The Philosophical Notion of Property

by Neli Nanovska


In everyday life property is regarded as the measure of the achievements of man. The more one possesses the higher his standing in the hierarchy of the community. Therefore the resulting rush toward the accumulation of property mainly in the form of real estate is the main priority of socialised man. In the recent past men without property were not even given the vote, only landed gentry had that privilege, that is the length to which society regarded land property as the person’s worth. So, it is no wonder why everyone has made self-enrichment as the main goal in life.

However, in the realm of philosophy property is not regarded as ultimate end but rather as means to the realisation of human essence, the achievement of human freedom and good life. If we accept that in everyday life the norms defining the meaning of our life are based on common sense we shall try to explain how both statements are justified.

According to Hegel, property does not aim at satisfying the physical needs of man, but rather property is the means of his intellectual development. Man’s need for intellectual development is socially determined. This need arises and develops as a relation towards property. Hegel regards property as active process-relation between the subject-object in which process man establishes his social subjectivity. According to the degree of development of the individual as subject, Hegel outlines three types of property: Taking possession, Use of the thing and Alienation of property. These three are respectively the positive, negative and infinite judgements of the will on the thing.

Taking possession of the thing directly is characterised as the positive judgement of the will, because the will reflects on itself in an immediate manner and the thing is affirmed positively as the immediate satisfaction of biological needs. The will is free in itself and the content of consciousness is given by nature rather then by the mind, therefore, the actions of the subject are determined from outside. This mode of property is a direct relation of the will to the thing and to itself, because it is mediated very slightly by the social relationships. There is almost no need of socialisation in order for the will to exert its power over the thing. If it is necessary for man to be embodied into the institutions in order to relate to the thing as his own, this mode of property corresponds to the first and basic right of man to the means of life. In the ontogenetic and phylogenetic development of consciousness, this mode of property corresponds to the initial stage of the development of consciousness.

Use of the thing is a mode of property where the will exercises negative judgement on the thing. This is so because the will does not reflect on itself in an immediate manner, and the thing is negated in itself in order to become means for the satisfaction of social needs. This mode of property is relationship of the will toward the thing, and toward itself, mediated through labour activity, which itself establishes social relationships with the universal knowledge. In the common labour activity man socialises himself through acquisition of knowledge and experience and through objectification of this knowledge into material and spiritual products. In the process of socialisation, man unconsciously cognises himself in another man. He asserts his social capabilities and consciously struggles for their recognition as an embodiment into the social institutions. Thus this mode of property corresponds to the mature stage of development of consciousness, and in the institutional development of society relates to the rights to the fruit of one’s labour, which requires access to the means of labour.

If taking possession reproduces man mainly physically and he becomes aware of his biological needs, and if the use of the thing reproduces man socially and he becomes aware of his social needs, then the alienation of the thing reproduces man as free agent because he comes to the awareness of his capability as a creative being. Thus, in the mode of alienation of property, which is the third mode of Hegel’s classification, man does not identify himself with the things he possesses, neither does he identify himself with the universal way of the use of the thing, but rather with the method in which things are created. Due to man’s identification with this method, his will has infinite judgment on the thing. This kind of self-consciousness as knowledge about the knowledge constitutes man’s personality, and according to Hegel some of the substantive characteristics of that personality are inalienable, such as the universal freedom of the will, ethical norms and religious beliefs. This mode of man’s externalisation into society as a creative person builds new relationships, due to the fact that the new products he creates contain new modes of use. These new modes of use transform his knowledge and skills into external relations, which in turn are the actuality of the totality and the universality of its being. Being simultaneously universal for himself and for others, man realises himself as free agent, because he is able to express and externalises himself into a wider rationality. This mode of property corresponds to the rights to free life, which means access on equal terms to the means of labour that, are now for the most part corporately or socially owned.

In every day life, property is things and things are the ultimate aim in our life because they are the means for our existence. In Hegel’s philosophy, property is an active process through which man achieves his essence as creative being. For him what is important is what role things play in man’s activity and not the qualitative or quantitative characteristics of the things.

If we take a look at the first mode of property in Hegel’s classification, we see that things as an end are in fact the means for the physical reproduction of the individual and the pleasure in possession of the thing appears a physical satisfaction.

In the second mode of property, things as an end are in fact means for the social reproduction of the individual as knowledge and experience. The pleasure of ownership of the thing manifests itself not only as physical satisfaction but rather as the prestige of the recognition by others. This mode of property establishes another mode of existence.

In the third mode of property, the thing as the ultimate aim is in essence the reproduction of the already developed creative capabilities of the individual. The pleasure of ownership of the thing comes as the satisfaction from becoming aware of one’s creative capabilities as part of the universal knowledge, and one’s ability to create a new social environment.

In all three modes of Hegel’s property classification, the thing is the aim of our activity as means for our biological and social existence. However in essence as the ultimate aim, the thing appears as a means for the establishment of various modes of existence, which correspond to the different stages of realisation of human faculties and powers. Precisely because of this, in philosophy property is regarded as a means and not as an end, without contradicting the everyday belief that the thing is the object of man’s social realisation.