“It’s the Thought that Counts”

September 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

My title comes from the phrase we typically use when we receive a gift that we don’t really want: you may not care for fruitcake, but you appreciate it when your grandmother gives you one. You are responding to the fact that you received a gift, rather than the gift itself. Form, not content, takes primary importance here.

Some would extrapolate from this situation to say that form is all that matters in gift exchange. Without addressing this particular situation, Derrida makes essentially that claim in his thesis that time is the only true gift we can give–time in the abstract, after all, is pure form without content. A gift accompanied by even the thought of having given degenerates to a contract for Derrida, because any thought of the gift expects a response. The less we think about our gift, the more ethical our giving action. All you need is form, because the giver’s intention is the sole determinant of the ethical value of the gift.

I disagree, though, with Derrida’s emphasis on the giver’s intention; and moreover I don’t think this interpretation squares with my experience as a gift recipient. Intention is one component of moral action, but surely not the only one. If our intentions are good but the results of our action bad, we may feel ourselves to have acted morally–but we still wish we would have (could have) chosen differently. Similarly, though we must guard our intentions as givers carefully, I do not think it inevitable that by thinking carefully about what to give a person we will compromise our motives. As a recipient, I feel more loved when I get a gift which has been carefully selected to please me than when I have to say “It’s the thought that counts.” If the purpose of giving is to enrich a relationship–which I take to be the primary function of most individual gift exchange–form may remain primary, but content matters too.

(The question then becomes what Derrida thinks the purpose of giving to be. It looks pretty solipsistic to me, not centered on a relationship at all, but I’m not going to pursue that here.)

There are various way this argument could play out, and I’ll probably write more about form/content in the future, as it seems to be preoccupying me these days (Anyone with a better grasp of philosophy than this poor literary scholar, feel free to chime in.) But let me note one last thing. I first began contemplating “It’s the thought that counts” during the Lord’s Supper (as we call it in my tradition)–which is, in fact, the ultimate example of content mattering over form. It’s impossible to underestimate how that will have influenced my thinking, and my disagreement with Derrida.



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§ One Response to “It’s the Thought that Counts”

  • Brent says:

    What I really like about you starting this critique from the Lords supper is that your perspective comes for a specifically covenantal almost racially exclusive form of gift giving ( the Jewish blessing of the varios cups and dishes of the passover) that became/was transformed by the gift of a life/pain/suffering/forsakenness into a universal symbol/gift of grace. I would argue that the restoration tradition has not always shepherded the comunal aspect of the form of the Lord Supper as well as we might but that may be a reaction to or a realization that the symbol is not ours to shape but merely our gift to receive. I wonder if for Derida it is the thought that counts mostly because his perspective is perhaps overly focused on the individual consequences of gift as aposed to embracing a wider/ more organic view of a gift beyond merely two people.

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