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"The Gift & the Common Good" Blog

How do we wish to live? What are we working toward? What holds us together?


Is there any European "Common Good“? A Short Question and Answer Session with Bernard Bourdin, O.P.

Bernard Bourdin, O.P., Paris, August 1, 2019

Q. Do the tendencies by which the most recent European parliamentary elections were informed put any idea of a Europe grounded in the “common good” into question?

A. It depends on how one understands the "common good". The rise of nationalist political parties is a warning of the crisis of a common good in our European civilisation. The challenge of the crisis is, as Hannah Arendt said, to restore a "common world". Without this common world, no common good is possible. Therefore one has to reconcile the one with the other. Concretely, this reconciliation is possible through a new definition of the particular and the universal within the framework of a European confederation. It seems to me that this new reconciliation is the best remedy against nationalisms. I would add that Christianity and Catholicism in particular dispose over ecclesiological and theological arguments that justify this perspective.

The Christian universal incarnated in the divine-human person of Christ always calls for mediations; without such mediations Catholicism would lose its core and could not be a foundation for the particular. Conversely, these mediations cannot be grounded in themselves. This is what I see as a fundamental challenge for the common "good" of Europe.


Q. What would you like to say to your colleagues from China and Hawaii?

A. My message would consist in saying to them that European democracies are a chance for the common good of the people because democracy is a form of government that per se requires a sense of civil society. It also means however that the common good belongs to no-one.”

The Inappropriable, the Unenforceable, and the More-Than-What-Is-Owed: Concepts of Gift and Their Theological-Political Significance

Martin Kirschner, Eichstätt, July 18, 2019

Modern western politics has been dominated by a logic of self-assertion and sovereignty as well as power struggles and interest calculation. Under this circumstance, I explore a logic of gift and the orientation to the common good as a corrective guiding principle against these trends of our age. A “logic of gift” has central significance not only in traditional societies but also in religion and spirituality, and its fundamental meaning has been rediscovered and reconsidered in many approaches of late-modern philosophy as well. The relevant questions we should be asking are as follows: can such a logic of gift be relevant for politics in our post-secular pluralistic society? Can it also present a new approach to the question of the common good, even though it is hardly possible in our age to present a consensus even about how to define the common good? In this paper, in the hope of stimulating further discussions on these fundamental questions, I discuss some basic concepts of gift from a theological point of view while referring to some philosophical interpretations as well.

Specifically, first, I will A) outline how, on the basis of biblical witness, the Jewish/Christian faith interprets the whole reality as creation of God, and consequently as an event of gift and freedom, which is thus placed in tensions among creation, sin, and grace. The understanding of reality as creation of God corresponds to the understanding of human freedom as the ability to respond to this gift and to take responsibility in an open history. Under the condition of sin and guilt, however, the actual experience of reality leads to the aporia of redemption, which can neither be dissolved by the human being themselves nor be solved without them. The theological talk of grace does not respond to the aporia by trying to resolve it theoretically but by referring to the non-deducible event of Jesus Christ, in whom the ultimate gift of God’s unconditional and forgiving love has been fully revealed.

Then I will B) refer to some corresponding philosophical interpretations, which work on a similar understanding of reality to some extent but without presupposing any specific confession of faith, while discussing their political significance. Specifically, I will introduce the following three main topics: 1) the paradoxical structure of time as a foundation of politics grounded in the groundless, 2) the exchange of gifts and the paradox of gift as a deep structure of economy, which prevents human social relations from being reduced to “du ut des”, that is, to symmetrical relationships of exchange and retributive justice, and 3) forgiveness and reconciliation made possible by a logic of gift as a condition of the impossible possibility of living together in a post-traumatic society.

Finally, on the basis of the theological and philosophical discourses above, I will C) try to translate the phenomenon of gift into three figures of thought: the “inappropriable” as related to the problem of foundation of community, the “unenforceable” as related to normative principles of cohabitation, and the “more-than-what-is-owed”, which is what essentially characterizes forgiveness and reconciliation, as a social “exigency”.  

In short, despite the current trends of politics and political theory, we should strongly emphasize the inappropriable moments of human life, which are acted out with unenforced responsibility and the willingness to give beyond what is owed. These ways of thinking entail the possibilities of correcting the formalism, individualism, and economism, into which the current liberal social concepts tend to fall, while – at the same time – affirming human dignity, responsibility and freedom as core principles. However, we should also note that the real challenge lies in the human experience of evil and the seemingly overpowering mechanism of deceit, guilt, and violence. Here the event of gift, which is characterized by love, forgiveness, hospitality of strangers, may seem too weak and vulnerable to be an effective force to change the world. However, it is also exactly because of this weakness that it could change the world.

Conference Résumé

Walter Schweidler, May 13, 2019

From the 17th to the 20th of March, 2019 in Dresden and Meißen the international conference, “The Gift & the Common Good/Gabe und Gemeinwohl” took place. To all participants, and particularly to those who travelled from afar, I would like in the name of the Hermann and Marianne Straniak-Foundation to express my heart-felt gratitude for your wonderful and important contributions!

Here follows now a short summary. For critically commentary regarding the same I would be very thankful to all.

The important opening questions, inter alia, that I sought to raise during the course of the conference might be characterized as follows:

In the context of the globalization of economic relations of production and exchange, is the concept of the bonum commune still to be understood within the horizon of “national economies” and historically developed nations?

Is it to be expected that the answer to the questions—“How do we want to live?”, “What are we working for?”, “What holds us together?” and “Why do we live where we live?”—is to be passed from the hands of the individual and to those of supernational, technocratic bodies? Or are there possibly, precisely in those areas of social life beyond any exchange (historical and regional identity, religious determinations regarding the meaning of life, ethical engagement), answers that permit a response to these questions in a manner compatible with the logic of the economy?

Is “gift” a conceptual key only to the description of the structure of social exchange or, so too, to normative concepts such as identity, solidarity, and subsidiarity? Is the term philosophically rich enough to guide intercultural reflection on these questions?

The following conclusions can, in my opinion, be drawn from the course of the conference:

The notion of the common good has in the Western and Eastern perspective clear philosophical relevance for answering the questions of how we live, what we should work for, and what makes us live together. In terms of its ethico-anthropological justification, while there is a clear difference between the individualistic Western concept of society and the Eastern relational and group-oriented conception of the same, its meaning cannot be over-hastily distorted with such clichés. Put in the briefest possible terms, one could say that the answer to the question of the meaning of action oriented toward the common good falls in the Western view within the category of “fulfillment” (the Catholic conception was traditionally referred to as “perfection”, which is not an ideal of perfection, but the call towards the self-sufficiency and autonomy of any life led) and, in the Eastern view, strongly within the category of the “development” of human life relationships (to oneself as to others). Care for the weak, exercising justice, responsibly producing, providing and protecting public property, minimizing conflict: In the Western view, this is demanded from the point of view of the will of man to reach a fulfilled end with his life, in the Eastern view, of ensuring stability and reciprocity under the conditions of an incalculably complex development of the whole of society, governable only with a necessary degree of control. The future of the individual in the West—not as an egotistical end in itself, but accountable to the common goal of life; the future of the polity in the East—not as a collectivist dictate, but accountable to the goal of life achievable through the same that each individual has.

From the Eastern point of view, under this aspect the tension between historical-cultural identity and global pluralism and adjustment dynamics is relativised considerably. Quite pragmatically and soberly said: The needs of development allow the preservation only of the identity that proves its worth to them.

Gift has been regarded on all sides as a helpful and forward-looking category of understanding the relations of individual and social life. This is an important impetus and a major result of the conference for current social and philosophico-political discussion! A difference in approach however also demonstrates itself here. It is essential to distinguish between two basic meanings: the gift received and the gift bestowed. The bestowed gift determines the Western view, economically as the activity of the individual market supplier as “civil enterprise” and his survival-strategy in the market. The received gift appears most truly in religious discourse, but there as the other side of the bestowed gift, which is owed to God. In the Eastern view, the received gift plays a more fundamental role: as the web of relations (synchronous as well as diachronous), to which one owes one’s orientation in life and, ultimately, identity. The gift to be bestowed is rather the other side of the gift that has always been bestowed and already received. This provides the authentic key to answering the question of what we live and work for and what holds us together.

Resümé der Tagung

Walter Schweidler, April 25, 2019

Vom 17.-20. März 2019 fand in Dresden und Meißen die internationale Tagung „The Gift and the Common Good – Gabe und Gemeinwohl“ statt. Allen, ganz besonders den von weit her gereisten Teilnehmerinnen und Teilnehmern möchte ich im Namen der Hermann und Marianne Straniak-Stiftung von Herzen für ihre schönen und wichtigen Beiträge danken!

Hier soll nur ein erstes kurzes Resümee stehen. Für kritische Kommentare dazu wäre ich allen sehr dankbar.

Ausgangsfragen waren u.a.:

Ist der Begriff des bonum commune im Zeichen der Globalisierung ökonomischer Produktionsverhältnisse und Austauschbeziehungen noch im Horizont von „Volkswirtschaften“ und geschichtlich gewachsenen Nationen zu verstehen?

Ist zu erwarten, dass die Antwort auf die Fragen: Wie wollen wir leben? Wofür arbeiten wir? Was hält uns zusammen? und Warum leben wir da, wo wir leben? vom Individuum auf supranationale technokratische Instanzen übergehen wird? Oder gibt es möglicherweise gerade in den dem Austausch entzogenen Bereichen gesellschaftlichen Lebens (geschichtliche und regionale Identität, religiöse Bestimmungen des Lebenssinns, ethisches Engagement) Antworten, die diese Fragen mit der ökonomischen Logik verträglich zu beantworten erlauben?

Ist „Gabe“ ein begrifflicher Schlüssel nur zur Beschreibung der Struktur sozialen Austauschs oder auch zu normativen Konzepten wie Identität, Solidarität, Subsidiarität? Ist der Begriff philosophisch gehaltvoll genug, um eine interkulturelle Reflexion dieser Fragen zu leiten?

Folgende Schlüsse können meines Erachtens aus dem Tagungsverlauf gezogen werden:

Der Begriff des Gemeinwohls ist, jedenfalls der Sache nach, in westlicher wie östlicher Perspektive von eindeutiger philosophischer Relevanz für die Beantwortung der Fragen, wie wir leben, wofür wir arbeiten sollen und was uns zusammenleben lässt. In seiner ethisch-anthropologischen Begründung gibt es eine deutliche Differenz, deren Bedeutung man aber nicht vorschnell mit dem Klischee der individualistischen westlichen und relational-gruppenorientierten östlichen Gesellschaftsauffassung verstellen darf. In kürzeste Kennzeichnungen gefasst, könnte man sagen: Die Antwort auf die Frage nach dem Sinn gemeinwohlorientierten Handelns steht in westlicher Sicht im Zeichen der Kategorie „Erfüllung“ (die katholische Konzeption hieß traditionell „Vollendung“, womit nicht ein Ideal der Perfektion, sondern der Anspruch der Autarkie und Autonomie eines geführten Lebens verbunden war), in östlicher Sicht stark im Zeichen der Kategorie der „Entwicklung“ der menschlichen Lebensbeziehungen (zu sich selbst wie zu anderen). Die Schwachen im Auge behalten, Gerechtigkeit schaffen, Gemeingut verantwortlich produzieren, bereitstellen und schützen, Konflikte minimieren: in westlicher Sicht ist dies geboten aus der Verantwortung für den Willen des Menschen, mit seinem Leben zu einem erfüllten Ende zu kommen, in östlicher Sicht ist nur dadurch Stabilität und Reziprozität unter Bedingungen einer unabsehbar komplexen und nur durch größtmögliche Steuerung zu beherrschenden Entwicklung des Gesellschaftsganzen zu gewährleisten. Die Zukunft des einzelnen im Westen – aber nicht als egoistischer Selbstzweck, sondern in Verantwortung vor dem gemeinsamen Lebensziel; die Zukunft des Gemeinwesens im Osten – aber nicht als kollektivistisches Diktat, sondern in Verantwortung vor dem nur so erreichbaren Ziel des Lebens, das jeder einzelne hat.

In östlicher Sicht relativiert sich nicht zuletzt unter diesem Aspekt erheblich das Spannungsfeld von geschichtlich-kultureller Identität und globaler Pluralismus- und Anpassungsdynamik. Ganz pragmatisch und nüchtern gesagt: Die Nöte der Entwicklung lassen die Bewahrung nur derjenigen Identität zu, die sich an ihnen bewährt.

 Gabe wurde von allen Seiten als hilfreiche und zukunftsweisende Kategorie des Verständnisses der individuellen wie sozialen Lebensbeziehungen betrachtet. Das ist ein wichtiger Anstoß und ein Hauptergebnis der Tagung für die gegenwärtige sozial- und politikphilosophische Diskussion! Ein Unterschied im Herangehen zeigt sich aber auch hier. Unbedingt zu unterscheiden ist zwischen den zwei Grundbedeutungen: empfangene und erwiesene Gabe. Die erwiesene Gabe bestimmt die westliche Sicht, ökonomisch als die Aktivität des individuellen Markteinspeisers wie des „civil enterprise“ und seiner Überlebensstrategie am Markt. Die empfangene Gabe taucht am ehesten im religiösen Diskurs auf, dort aber eben als die andere Seite der erwiesenen Gabe, die Gott verdankt ist. In östlicher Sicht spielt die empfangene Gabe eine fundamentalere Rolle: als das Beziehungsgeflecht (synchron wie diachron), dem man Lebensorientierung und letztlich Identität verdankt. Die zu erweisende ist eher die andere Seite der ihr immer vorgängigen erwiesenen und insofern schon empfangenen Gabe. Diese bietet so den eigentlichen Schlüssel zur Antwort auf die Fragen, wofür wir leben und arbeiten und was uns zusammenhält.