On the idea of ‘property’

From a few earlier projects that our firm has handled (in FRA, land acquisition and coastal regulation) and a couple of academic exercises, I began exploring the idea of property and how it has come to be its contemporary understanding. This meant that I begin with earliest conceptions or references to the word property and further interpretations over time.

The point of this post is to share a brief table which attempts to periodise the property discourse and flags thinkers of the respective period. And then highlight fundamental ideas of the early period.

Periods (of the idea of Property)
I: The Greek Period
Property as virtue
Property as common owned
II: The Modern Period
 Property as individual right
Property ownership and rules of ownership as an instrument to resolve conflicts in society
Property as creation of sovereign state
Hume (that there is nothing ‘natural’ about private property)
III: The Marxist Idea
 Ownership of labour
Ownership of means of production
Karl Marx
IV: The Liberal & Neo-Liberal Period
 Property as enforceable right
Economic rationale for property rights
Rule of Law
Entitlement Theory
Erosion of social basis of property
Rawls (asking if property is a philosophical question at all)
Table: Periods in progression of the idea of property

In line with Aristotelian thought, John Locke follows makes a significant contribution to the idea of property with his labour theory of property. At this juncture, there is a departure from what constitutes property to an inquiry into how is property created. In a sense, ownership becomes a secondary thought, while the primary goal becomes articulation of what might be called property. Is it something already present and that a person just lays his claim over it or is property a process of creation and consequently the creator holds the right to claim it as his?The idea of property has undergone this clash of idea and practice just the same. Some of the widely noted ideas include Plato’s argument that common ownership was necessary to promote common pursuit of the common interest, and to avoid the social divisiveness that would occur ‘when some grieve exceedingly and others rejoice at the same happenings’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).  Whereas, Aristotle argues for private ownership of property justifying that this condition is a necessity for a man to act in the interest of prudence and responsibility. Further, he links the idea of property and its practice to the virtue of man. This is a radical departure from Plato’s articulation and perhaps it can be said that the Greek society’s practice of property ownership and its use as an instrument looked closer to Aristotle’s idea of it.

The resolution of the idea of property in this manner continues into the contemporary times, where this line of enquiry is instrumental in deciding upon rights and ownership issues of newer forms of knowledge products and creation that have emerged. In areas like intellectual property, such debates are instrumental because they offer a method of thought as well as a historical reference point as to how questions of ownership, rights and use evolved over time.

Locke’s original position of natural law to think about property as a creation which comes about when labour is applied to natural resources remains pivotal in understanding property as well as labour. An instance of the chasm between idea and practice that the paper argues for can be seen in case of the Lockean proviso (Waldron, 1979)[2].

This is where we see that the conditionality that one may appropriate a property of a person provided that “… there is enough, and as good, left in common for others” remains sidelined and not applied.  While on one hand there are attempts to understand and conceptualize what property might mean, there emerged thoughts on the applicability of such ideas of property. For instance, Hume argues that property relations only make sense under conditions of scarcity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).

It is useful to contrast Locke’s theorization of property with that of Hobbes and Hume who begin by looking at property from the sovereign state’s perspective. Hobbes and Hume, counter to Locke’s idea of property, argue that there is no natural ‘mine’ or ‘thine’, and that property must be understood as the creation of the sovereign state or at the very least the artificial product of a convention ‘entered into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of… external goods, and leave every one in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).

While I pursue the shifts in the later periods, it is quite intriguing that research in this area is not pursued by developing countries and particularly in India where property rights are contested and law suits filed in every single city, town and village in the country.


[1] Roberto Unger speaks of Hegel’s idea and influence on his work in social theory in a documentary titled The Origins of Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s Philosophical Thought, 2013.

[2] Waldron asks a sharp question on this proviso which is instructive for the reading on property and Locke’s idea. He writes, in the same paper – “what if there is not enough and as good left in common for others? Does that mean nobody may appropriate anything from the state of nature and call it his private property? In other words, is the italicized clause (of necessary condition) intended as a necessary condition on private appropriation, restricting the appropriation of goods to circumstances in which there is plenty left for everybody else?”.


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