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Opening Gift

Opening gift. Under what better auspices could we proceed to launch this first issue of the MAUSS International ? The gift is unparalleled as a social scientific concept because of its versatility, reversibility, and plasticity. First of all, these opening gifts have us, the editors, on the receiving end, because of the privilege we have to have been given these contributions, which we feel constitute a perfect and timely statement of our aims and ambitions. Opening gift, then, also for our readers, sympathizers, and the social sciences in general. As Marcel Mauss showed almost a century ago, the universal tripartite structure of the gift as giving, accepting, and giving back, is a continuous cycle often without an assignable beginning, middle, nor end. Is there really, ever, a truly “opening gift?” Probably not. Mauss’ theory of the gift allows us to sidestep the insoluble question of “Origins” by showing how human beings and human societies are always actors in a cycle that has already started and which already has a direction. We therefore start in the middle – in medias res.


The gift creates obligations, and thereby a social bond. This is certainly what we hope for with our readers. Yet the obligation contained in the gift is not a “freedom killer” that paralyzes and obliterates subjectivity: it is an obligation to exercise one’s agency and freedom by choosing to give or not to give in response, and to give this or that, more or less, when and where.

This is how we feel about the texts included here, some of which we received long ago, others yesterday. As recipients, we feel obliged and filled with recognition vis-à-vis their authors. We feel obliged to give back, and hence to keep the gift moving, as Lewis Hyde brilliantly exposed. As donors, we wish to be recognized for our wits and liberality, yet we also wish to oblige our epistemic community, and even beyond. Oblige our readers and social sciences to ask anew some of the fundamental questions that have been buried under the ashes of hyper-specialization, neo-positivism, and misplaced “axiological neutrality.” Half a century or so after the beginning of the neoliberal revolution, by which the illusions of the free Market replaced the soteriological investments placed in the Nation-State, we wish to further question the accompanying and corollary rise to dominance of utilitarian and economistic epistemologies and their vagaries.


Our general aims as well as our history are explained in the Mission Statement. By “anti-utilitarian”, we first and foremost mean the resistance to and critique of the reduction of human motivations to self-interest and strategy, and social relations to power acquisition and domination. It also means renewing, unearthing, exploring, and proposing alternatives that respect the complexities and layered constituency of what Mauss called the “Total Human Being” (l’homme total). This venture includes many other sources than Mauss, or even the Durkheimians, but the former serves as a platform for discussion, a base camp from which to lead our expeditions and seek contact and dialogue with other epistemological tribes.

The MAUSS has existed for forty years. Four decades of publications in French, including the flagship Revue du MAUSS. Helped by linguistic proximity, the MAUSSian outlook has mostly rippled out to Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese-speaking readerships. Our truly international advisory board shows how the MAUSS has become known within wider circles, although probably in reputation more than substance. This issue therefore opens a new era for us, one in which we ambition to become interlocutors for a truly international audience, through the new lingua franca that is English.

Indebted We Stand

The last year and some has been difficult to say the least, with the global COVID-19 pandemic as well as a few irreparable losses amongst our friends. One of the dearly departed, one who will be particularly missed, is David Graeber, who left us in 2020 at the young age of 59. David is well known as both an eclectic touch-all, an anthropologist, a prodigy, and an anarchist who always blended – with brilliance – academic thinking with political activism, namely through his role in the alter-globalization and Occupy movements. Many at the MAUSS have met David, both personally, intellectually, and politically on various occasions, for different reasons, but all hold him in high esteem. We can only weep at the thought of all the books, ideas, and initiatives his premature death has deprived us of.

Graeber was among the few on the other side of the Channel and the Atlantic who took notice of the MAUSS, and actively engaged with it. We reproduce here as our first contribution a fitting text published in 2001 in which he introduces English readers to some of the fundamentals of the MAUSS, and more particularly to its critique of liberal political economy and its utilitarian avatars in the social sciences. Readers familiar with Graeber’s works will recognize some of the arguments and style one finds in his 2011 book Debt. The First 5’000 Years, undoubtedly a landmark. His discussion investigates some of the most difficult questions of our time, some of which can find new insights from Mauss and the MAUSS: is it imaginable, in modern societies, to get rid of the market altogether? Probably not, according to Mauss, but it is possible to do away with a “market ethos” in order to make place in our constitutions for gifts that are collapsible neither on vested self-interests nor sacrificial disinterest. With Polanyi, we can also envisage a plural economy which includes the social and solidarity economy as one of its pillars. This was and still is one of the main arguments we have been voicing at the MAUSS.

Another tragic loss is that of Marshall Sahlins, former supervisor, close friend, and co-author of Graeber, who also relentlessly stressed anti-utilitarian principles in his multi-faceted and incomparably rich anthropology. The relationship between Sahlins and the MAUSS was not as long-standing as one would expect (on either side), yet it was sincere and heartful. Sahlins had just published the English translation of a small book by Alain Caillé on the basics of the MAUSS’ anti-utilitarian social theory in his collection. [1] At the venerable age of 90, he was actively working on a three-volume project entitled The Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity, whose ambition was nothing less than the “revolutionizing of an obsolete anthropology.” The first of these volumes, entitled The New Science of the Enchanted Universe, is to appear at Princeton University Press in 2022, and the two other volumes were to busy themselves with studies of Enchanted Economics and Cosmic Politics, respectively. The text published here, “The Dismal Science”, is the last text completed by Sahlins before his death, on April 5th, 2021. [2] It was to form part of the introduction to the second volume and captures a radical critique of economic theory that stresses its metaphysical constitution and methodological shortcomings, issues for which a well-constituted anthropology can provide a more fruitful and empirically sounder alternative.

Sahlins’ critique adds to that contained in his classic Stone Age Economics, yet in a way it only re-actualizes the critiques formulated by Mauss and the Durkheimian school. Critiques which have been ritually repeated since with manifold variegations, from both within (Keynes, Granovetter, Keen, Hudson) and outside economic’s “orthodox” clubhouse (institutional economics, economics of convention, sociology and anthropology of economics, Cultural Studies, etc.). As Durkheim’s collaborator François Simiand complained over a century ago, “how can you fight ideology with facts?” How is it possible, indeed, that all of these critiques of liberal economic theory end up like water off a duck’s back? The answer, suggests Sahlins – as did Simiand and Mauss –, has to do with their power of enchantment. The basic assumptions of the neoclassical model are not as much the building blocks of a scientific theory as they are the elements that make up the powerful mythology on which our market-based societies are built. They are not analyses of something that exists (and even less so “naturally”); rather, they are performative propositions that are socially instituted and produce an economic “reality.”

Moving away from frontal critiques of economic theory, Mary Douglas’ intervention draws our attention to what should be the next step: proposing an alternative social theory. The text published here is the content of an exchange between Douglas and Alain Caillé in 2006 in which she confides identifying with his project of a unified anti-utilitarian social scientific theory while drawing attention to the perils of overdoing it (that is, of versing into a form of imperialism) as well as to the importance of the agonistic element in Mauss’ gift. By any measure, though, it is obvious that Douglas’ work constitutes an essential piece of a bigger puzzle that still needs to be constructed, namely, as she suggests, in discussion with ‘unorthodox’ economic currents derived from Keynesianism.

Lineages of the Gift

This first issue of the MAUSS International could not exist without highlighting some key reflections on Mauss’ gift. The contributions in this section include translations of French publications as well as new material. This mix is a good sample of what we aim to do with this journal by making French works and French-writing authors available in English, alongside new material by English-writing authors.

12We open this section with Alain Caillé’s preface to the Chinese translation of Mauss’ Essay on the Gift by our friend Zhi Je.  Here, Caillé makes his case that the Essay is the most important text in the history of the social sciences. This is of course a perilous statement that is bound to attract skepticism and even dissent, yet it is this conviction that has animated his reflections and works over the course of the last decades. This preface constitutes an excellent entry into Caillé’s work and his very clear and systematic way of constructing his arguments and syntheses. Here, the author sketches Mauss’ life, the Essay’s structure, as well as the list and critique of the canonical interpretations of the gift by Lévi-Strauss for instance, before insisting on the possibility of deriving a general social theory from the triple obligation of the gift – a project to which he and others have devoted a significant part of their intellectual careers.

In the following contribution, Ilana Silber argues for a partial de-connection from the utilitarian⁄anti-utilitarian divide in favor of ecumenical endeavors in the latter camp. She proceeds to bring two French sociological currents into a fruitful dialogical relation, namely the “sociology of critique and justification” heralded by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot and the MAUSSian approach. What is more anti-utilitarian, can we ask, than Silber’s endorsement of a “slow” and “complexifying” approach to dialogue, especially when this is capped by a serious desire and attempt at synthesis? One of the most important connections between these theoretical approaches is the fact that they do not deny the existence of “utilitarian orientations.” Rather, they integrate them within a more complex set of motivations and embed them in their supporting “cultural structures” and “worlds of meaning” – while also welcoming multidimensional theorizing and a conception of social interaction as ever rife with plurality and uncertainty as well as solidarity and conflict. The battle against utilitarianism, which has the advantage of its simplistic and would-be commonsensical “neatness”, can only be won if competing alternatives strive to unite their forces rather than by diffracting into as many autistic and self-serving chapels.

Another great loss over the last months has been that of Elena Pulcini, social philosopher at the University of Florence and long-standing friend and collaborator of the MAUSS. Elena has been a pioneer in the translation of a MAUSSian perspective on issues related to gender, equality, and care. She deserves our highest honors, and we are grateful to help disseminate the work she shared with us. The following is one of her most stimulating and essential texts, in which she concisely and powerfully brings together gift theory and care in a way that contributes to some of the current debates in which the limits of the construction and deconstruction of gender act as a key variable and a dividing line. The text starts by the stereotypical association of care with women before panning out to reflect on feminine difference and insisting that care theory, such as that of Gilligan, is a way to think subjectivity as a relational process. She writes that “care, like the gift, simultaneously involves autonomy and dependency, freedom and vulnerability.” Yet recognizing female difference must be accompanied by the expansion of care to include the masculine subject and the acknowledgments of its public and even global dimensions. Understood in this way, care and gift theory can produce a dialogue that invigorates and renews theories of emancipation beyond the epistemic couple opposing the individual to the collective.

Anthropologist and sociologist David Le Breton pioneered the social scientific study of the body in France in the late 1980s with an approach inspired by Mauss, Bataille, Caillois, and symbolic interactionism. Here, he takes us with him on a reflection about laughter and its social eroticism: “Sharing a moment of hilarity, he writes, is akin to sharing a moment of intimacy by uniting bodies in the same discreet break with more refined ways of being.” Laughter is about letting go, transgressing, and thereby shedding social norms and expectations of a return for a moment of communion. While opening the floodgates of spontaneity and generosity, the gift of laughter is also traversed by obligations and participation in a group’s normativity and expected conduct, thereby showing the ambiguities of the gift and the complex mechanisms of sociality.

Is there such a thing as a “pure gift?” By pure, what springs up to mind is an entirely graceful and disinterested gift, unsullied by the self-interest so dear to utilitarians. From the purity of the gift to the “real gift”, there is a line that many authors have crossed, like Derrida and Bourdieu, who conclude that the gift, in essence, is impossible. Theologians would perhaps reply that only God can author true gifts, and that we, mortals, can’t do better than to die trying. Mauss’ conception of the gift, however, steers clear from such absolutism. The “archaic” gift, based on Boas and Malinowski’s works among many others, is mediocre : “the gift is both self-interested and disinterested, and both free and obligated” Mauss tells us in the opening lines of the Essay. Or so is our reading. Yet, while Durkheim’s sociology projected to use new methods to interrogate anew philosophy’s millennial questions, it is pertinent to revert back and reconsider some of philosophy’s answers to the question of donation – the “pure” moment of giving.

This is what Stephen Fuchs invites us to do with “Heidegger and the Gift of Being.” According to the author, the German philosopher’s attempt to refocus philosophy on the question of Being is intended as neither the refutation nor the revision of metaphysics, but as the attempt to “seek a path out of metaphysics.” We should not be surprised if the language of the gift comes to the rescue in such a project. To the question “What is Being?”, Heidegger answers that there can be no cause and that Being simply is – it is given: “Es gibt Sein.” Being is “Gegenbenheit”: The fact of being given. “Heidegger thinks ontological truth not as the fixed and established property of matters of fact, but as a revealing, an unearthing, an opening, a dis-closure.” With this text on the phenomenology of donation, an intellectual line connects Heidegger to Merleau-Ponty and Derrida, but also to Claude Lefort and Marcel Hénaff, to whom we return below.

From the banality of laughter to the depths of Being, these contributions shed light on the gift’s powerful heuristics, and illuminate Mauss’ intuition that the gift is “the bedrock” of human societies.


Of RATs, Birds, and MAUSSes

From these contributions on the gift stricto sensu, we move to the epistemological heart of social theory. We start out with a remarkable 1989 text by Loïc Wacquant and Craig Calhoun which was heretofore published only in French in the Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, a journal founded by Pierre Bourdieu. The authors, who have become some of the leading figures in the social sciences, start by evoking a “recent exchange in the American Journal of Sociology between the neoclassical economics-inspired sociologist James S. Coleman on the one hand, and the historian-sociologist William H. Sewell, Jr., influenced by Geertz’s cultural anthropology, on the other”, which they take as an occasion to discuss the rise of Rational Action Theory (or RAT) and historical and cultural sociology. What is amazing in retrospect is how this richly documented and referenced text remains pertinent today, as if the field of social sciences was still traversed by the same currents as then. Certainly, the rise of RAT and other neoclassic economics-derived approaches has not waned since back then. For the pessimists, the authors remind us that a strong anti-utilitarian resistance has met utilitarian approaches’ conquering thrust then as now. For the optimists, they take us through a thorough analysis of the RAT’s shortcomings, yet historical hindsight shows that these critiques have had virtually no effect on the careers of either Coleman or others, who chose to simply avoid answering the difficult questions, starting with the empirical validity of the model’s basic assumptions. Let us say it clearly: RAT authors have never addressed the core of these critiques; in fact, they cannot do so without being obliged to drill a hole in their own vessel and abandon ship. We deem Wacquant and Calhoun’s substantial piece to be an essential read for all social scientists, as it collects and connects the essential discussions, arguments, and critiques of a period that is unfortunately far from bygone, in a synthetic and readable format.

Peter Wagner’s piece is drawn from a chapter in a book, edited by Margaret Archer and Jonathan Tritter [4] in which they call for a resistance against the colonization of the social sciences by rational choice, and deserves to be widely disseminated. It perfectly complements Wacquant and Calhoun’s text by addressing further problematic issues of the present-day “default mode of theorizing” that is Rational Choice. The article is a fine exercise in comparative metaphysics. It starts with an insightful contrast between two proverbs. In English, one finds that “one bird in hand is better than two in the bush”, whereas it’s German equivalent – “The sparrow in the hand is better than the dove on the roof” – does not so much compare quantities, but qualities. To clarify the distinction between American and European ways of moral and political valuation, Wagner draws on the pragmatic sociology of the orders of worth of Boltanski and Thévenot to show that the demoralizing approach of Rational Choice finds its origins in wars and revolutions (in Europe) and in the Wild West (in America). Where no other guidelines are to be found than survival, Rational Choice becomes the “default mode” for the coordination of action between unencumbered individuals without common culture and history. “Individualist rationality is then proposed as some kind of bottom-line on which everyone can agree.” By retracing the origins of instrumental action to situations of emergency, Wagner brilliantly shows that Rational Choice theory relies on a very “particular”, even peculiar “theory of modernity”, and that the latter’s postulate of “autonomy” presupposes a certain type of rugged individualism. Wagner’s text, and the last part in particular, is essential to understand the history and lineages of English-language social sciences, and how the emergence and resilience of Rational Choice fits in this bigger picture, namely with respect to the European/American divide.

These critiques of Rational Choice are complementary and corollary to Graeber and Sahlins’ critique of orthodox economics, as well as of the actual dominance of market economics over all other social dimensions. Rational Choice is therefore best understood as one of the channels by which a social and cultural consensus is constructed and legitimated. It is to this entertained consensus to which Bruno Latour draws our attention, in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an English translation of a short text published in 2020 in the French outlet AOC, and gracefully handed over to our care by the author. Latour highlights how the supposedly inevitable, natural, or at least essential global capitalist economy was put to a halt overnight. The market economy, Latour argues, “holds in place only as long as the institution that performs it – and not a day longer.” This sudden full-stop put on the economy during the generalized confinement of Spring 2020 has an empirical force that surpasses any accumulation of theoretical arguments. As we now witness attempts to “return to normal” and forget that no catastrophe automatically ensues when the reign of the market is bridled, this contribution is a welcome reminder. During the lock-down, the market showed its total incapacity to provide answers, solace, or practical solutions, not to mention hope. It is social bonds and social solidarity that spontaneously stepped in to cater for redistribution and coordination. The state, meanwhile, showed that it played a vital role in such occasions and could still be warrant of the common good, by setting rules, providing the unconditionality required by urgency, and mobilizing amounts of resources, technical, human, and financial, which surpass anything the market can and could drum up.

Proposing a new outlet for an anti-utilitarian social science in the English language cannot do without revisiting the anti-utilitarian strand in American sociology, and namely that which threads through Parsons and his particular reception and dissemination of Durkheim. In this concise piece originally published in French [5] and drawn from a presentation at the MAUSS conference in the bucolic surroundings of Cerisy-la-Salle dedicated the multi-disciplinary reflection on the anti-utilitarian foundations of the social sciences, in Normandy, in 2015, Jeffrey Alexander returns to Parsons’ anti-utilitarian project to situate the birth of cultural sociology and his own work at the end of the 1980s in response to the rise of neoliberalism-backed utilitarian epistemologies. Cultural sociology aims to transcend the impasse opposing conflict and consensus theories by showing how a shared social order involves meanings that do not need to be and are only rarely consensual. Given that the MAUSS does not defend a consensus, but a conflict theory of society, it is not a coincidence if cultural sociology arrives at similar conclusions by revisiting Durkheim without Parsons.

What follows is another contribution at this same conference. Here, Ann Warfield Rawls delves further into the question of the social structuration of the “self, objects, and action” by arguing that the basics of a fully operational and non-reductionist interactionist theory can be found in Durkheim’s 1893 classic Division of Social Labor, as long as we read it with its original introduction; an introduction that was removed from the second edition (1902) onwards. This introduction contains a critique of classical rationalism and idealism and clearly situates the project of a new science of society as an answer to their shortcomings. Hence Durkheim’s thesis was not limited to the division of (paid) labor but the division of social labor, including the vast landmass of non-marketed and non-marketable social activities. Durkheim’s theory therefore discusses the social differentiation that is typical of modern societies, insisting on how the latter achieve meaning and social cohesion without consensus. The parallel with Alexander’s approach is evident, notwithstanding the authors’ differences. What is particularly interesting from a French, and especially a MAUSSian perspective, is how this reading of Durkheim radically changes the usual view of the father of French sociology as promoting a totalizing, consensual, and top-down vision of society (and therefore dismissed in the typical first paragraphs of social scientific literature, and evermore so as the focus in recent decades has turned resolutely towards the “actor”). Rawls’ Durkheim bypasses the consensus/conflict episteme by showing how what is striking in modern societies, and what differentiates them from “archaic” societies of smaller scale, is the way they achieve social order, meaning, and morality “without consensus”, resulting in the need for a concept and a mechanism of justice.

Such an ethnomethodological reading of Durkheim is welcome, to say the least. Even if parts of French sociology carry such a stereotypical vision of Durkheim’s sociology as that mentioned above, other traditions, including ours, are more than relieved by Rawls’ efforts and new translations. Like Alexander, Rawls “corrects” Parsons’ reading of Durkheim by showing that for him collective representations and moral facts must be constantly and continuously created to be sustained. Durkheim’s view of society is thus far from monolithic. As Rawls writes, social facts “are interactional and dependent on mutual cooperation.” Perhaps because of the necessities of her own concerns and argumentative requirements, Rawls focuses chiefly if not exclusively on Durkheim’s doctoral thesis. Yet a refreshed read of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life supports Rawls’ interpretation. What we can perhaps add to the author’s conclusions with respect to justice is the insistence by Durkheim, after 1895, on the idea that morality and justice rely on sacred categories and therefore on religious mechanisms, as is his focus in the Elementary Forms of 1912. Durkheim, and his collaborators with him, first of whom Mauss himself, were not only precursors of social interactionism: they were social interactionists. We definitely intend to build on these foundations in the issues to come.

Another Social Science is Possible

Social theory is not unbound from social and cultural conditions. It is embedded in the societies in which it produced, at a given time. It is also true about the acknowledged or unacknowledged, implicit normative concerns and content of social theories. The on-going globalization processes affecting social sciences, and in which we are intently participating, has various effects. On the one hand, and somewhat paradoxically, the further interconnection of national, linguistic, and regional social scientific traditions leads to forms of radical relativism and localism which forbid a priori any type of synthesis or generalization on the grounds that such attempts are both impossible and intrinsically imperialistic. We see this as an exaggerated reaction to the excesses of former grand theoretical enterprises, which only lead down “empirical” rabbit holes and false neutrality claims. On the other hand, voices are calling for a form of “relative universalism”, which recognizes the irreducibility of social realities and their contexts, yet at the same time builds on the contributions of structuralism and post-structuralist anthropology by accepting that the possibilities of social organization are neither infinite nor random. Hence social facts in different cultures and societies can be compared and organized, and generalizations can be made. Mauss’ own teachings in ethnography stated this repeatedly, and his contentions as to the universality of the gift, which to our knowledge has never been convincingly repudiated, offers the perfect platform for such endeavors.

It is no secret that Western social sciences have been extremely ethnocentric. This trend has begun to change in recent years, namely through the rise of Postcolonial Studies and Global History, yet much remains to be done. One area that requires more attention is the history of social sciences in the non-Western world. This is indeed a precondition for any generalizing effort and the connection of an anti-utilitarian front. This is why Stéphane Dufoix’s notes on a world history of sociology is important. What this rapid tour of the origins of sociology from Latin America to Asia shows us is the importance of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer as primary sources, as well as the often joint development of sociology and economics. Dufoix’s text says little, however, about the content and general theoretical orientations of these social scientific traditions, and it is worth commissioning a follow-up for a future edition. This portrait is enough though to see how non-Western sociology mostly evolved from Western influences, and with a potentially strong utilitarian impulse. What remains to be seen is the nature and relative strength of non-Western non-utilitarian sociologies and social sciences more widely, and if the utilitarian/anti-utilitarian divide is a global episteme or not.

Sari Hanafi, currently president of the International Sociological Association, has been at the forefront of debates concerned with the construction of a global social science. Here, he situates one of the reasons behind the current crisis affecting the social sciences in the fragmentation and isolation of each specialization, as well as in their dissociation from moral philosophy. Reconnecting all of these, he argues, is key to the correction of positivist tendencies, the recognition of the normative dimensions of any social scientific enterprise, and the opening in fine onto forms of engagement. More specifically, Hanafi joins in on a criticism of the secularization paradigm that has shaped the attitude of social sciences regarding religion in a way that “hinders our understanding of the contribution of social actors within social movements and prevents us from appreciating how social actors forge their normative position in everyday life.” Drawing from examples in the Middle East, Hanafi argues that such inflexions have detrimental effects, like in our leaders’ analyses of Islamist movements.

The concept of “institution” stands at the core of social sciences, yet its definition is anything but assured. Christian Laval is a core member of the MAUSS and one of France’s prime public intellectuals. In this substantial essay, he shows how the “institution” is also at the center of some of the most important and structuring debates of the last century and more, as it is situated at the junction of society and the actor. Laval charts the parallel developments of sociology and critical economics in opposite directions (anti-institutional for the former, pro-institutional for the latter), and argues for their reconciliation. From Durkheim through to Parsons (again!), institutions had been increasingly thought of as ensuring functions of social cohesion and social order. Yet sociology had to acknowledge that institutions also threaten individual autonomy and exert forms of alienation and domination (Goffman, Bourdieu and Passeron, Foucault). As often, one form of excess (functionalism) produced its opposite (critical sociology’s critique of institutions as inherently totalitarian: Castells) as the pendulum swings from one side (social order) to the other (“actor” focus and individual autonomy). Meanwhile, in economics, the neoliberal wave paradoxically ushered in a movement against naturalism (economic actors behave as in a state of nature) and a return to the question of institutions. As so often though, trained economists do a poor job at seizing the true – that is: social – nature of institutions as they recast them within a utilitarian framework (“benchmarking” and “efficiency” evaluation). This is an occasion to appreciate how the MAUSSian way out of such conundrums is through a “Middle Way”. Here, Laval’s proposition avoids both functionalist and utilitarian reductions while recognizing the ambivalent nature of institutions as both order-producing and a simultaneous alienating and/or capacitating potential.

Our Debts: Marcel Hénaff

Any social scientific work is a collective work. As there might be no truly “opening” gift, there is never any work ex nihilo. We are all daughters and sons before becoming mothers and fathers, and we all have cousins when not siblings. We noted above how we have lost some of our dearest friends and important voices in the last two years. In this section, we pay tribute to one of those with respect to whom we stand indebted: Marcel Hénaff, who passed away in June 2018. Marcel taught French literature, philosophy, and anthropology at the University of California in San Diego, and contributed an impressive body of work on structuralism, Lévi-Strauss, Mauss, and the gift among other things. His relation with the MAUSS was agonistic, yet always under the seal of camaraderie. His analysis of the gift converged with that of many MAUSSian authors on the most important elements, and he participated generously in our conferences and in the Revue du MAUSS. Just before leaving for hospital, he wrote an email to Alain Caillé saying that he had some small problems to deal with and would signal himself as soon as he was back on his feet.

We present two short texts in homage to Marcel. The first is a critical review of Hénaff’s book The Philosopher’s Gift: Reexamining Reciprocity, recently translated in English and published by Fordham University Press, by Finnish social theorist Olli Pyythinen. The author recalls Hénaff’s critique of the pure gift (which is basically the same as that of the MAUSS), and relates his proposition to distinguish between three different orders of the gift: “the ceremonial gift, characterized by the strict obligation to reciprocate”; the disinterested gift, whose aim is graciousness; and mutual aid to either familiars or strangers, with therefore a more social character than the gracious gift. This conceptualization of the gift insists on a third party that is either implicit or explicit, allowing to overcome the limitations of dyadic representations of reciprocity. This presentation of Hénaff’s tripartite categorization of the gift would need to be complemented by an account of the debates within the pages of the Revue du MAUSS semestrielle. Indeed, this discussion helped identify some fundamental questions raised by the gift, on which the following contribution sheds some light.

The second text, then, is a eulogy by Francesco Fistetti that we translated from Italian. Fistetti has been a close collaborator of the MAUSS for many years and also knew Marcel Hénaff very well. His text retraces the intellectual career of Marcel and highlights how fecund his generalist approach was. Few contemporaries are as cultivated as Marcel, who understood Western philosophy, and Western rationalism in particular, as an anthropologist: that is as the particular cosmology or Weltanschauung of a particular tribe, the “West”. Hénaff’s project, which remains unfinished, was a rereading of Western philosophy and history in the light of Maussian anthropology, namely through the lenses of the gift. Fistetti’s discussion complements Stephen Fuchs’ piece above, when he reconstructs Hénaff’s analysis of Western metaphysics, including Heidegger’s question of Being, from the angle of the gift and Gegebenheit. As Fistetti rightly indicates, Marcel Hénaff’s understanding of the gift remains bound to Lévi-Strauss’ even as he proposes an important inflexion that tames the latter’s formalism. The points of dissent between Marcel Hénaff and the MAUSS (and Alain Caillé in particular) concern essential questions relative to the other Marcel – Mauss that is –’s gift.

A Glimpse of Public Sociology à la Française

So what does a MAUSSian public sociology look like? Here is a glimpse, penned by MAUSS’ founder Alain Caillé, from whom we now take up the torch. This is an excerpt from a short book published in the discrete series “Les Extras du MAUSS”, in which the author proposes a way out of the actual toxic atmosphere which permeates public debate, from the trials surrounding the so-called “Cancel Culture” and “Woke-ism” in the US and the critique of “islamo-gauchisme” in France. Is it possible, in the age of social media insults and algorithm-fed conspiracies to lead a cordial discussion? Or at least disagree without delving into violence, verbal or physical? Analyzing the causes behind recent escalations, Caillé proposes what he calls an attitude of “radical moderationism”, or “well-tempered radicalism”, which he places under the banner of a non-violent Maussian ethics of discussion. Is not democracy, whose luster is ever waning, “a means to disagree without resorting to open conflict?”

In Closing: An Unexpected Accomplice

The MAUSS International is committed to relevance and salience, but also to editorial freedom and the celebration of thought in all its forms. For decades, the French Revue du MAUSS has published a wide variety of texts, including literature, whether prose or poetry, when it appears fitting. We aim to continue this tradition of eclecticism in the MAUSS International. We therefore close this issue with an excerpt of Fyodor Dostoïevsky’s Notes from the Underground, perhaps one of the most anti-utilitarian texts ever written. This text figured in the very first edition of the Bulletin du MAUSS, exactly forty years ago, and it seemed fitting to cap this opening issue with it, once again, and launch a new cycle of gifts.


[1] Alain Caillé (2020), The Gift Paradigm. A short Introduction to the Anti-Utilitarian Movement in the Social Sciences, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

[2] Marshall was supposed to write a short text on anti-utilitarianism for this issue. We warmly thank his son Peter for having proposed us this text, his last. Talk about being indebted…

[3] 莫斯, « 礼物 : 古式社会中交换的形式与理由 » (Marcel Mauss, Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques), traduit du français en chinois par Zhe Ji, Shanghai : Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2002 ; nouvelle édition, Pékin : Shangwu yinshuguan, 2016, avec une préface d’Alain Caillé (p. 2-14) et une introduction de Florence Weber (p. 137-175).

[4] Archer, Margaret and Jonathan Tritter (2000), Rational Choice Theory. Resisting Colonization, London: Routledge

[5] Alain Caillé, Philippe Chanial, Stéphane Dufoix and Frédéric Vandenberghe (eds.) (2018), Des sciences sociales à la science sociale. Fondements anti-utilitaristes, Paris: Éditions Le Bord de l’eau.

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