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Wednesday, April 17, 2013


So we were talking about reciprocity in my proverbs class today. This is a general principle of human relations that goes by many names: the golden rule, tit or tat, "consideration" in contract law, etc... In its negative form, it is also the lex talionis. Justice in general often if not always takes the form of a reciprocal logic.

This is the basis of friendship, according to proverbial wisdom, "hoy por mí, mañana por ti." This has cynical and idealistic interpretations, we decided. Idealistically, reciprocity is (relatively) disinterested and does not hold for strict accounting. In the economy of gift exchange, for example, the expectation is not for a strict exchange of equal value. We want friends to help us, and resent those who disappear when we need a favor. But we also resent friends who ask us for favors without reciprocating. Either way, the principle of reciprocity is not there. Cynically, a quid pro quo can also be a form of corruption, in which "one hand washes the other."

The looser exchange values of friendship do not translate to business dealings. Hence: "Entre dos amigos, un notario y dos testigos." [In business dealings between two friends, you need a notary and two witnesses.] The friend is someone you need to trust the least, in the typically cynical logic of proverbs.


In theory class today, we are going to read Appiah's essay "Thick translation." Here's an exercise:

Compare the proverb “A matter which troubles the Akan people, the people of Gonja take to play the Brékété drums." [epigraph to Appiah's essay]

“Anne had not wanted this visit to Uppercross to learn that a removal from one set of people to another, though at a distance of only three miles, will often include a total change of conversation, opinion, and idea. She had never been been staying there before, without being struck by it, or without wishing that other Elliots could have her advantage in seeing how unknown, or unconsidered, were the affairs which at Kellynch Hall were treated as of such general publicity and pervading interest...” (Jane Austen, Persuasion, chapter 6).
Appiah interprets the African proverb as a form of "different strokes," one of what I call the ur-proverbs. This one says that "people are different from each other." I see other meanings, though:

When the Akan people are troubled, the Conja are happy [because they are enemies, they wish misfortune on their enemies?]

When in Rome do as the Romans do. It is not individuals, but whole peoples who have different views. You should adjust to prevailing norms.

Even with a negative event, it is possible to have different reactions (either sit around and mope as one group would, or just play the drums!

The Jane Austen interpretation: "you don't have to travel very far to realize not everyone has the same perspective as you do."

Of course, Appiah is probably correct, since I have no independent idea about what the proverb would mean for people who actually use it. What interests me is the reversibility, the semantic indeterminacy of the proverb. These situations are sufficiently similar: (Schadenfreude, individuality of response, etc...) that a single proverb works for all of them.

Appiah also talks about Grice's maxims, which I also addressed recently in the proverb course, a propos of More Than Cool Reason.


Vance Maverick said...

That's Appiah's gloss, all right, but looking at his translation, I read the proverb as asymmetrical. The "matter" which troubles the Akans is, to the Gonjans, a tool, an implement, an instrument. The strokes not just different but deeply different in kind -- a mental state or obstacle vs. a means to action.

Jonathan said...

Yes, that's good. I think his reading is a bit superficial. But I've ordered the book from the library and I'm going to see the deeper context. The book of proverbs he did with his mother came out in 2007, and his article came out in 93. There could be some developments.

Bob Basil said...

We also tend to resent those who won't let us *return* a favour.

"When you refuse a gift, you lose the giver."