Annals of the Fondazione Luigi Einaudi

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Economics, History and Political Science

The Annals is a forum for the free exchange of ideas
among scholars working in the field of social sciences
Volume LV 1 - 2021

Reconciling Spirit and Contract? Marshall Sahlins and the “Essai sur le don”

Philippe Chanial and Ilana F. Silber,
pp. 87-106
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This article revisits Sahlins’s discussion of Mauss’s Essay on the Gift, with a focus on its contribution to research on the gift and its broader, social and political implications. Sahlins’s reading of the Essay in Stone Age Economics (1972), we submit, richly buttressed Mauss’s attention to the gift’s “total” significance and its “spiritual” dimensions – even as it developed a new interpretation of the famed Maori notion of hau, or “spirit” of the gift. But it also offered a Hobbesian-inflected, rational and utilitarian rendering of the gift as a form of social contract, which elided the more complex and contradictory facets of gift-exchange that were underscored by Mauss in the Essay on the Gift. No less important, it left the reader wonder how precisely to relate between the gift’s spiritual and contractual dimensions. Recent returns by Sahlins to the topic of the gift indicate a persistent interest in the gift’s “spirit”, while confirming, even enhancing tendencies found in his early writings. Highlighting the anti-Hobbesian and anti-utilitarian effects of one modality of the gift – ‘the gift from everyone to everyone’ – in the sphere of kin-like relatedness in particular, they also pose a contrast to the Essay’s more inclusive vision of the gift’s extensions to all parts of social life, including the state. Building upon Mauss and Sahlins, we need pursue the relation between the “spirit” of gift relations and their “contractual” implications as not only a normative and political but also empirical question, equally pertinent across past and present settings.