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The Philosophers' GiftReexamining Reciprocity$
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Marcel Hénaff

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780823286478

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823286478.001.0001

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Propositions I: The Ceremonial Gift—Alliance and Recognition

Propositions I: The Ceremonial Gift—Alliance and Recognition

(p.30) Chapter 2 Propositions I: The Ceremonial Gift—Alliance and Recognition
The Philosophers' Gift

Marcel Hénaff

, Jean-Louis Morhange
Fordham University Press

This chapter examines the fundamental features of the ceremonial gift as well as its purpose. Marcel Mauss deserves credit for constituting the epistemological problem of the ritual gift based on the ethnographic documents available at the beginning of the twentieth century, and connecting them to the testimonies of ancient Indian, Roman, Celtic, Scandinavian, and Germanic literatures. While he was not the first to consider this phenomenon, he was the first to systematically gather the relevant data and propose a model according to which gift exchanges appear as a major social fact. He even called it a “total social fact.” Among the mass of data he collected through his readings, three sets emerge, each characterized by a term used by a population involved. These include the great cycles of gift exchanges (kula) in the Trobriand Islands, a Melanesian archipelago; potlach, the agonistic exchange among the native populations of the northwest coast of America; and the hau, which comes from an inquiry conducted among the Maori of New Zealand. What is at stake in the facts discussed by Mauss is an intense bond between parties, public prestige granted and gained, and the conclusion of an alliance. The alliance established or renewed in ritual exchanges involves the public life of the group; as such, it is a political alliance. The ceremonial gift is thus meant to be reciprocated, since an alliance is necessarily reciprocal.

Keywords:   ceremonial gift, Marcel Mauss, ritual gift, kula, potlach, hau, alliance, ritual exchanges, political alliance, reciprocity

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