Hobbesian Warre and the Maussian Gift
Ethnologists inevitably come to their subjects with a certain philosophical baggage which is part of their own, North Atlantic universe of cosmological and moral meaning, and influences the way they gather and interpret their data. In the following, I will examine one particular, widespread assumption informing Maussian and structuralist theorising on gifts and reciprocity: the idea of violence as a basic tendency of human nature. While the other contributions to this volume focus on detailed archaeological and ethnographic data pertaining to conflict and violence more directly, the present one looks at historical and epistemological backgrounds of one particular, quite influential way of handling such data theoretically and conceptually.
The notion of disorder and conflict as a ‘natural’, ‘primordial’, or ‘original’ state of humankind, and at the same time of human nature, is continually present in Marcel Mauss’ Essai sur le don. It guides his empirically directed work as a conceptual or ontological presupposition, linking his thought to that of the leading social theorists of the Enlightenment. In his analysis, état naturel refers to both humankind before history and civilisation – its natural history – and a state of ‘raw nature’ that is partly constitutive for human society, as a condition that must continually be transcended to make humanness possible. Becoming human, as Mauss analyses it, happened in (pre)history, but it is also, ontologically speaking, a permanent, structural feature of humans who, according to this view, continually transcend the state of nature, by exchanging. The ‘natural state’ is seen as primordial, both ontologically and phylogenetically, and social order as discontinuous with nature in both respects.
Mauss holds exchange to be constitutive of social life and social order because it is the chronologically earliest and ontologically most fundamental solution to the Hobbesian warre of all against all that, in Hobbes’ view, ensues from man’s selfish nature. ‘ocieties have progressed’, he writes in the conclusion to the Essai sur le don,
In so far as they themselves, their subgroups, and, lastly, the
individuals in them, have succeeded in stabilizing relation-
ships, giving, receiving, and finally, giving in return. To trade,
the first condition was to be able to lay aside the spear. From
then onwards, they succeeded in exchanging goods and per-
sons, no longer only between clans, but between tribes and
nations, and, above all, between individuals. Only then did
people learn how to create mutual interests, giving mutual