The Still Unseen Mothering Life-Ground that Nurtures Us All: The Co-Creative Gifting Source of All Unknown Unknowns

Excerpts from: Vaughan, G. (2015). The gift in the heart of language: The maternal source of meaning. Mimesis. (pp. 40, 411, 424-429, 435-436)

“I also want to give you a typological gift. I believe that solving problems is a kind of gift-giving. The typological problem I want to solve is the one having to do with gender inclusiveness that is addressed in English at present by adding a slash to the gender pronouns he and she, as in s/he. I believe this is a disturbing slash, perhaps phallic and even violent. Including it in the feminine pronoun seems to include these masculine characteristics in the female. Instead, I propose using ‘: ‘ as a sign of nipples which both women and men have, but which directly recall the mother, as in s:he. With this I hope to show that both women and men can follow the maternal model, the model of the gift economy.” (p. 40)

“I said before that we should be calling ourselves homo donans instead of homo sapiens. I would also like to challenge the designation homo sapiens sapiens. Isn’t our self-consciousness, this knowing that we know, deeply influenced by gift canceling exchange? but we don’t know it? And of course the designation ‘homo‘ hides women. We should at least write h:omo. But before we do that, we should tell homo that what s:he doesn’t know that s:he doesn’t know is that s:he is a maternally giving being who is trapped within the addictive exchange paradigm and s:he is in denial.” (p. 411)

“If we want a world based on a liberated and generalized maternal gift economy we can call on mothering and on matriarchal and non matriarchal gift economies to guide us but we can also call on language itself. Language as virtual giving and receiving in abundance gives us a way of seeing what could happen if everyone were living and giving in an abundant economy of material gifts. Exchange makes us plunder and deny the motherworld that language and living in gift-based community mediate and would help us to create. Even in the domestic sphere in patriarchal capitalist market life we can get a sense of gift community. Exchange leads us into a labyrinth, a (Mauss) trap. It is not the way out.

In the light – or shadow – of exchange we have developed social and ‘hard’ sciences which investigate the world in a gift denying way. Although these ways of knowing are producing important practical and commercial results and new descriptions of what it is to think and to be a human being, they do not help us solve the socio-economic problems that are undermining human and non-human life on Earth.

They investigate language in terms of brain functions or computationally where gifts as such are not relevant. They leave aside the meaning of the gift of language itself and they see it primarily in physiological terms as ‘inherited’ (gift word). The meaning of maternal gift-giving and receiving is also unseen, though there is now the new field of ‘generosity studies’, which also seeks physiological, sociobiological, neurological exchange-based explanations, like ‘payoffs’ for altruism in terms of hormones like dopamine, endorphins, and especially oxytocin. Unfortunately by not giving importance to the gift schema, to human mothering/being mothered and to the projection of mothering onto culture and Nature, we remain out of contact with the rest of the Earth and beyond her, with the rest of the Universe. Only by reinstating mothering/being mothered, gift-giving and receiving, and the gift paradigm as a major part of our human world view will we be able to return home from our centuries of alienation, nurture future generations and pass on mothering to them, sharing the commons with them instead of stealing the gifts of Earth from them. As of now, while we concentrate on the physiological explanations of our humanity, we are not passing the gifts of Earth and culture on to the children of the future but passing them into the garbage dump.

It has become popular among New Agers to think they are evolving beyond the planet to some higher consciousness, leaving the Earth behind. To me this seems to be the arrogance of alienation, a symptom of the gift destroying disease, still another way of arriving at the ‘One’ position.

Philosophy, religion, science and morality do not have enough traction in us to lead us out of the trap created by patriarchy and monetized exchange. They are riddled by the externalized concept pattern. The material and linguistic gift economy could help us find the way, if only we could see where they already exist socially, inside and outside ourselves. The immediate challenge is to recognize the maternal patterns even in male-initiated gift economy theories and experiments, to establish their link to mothering/being mothered and to point out the dangers of money and patriarchal processes.

Mothering/being mothered is the fundamental human experience at the beginning of meaning. It is replayed at the verbal level, and in knowing and interacting with a meaningful gifted and gifting world. This experience evolved over time into different kinds of gift economies in the societies of indigenous and matriarchal peoples but in present patriarchal market culture, the gift economy has been travestied and many of the gifts of nature and culture have been squandered and destroyed. The ignorance of the gift economy and of its basis in mothering and language has created a situation in which we cling to the externalized concept form as the central element of life and find our survival in the ability to succeed in the market and manipulate others by means of money. Ignoring the value of what is free we are free to destroy it. But this can never be.

The 1% have to stop taking the gifts and find a way to restore what they have taken, free. The 99% have to find a way of receiving the gifts in a good way without harm, passing them on to others and to nature. This has to be done with dignity and without humiliation (Lindner 2010).

Mothering and other free gift labor have been discredited and burdened by the market, which contradicts the nurturing process while capturing and redirecting its gifts into profit. If mothering is the basis of language and cognition, denying the mothering economy and substituting it with its artificial determined opposite, exchange, is an abstraction from mothering, and from language and from cognition. This abstraction is one reason the denial of nurturing is so pervasive. That is, the market almost automatically denies – does not see – the gift economy and this denial extends to its ‘superstructure,’ the various domains of giftless thought. The sexism that pervades society is functional to this denial, making it male privilege to receive and to not-give or even, paradoxically, to appear to give the most, while remaining within the exchange frame. Racism works in much the same way: while EuroAmerican corporations and individuals appear to be the biggest givers as philanthropists, non white peoples of many nations have been forced to give their resources and the substance of their lives to create the wealth of the Anglo 1%. Nevertheless many of them had and some continue to have gift cultures and traditions. For example the philosophy and practice of ubuntu in Africa, gift traditions of native peoples of North and South America, Polynesia and Asia and gifting among matriarchal peoples wherever they survive worldwide. To this must be added the many popular traditions of mutual help and solidarity among non-Europeans and among Europeans who still have traditions beyond capitalism within capitalism itself. The foundation is still there.

White privilege is the privilege not to give but to take in a disguised way – a way, which appears to be the opposite. That is, racist white people seem – at least to themselves – to deserve to receive and to take because they are white. One result of all this is that Western philosophy and many other academic disciplines have focussed on just the areas from which explanations based on mothering have been removed because it was necessary to find or invent some other explanations for the logical structure that was rightly felt to be there but invisible. The willing satisfaction of others’ needs and the creative reception of gifts is this missing underlying transitive logical and psychological structure. The logic of categorization and identity/difference has been used in place of the gift to bring about transfers using virtualization/exchange in the context of private property. In addition, as we have been saying, cause/effect and agent/patient have been seen as underlying patterns which, given the denial of mothering, to some extent take the place of the transitive gift structure. This is possible because they are already its extensions or dilutions. Giving/receiving provides a structure of knowing, while cause/effect and agent/patient seem to be structures of reality without the gift, and perhaps part of the structure of knowing also. But we could not have known cause and effect, agent and patient as such without the psychological (epistemological) structure of the gift.

The elimination of mothering as an explanatory key has created a realm of discourse from which mothers themselves have been excluded, and this has had the effect of taking from them a way of understanding their own practice as socially relevant. Male psychologist Daniel Stern says that he often hears mothers say, regarding what he calls the ‘motherhood mindset’, ‘You have described my experience exactly, but I did not know what it was until I heard it. I’ve never been able to put it into words’ (1998: 26). How is it that a male academic has to be the one who gives the words to female motherers to speak their own maternal experiences?1

An area in addition to epistemology from which the mothering explanatory key has been excluded, is normative ethics. The motherer-child dyadic altercentric interaction sets the stage for later communication and community and in abundance it can also be pleasant and fun for the child and for the motherer. The provisioning interaction of the dyad is social but biologically necessary for the child’s survival. When altercentrism is maintained in adult life through a gift economy, care can develop and generalize into a common mindset of social altruism. Here ethics as we know it would no longer apply because nurturing would already be the social norm. Altercentrism is not originally a moral choice but the pragmatic experiential basis of our formation of our subjectivities, our personalities as communicating human beings. Gifting is powerful and rational because it is structural2 but it is now interrupted and cancelled, overwritten by the market and patriarchy, the creation of scarcity and the values of the exosomatic concept process. Altercentrism is no longer available as the structure of the main model of behavior. Mutual other orientation is replaced at best by mutual non interference, which is legislated and imposed by hierarchical structures and aided by categorization. Even more negatively, mutual other orientation is replaced by dominance and submission (agent and patient), facilitated by violence – ‘high transitivity’ – as in the transposed ‘gift’ of hitting.

10.11 Conclusion

In the West, the Iiberation of the gift model requires an end to the market and to patriarchy. This is necessary in order to create an egalitarian society that will function according to maternal values. Gifting within the model of competition, domination and power-over is a contradiction in terms and it cannot ever bring a peaceful society. Nor will gift-giving for power-over ever create peace.

Thanks to feminism, the LGBT movement and the men’s movement many people are already questioning the gender stereotypes under which we are now living. However, unless we recognize the important economic aspects of gender — and the gendered aspects of economics – we will not solve the problems. Conscious economists need to recognize the gendered and patriarchal aspects of capitalism so as to begin to envision something else. Neither eliminating capitalism while maintaining patriarchy, nor eliminating patriarchy while maintaining capitalism will bring a solution. This needs to be taken as a guiding factor for the cultural turns away from capitalism and patriarchy, money and markets that have already begun.

If we realize that language is based on the gift schema perhaps those women and men who earn their livings by using/manipulating/buying and selling language will also be able to respect their own maternal origins and throw off the parasite of the exchange economy. We all use language to some extent, so this is actually a possibility for everyone.

Whenever we are awake we are also in receivership of endless perceptual gifts. Our eyes are continually exploring our environment even if we don’t realize it, finding the gifts, the ‘affordances’. We breathe in gifts of air and breathe out carbon dioxide which is a gift for plants. Our hearts pump oxygenated blood out to nurture our cells, and back to be replenished. Sounds, images , smells, chemical stimuli, pheromones, come to us from all directions, sometimes, if they are too many, changing from giving to hitting (from ‘ low’ to ‘high’ transitivity) as we are ‘bombarded’ by them. We also unconsciously give off signs and signals to others and we receive them from them.

Our market economy is composed of private property owners or would be owners and exchangers in the midst of a sea of gifts we do not recognize as such. At least we do not recognize them until we find ways of turning the gifts into commodities, as our corporations have done recently with water, seeds, genes and language itself, which has been commodified even before we knew it was a gift made of gifts.

The virtual abundance that there is now online is like the virtual abundance in language and is conducive to gift-giving and to the positive human relations carried by the gift economy. Egalitarian projects like free software, Wikipedia, peer-to-peer networking, free cycling, Time Banking, the movement against copyrights, the promotion of free information and even hybrids with exchange as in the shareable economy and crowdsourcing, demonstrate the viability of the gift economy (see Appendix). Unfortunately this opening has also left the users of the internet vulnerable to commodification of their private information through data mining and surveillance.

There is a mistaken idea among the powerful that ‘the masses’3 need to be controlled, that otherwise they could not live peacefully together in abundance. This idea is used to justify the creation of scarcity, the seizure of the gifts and the surveillance of the many by the few who dominate and control them (see the documentary by Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self, 2002). Instead it is the birthright of everyone to live in abundance in a nurturing gift economy in an atmosphere of trust.

We have distorted our concepts of who we are and what we should do by superimposing an alienated economy of exchange on a human communicative economy of the gift. Recognizing this is the first step in making the change towards an economy based on free material and linguistic communication and the elaboration of the altercentric mother-child relation.

If we conceive altercentric mothering/being-mothered as gift-giving and receiving, if we recognize the very positive maternal gift character of indigenous matriarchal gift economies, of the ancient virtual invention of language itself and of social incarnations of linguistic giving in symbolic gift exchange, and most recently in the maternal and linguistic aspects of the modern internet wiki economy, of volunteering, of social experiments in gifting communities, of ecological initiatives like permaculture, we will find the way to a positive material economy of abundance and a culture of peace.” (p. 424-429)

“Appendix (pp 435-436)

Here are some shifts in perspective that I have encouraged throughout the book and that can help to think about the gift economy in all its manifestations.

Exchange paradigm  Gift paradigm
Mothering is aneconomic Mothering is economic
Mothering is not an economic ‘base’ Mothering is an economic ‘base’ and has a superstructure
Market creates abundance Market creates scarcity
Communication is exchange Communication is turn-taking unilateral gift giving
Gift exchange Turn-taking gifting, not exchange
Active giver-passive receiver Active giver-active receiver
Solipsistic infants Socially interactive altercentric infants (new infant research)
Equal exchange debt and obligation produce positive human relations Giving / receiving produces positive human relations
Perception is a sui generis activity Perception is a (maternal) selection and reception of perceptual gifts
Language is self-expression Language is satisfaction of communicative and cognitive needs4
Language is based on inherited Universal Grammar Language is based on the image schema of the gift and its extensions
Language is rule-governed Language enacts gift schema constructions
Communication is exchange Communication is turn taking unilateral gift-giving
Language is based on questions and answers Language is based on mind reading
Syntax as rule following Syntax as gifts to gifts
Subjectivity is agency Subjectivity is gift agency as modelled on material giving and language gift construction, but identity also includes creative receptivity.
Supply and effective demand Gifts and needs
Problem is capitalism, the stock market, the knowledge economy Problem is exchange itself and the elimination of the model of gift giving
Social contract Shared structures of implications
Narrow idea of need satisfaction as utilitarian… An expanded idea of needs including psychological, cognitive, communicative, spiritual needs etc.
To use value and exchange value Add gift value
Epistemology based on categorization Epistemology based on gifting
Language as exchange Language as gift giving… exchange as altered language
Money as a convention or a symbol of value Money as an embodied word / exemplar
The market as a normal and unavoidable fact of life The market as a piece of extended mind, the exosomatic conceptualization process of the alienated human community
We can create a better market We can only solve our problems beyond the market
Feminists should succeed in the market Feminists should dismantle the market and start over on the basis of gift giving / mothering


  1. Lindner, E. (2010). Gender, Humiliation, and Global Security: Dignifying Relationships from Love, Sex, and Parenthood to World Affairs. United States: ABC-CLIO.
  2. Stern, D. N. and Bruschweiler-Stern, N. (1998). The Birth Of A Mother: How The Motherhood Experience Changes You Forever. United Kingdom: Basic Books.


  1. Miranda Fricker”s ‘epistemic injustice’ is relevant here, but so is the whole economic and ideological situation I have been describing.

  2. And there are even endorphins that reward us for this pro-social behavior: it feels good.

  3. This is the multitude seen as a collection of one-to-many patriarchal proprietors and propertyless proprietors.

  4. Words do not signify independently but by satisfying and eliciting interpersonal communicative and cognitive needs. Thus, they are gifts and create positive human relations. We have not understood this so our analysis is off and our understanding of alternatives is inaccurate and limited.

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