Of People and Things.

Back to book reports then [at least we don’t pretend to do “real” philosophy this way, right?]

I’m reading Arthur Ripstein’s Force and Freedom, a book entirely dedicated to Kant’s Rechtslehre. So far I like it quite a bit, particularly the very simple and exegetical presentation, even if somewhat unexciting in terms of possible connections between Kant’s ideas and those of, say, Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau. The opening chapter sets the tone of the discussion with a very clear presentation of Kant’s views on the distinction between the issues of virtue and the issues of right/law. I have to say that despite the clear presentation, however, none of the Kantian postulates are really engaged, so I’m hoping that the rest of the book will do so in more detail. For example, the idea that Kant distinguishes between internal freedom and external freedom and therefore wants to keep the domain of ethics (and the categorical imperative) and the domain of right/law separate is pretty clear in Kant, but we might very easily challenge this distinction as based on a rather underdeveloped distinction between “inside” and “outside” with all sorts of interesting questions. Again, since I haven’t finished the book, I’m hoping that Ripstein does go there.

One interesting theme of the first chapter is the notion of independence vs autonomy and their relation to Kant’s understanding of freedom. My attention, however, was caught by Ripstein’s wording of the issues: it’s all about people and the social relations they choose to establish. If there was ever a good chapter that would summarize for an objectologist how it’s all subject-oriented, it would be that chapter. However, it got me thinking about a number of issues, but primarily about the sorts of issues that would get us to juxtapose “people” and “things”…The issue of person-person relation is best exemplified by the following passage:

The relations of right that Kant focuses on are initially understood as ways in which free persons can interact consistent with each being independent of all the others. Kant devotes a separate discussion to the question of how a person can come to have a right to a particular thing, whether a piece of property or another person’s performance, or to have another person act on his or her behalf. If recent political philosophers have considered property at all, they have tended to follow John Locke in assuming that the starting point for understanding property is an explanation of how acquisition of property differentiates the owner from all others in relation to a thing. Kant sees that this strategy cannot work. He rejects it as the “guardian spirit” theory of property, noting that property is a relation between persons, not a relation between a person and a thing. [Ripstein, 22]

Ripstein cites 6:260 as a support of this summary of Kant’s view of property. This is a section “On Property Right” [Sachenrecht] – to think of a thing as mine a la Locke is to present the matter in an absurd way, because then “my thing” would have a special property/quality of being mine, while Kant’s formula is directed at emphasizing the common possession and private use:

So the real definition would have to go like this: a right to a thing is a right to the private use of a thing of which I am in (original or instituted) possession in common with all others. For this possession in common is the only condition under which it is possible for me to exclude every other possessor from the private use of a thing (ius contra quemlibet huius rei possessorem) since, unless such a possession in common is assumed, it is inconceivable how I, who am not in possession of the thing, could still be wronged by others who are in possession of it and are using it. [6:260-61]

The idea of common possession/ownership is of course what Locke has in mind when he attempts to formulate his position on the matter in Two Treatises on the Government: In the second treatise (after all that talk of Adam and his possession of the earth in the first treatise), in chapter 5 (“Of Property”) Locke begins with the notion of this “common possession”: whether we look at it from the angle of natural reason or from the angle of revelation, God gave us everything into common possession. “But this being supposed, it seems to some a very great difficulty how any one should ever come to have a property in any thing.” In the following, of course, Locke presents his understanding of how we can in fact possess some things privately, regardless of the very obvious strangeness of such a possession (strangeness we no longer appreciate, I might add). The logic is pretty simple: even though everything is in common possession, a human being is in one’s own possession, therefore the labor of one’s body is a genuine private possession as it proceeds from this original possession of one’s own body and its works:

Whatsoever then he removes from the state that nature has provided, and left it in, he has mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. [§27]

If then, according to Kant, private property is not a relation of a person to a thing but to another person, this account is indeed absurd. No matter how much labor I mix with any thing, it does not therefore become mine – as Kant’s discussion of “Mein und Dein” shows, my possession of a thing is entirely a matter of agreement with others, not some inherent characteristic of a thing. It is a matter of the sum of all the laws. If there was only one person in the whole world, he/she would not have any right to things, no private property as such. [6:261]

Now all of this is well-known and somewhat commonsensical. Where I think Ripstein’s insights are intriguing is this very literal interpretation of Kant’s discussion of human interaction/relation as very spatial interaction/relation. Anyone who reads Kant’s account of right/justice eventually notices such geographical characterizations as “surface of the earth” or “living in proximity to others” – David Harvery’s recent Cosmopolitanism and the Geographies of Freedom has an interesting discussion of this aspect of Kant’s interest in “physical geography” without however drawing out all of the consequences of, for example, reading Kant’s political theory and his interest in geography side by side – and Ripstein summarizes this spatiality this way:

The basic case for thinking about your right to your own person is your right to your own body; the basic case for thinking about property is property in land, that is a right to exclude others from a particular location on the Earth’s surface; the basic case for thinking about contract is the transfer of an object from one place to another; the basic case for thinking about a state involves its occupation of a particular region of the Earth’s surface.

A space is more than a useful metaphor for Kant. Its normative signification arises from the ways in which separate persons who occupy space can come into conflict in the exercise of their freedom, depending on where they are doing their space-occupying activities and what others happen to be doing in the same location. [Ripstein, 12]

In this sense, it seems plausible to suggest that in the present situation there are no things are that are without possessors, “nobody’s things” or property-neutral things – we either possess things in common and agree to use them in common, or we possess them in private and agree to respect our private uses of things. If there are no neutral property-neutral things out there, if being someone’s property (common or private) is not something that is inscribed in the thing – I cannot determine whether a thing is mine by looking at it however intensely – but a matter of larger social structure, then it’s easy to see why all of these issues – private right, public right, and cosmopolitan right – will need, for Kant, an articulation of right or normativity.

So on the one hand, we have a discourse of right that is not usually associated with anything spatial, i.e. is entire abstract and formal; yet on the other hand, we have a kind of normative geography that regulates our space-occupying activities in such a way as to guarantee our freedom/independence. I cannot get rid of a strange sensation that all of this is sort of queer and needs more thinking, especially in terms of Kant’s account of space and spatiality. I wonder where it will all eventually go in Ripstein. What if we throw in Kant’s very peculiar account of space as a form of intuition, not an absolute space? Things are not spaced, are not in space, independently of our spacing them – do we need normatively arrange things in space (and time, of course) and therefore structure our very social relations accordingly, or do we structure our social relations in order to then regulate our space-occupying activities? In this primordial human spacing, how do we come to define those who are “close” and those who are “far”? And, referring to the whole business of “privileging” human over non-human (see a post by Pete Wolfendale on the related subject), I wonder whether in this configuration between people and things we in fact shouldn’t give preference to people?


9 thoughts on “Of People and Things.

  1. I wonder whether in this configuration between people and things we in fact shouldn’t give preference to people?

    In some regards we establish sort of property rights for non-human beings by excluding humans from private and common use – without negotiation wit the other side. Think about national parks. This isn’t without frictions though and some ad hoc rights are now granted to native people living there.

    So Kant’s notion has to be slightly generalized. We do not only grant a right to use but rather do we grant protections-from being used by others which might include everyone.

  2. Very interesting post, Mikhail. I think this phrase – “my possession of a thing is entirely a matter of agreement with others” – gets to the heart of it, as long as by “possession” is meant “property” (presumably one could have a de facto possession, e.g. land siezed by force, which would not (yet) be property, i.e. de jure, acknowledged by others). Those passages in Kant seem to be the origins of the ‘recognition’ we see subsequently foregrounded in Fichte’s Grundlage des Naturrechts (3rd Div, 1st Ch.), and then further fleshed out in Hegel (though as you know in Hegel recognition takes on wider resonance, telling us something about epistemological as well as legal claims). Your closing questions are intriguing, by the way.

  3. Kay, I’m not sure how we can negotiate with nonhumans about rights. I mean Kant was certainly no animals right activist but even if we take a position that we must make sure that we own non-animate things differently from animals – my table has no rights, my dog should (cruelty to animals legislation and so forth). I understand your point about national parks, but I think he ultimately Kantian framework (with which I don’t necessarily agree, or I should say, with which I disagree more and more over time) is that right/law and all that follows from it are strictly human affairs because they assume rational nature (well, there are rational beings in Kant) and therefore a rational/human world. My interest in spatiality here is precisely an interest that leads me to physical geography (although we think of geometry or physics most of the time when we think about Kant’s theory of space) – if we take all that talk of “proximity” and “surface of the Earth” and all that, how can we combine the insights from critical project with mundane things like urban planning and stuff [scratching my head intensely]…

    • What seems interesting to me is that an ethics of conservation / preservation goes both beyond use value as well as universality – there is voluntarism and arbitrariness after all – and human beings are willing to grant rights without negotiating with the other side ( which is impossible for obvious practical reasons ). But isn’t this a confirmation of rationality in a very strict sense? Instead of deriving rights from a presumed ontological status, it is rather self-boundedness which is at work.

      About spatiality – shouldn’t it suffice to denote the sort of physical geography which has also legal meaning as “territory”? Territoriality isn’t of course alien to animals. Legality might just be a mechanism to defer violence as long as everyone follows certain rules. Going one step further one might assume that the origin of law is the acceptance of the consequences of losing a territorial battle.

      • I like this notion of “territoriality” and I wonder what Kant and Co. would make of it vis-a-vis the discussion of human proximity and how it causes conflict and therefore leads to an agreement to respect each other’s freedom (basic outline of Kant’s version of social contract). Certainly one can argue that human territoriality is not qualitatively different from animal territoriality (not to suggest that humans are not animal, of course, but just for the sake of juxtaposition). I suppose Kant would distinguish between animal territoriality and human spatiality for the simple reason that spatiality is part of human activity (making space as normative), but then again one might ask if animals also in some sense create their territory? I don’t remember now if there’s anything on the topic in his Anthropology and Utisz’s reference to Fichte lead me to read some of it now and I’m way into it…

  4. Mikhail,

    It is interesting that the most Anti-Realist of all, Richard Rorty, when he saw clear to reversing himself from a long-standing dispute with Donald Davidson over a Theory of Truth was philosophically necessary, it was over the recognition that the Person/Thing distinction was of ultimate consequence.

    “I have turned a blind eye to the fact that the mind-body distinction is intertwined with the person-thing distinction. I have not tried to relate the two distinctions. Davidson by combining a theory of action with a theory of truth and meaning, has. Ramberg helps bring Davidson’s two lines of inquiry together when he says that an account of truth is automatically an account of agency, and conversely. He helps us see that Davidson, like Dewey, is trying to break down the distinction between knowing, theorizing, spectatorial mind and the responsible participant in social practices…

    …Ramberg suggests that we see the ability to ascribe rights and responsibilities (along the lines of Brandom’s “social practice” reconstruction of the vocabularies of logic and semantics) as (usually) a prerequisite for the ability to predict and describe. The key to understanding the relation between minds and bodies is not an understanding of the irreducibility of the intentional to the physical but the understanding of the inescapability of the normative…

    …As Ramberg says “Describing anything, if Davidson is right, is an ability we have only because it is possible for others to see us as in general conforming to the norms that the predicates of agency embody.” Agency-the ability to offer descriptions rather than just make noise-only appears if a normative vocabulary is already being used: “descriptions emerge as descriptions of any sort at all only against a taken for granted background of purposive-hence normatively describable behavior on the part of the communicators involved…

    …‘The basis of knowledge, any form of knowledge, whether of self, others, or shared world, is not a community of minds, in the sense of mutual knowledge of neighboring belief-systems…Rather, it is a community of minds, that is, a plurality of creatures engaged in the project of describing their world and interpreting each other’s descriptions of it. (Ramberg, pp. 361-2)’


    Personally view the issue in terms of gradations and degrees, and take it that the person/thing distinction is ever ini pragmatic and cognitive flux, but I think you are on the right track when you seek to connect normativity, philosophical truth and community as inter-related wholes. In fact, I think this goes towards the desire for the Speculators to make questions of ontology utterly immune from questions of community and politics.

    • Thanks for the references, Kevin. I should follow them up. I’m far from simply buying the distinction between persons/things, I think it’s certainly not to be taken as simply given. I would think that Kant can be read as positing this distinction, i.e. as arguing that in order to understand the idea of right we must posit humans as free and things as not free, even though of course we can never know that we are free (see all that business with freedom in the first critique).

      • It is not that we know definitely that such and such a thing is a person, or that such and such a thing is a thing, but that the distinction is determinative of exactly how we trace the causal effects that we participate in (that effect us too), that cannot be effaced. Rather than a question of “freedom” I consider it more a question of belief (and one is not “free” in the beliefs they hold). What is important is that intentional actions are read as sourced in “person” beliefs, desires, wants, etc, rather than in some external event which is affecting them. When a rock displays some “behavior” (let’s say it splits in half when interacting with a hammer), the reason why we treat it as a “thing” is that it reveals what is important about the world, that hammers can do these sort of things (and our head should avoid them). When a “person” displays a behavior (let’s say it stops dead in its tracks when a hammer is swung), the reason why we treat it as a person and not a thing is that as a person it reveals what is most important about the world (its beliefs, wants, desires), and less about the nature of things.

        So its “givenness” is a kind of cognitive differential, at least in my opinion.

  5. Utisz, thanks for that Fichte reference – his language here is fairly Kantian indeed. Allow me to cite it for general education of the masses:

    It is possible to talk about rights only under the condition that a person is thought of as a person, that is, as an individual, and thus as standing in relation to other individuals; only under the condition that there is a community between this person and others, a community that – if not posited as real – is at least imagined as possible. [Foundations of Natural Right, trans. Neuhouser, 101]

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