The Philosophy of the Right to Have Stuff

I just put one particular section of Hegel on my theory list, but I ended up having to read his whole section on property in order to make sense any of it.  And still, I may be getting it wrong–any Hegel scholars out there?

Anyway, I like to put things simply, so for the sake of this post, I will refer to the external/internal, material/immaterial, animal/not animal, concepts to which Hegel refers, as “stuff.”

Stuff, according to Hegel, is good to own.  In fact, stuff helps us establish distinct identities.

We tell each other apart by the stuff we own.[1]

Who can own stuff?  According to Hegel, everyone should own stuff![2]

Does that mean we should all have the same amount of stuff?


Well, can we all own some stuff together?


No!  (Well, not really, and, basically, I don’t like it).[4]

OK, sounds good; now, how do we own stuff?

Some philosophers say we own stuff when a sovereign gives it to us.

Locke says we own stuff when we put out work into it.

Unlike Locke, who says that you have to work on stuff to own it, Hegel says that we own stuff when we WILL it.[5]

Will is a big concept for Hegel, and seems to mean what you can do with freedom, and freedom not as the ability to do something, but also has to do with the society you live in, and what others’ wills are doing.

So, while Locke has to go out and pick the berries off the tree to own them, Hegel can put up a sign to declare that they are his, and it helps to have that possession obvious to others, perhaps by working the land or changing it in some way.[6]

But can’t others will to take my stuff?

The might take your stuff physically, but it’s still your stuff if you will it to be so (in this part of Hegel’s book).  Others cannot exert free will (it’s not free if you own it) on your stuff in this.[7]

Can I give my stuff away or sell it?


Does my right to my stuff expire if I don’t use it?

No!  (Unlike Locke)[8]

Can I do absolutely anything with my stuff?

There are exceptions.  A big one is the right to make copies of artwork.  In this case stuff gets complicated.

A book is one stuff, and if you own it you can do what you want with it—read it, make it into a hat, whatever.

You can even read it, learn it, and then make another book which makes use of the first book’s knowledge.

But exactly reproducing a book, and thus robbing the original author of potential profit, is wrong, and it plagiarism.

But how much should I change a book before it’s plagiarism?

Hegel cops out of this one and says he can’t exactly say, but one has to change it in some way, and really no law can exactly say what plagiarism is.[10]

“Hence plagiarism must be a question of honour, and should be refrained from on that score” (22).

Now, to get away from simple stuff and into intellectual property, Hegel seems to privilege the form the work is expressed in, the words chosen, rather than the ideas, since learning ideas entails a certain amount of copying, at least into the mind.  But learning and copying he says can be expressed in other ways, and even take away from the potential profit of the original author, but now we aren’t talking about plagiarism anymore, but the growth of knowledge, and, basically, Hegel’s for it.

Though laws against plagiarism aren’t really possible, according to Hegel, laws against copying are, and Hegel is for copyright provided it is in a “very definite but, indeed limited measure” (22).  That’s not to say that he’s against retaining copyright after the death of the author, oddly—he notes that the family of an author can retain private rights (18)—but I would have thought this was incongruous with his philosophy because (presumably) you can’t exert your will on something when you are dead, and that’s what makes it your property.

So, all in all, what does Hegel think about intellectual property and modern remix art forms?  Well, unlike Locke, I think Hegel wouldn’t be too fond of graffiti on private buildings, since his ownership is based on will, not work.  However, he’s not really big on communal property (except with regard to monuments p.18), so maybe he’d be alright with someone claiming it for their own.  He’s for limited copyright, but, like copyright is most often employed today (but not patents), he’s for it being based on the expression of the work, not the plot, characters, or, as Poe thinks is the heart and essence of a work: the idea.  Finally, the way Hegel speaks about property defining the person, reminds me a bit of Foucault’s idea that an author is defined by his/her writings.

So, to close, happy stuff-hunting everyone!

[1] “personality must find an embodiment in property” (10).

[2] “Men are equal, it is true, but only as persons, that is, only with reference to the source of possession.  Accordingly every one must have property” (9).

[3] “Here the assertion that the property of every man ought in justice to be equal to that of every other is false, since justice demands merely that every one should have property” (10).

[4] “Private possession is the more reasonable, and even at the expense of other rights, must win victory”(7) and “persons, living together [in cloisters], have ultimately no such right to property, as the person has” (8).

[5] “A person has the right to direct his will upon any object, as his real and positive end.  The object thus becomes his” (6).

[6] “The inner act of my will, which says that something is mine, must be made recognizable for others….the more I appropriate this form, so much the more do I come into real possession of the object” (10-11).

[7] “A second person cannot take into possession what is already the property of another” (10).

[8] “the will of the owner…is the fundamental principle” (15).

[9] “Only through the education of his body and mind, mainly by his becoming conscious of himself being free, does he take possession of himself, become his own property, and stand in opposition to others” (13).

[10] “It is not possible to state accurately, and establish explicitly by law and right, just how far the new form, which accrues through repeated expression, should transmute the scientific treasure or the thoughts of others…in other words a repetition of an author’s work should be called a plagiarism” (22).


All images are from Microsoft Clip-art and are used for non-commercial purposes.

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