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Being with No Strings Attached: What Does Ownership Mean?

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A few days ago while I pulled weeds in my backyard, a rather strange paradox came to mind. Since the sun was warm but not ungodly hot, I stripped off my t-shirt, balled it up, and tossed it over some rocks, thinking I might get a little tan. Besides, the sun felt terrific on my back.

As I continued working, I glanced over at the t-shirt, and for some bizarre reason, the idea of ownership popped into my brain. I knew the shirt was mine, but could not think of any physical reason why. There was no connection between me and the shirt laying several feet away.

Since I was alone, I wondered how I would feel if a stranger walked through the yard, picked up the shirt and claimed it. That intruder holding the shirt had physical contact with it. I did not. If I called out, "Hey, that belongs to me," and he dropped it saying, "Sorry," all would be okay.

But what if he said, "Prove it." That would be difficult. Long gone and forgotten was the t-shirt's sales slip. I knew for a fact I had no memory of the shirts brand name, nor did I recall holes in the shirt or identifiable stains on it. Perhaps it was a "large," more probably an "extra large" to cover my paunch.

But I let the intruder thought dissolve wondering what I meant when I tell myself, "That shirt is mine." Since there are no strings between it and me something invisible, but real, exists called a relationship. And what exactly is that? It has to be a reality, not just make-believe, or I could not claim ownership.

But wait, I thought, maybe there is a physical connection because I can see the shirt with my eyes. But when I go back to pulling weeds, the shirt is out of sight, and it's still mine. In addition, if visual connection were the case, a blind person could never claim ownership at all. So I'm left with an invisible link that tells my brain, "I own the shirt."

When I went back inside the house, I tried researching exactly what ownership meant. To my surprise, I found that Harvey Reeves Calkins (1915) researched this topic and presented his findings in a book titled, A Man and His Money. In it he claims that ancient Roman Law is the foundational philosophy on which ownership rests.

But that invisible bond between a person and what s/he owns seems somewhat selfish. Calkins claimed that "Ownership signifies the nearness, or possible nearness, of other people who can be hindered from possessing or enjoying the thing that is mine. In a word, ownership means hindrance;" meaning: keep others from taking what I own.

I hunted for more up-to-date meanings of ownership to find that Encarta Encyclopedia (2005) claims that "Ownership involves, first and foremost, possession," but since I was not grasping or wearing the t-shirt, accordingly, ownership would seem questionable.

Encarta goes on to say that with any property: "ownership in modern societies implies the right to use, prevent others from using . . . ." In my mind, this prevention means brute force. To me, there are two points clearly evident from my weed pulling experience:

1) There is a world of invisible "thingies" for want of a better term, and ownership is one of them.

2) The best way to prove the t-shirt is mine is to keep it on or to use brute force. If an intruder lifted it and refused to give it back, only if I was larger and more muscular than the thief could I clobber the robber into returning it.

Is a sweaty, smelly t-shirt, attached to me with no strings, worth a black eye?

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About Regis Schilken

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Hmmm… Interesting thought. But, what about the weeds? I mean are they really yours to be pulling out of the ground. Especially considering that they are alive and all. So,in essence, were you killing something that wasn’t yours? And, what about the land that your house is on? And, what about the house? Man, this could make someone go nuts:)

  • John Wilson

    Ownership is an artificial construct of human society, and then only in recent epochs. It is only recently that the idea of ownership of everything could be considered.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Especially in a bourgeois society, whereby commodities, and ownership/echange of commodities, embody actual social relations.

    Marx 101

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    Ownership isn’t really that new a concept, but its tenuousness has long been recognized.

    In Anglo-Saxon society, for example, it was considered so important that people grasped the rather unnatural notion of ownership that theft was a capital offence.

    Murder wasn’t.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Interesting, Dreadful. What time period are we taling about?

  • Regis

    Time period has nothing to do with it. To me it is the invisibility of any physical “strings attached” that blows my mind. Are we, perhaps, talking about invisible being of some kind or mental concepts which are invisible being of some kind? Not believing much in mind beyond the brain, this concept bothers me.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    Prior to 1066, Rog. Saxon law incoporated a concept called Maegth, in which certain crimes – for example, homicide – were held to be the responsibility not only of the murderer but also of his or her kin. Any capital retribution, revenge or other recompense was a matter for the killer’s and victim’s families to settle between themselves, and was no business of the state. Hence, no official death penalty: it was up to the parties involved to impose one if they wished.

  • Regis

    So, Dr. Dreadful, as much as it bothers me, it does seem that BRUTE FORCE ultimately determines ownership.

    What fascinates me is that a purely physical act determines a purely invisible connection.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Interesting. Got to read up on this.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    A physical act creates a symbolic relationship.