I've started reading a book in Derrida (and, later, Marion) on (God as) gift.

It claims that a gift has to be entirely unconditional, and I wondered in what sense this was really true.

Obviously a gift isn't part of a contract.

  • Supposing that we can't escape continued interaction and so (delayed) repayment for our gift, can I identify something as a gift from me on the grounds it is given without analysing what I'll get out if it?
  • And why must the gift (as is claimed by the author Robyn Horner) not be earned, or given from obligation?

I recognise that this may trivialise giving, especially if a gift only needs to be identified as such by one side, giver or receiver: so that, it seems, I could give to someone who doesn't want a gift (if they need not know it's a gift then they need not accept it as a gift).

As then, it seems, we could be obliged to give to people who don't want to oblige us to, or we could profit from a gift being a gift without the receiver wanting it to be a gift. i.e. if the receiver need not accept a gift as such, then those aspects of gift giving need not be consensual.

  • 1
    The "classic" theory of gift is The Gift by Marcel Mauss (French ed Essai sur le don, 1925). Jan 31 '16 at 16:20
  • 2
    It is not sure that 'gift' can be constructed as a non contradictory concept. David Graeber, Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (2001), links gifts and (post)modern values while Fritsch M., The Gift of Nature in Mauss and Derrida, The Oxford Literary Review, 37.1 (2015): 1–23, is a most recent work of note.
    – sand1
    Jan 31 '16 at 22:11
  • (ctd.) Graeber p.265n9: "Bourdieu himself has more recently criticized Derrida for arguing that true gifts are by definition impossible",see Bourdieu P., Marginalia—Some Additional Notes on the Gift, in The Logic of the Gift: toward an Ethic of Generosity, (1997, Alan D. Schrift, ed.), pp. 231–41.
    – sand1
    Feb 1 '16 at 19:02

Words are often overloaded with meaning in philosophy. A "gift" in philosophy may be a far more pure concept than a "gift" given in modern culture. They could have given it a new name (I'm partial to "a gift freely given," myself, but that's a longer phrasing), but they chose to call the concept they were exploring "gift" to associate it just enough with cultural gift giving to help give the idea lift.

The idea behind such a gift is that if you have conditions, it is no longer considered a gift, but rather a transaction. For the most extreme examples, we can look at the mafia, where a gift from the mafia Don rarely comes without strings attached. Often, it looks like the Don isn't giving anything, but rather taking under the guise of giving!

A less extreme example is a gift given in exchange for a favor. "I'll help you move, but you owe me a favor." It's not specified what that favor is, but it is understood that the transaction is "move your stuff" in exchange for "an obligation to return the favor later."

You can continue this way of thinking, approaching less and less of a transaction, as we go through the various shades of gifts in one's culture. The philosophical "gift" mentioned here is the limit of that approach.

So as for your questions:

I believe it is fair to say a something given with an expectation of repayment, but for which one does not analyze what the repayment may look like or when could qualify as a gift, if one truly does not analyze it. If you feel the other person has every right to not repay you, it may qualify as a true gift because you have accepted that a purely one sided transaction may occur, and that transaction is "good enough." Let's say I give you $100, and say "pay me back when you can." If I have some expectation that you will pay me back, I just don't know when, and I feel slighted if you never pay me back, then it is not a gift by this definition. On the other hand, if we are close friends, you are down on your luck, and I think it's entirely reasonable that you may never again have $100 in your pocket, or if you're about to leave my life forever (perhaps a perceived permanent move to a foreign country), that $100 may be a gift, in that I never actually expect it to be given back again.

In fact, I found a fascinating ritual from India which pushes this to the limit. One of my friends recently got married and had invited a friend whose family still had strong ties to Indian culture. In addition to the traditional wedding gifts, he explicitly gave a single dollar bill. He explained that this was not a gift, it was a loan. The idea was that his family and my friend's newly married family must now stay close together, or else they'd never be able to repay the loan.

It does appear that this "loan," despite its name is a gift. It's quite clear you are never expected to actually repay the loan. In fact, I think repaying the loan may be a grave insult! And its also clear that a mere $1 is not going to really have any influence on keeping the family together, so it's clear its not actually buying any closeness. Thus, this loan is truly a gift: there's no expectation of anything in return, though there is an encouragement associated with the act of giving to keep the families close together.

The second question is the opposite half of the first concept. If one has "earned" a gift, that implies a transaction in the opposite direction. It implies the gift giver has come under an obligation to give a gift. Thus, the transaction is the resolution of this obligation in exchange for the gift.

And yes, this sort of gift is defined by the actions and thoughts of the giver only. If I truly "give" a McDonalds meal to a homeless man on the street who has a sign that says "hungry," and he chooses to stomp it to bits and flip me off, insulted that I didn't give him a dollar, that is his right. The gift has been given. This is also part of why an obligation cannot be part of a gift in this respect. If I gave you a dog, and you didn't want it, you might not take care of the dog. I could not come back and say "I gave you the dog, so it was your job to take care of it," because that means the "gift" came with obligations.

I found another fascinating story along these lines from Siam, now known as Thailand. In their culture, White Elephants are a symbol of peace and prosperity within the kingdom. However, they have a dark side. If a king did not like the actions of a courtier in their court, they may "gift" a White Elephant to them. This "gift" was far too much of an honor to possibly refuse it, but it came with an obligation to take care of it (making it not qualify as a gift by Derrida's standards). The cost of maintaining a White Elephant was astonishing, because they were expected to keep this elephant in a life of luxury, being such a valuable gift from the king. A courtier could literally be bankrupted by this "gift."

  • thanks for the reply. i wonder how much derrida's analysis of the gift can be used to critique studies by e.g. mauss, given that, as you say, he is talking about the limit of the term
    – user6917
    Feb 1 '16 at 6:52

I'm not sure how Derrida is using the concept, but there is a considerable cultural-anthropological literature on gift giving and its meaning, e.g., Mauss, as noted.

It is of critical interest as a form of "exchange" that is explicitly not that of the capitalist or contractual exchange between rational, self-interested agents. Smith pointed out that "exchange" appears to be a unique, possibly defining feature of the human being, and many subsequent thinkers have made the connection between commodity exchange, symbolism, language, and dialectic.

The gift thus appears to symbolically bind a relation of reciprocity. In the well-known case of the "potlatch" the gift may be an aggressive, even ruinous act of compelled indebtedness or a kind of status war. The higher the status, the more godlike and "paternal" one becomes, as the "One by Whom All Things Are Given." (Our modern version is defining the wealthy as "Job Creators," who require indentured offerings in the form of tax breaks to continue to "bestow" jobs upon grateful workers.

Thus the very ambiguous or even spurious status of "the gift" in the uniquely human act of communication. This then raises the question of an "unconditional" gift, perhaps given "in secret" as recommended by Jesus. Is such a thing possible? Can any act be devoid of interests and motivations?

This is the basis of a "deontic" morality, as best developed by Kant. The act "for another" or "for duty" without regard to consequences, self, or circumstances. Because such an act prescinds from all forces of material causation and personal motive it is, for Kant,the very manifestation of our human freedom. A freedom that, paradoxically, can only be acted out within the bonds of duty, recognition, and reciprocity. Here again, we have a definition of "freedom" that is not that of the Lockean social contract and "mutual absence of constraint."

But I digress. I hope someone can answer your question in relation to Derrida, I am actually curious to read about it. I have a vague memory of the gift as one of his concepts, but can't think how it was used... very ingeniously, ironically, and tortuously, no doubt.

  • 1
    You might be interested to take a look at Derrida's Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money in which he contrasts his idea of the gift to Mauss'. He points out that in all of the "gift" economies considered by Mauss, expenditure is always matched either by a comparable expenditure or by the recognition of the value of the one expending. Thus, they are forms of exchange, not of the gift as such that Derrida is describing. Feb 1 '16 at 5:10


"Middle English: from Old Norse gipt; related to give."

So a "Gift" is something that you have giveth. Or you gave to some person, without receiving anything directly in return.

Since the purpose of Gifts are usually to strengthen social bonds there is no "free" gift. Depending on society the receiver will be obligated towards the giver/gifter in some way. If only subconsciously.


To take a firm stance I would say that anything that moves from my posession to another's is necessarily given unconditionally. Given that there is no way to absolutely communicate or enforce conditions on the recipient. It may be, and I think often is, unintended.

As a human I believe we can give easily and unconditionally that which we don't need or value. This is subjective, as is the recipient's resultant thoughts or emotions. When you see that you are the font of value, but can know nothing of another's values, it is more difficult to fabricate the assumptions required for a condition.

  • 1
    Welcome on Philosophy.SE! We are looking for well-resourced answers, especially if the question already gives hints to where to find some. Would you please try to base your answer on academic texts?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 31 '16 at 23:21

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