This volume contains translations of three essays by Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), who laid the foundation for the sociological/anthropological study of gift exchange. The Gift, the centerpiece of the volume, continues to exert influence on the philosophical exploration of society focusing on gift exchange.
Mauss researched cases from what were considered at that time to be primitive societies (Polynesia, Melanesia, and the northwestern coast of North America). He also examined archaic forms of high civilization (ancient Rome, ancient Hindus, and so on) in great detail to demonstrate that, in these societies, exchange relationships based on gifts were dominant. Mauss argued that various aspects of society (political, legal, economic, religious-magical, and aesthetic) were expressed in a concentrated manner in exchange relationships, which he termed a “total social fact.”
The major questions Mauss dealt with in The Gift are summarized as follows:
(1) Why do people give gifts as if it is a voluntary act when, in fact, they are driven by obligation?
(2) Why are people obliged to receive gifts?
(3) Why are people obliged to reciprocate when they receive gifts?
In particular, as for (3), Mauss provided an argument that gift giving is an act of giving (something of) oneself, which induces a movement for it to return to oneself. In any case, these three-layered questions stem from the understanding that human beings or society cannot be self-sufficient and must be open to others. Consequently, Mauss argued that the “basis of human existence” is found in the exchange relationship based on gift-giving. In other words, he argued that the basis of human existence is found in “going out of oneself,” not in closing in on oneself as an individual or a group.
Furthermore, Mauss’ examination of so-called primitive societies and archaic societies contained some critical examination of the Western market society of the time. While acknowledging market principles, based on the equivalent exchange encompassing human relationships by reducing everything to monetary value, he saw hope for modern society in bringing back an exchange relationship based on gifts.
This volume contains a translation of The Gift, the major piece of work by Mauss, as well as the two related works of “A Form of Archaic Contract of the Thracians” and “Gift, Gift,” providing detailed notes and commentary.
(Written by Takumi Moriyama, Professor of Graduate School of Arts and Sciences / 2018)