Locke, Property, and Subjectivity

In both his Essay on Human Understanding and Second Treatise on Government, John Locke lays out a detailed philosophy of being based on an autonomous individual selfhood.  A philosophy which has implications not only for government and social organization, but also for how artists in the 18th century conceived the connections between the self, their work, and ownership of that work.  Though written within a very specific political and religious context; nevertheless Locke’s ideas would come to have far reaching impacts throughout the 18th century.

Written within the immediate context of the Glorious Revolution, both Locke’s Essay and Second Treatise are deeply invested in the ideas that came to establish the new social order – an order founded primarily on the rights of the landed classes as against the monarchy.  In order to establish these rights it was vital, first of all, to establish a theory of consciousness founded upon individuality and autonomy – an individuality outside of external controls.  This was the primary project of the Essay (see my earlier post) and Locke returns to this autonomous self at the beginning of the Second Treatise in order to lay the groundwork for his theory of political and social organization:

“To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.”

Furthermore, in this passage Locke explicitly frames his Treatise in terms of the relationship between this “perfect freedom” and property rights, rights that are foundational to Locke’s political system.  Human political freedom, for Locke, is founded principally upon the rights to property and the freedom dispose of this property freely.

In fact, after touching briefly upon the foundational states of nature, war, and slavery, Locke turns at length in chapter five to property and its relationship to the state.  Here he defines property as, “Whatsoever… he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.  It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in.”  The key principle here is, once again, human autonomy.  According to Locke, the labor of any individual human is rightfully his/her own, thus whatever any human works to improve or remove from its “state of nature” through labor is rightfully his/her own.  This, then, is the foundation of a “liberal democratic” state – at least liberal and democratic in the 18th century sense of the terms.

This philosophy of individual autonomy thus linked to the rights of property would have far reaching impacts throughout the 18th century; for if the individual has a right to the product of the labor of his/her own hands, then the sovereign has no natural claim to that property other than what is owed for the organization of a functioning state.  Furthermore, if the individual is invested with natural rights, then they can no longer be properly part of a common body of people with the sovereign as the head.  This did not mean, of course, that Locke was writing in defense of the type of democracy that arose at the end of the century in American and France.  For though Locke’s ideas were certainly influential (especially in America), in practice they operated in defense of the rising bourgeois political order in England which sought to assert its autonomy from the old order and the monarchy.

This philosophy of the propertied self also had far reaching implications for cultural production.  As we have already seen in novels like Pamela, by mid century novels began to reflect this sense of autonomy through the incorporation of an internal subjectivity into their narrative.  Characters like Pamela became “owners” of the property of their own thoughts (in Pamela’s case set down in letters and journals).  Mr. B’s attempted violation of Pamela is thus all the more despicable in that he is not only attempting to steal her virtue, but also her subjectivity by seeking to possess her letters.  In the end, of course, it is Pamela’s sense of autonomy that comes to capture Mr. B – forcing him to accede to her narrative if he wants to be with her.

Furthermore, Pamela also illustrates the extent to which literary production had become a commodity to be owned and traded.  For Richardson Pamela was not solely (and perhaps not even primarily) a novel, but a commodity to make money with.  I would argue that what irked him most about the host of imitations and “sequels” was not that they lampooned or satirized the novel, but that they cut into his market share.  With the advent of copyright laws, literary property increasingly came to resemble the physical property Locke writes about, and the same principles come to apply.

Finally, I would argue that this close connection between property and the individual artist came to have an impact on the form of literature during the 18th century.  Novelists like Richardson exemplify this transition from the physical property to the property of ideas and subjectivity – a transition that would reach its apotheosis in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge at the end of the century.  For the romantics, this sense of individual genius and subjectivity was the defining and structuring idea of their poetry.  Thus, by positing their work within this property of ideas, artists like Richardson, Wordsworth, and Coleridge were able to develop a form of expression firmly rooted in the individual and that individual’s relationship with the political and social order.


6 responses to “Locke, Property, and Subjectivity

  1. No actual comment, except to say that you helped clear up some questions I had about Locke and his relationship to American political philosophy. Having never read much Locke but being vaguely aware of him as almost a founding father in political thought for the US , I was surprised when reading the passages for class this week. Much of what he said did seem more in line with “rising bourgeois political order ” as you say, and seemed little to do with America’s revolutionary ideas. At the same time, I can see how his thought helped lead America down the path it eventually trod.

  2. Joan,

    True – though I would argue that the sense we have today of the American founders being “revolutionary” comes from subsequent American interpretations of the events. At the beginning, at least, I am not sure that the American Revolution was guided by very different principles from the Glorious Revolution. It too was instigated by the wealthy and the landed property owners. It too sought to establish political order on the basis of property – separate from sovereign interference and it too disenfranchised large portions of the population – women, slaves, etc and set up deeply undemocratic institutions like the Senate which at its inception had its members selected by the states. Thus the support for the revolution by people like Pitt and Burke.

  3. Andrew,

    Hrm, interesting… This and your previous Locke-related post added some matter for thought regarding Locke’s ideas–or ideas similar to Locke’s–and the rise of the author as an individual figure, with claim to property and so, what, a more apparent entitlement to separate existence? Interesting as well to be reading Locke along with Young’s letter; together (confessing that the two might best be considered apart, but just for consideration’s sake…), they leave rather an impression that authors take in ideas (or, what, sensations?), shape them through their own minds, and so use them to produce creative property. Though this thought may be entirely misplaced, hrm.

    And on Richardson’s concern being more with sharing the market than with mockery of Pamela or even some sort of intellectual theft… Certainly does seem to be evidence to support that sense. However much Richardson might have ranted over appropriators who twisted his message or changed his characters, he does seem to have dedicated his energies to battling those works that most threatened to steal sales. Thinking here of Pamela’s Conduct in High Life… and, actually, perhaps moreso of the Dublin printings. These didn’t alter the story, but did snatch money that might otherwise have flowed Richardson’s way.

    In any case. Much to be thinking on after reading your post, so thank yeh, and all.


  4. Kristi,

    I think you’re absolutely right, especially when you say, “they leave rather an impression that authors take in ideas (or, what, sensations?), shape them through their own minds, and so use them to produce creative property.” This is exactly how I see Locke’s major legacy to the authors of the 18th century.


  5. Andrew, you are right that the Romantics represent a summation of the notion, born in the last half of our century, that the true author is a superior individual, a solitary genius whose poetry is a “spontaneous overflow” of the reflective subjectivity. And so not surprisingly, Wordsworth devoted a fair amount of time, energy and text to “reforming” copyright law to make it more beneficial to writers and their heirs–often in ways very at odds with the intent of the first Act, 100 years earlier.

  6. Hi Andrew,
    Thank you for this post. You touched on topics that I was interested in with this week’s reading. Your discussion of Locke confirmed my doubt that Locke fully embraced full democracy (the popular myth). Instead, his ideas were appropriated by revolutionists. Your grounding of property rights in authorship was similarly helpful. I wonder if the original / imitation dichotomy has any bearing on this application of property rights to authorship.

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