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A Gift Ontology: contra Derrida and Nygren

October 6, 2009

A section of Hart’s book The Beauty of the Infinite which I really like is his critique of both Derrida’s gift argument (“Etant donne: Essai d’une phenomenology de la donation” – Paris” Presses Universitaires de France, 1997) and Nygren’s conception of Agape (Agape and Eros, trans Philip S. Watson – London: SPCK, 1982). Here are some highlights:

“After all, there is no reason why it is more correct to say that the gift forces a return than to say that the gift allows or even liberates a response, and so is the occasion of communion. One’s self is perhaps nothing but the gift of the other’s otherness, defined by what one receives from the other and by what style of receiving one adopts: received as gift or as burden, eliciting delighted response or merely guilty indebtedness (or ingratitude), the gift is the occasion of the self, the event of a self, and to consider first the self that is obligated by – rather than the self that is born in – the gift is to invert the order of what is given and what restored. One becomes a “person”, one might say, analogous to the divine persons, only insofar as one is the determinate recipient of a gift; one is a person always in the evocation of a response…it is in the priority of the gift that a giver is born into the measure of charity and a recipient is born into the measure of delight and gratitude, because God has given out of a charity and a joy that is perfect in the shared life of the Trinity, and in him desire and selfless charity are one and the same…” (p. 263)

Similarly drawing on his own theological ontology and conception of analogia entis Hart responds to Nygen’s conception of Agape as follows:

“But in what sense, precisely, is an agape purified of eros distinguishable from hate? Or utter indifference? In what sense is the bounty of such a love distinguishable from the disposal of the superfluous?… The emaciated agape that gives without reserve but also without desire of return can never be anything but the energy of an absolute debt… but if divine agape is generous in another sense, if it is actually charitable by giving way to otherness, by desiring the other dearly enough to give in a way that liberates the other even as it “binds” the other – by desiring the other, that is, as the very impulse of charity, and thereby relieving the other of any debt of pure and disinterested return – then the idea of the gift may yet prove resistant to too astringent an ethical purism. Truly, only when a giver desires a return, and indeed, in some sense desires back the gift itself, can a gift be given as something other than sheer debt; only the liberating gesture of a gift given out of desire is one that cannot morally coerce another, and so can reveal the prior, aneconomic rationality of giving that escapes every calculation. Absolute “selfless” gratuity, which will not submit to reciprocation, is pure power; but interested exchange – even though sin inevitably corrupts all exchange with the shadow of coercion and greed – is not simply an economy over against which the impossible gift stands as dialectical counter, but is able rather to manifest a more primordial free gesture (free because it seeks a return and is not simply “necessary”) that underlies and ultimately exceeds any economy. In simple human terms, a love that is inseparable from an interest in the other is always more commendable, more truly selfless, than the airless purity of disinterested expenditure, because it recognizes the otherness and delights in the splendour of the other. (p. 264-5)”

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