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?