HAVING, POSSESSING AND
The first pitfall to be avoided when theorizing about
property is the confusion of
having, as it refers to the
ultimate relationship in our ontological frame of reference, and
possessing or — what is even more serious —
Having in the sense of having a
component part or attribute
has an ontological status entirely different from having in the
sense of owning; and the same holds for the inverse of
having, namely belonging to. Having in the sense of
having-as-an-element is a relationship we must implicitly or
explicitly recognize in order to be able to communicate at all (or else,
we must refer to an equivalent, such as being-an-element-of).
Owning, on the other hand, is from the ontological point of view a
redundant relationship like loving or hating. There is nothing
in our ontology that forces us to accept the existence of such
a relation. But if we recognize it — which we do for other than
ontological reasons — this is nothing to do with 'having' in
the ontological sense: a person may have an object (as an
element) without owning it, and
'e may own an object without
having it (as an element). The fact that to have is also used
instead of to own, and to possess also instead of to
have, is a merely linguistic phenomenon
(altho the inability to
make the appropriate distinctions will both have caused it and be
caused by it). In everyday language having and possessing
are widely interchangeable and used as generic terms for any
relation of belonging or of being controlled, kept, regarded or
experienced as one's own.
Yet, this merely means that the one meaning of a term such as
having, possessing or belonging should not be mixed up
with the other in communication which is supposed to be taken literally.
A perfect example of confusing the different meanings of belonging
is the statement that 'men belong to the earth and not vice versa'.
If 'men' belong to the earth, this must be read as being part of; if
the earth belongs to them, belonging is to be read as being owned
(But then, of course, the statement is, perhaps, not meant to be taken
As soon as we have divorced the different meanings of
having and possessing it need not surprise us anymore that
we may be said 'to have our body and our qualities or
faculties', and 'to own our body', but not 'to own our
qualities, faculties or attributes'. Owning and possessing
(in a sense different from having as an element) can only
apply to entities which are nonbasic things in the same domain
of discourse as people. Thus, whereas it does not make sense to
ask whether we own the 'mental satisfactions and bodily endowments'
we have ('our' and 'our' body's attributes), it does make
sense to ask whether we own the body we have as an element, and as
the sole component part ('our' body).
Hence, also the expression my body has two different meanings: (1)
i have as an element or (the sole)
component part and (2) the body i own.
To equate these two meanings and to say that the
body we have as a person is always the body we own, is a
normative assertion. It is indeed part of
the right to personhood
that a person owns the body 'e has as an element, or, if
owning is stipulatively restricted to objects which one does
not have as a part in a strict or loose sense, that no-one owns
the body one has, and thus, that no-one else owns it. The
ontological and logical differences and diversity of meaning
just precede all normative considerations.
If the use of to own is not restricted to external things,
a body is the only thing a person can or does both own and
have as an element in the strict sense. 'E has attributes, but 'e
does not own them; and the parts of the body which 'e has 'e does
not have in the strict sense, whereas 'e can or does own every
part of the body 'e has. As regards the rest, that is, every
primary thing which the person does
neither have in a strict sense nor in a loose sense, 'e may own or not own
The term possession is not only employed in the standard
sense of something owned, ownership or property
but also in the different, especially legal, sense of control or
occupancy of an object without regard to ownership.
Usufruct, then, is the legal right of using and enjoying the
fruits or profits of something owned by someone else. (A related
notion is stewardship). If it is considered acceptable to say
that 'one controls the body one has', then every person possesses
'er body in this sense, whether 'e owns
it or not. This holds, too, for the parts of the body one has. Conversely,
if someone with a different body controlled one's body, and
'possessed' it in this sense, 'e still would not own it, and 'e
could never have it (as an element).
The relations of having, possessing and owning are at least dyadic.
The entity which or who has something need not be a person, it may be any
more complex system provided that it has
whole-attributes in addition to its
This is also true of possession and ownership. The owner may be an
individual person, a group of individuals (part of a community),
a community, a state, or a larger community or institution. In
general an owner is somehow a person or a group of people
(household, community or otherwise). Instead of person the
phrases natural or private individual are also used to
distinguish it from artificial person or corporation.
An 'artificial person' is a group or collective of people and also
includes families or people living together in one household.
These groups are also termed "private", while not being regarded
as 'artificial persons' or 'corporations'.
To make confusion worse confounded, private property does in
common parlance not only refer to the property of natural individuals, or
to that of households or families, but also to that of 'private
And, then, 'corporate property' is not only the property of
'private' corporations, also state property is classified as
On this view 'property' is not necessarily an exclusive individual right.
But on the other hand, it has been said that property is something that
especially individuals and families enjoy, something they need
for their immediate subsistence. On this interpretation it is
opposed to the type of mastery over goods and lands enjoyed by
governmental authorities. Yet, it is precisely this type of
'mastery' which is called "state property" or "public ownership"
We ourselves shall speak of "individual property" when the
owner is one person, and of "communal property" when the
owner is a group of two or more persons. The so-called 'community
property' traditionally held by a married couple jointly
is a form of communal property too. The distinction between
'private' and 'collective' property is, then, another one
with a vague transition zone between private and collective .
Is the communal property of two, or a small number of, people
'private' or 'collective', or only 'private' if, and insofar as,
they share one household? Private is also used in the sense
of nonstate or nongovernmental and it would thus serve
clarity to differentiate governmental and nongovernmental,
collective property. Finally, private property is also
defined as the property which is historically based on the labor
of its owner but which in a society with capital accumulation
has come to exist only where the means of labor belong to
'private individuals'. Its antithesis is, then, said to be
'social' or 'collective property'. By itself it is not very
important which definitions are chosen, so long as the language user
does not embrace a terminology which is conceptually mixed up, and
so long as 'e sticks to one and the same meaning of each word
where clarity requires it. Furthermore, 'e (or he) should not speak of
"private property" as the property of individuals where it means
that one man (a husband, for instance) is made the (exclusive)
owner of a holding which is de facto possessed and managed by a
group of one man and one woman and/or other human beings
At least the following, logically possible categories of
primary things owned or possessed can be distinguished:
- the body of the owner
'imself (if an individual)
or its component parts;
- (other) persons or groups of people,
or their bodies or parts thereof;
- (other) sentient beings such as pets or not so
- external, inanimate things (also called "external
possessions"). A useful subdivision of these external,
nonsentient beings is the one between consumer goods
(such as food and clothes) and means of (mass) production and
communication (by which power over other people
can be exercised).
This classification does not show the normative possibilities of
ownership or possession, and some possibilities should, perhaps,
be ruled out even on logical grounds. Thus it is questionable
whether a person can even logically speaking 'own' or 'possess'
another person in the strict sense. But the idea of ownership or
possession of another person's body or bodily parts is certainly
comprehensible. To reject such a conception is to reject it for
moral or normative reasons.
We have not yet made a distinction between corporeal, or
'real', and incorporeal property. And we have not yet subdivided
corporeal property into movable and immovable property. When
doing this, we should keep in mind, however, that it is often
too readily taken for granted that the description of a
so-called 'corporeal' thing would and could not make a difference
with regard to the question of ownership.
That important issue will be dealt with in