from the devastation of a totally capitalistic society. The homeostasis of giving is not achieved by a once for all levelling of accounts, but by a sustained, agonistic game of give and take: “It is understood that one must neither make the return gift too quickly, for it is elegant to remain obliged to the giver for a certain time, nor to return too much, for this would imply breaking off the relationship, and consequently deciding to extinguish debt and suspend the play of giving” (Hénaff, 277). Consciousness of giving and receiving is heightened reflexively in ritual: the tea ceremony is an enactment of giving and receiving in all its dimensions: hospitality and the appreciation of hospitality are set in a context that allows an attunement to the harmony of the cosmos and a deep gratitude for such humble things as tea and tea utensils. Elements drawn from different religious and artistic traditions serve to bring out these wider resonances, and to allow the everyday activities of giving and receiving to intimate a higher plane of being. This is not a return from the complexity of economics to the simplicity of an older order. What the tea ceremony rather suggests is that the art of giving, like any art, is endlessly inventive. Thus the new field it provides for anthropological exploration is as complex as the field of standard economics, or more so, just as poetic language offers a field of exploration as complex as that of standard linguistics, or more so. Rituals of giving reveal
the imaginary of the gift as such, that which posits that the entire world, the social world as well as the animal world and the cosmos, can be engendered and organized only on the basis of the gifts that people give one another, vital principles or powers in themselves antagonistic, but which the gift has the function of transforming into allies. (Godbout, 188-9)
A well-based phenomenology of the gift should surely center on the intersubjective theme of mutual recognition (Hegel’s Anerkennung). This recognition is not established by gestures of friendship alone:
A supplementary element is needed, this material element, this pledge of good faith, offered as substitute for the one who offers to be associated with it… The ceremonial presentations of gifts reveal a fundamental structure of reciprocity as condition of all social life in the human species. (Hénaff, 179,181)
The purely ethical conception of giving is a modern construct, possible only after the breakdown of public rituals of giving, including sacrifice:
It is because symbolic control by means of ritual is no longer possible that the gift becomes the moral problem of generosity—including unconditional generosity—and that there remains of sacrifice only the ethical element: renunciation… The internalization of the gesture signals the loss of its social function. (Hénaff, 266)
The modern fear of letting the economy be perverted by irrational elements of giving goes hand in hand with the equally modern fear of letting the world of giving be perverted by economic calculation; one seeks “to think these bonds and the market in isolation as two impermeable worlds, of which the first, when it comes in contact with the second, is always contaminated and finally dominated by it” (Godbout, 231). In contrast, even the early Christian texts on which Marion draws emerge from a context of communal practices of giving and receiving. These survive in part in the Christian liturgy today, which although no longer a “total social fact” or “that symbolic operator in which the totality of the social and cultural life of a group is involved” (Hénaff, 216), continues to give a ritual and public dimension to the Christian ethics of giving (underestimated by Hénaff). Marion would no doubt see the Eucharist as a supreme instantiation of la donation, but the ethical purism of his conception of giving might undercut the give and take of the Eucharist as a sacrifice and as communal sharing. Sacrifice is an extension of ritual giving beyond the creation of mutual recognition between humans to a quest to win such recognition from invisible powers. The sacrificer offers the victim to win something from the invisible divinity, in a do, ut des exchange that Marion would consider to contradict the very essence of giving (see Hénaff, 237). The offering of a ritual gift or a sacrifice is a risk and a challenge, which certainly seeks a response, consisting basically in the recognition of the other party. This dynamic carries over even to the highest ethical forms of giving and does not taint them or reduce them to merely economic exchange as Marion and Derrida fear.
The empirical study of giving and receiving reveals that gifts follow a quirky trajectory, more spiral than circle, opening up complex networks of relationships and resisting the rational closure that various economic, psychoanalytical or structuralist theories have sought to impose. Marion’s reduction of ‘the gift’ to its essence in order to reveal the nature of ‘givenness’ in its purity, as the basic trait of reality, invites the suspicion that it is a bid for metaphysical closure, at the expense of the social and cultural complexity of giving. Derrida and others object that there is no semantic continuity between the givenness of the given in phenomenology and the activity of giving gifts (see J. D. Caputo in Philosophie 78, 2003). Even apart from the claimed connection with givenness, Marion’s account of the gift seems to be an essentializing one. If this essentialism unravels, due to the quirky dynamics of the gift and the strange loops its trajectory forms, then a ‘first philosophy’ based on the essential, reduced notion of the gift unravels as well. Analogously, Wittgenstein’s essentialist early philosophy unravelled in his later thought, which took more account of the quirky pluralistic texture of language and its refusal of pure essences. Perhaps Marion’s later thought will similarly come to terms with the factors that frustrate or complicate the drive to foundational insight that has characterized it so far.
A Hegelian approach would survey all the historical forms of gifthood, ordered in a dialectic that would at the end produce an integral vision. But even this laborious alternative to the shortcut of phenomenological purism may be thwarted by the initial complexity and undecidability of the movement of the gift. Beyond Hegel lies a still more open-ended and pluralist texture of inquiry. The step back to basic phenomena which Marion attempts, in the wake of Husserl and Heidegger, can be a check on the broad sweep of historical reason, imposing a pause for meditation on matters it has overlooked, especially on the ethical ideals of giving and receiving. But can phenomenology impose itself as surpassing Hegel and his successors, as providing the higher vantage that exceeds and integrates all that modern rationality has achieved? Husserl and Heidegger thought so, and Marion shares their faith. It may be, however, that it is not the destiny of phenomenology to be a first philosophy. If it opens up paths of thinking that elude the recuperative grasp of metaphysical reason, it may be at the price of never itself being able to constitute a comprehensive form of thought enjoying a metaphysical sweep. Faced with this limit, phenomenology needs to put itself back in dialogue with the human sciences, including the neuro-sciences, and with forms of philosophical reasoning informed by historical and anthropological inquiry, from Hegel on. A pure phenomenology, that would banish the hybridized and dialogical exercises of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur and Derrida, may no longer be possible.
APORIAS (‘THE REASON OF THE GIFT’, ss.1-2)
Marion’s starting-point in ‘The Reason of the Gift’ is not the sociological one but a quasi-Cartesian focus on what he calls elsewhere the ego amans et non cogitans (seu calculans). We give ‘without counting’, for we give ceaselessly, without measure, and unconsciously. This seems a quite abstract description; unless it is to be taken as shorthand for some more detailed phenomenology developed elsewhere by Marion, or possibly by Levinas. It also seems to focus on the subjectivity of the giver, at the expense of the cardinal function of giving: to establish and sustain human relationships. One could take it that this constant activity of giving is a constant responding and relating, but this is not made explicit. The quasi-Cartesian point of departure makes it difficult to bring giving into view as an act of love, or a practice intimately imbricated with loving. The Cartesian model also hinders easy access to the phenomenology of eros in Le phénomène érotique. It tends to present giving and loving first as solitary oblations of the being of the ego rather than something created between two parties. A more Hegelian approach that would being in the milieu of interpersonal recognition might relieve the discussion of paradoxes and problems that are perhaps more a product of the point of departure than of the topic itself. gifts. (Even Platonic Eros is relational from the outset, in that the lover is taken outside himself in ecstatic contemplation of the beautiful form; and this is a fortiori the case with Christian agape. Marion’s refusal to acknowledge the distinction between eros and agape, or to examine the rich historical traditions of these two understandings of love in their tension and their amalgamation, as studied notably by Anders Nygren, results in a reduced and undifferentiated construction of love. Interestingly, Nygren scolded Marion’s admired Pseudo-Dionysius for identifying eros and agape.)
If we read Marion’s opening statement as a concrete phenomenology, it would apply best to the Neoplatonic One, which overflows without cease, without measure, and without consciousness. Perhaps he would say that humans practice a sovereign generosity in the image of the divine. But the striking ‘without’ clauses are problematic in a manner reminiscent of his early work on the notion of ‘God without being’, of a love that does not need to be. ‘Without ceasing’: Normally we think of giving as a matter of individual acts rather than a constant state. The idea of giving as a constant state certainly chimes with the desire to make la donation a fundamental, universal principle, like grace or like being. If we conceive of some people as constant givers, e.g. mothers dedicated to their children, persons consecrated to a religious life, people who dedicate their time and energy to a cause, it is probable that a concrete phenomenology of such life-projects would reveal a history of discrete acts and renewed and changing choices, rather than a general pattern of semi-unconscious giving. And in extending such a pattern to people in general Marion seems to reduce giving to something more elementary, to the common energy one puts forth in living. ‘Without measure’: We may measure less carefully in giving than in buying—though ‘big spenders’ do not measure in the latter case either. But giving, like buying, has an inbuilt limit—the limit of ‘what we can afford.’ A person who gave without any precautions or limits would hardly be performing the human act of giving, but would have fallen into some kind of pathology. ‘Without consciousness’: The idea that giving is unconscious, like breathing, is counter-intuitive. Plotinus, rejecting the idea of an Intellect that thinks without knowing that it thinks, remarks: ‘If such occurred in us, who are ever aware of our drives and reflections, if we are even moderately wise, it would be a cause of lunacy’ (Enn. II 9.1). Surely in making a gift one consciously adopts a certain attitude, just as one adopts another attitude when making a purchase. One casts oneself in the role of giver exactly as consciously as one casts oneself in the role of buyer. Indeed, giving is a more self-conscious act, for one has to calculate the appropriateness of a gift, the pleasure it is likely to bring, the nature of one’s relationship to the recipient, whether one can afford it, whether one’s time, energy or money might not be more wisely invested. The first three of these considerations and are eliminated in transactions of buying and selling. In any case, can unawareness can add to the value of a human act, or awareness subtract from it? As the tea ceremony shows, giving and receiving become deeper and more spiritual acts when we deepen awareness of what we are doing. A paralyzing self-consciousness may indeed inhibit gestures of affection or movements of passion. But the spontaneity of the gift is not of this order. It is the spontaneity of a creative act, which cannot be begun without a deliberate and conscious choice, though it ought to be carried through with unselfconscious grace.
The act of giving is a specific event that does not seem to have the universal reach Marion ascribes to it. It follows on receiving: “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8); “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Gratitude is a conscious motivation and generosity based on gratitude is a duty we learn. There is an infinite asymmetry between giving and receiving. I receive everything—the world, my very existence, every grace and blessing—but I give very little in return. One might say that giving sets the seal on one’s awareness of receiving, and attests eloquently to universal givenness. But to claim that giving is as universal and permanent an activity as receiving would be to identify all our activities with giving, dissolving the concrete contours of the gift. Or perhaps one might say that the capacity of giving is as constant as the capacity for receiving. Just as the sporadic quality of our grateful reception does not diminish the reality that all that we are and have is received, so the sporadic quality of our giving does not diminish the reality that our being, just as it is inherently received, is also inherently given—to live is to give, and refusal to give is a futile resistance to the movement of life itself. Marion seems to claim a convertibility of giving and being even at the level of everyday experience. Others might say that ‘to exist is to pray’ and that prayer is merely the coming to awareness of the basic character of being as dependence. But such views are not phenomenological. They are metaphysical constructions. Taking the completely opposite tack, one could say that giving and prayer, even as practiced in secret, are institutions, activities based on established conventions, which do not offer their ‘essence’ to direct phenomenological inspection.
The abstract and problematic aspects of Marion’s starting-point carry over into the series of aporias that he goes on to derive from it: "If we give without thinking, how are we to know that we are giving incessantly and without measure. More exactly, how can we be assured that 'incessantly and without measure' sufficiently characterizes our gift as a veritable gift, if we have no consciousness of it?... The third way of giving without counting – to give without being aware of it – manifestly annuls the two preceding ones; for if we really give ceaselessly and without measure, how could we not in the end be aware of it?" ("La raison du don", Philosophie 78, 2003, 4). The chief aporia of the gift is that it appears only to disappear. The giver is always rewarded in some way, the recipient indebted, and the gift itself occludes its gift-character and becomes a mere object of exchange. "Either the gift remains true to givenness, but never appears, or the gift does appear, but in so doing, enters into an economic process of exchange, and is transformed into its opposite – into an exchange: the given that is given back (do, ut des)..., the commerce and management of goods" (5)
This dilemma rests on an attempt to establish a paradigm of pure giving, which requires total exclusion of any involvement of gift with exchange. Marion’s Husserlian watchword, ‘the more reduction, the more donation’ does not work very well here, for in reducing the gift to a rarefied ideal he cuts off the intriguing but impure shapes that giving actually takes. He tends to dismiss naturalistic accounts as products of the ‘natural attitude’ (an attitude that is surely quite legitimate outside the rarefied context of Husserlian methodology). If he is claiming that the saturated phenomenon of the pure gift lights up the more discreet phenomenon of our constant unconscious giving, so that the grace of gifthood is revealed to be everywhere at work, then would he not be distilling from the phenomena something like a Platonic Form of the gift, which is in turn lit up by givenness as the Idea of ideas (in the manner of the Good as read by Heidegger)? Similar treatment of the ‘event’ or the ‘moment’ also works on two registers, in that singular moments and events reveal a trait of the phenomenality of being at all times. However, when the ideal form of the gift, the moment, or the event meets the actual plurality and complexity of human experience of time, eventhood, and giving, its mastery over them is not necessarily acclaimed. The phenomenologist’s construction of the singular pure experience may illuminate many aspects of the complex reality without being accepted as the essential key to its meaning. The entire account of being or of phenomenality built on the basis of such constructions is likely to find itself enjoying the status of just one story among others.
The stress on the purity of the gift has more to do with philosophical construction than with the empirical realities of giving. Giving happens in a wide context of ‘give and take’. To give is to loosen the hold of economic control and self-possession and to enter a different network of relations, in which one becomes a more vulnerable subject linked to others in a more vibrant and unpredictable way. The Gospel’s injunctions to give without seeking a reward are fulfilled in a practice of more generous giving; they are not invitations to an examination of conscience that goes back over every act of giving to discern whether it was truly disinterested or not. The Gospel is quite happy to accept that most giving is not purely disinterested, and even when it calls to more selfless giving it adds that this will bring a heavenly reward. “The gift is a boomerang” (Godbout, 275). This is particularly true of the gift of an apology or the gift of forgiveness: “Forgiveness is a fundamental gift, a gift of passage (as we say ‘rites of passage’) from the system of violence to the system of the gift, a foundational social and psychological act, which has given rise to astonishingly few studies by researchers in the human sciences” (Godbout, 295). Forgiving, like giving, can be caricatured as a self-interested gesture, performed for the peace it brings to the forgiver, or to disarm a dangerous enemy. But the dynamics of forgiveness need not fear recuperation by such motives, for it sets something in motion that transcends the initial motives.
Marion admits that the demand of pure gratuity is rather rarefied. He asks: "Does this critique of the gift – so efficacious, because so abstract – itself escape all criticism? It clearly lies exposed to a counter-attack, since it rests on at least one unexamined presupposition: that the gift entails a perfect and pure gratuity, that it should give for nothing with no return ever" (RdD, 6). He points out that the moral reward of giving is not of the same order as commercial reimbursement, that the reward may follow the gift rather than being the motive that precedes and disqualifies it, and above all, that “the severe purity thus asked of the gift implies its absolute independence from any possible other, leading at last to a complete autarchy that forbids not only the exchange and the gift, but otherness in general” (ibid). Moreover this gratuity also puts in question
the very ipseity of the ego, which is involved as giver or receiver. Would we not have to annul our ipseities or, rather, pretend to be a god so as to give in complete gratuity, ‘without envy’? Unless this pretended gratuity is merely a pure indifference which, with closed eyes, gives nothing to anyone and receives nothing from anyone? (7)
A Buddhist would query the ‘ipseity of the ego’ as a delusive fixation. There is no immunity or autonomy of a transcendental ego, an ‘I think’ surveying the process of giving. “The subject cannot be grasped independently of its action” (G. Bugault, Nâgârjuna: Stances du milieu par excellence, Gallimard, 2002, 64). An ‘I’ that precedes its action is merely a scholastic entity. In relational give and take, both self and other come alive in a new situation, and this situation dissolves the artificial attempt to fix the bounds of the self and its property. An individual who offers an apology or words of forgiveness gives something of himself and exposes it vulnerably to the other. If the apology is refused or the forgiveness condemned his peace may return on his own head (cf. Matthew 10:13; Luke 10:6), but if accepted they initiate a new order of relationships in which the identity of both self and other is redefined.
At this point, one might expect Marion to explore the intersubjective phenomenality of giving. Giving is always a messy business, involving us with untrustworthy flesh-and-blood others—the Bible ascribes that experience even to the divine giver. Giving, apart from the surrender of control on the part of the giver, is never without consequences—it evokes a reaction far more involving than the signing of a commercial receipt. Concern with pure giving wraps the act of giving in a prophylactic and thwarts its natural and usual consequences. What people fear in giving is often less the expense than the relationship it initiates. But instead of exploring this line of reflection, Marion upholds the postulate of gratuity despite its problems. "If the gift contradicts itself when one imposes gratuity on it, why do so? No doubt for an excellent reason: because gratuity seems—and in a sense to be carefully determined actually is—the best defence against exchange and the economy, its absolute contrary" (RdD, 7).
As with Derrida, the contradiction lodged in the gift becomes the key to its special status. But the contradiction arises not from gratuity as such but from the demand for an absolutely pure gratuity and from the absolute opposition between gift and commerce as two essences that cannot communicate. (In the Boston version of the text Marion associates these scruples with Quietism and Jansenism!)
However, Marion goes on to exhibit the aporia of the gift anew in a more objective style. Equality of exchange is essential to the economy, he points out, citing Turgot, Cournot, Say, and Marx. Rationalism seeks to impose this postulate of equality on giving as well, as its sufficient reason. The self-contradiction of the gift “can now be repeated more positively in the form of a triple reply to the demand of sufficient reason” (RdD,10). The internal and external reasons of giving are now reviewed and we see that they apparently reduce gifthood to a rational exchange, which contributes to the reinforcement rather than the suppression of the economic order. Giving becomes an activity of resistance to the enveloping claims of metaphysical reason, and at this point of the argument it seems to be struggling heroically against overwhelming odds.
THE TRIPLE REDUCTION (ss. 3-4)
To free giving from the domination of commercial logic, Marion interrogates the gift “beginning at the point whence its phenomenon arises, just before it is dissolved in exchange, during the fragile moment in which its three moments have not yet yielded to the sufficient reason of the economy” (RdD,13). There is perhaps something mythical or even mystical about this pure phenomenological moment. Marion has whittled gifthood down to so pure a form that its actual phenomenological apparition is condemned to be a rare and fleeting event.
The means by which Marion seeks to establish the horizon of gifthood are paradoxical. Giver, receiver and gift must disappear so that gifthood can manifest itself. Just as for Husserl in order to study the pure form of time-perception we need to take the most exiguous percept possible—a simple tone, for example, so Marion first isolates the form of gifthood in exiguous forms of giving—a dead or anonymous benefactor, an ungrateful or indifferent recipient, a gift that may consist only in an invisible inner attitude. Here the gift is alienated from the social bond that is usually regarded as primary.
Alms, as a unilateral gift to an unknown person, is a bizarre case… Logically, it is a gift that excludes, affirms a domination, of which the chief sense is to reveal the impossibility for the recipient of returning the gift. The spiritual dimension can neutralize the perverse effects of the unilateral gift to an unknown person incapable of returning it (but this does not happen necessarily). (Godbout 324-5)
Even if the reduction is thought to reveal the essential structure of giving, rather than producing a perversion of it, it is hard to keep such a rarefied structure in view for long. In his analysis of time-consciousness, Husserl stepped beneath the level of perception and intentionality to study the hyletic level of consciousness as a mute, naked sensing of impressions. Gérard Granel asks why he did not go a step further and put sensation and impression out of play as well, in order to reach a still more ineffable presence! (Le Sens du temps et de la perception chez E. Husserl, Gallimard, 1968, 34-35). Marion’s givenness is just as much an ultimate absolute as Husserl’s time-consciousness and is established by just as radical a despoliation, recalling the aphairesis of negative theology. But just as in Husserl the exiguous perceived temporal object, such as the tone, is still a distraction from the pure awareness of time, so in Marion the residual presence of giver, recipient and gift is a distraction from the pure horizon of gifthood. In both cases the radical reduction risks becoming a “phenomenology without phenomenon” (Granel, 47).
“First, the gift can be constituted as a gift without any compensation of the giver (either in real or symbolic terms), because the gift can be constituted without any giver at all” (RdD,14)—as seen in the example of an anonymous benefactor. But anonymous donations to individuals or to public charities, though meritorious, are hardly the primary style of giving. Paul’s fund-raising for the Jerusalem community maximized the personal bonds it would create between donors and recipients (Rom. 15:25-8; 2 Cor. 8-9—texts that might be worth a fresh exegesis in light of current concerns with the gift). “Second, the gift can also be constituted as a gift without a recipient” (RdD,14)—as in the case where I give to an enemy. But would it not be better that the gift affect the enemy, perhaps turning him into a friend? Would not such a dissolution and transformation of fixated identity testify to the power of the gift? Christianity itself turns on a gift that transforms enemies into friends (the gift of divine forgiveness enacted in the self-giving of Christ). “Third, the gift can be accomplished without giving any object susceptible to being returned into the fold of exchange value” (RdD,15)—as in the gift of my attention, my care, my time. I note that psychoanalysts and others do subject the latter gifts to financial measurement, precisely so as not to make them enslaving of the recipient; a situation which again relativizes the sharp disjunction between gift and economic exchange. Regulated commercial exchange can be a blessed release from the crushing obligations incurred by receiving gifts. Again, is a gift with no object not also a deficient kind of gift? While it may be ‘the intention’ that counts, the giver usually tries to incarnate the intention by offering flowers, an embrace or some other concrete token. The gift of grace in Christianity is massively embodied in the corporeality of Christ and the sacraments.
A problem with all three illustrations is that they show not the non-existence of giver, recipient, gift but their concealment or non-apparency. Also there is no ‘reduction’ of the ego of the giver; rather, “I give myself in my most complete ipseity” (RdD,16)—the unconscious giver, far from being non-self, is more purely and intensely self. “The gift reduced to givenness has no awareness of what it is doing; it has hands to do it, but the right ignores what the left does—and it does it only on this condition” (ibid). (The literal reading of the Gospel here carries over from Marion’s first, and freshest, presentation of the triple reduction: ‘Esquisse d’un concept phénoménologique du don’, Archivio di Filosofia 62, 1994, 75-94.) Could we say that in this regime of giving the self is protected by being concealed, even from its own observation?
This suspension of giver, receiver, and gift risks avoiding the grasp of economic rationalism only by “the disappearance of all the real process of the gift” (RdD, 17). Now Marion concedes that the point of departure was incorrect: “We began the inquiry on the gift from its contrary, exchange, and found a correct access to it in disqualifying what hindered it, reciprocity” (ibid). Marion still does not think of beginning the inquiry with the intersubjective process of give and take, in which giver, receiver, and gift themselves lose their fixated identities. Indeed, he equates reciprocity with economic exchange, as if the potential for reciprocity and the quest for reciprocity inscribed in every gift were a degradation. Giving to others whose non-response is assured is a method of disinfecting the gift of economic besmirchment, and indeed, paradoxically, of bringing it under economic control. One puts the gift in an account that is pleasingly unambiguous, in that the expenditure column is regularly filled by the free choice of the ego, while the column indicated returns or recompense is a pure blank.
This transparent asymmetry carries over to his study of fatherhood, as “a gift always already reduced and brought back to givenness, free of all decline into the economy, born free of sufficient reason” (17). The exposition of this positive phenomenon is intended to correct the too abstract point of departure that defined the gift over against economic exchange by the triple ‘without’ and thus to replace the antinomies to which that led with paradoxes that bring out the full phenomenality of giving. Fatherhood is not an ordinary donnée but a given that is itself a giving, a “donné donnant” (18).
Though fatherhood, as a kind of contract, has a social and political significance that varies from place to place, Marion claims that there is a fundamental phenomenon that arises before these social aspects, which are ascribed to “the economic interpretation in terms of exchange”, which “belongs to metaphysics” and “obscures the determinations of this gift, as it appears in the horizon of givenness” (ibid.). But it may be suspected that like all the other institutions of giving, fatherhood does not have a pure essence that lies open to immediate phenomenological inspection. In discrediting as ‘metaphysical’ whatever empirical insight into fatherhood the human sciences may yield, Marion turns the tables in advance on whoever objects that his own abstraction of an essence of fatherhood is quintessentially metaphysical.
Fatherhood gives new vividness to the triple reduction:
First, the giver remains essentially absent and suspended, for the father is lacking… He leaves (must leave) and makes himself noticed by the child in that he is lacking to him, and this on principle… In order to remain, the father must be lacking and shine by his absence. He appears insofar as he disappears. (19)
This chimes with Marion’s reconceiving of God the Father as the divine distance, a separation which unites. Marion here deals with a theme that is central in psychoanalysis, but does not draw on the insights of Freud or Lacan to provide his phenomenological Wesensschau with an empirical footing. Similarly, he discusses self-love with no reference to the psychoanalytical theory of narcissism (in chapter 1 of Le Phénomène érotique, Presses Universitaires de France, 2003). This is not simply a matter of ignoring empirical research, for psychoanalysis affects the very essence of such matters, that is, it has direct philosophical consequences.
“Secondly: … the child, though appearing to be a recipient (and par excellence, because he receives not only a gift but receives himself as the gift of a possibility), cannot by definition make good on the least consciousness of a debt.” (20) But could one not say, with equal plausibility, that it is one’s relation to one’s father that determines one’s lifelong conceptions of debt and duty? Can that be written off as a secondary and ‘metaphysical’ social or economic interpretation? Marion speaks of filial duty as barred by an impossibility in principle, the impossibility of returning the gift received—life itself. The child gives life to another, keeping open the spiral of the gift, which Marion sees reflected in genealogical tables. Marion follows up this clue to the logic of the ‘wheel’ of giving, noting how time’s arrow relates parents to children in a chain of givers and receivers whose giving and receiving are predicated on a radical non-reciprocation. Emptiness is built into the process.
Finally, "the gift given in fatherhood... can in no way become an object or an entity... The father gives to the child only life (and a name which sanctions it)… which, precisely because it makes possible... every entity and every object, itself belongs neither to beingness nor to objecthood" (21). One thinks of the mother as the one who gives life, and the father as the one who gives a name and identity to the child, breaking the mother-child symbiosis to establish for the child the objectivity of the symbolic order. If the category of ‘gift’ is central to paternity it is in quite a different form than in the case of maternity, and the eventual return of the gift will take a different form as well. The son returns the gift by continuing the father’s work, defending the father’s name, notions that make little sense in the case of the mother. But perhaps ‘paternité’ in this discussion should be translated as ‘parenthood’ rather than ‘fatherhood’.
Paternity, Marion concludes, deploys “the entire phenomenality of the gift reduced to pure givenness” (21). Whether it really does so remains doubtful to this reader, firstly because the philosophical structures set forth seem as much a formal construction, in a constantly paradoxical style, as the fruit of actual phenomenological study, and would need to be fleshed out more fully to carry complete conviction, and secondly because it remains unclear whether this structure is capable of taking the abundance of anthropological discourse on paternity into account.
MARION’S BUDDHIST AFFINITIES
Marion’s triple reduction has a very interesting analogue in Mahâyâna Buddhism. In the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, the virtue of giving is seen as perfect when one realizes that neither giver, nor gift nor recipient have any real existence. Giving (dana) is the first of the six (or ten) virtues of a bodhisattva, and the sixth is wisdom (prajnâ), the wisdom that apprehends the emptiness of all entities. Perfect giving is rooted in wisdom, and in awareness that neither the giver, nor the recipient, nor the gift itself have any inherent existence. Hence no enslaving attachment to any of the three can arise. The idea of seeking a reward for such giving also loses any possible ground. “When he has given a gift, he does not make it into a basis or support. And he does never expect any reward from it” (E. Conze, trans. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines. Bolinas, CA: Four Seasons, 1975, 70). The act of giving remains a free act, not impeding the openness of wisdom, because it does not fixate on giver, gift or recipient. This is less a philosophical purism than a charter for spiritual advance.
In the long account of dana given in the Mahâ-prajñâpâramitâ-sâstra (an encyclopedic commentary on the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra extant only in Chinese and apocryphally attributed to Nâgârjuna), the lofty doctrine of empty giving is embedded among homelier preaching that stresses the moral benefits of giving, that the gift consists essentially in the will to give, independent of benefit to the recipient, that an impure gift is one motivated by self-interest, insolence, aversion, fear, desire to seduce, etc. The good giver gives with faith, respect, from his hand, at the right time, without harming anyone. Only the gift made in view of the way of nirvana is pure, as opposed to a gift seeking happiness in this or the next life. Giving destroys passions of avarice, envy, hypocrisy, dissipation, regret, lack of respect, etc. A sravaka gives in order to escape from rebirth, but a bodhisattva's giving is for all beings, or is to know the true character of the dharma and to acquire buddhahood. Even at the highest point do ut des thinking is not eliminated: “When one knows that the thing given is absolutely empty, the same as nirvana, and one gives alms to beings in that spirit, the recompense of the gift is inexhaustible” (É. Lamotte, trans. Le Traité de la grande vertu de sagesse. Louvain-la-neuve : Institut Orientaliste, 1970ff., 708). It is almost as if the reward-structure were built into the idea of the gift. The bodhisattva “gives indifferently at all times” (709), not discriminating among recipients of what he gives, but practicing the detachment which accords with the non-duality and sameness (samatâ) of empty reality. Such giving is without marks (animitta). The three obstacles to it are found in the thought that ‘it is I who give this thing to this recipient” (707). Such notions are characteristic of discriminative thinking, which makes much of the solid identity of things and has forgotten the merely conventional character of their being. The non-existence of giver, gift and recipient abolishes the distinctions between them. “The great bodhisattva who resides in the perfection of wisdom by the method of non-residing should fulfill the virtue of the gift by the method of refusal, abstaining from the distinction between giver, beneficiary, and the thing given” (650).
The Buddhist vision has no need to find paradoxical aspects of the gift, as Marion does. The practice of giving in all its empirical diversity is taken on board. The bodhisattva’s perfection of giving realizes the inner nature of all giving, as a transaction between a giver and a receiver involving a gift, all three of which are empty of substantial being. To tune into this emptiness is to be able to take part in the play of giving and receiving with spiritual freedom, fixated on neither oneself, nor the other, nor the gift. Applying this to paternity, one could say that father and son play well their roles in bequeathing and receiving the name (the symbolic order) when neither clings to the delusive reification of ego nor lends to the name itself an imaginary grandiose status (as happens in chauvinism or in insular patriotism).
THE GIFT BEYOND REASON (ss 5-7)
Within the gift there are levels of excellence and the higher forms of gifthood illuminate the others—this method of thinking is central to Marion’s architectonic. Thus “fatherhood is distinguished clearly in that it is deployed without reciprocity and with excess” (RdD,21). It would be better to say that the relationship is asymmetrical. Reciprocity between Father and Son and even between God and his people is central to Scripture; to talk of fatherhood as “invalidating reciprocity” and “not according it the slightest rights” (22) seems somewhat stilted. When this is taken as a cue to the essence of gifthood one again feels that the insistence on phenomenality risks short-circuiting forms of relationality that phenomenology cannot master. Linked with this is a similar short-circuit in the relations of phenomenology and rationality. Marion not only reduces the order of signification to that of phenomenality (as Benoist notes). Reason itself must be reduced to givenness! “This surpassing [of reciprocity], anterior to ethics, itself reaches back to the basic determination of metaphysics, putting in question its root-principle, the principle of identity; this principle supposes that nothing can be, at the same moment and in the same respect, other than itself” (23). “The relations of production, possession, and consumption that weave societies and sustain their cohesion”, “the political ideals of equality and solidarity”— "reciprocity generalizes under all these forms the same principle of identity and the same demand for non-contradiction. Hence, if the reduced gift is attested only in subverting reciprocity, and thus the equality of things with themselves, not only does it contradict the economy and its conditions of possibilities of experience, but also and above all it contradicts the principle of non-contradiction itself" (23).
Ironically, this radical claim flirts with bad logic: ‘A is based on B. C subverts A. Therefore C subverts B.’ Marion would say that social solidarity is not merely based on non-contradiction (what isn’t?). It is rather a generalization of the principle of non-contradiction. But can one generalize a principle that is already absolutely universal?.
How does the gift undermine the principle of non-contradiction?
The reduced gift allows a thing not to remain equal to itself but to become (or rather to give) more than itself, or again it allows a thing to lose in the exchange in being accomplished as gift. The reduced gift gives (or receives) always more (or less) than itself, for if the balance remained equal, the gift would simply not have taken place – but in place of it, an exchange. (23)
The father “contradicts himself in renouncing an equal exchange, precisely to fill his role of father; but as well he gives far more than he possesses in giving a life that in a sense he does not have (in and of) himself… Fatherhood manifests the non-identity of every self to itself” (23). All this means is that gifts are intrinsically asymmetrical and set up a process of exchanges that can never be closed in final equalization of accounts (a point made by Godbout). The logic of this is something like Hegelian dialectic—more open-ended if one likes, in accord with Bataille’s notions of gratuitous expenditure, taken up by Derrida. To say that it rattles the principle of contradiction, however, goes too far. Or if it does, one might by the same token argue that everything does so, as indeed Marion suggests: “This essential and polysemic non-identity, which the gift frees wherever it is practiced, ultimately imposes nothing less than a new definition of possibility”—i.e., “possibility consists not in the identity of self with self but in an excess of self over self” (24). The self-identity of everything is undermined by its possibility. Whether such a dialectical account of possibility is sufficient to track the dynamics of the gift may be doubted. In any case, Marion again makes this logic tributary to the phenomenal, and even its claimed polysemy comes within the bourne of a phenomenological overview. Rather than pursue the logic of the gift, Marion, inspired by Heidegger’s liberation of the thinking of being from the dominance of the principle of sufficient reason, in Der Satz vom Grund (1956), wants the logic of the gift to be so paradoxical that the claim of logic is broken and the gift can come into view in its authentic phenomenality, like the rose that is ‘without why’.
In Buddhism entities have a merely momentary existence, and cease to be as soon as they arise. Nâgârjuna gives logical bite to the emptiness-teaching of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, by dialectical refutations that show all entities to be empty of inherent existence and to enjoy only a provisional or conventional manner of being, which collapses on its inner contradiction as soon as one tests it by analysis. This is the ‘middle way’ between substantialism and nihilism; ‘emptiness’ signifies the non-substantiality of all phenomena due to their dependent co-arising.
Each of the terms of the causal process has no more existence than the stitches of a jersey. To think causality, conditionality, in depth is to admit that nothing is itself. Nowhere is there any identity, any ipseity. Everything holds together, finds itself in interdependence, Esse = interesse. In Sanskrit, sûnyatâ, emptiness. (Bugault, 50)
Nâgârjuna takes a series of items that could be put forward as claimants to real existence—including the self, time, motion, and various Buddhist truths—and in each case shows logical contradictions implied in this claim to real existence, which undermine the claim. But far from overthrowing the principle of non-contradiction, it is by this very principle that he reveals that “nothing is itself”—that everything is empty of own-being. A thing cannot be both of two contraries, but it may be neither, if it is “devoid of a sense or a reference” (Bugault, 19). If the gift is at one and the same time two contraries, then the suspicion is that the notion of gift is devoid of sense or reference, or has a merely functional existence, as a provisional designation.
Where Madhyamaka Buddhism uses the principle of contradiction to undermine the claim of apparently self-evident phenomena, Marion uses the phenomenon to undermine the claim of the principle of contradiction. But as in his reduction of giver, gift and recipient, Marion offers an example which does not go as far as he wishes it to Spontaneous, creative giving may elude the claim of the principle of sufficient reason. Fatherhood may have a paradoxical relation to that principle, for if the father stands for the symbolic order, his authority has also a contingent character; to the child the authority of the father is linked with that of the symbolic order, but as a personal claim on the child it introduces him into a realm of interpersonal freedom that is not covered by logical principles. The indulgent father abrogates for the child the principle of sufficient reason, as the God of the New Testament abrogates the primacy of the Law. But when this freedom reaches the point where the father or his gift is experienced as an unresolved contradiction, the consequences are disturbing.
The gift gives itself of itself from itself. It cannot be made answerable to a principle of reason above it. Without the self-manifestation of the gift, the activities of giving and receiving remain impossible:
The giver does not decide for such and such a gift because of such and such a potential beneficiary, who would have solicited him more than the others; the number of the needy discourages and the impudence of the demands disgusts as well, without allowing one to decide. (RdD,26)
One might object that, against such Hamletism, the Good Samaritan simply decides to make his own neighbor by taking pity on one person in need, solvitur donando. But for Marion, as for Derrida, nothing is this simple. Giving has a condition:
This is not possible unless the gift arises of itself and imposes itself as such on the giver. It can do so only in coming to him as something to be given, as that which demands that one give it: donandum est. (26)
The Samaritan may have made rational calculations about how to help the man fallen among thieves, but the core-event is that the necessity of his act of giving imposed itself as a revelation or inspiration. This is a very pure or ‘saturated’ phenomenon of giving, reminding me of Augustine’s account of grace as delectatio victrix (victorious delectation), made much of by the Jansenists. Indeed the self-manifestation of gifthood is a miracle of grace. Again, one can query the phenomenological plausibility of this self-manifesting gift. Rather than the gift, is it not the other, the potential beneficiary, who elicits the response of giving? Also, the more ordinary rational bases of a free choice of giving are played down by Marion. In giving such unique authority to the self-manifestation of the gift, he may undercut the importance of creative initiative in fulfilling the command of charity. To see the entire order of giving, receiving, and return giving as launched and steered by the phenomenon of the gift itself imposes a non-dialectical stability on the processes of interpersonal exchange in order to secure givenness as such as the universal law of all phenomenality.
“The gift decides by itself about its donation and decides by itself its giver in appearing incontestably as givable and in making itself be given” (RdD,27). The sole reason of the gift is its inherent self-destination to be given and received. All phenomena reveal themselves as given, but this special phenomenon reveals itself as gift and commands the giver and receiver to adopt their respective positions. Both giver and receiver are dislodged from their self-centred security by the power of the gift. They forgo “the most powerful of phantasms, which founds every economy and every calculation of interests in exchange, namely, that of the self-identity of the ‘I’ (contradicting the principle of identity)” (27). Phenomenality is not something passively contemplated, but something that at its highest imposes itself as an authority demanding the obedient action of giving and receiving. “The reduced gift… achieves the self of the full phenomenon” (29). It has the power of something beautiful, which exacts the homage of a creative response. One can turn one’s back on the gift, but to do so is to alienate oneself from phenomenality, that is, from the way things truly are. All of this seems to undercut the freedom of the gift, the idea that to give and to receive is a project realized by two people together. The grace of the gift is that it grants the possibility of such a free exchange. To say that the gift phenomenalizes itself on its own accord, without reference to any prior cause or reason other than its own pure logic of givenness, would be more graphic if the gift-situation were portrayed as a celebration of freedom, a breakthrough beyond calculation achieved by giver and receiver together. The gift creates the giver and the receiver, but equally the giver and receiver create the gift; just as the work of art creates the artist but the artist equally creates the work.
Marion concludes with an ingenious reduction of the principle of sufficient reason to the register of givenness. “In exceeding the demand for a cause and a reason, not only does the gift not condemn itself to lack rationality, but to the contrary it may be able to constitute a ‘larger reason’ than the narrow ratio reddenda of metaphysics” (RdD,29). Reason itself is given:
To assure sufficient reason, it is needful that a mind (specifically, in the case of contingent propositions, an omniscient mind) render it. But to render (re-dare) implies that one gives it again, that one gives it in return, thus essentially that one gives it… Since reason must thus be rendered, since even it must be given, it rests on the gift, not at all on itself. (31)
Ratio remains in itself secondary and as if derived from a more originary instance—givenness, which places it in the situation of figuring as a complete reason and as a last argument. Givenness controls more intimately the ratio reddenda than exchange controls the gift, for no reason can dispense itself from being rendered, that is, from being staged and preceded by a gift. (Ibid)
This echoes Heidegger idea that a primordial phenomenological openness necessarily precedes and in some sense grounds the ‘merely’ rational matters with which metaphysics is concerned; thus a-lêtheia as unconcealment would be the condition of possibility of truth as accuracy or correspondence, and the latter would have secondary if not epiphenomenal status. To say that the gift, or the giftedness of being, eludes the principle of sufficient reason is plausible; to say that it founds that principle as the principium reddendae rationis, the principle that demands that reasons be given, is less so. It looks as if there is merely a verbal connection between the givenness of phenomena and the giving of reasons for them.
I conclude that Marion’s phenomenology remains rather tangential to the empirical realities of giving and receiving as human relational activities that follow laws more complex than those of the economy. While awaiting further clarification of these laws, has philosophy nothing to say? Must phenomenology resign itself to providing merely auxiliary clarifications to a naturalistic account of giving? In articulating the claims of phenomenology in their most consequent and far-reaching form, Marion has sharpened and highlighted the fundamental question facing the phenomenological movement since its origins, the question of its status and scope. In studying how phenomenology deals with the gift, we see again and again how the gift slips out of the phenomenologist’s sight, and how phenomenology tends to over-reach itself in its efforts to retrieve the territories subtracted from its sway. Perhaps the gift is only one of innumerable cases in which the focus on phenomenality does not suffice to bring us to grips with the matter itself.
Joseph S. O'Leary, in Ian Leask and Eoin Cassidy, ed. Givenness and God: Questions of Jean-Luc Marion, Fordham University Press, 2005.