Generosity and Critique

In North America, we commonly buy gifts for our close friends and associates at Christmas and on birthdays, and anticipate in return that a similar group will send gifts our way at the appropriate times.  We can feel it, probably as a slight, when we do not receive a gift from a close friend, and we anticipate a bit of shame if we fail to give a gift to an appropriate other.

What is striking about this situation is that our behaviour is scripted in advance.  On a date specified independently of any of us individually, a game of reciprocal exchange is enacted.  The rules are fairly clear, and successful (or unsuccessful) playing of the game determines in a significant way how we are understood by others.

This structure, though, sits uncomfortably with the very notion of what a gift is.

Normally, we would think that a gift should be given because of the other person and the unique response that other calls up in oneself.  When we give because of the rule, though, our motivation is to play the game right: it is the game that has captured our enthusiasm and commitment, not the person.

Again, we would normally expect of a gift that it be spontaneous: the gift should, effectively, be pulled out of me by your impact upon me.  Instead, Christmas shopping is a kind of machine, a premeditated calculation in response to social pressure.  For this reason, too, the structure of a rule fits oddly with the notion of a gift.

Finally, giving gifts according to the rule is doing “what one does.”  “One” gives a gift, and, similarly, “one” receives a gift—for rules always make a generic address to “one”—and inasmuch as this standard gift-giving is a matter of “one” giving to “one,” the gift does not mark a reality uniquely constituted by our specificities.  But, again, the notion of a gift is precisely the notion of something that I specifically want for you specifically.

For these three reasons, then—institutionality, calculation and impersonality—the regularized practices of gift-giving that we typically rely upon run afoul in principle of the very nature and meaning of a gift.

There are at least two important things to learn here.

The first lesson is a simple, personal one: we should note how much we rely upon the rule of gift-giving, (which, as we’ve seen, paradoxically means precisely the rule not truly to give a gift), and in fact do very little in our lives to carry out a more authentic attitude of giving—“generosity”—with our friends.  We should be more generous.

The second lesson is more complicated.  To understand it, we must ask, “And what will a gift be, then, if I give for real, rather than relying upon the standard rules?”

Whereas the “gift” in the Christmas-game is a playing piece in a system of reciprocal exchange according to which what one gives to another is supposed to be met with an equivalent return “gift,” the gift that is the spontaneous offer of oneself or one’s own to another expends itself entirely in the giving and seeks no return.  And, indeed, no reciprocal gift would be possible, for the uniqueness of the giving—its unique responsiveness to the specificities of the situation—make it incomparable to any other.  A different gift could be given, but that would simply be another unique event of generosity uniquely defined by its situation and in no way “compensating” for the original gift.

The generosity of the true gift does not seek to be “paid back”—indeed, to give is precisely to renounce relating to the other according to the rules of reciprocal exchange—but in a sense very different from that operative in the gift-game, to receive the gift is to take on an awesome “debt.”  The gift does not require to be paid back, but what it does is call one to embrace the relationship authentically.  This is the second, more challenging lesson.

A true gift is a great challenge, for, at the same time as it is a gesture that breaks out of the rule of reciprocal exchange, it is a call to the other not to live according to those rules.  The gift expresses that persons should spontaneously give themselves to each other in response to their unique specificities, and thus the gift is in fact a form of critique—it effectively accuses one of behaving badly if one does relate to others according to the rules of institutional, calculative impersonality.

True generosity is an insistence on authenticity and thus, though it asks for no “payback,” it imparts an imperative to the other to rise to the demands of relating to others authentically.  To participate truly in gift-giving is to hear the call to give up treating the other as something that fits into well-defined, pre-scripted roles; it is the call to be open to having to define unique ways of relating to unique others rather than relying upon the comfortable terms of our established social expectations.

So the gift that is really without price is the one that has the highest price-tag of all, for to receive it is to receive the call to hold oneself responsible for caring for the unique worth of the other, a worth that is infinite in that no limit set from without can do justice to it.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).