The richness of human language is astounding. Sometimes it might even seem as if we have too many words for the same thing. For example, the common vernacular doesn’t really distinguish between “properties” and “possessions.” Casting aside for a moment all those instances in which the two words are used metaphorically, we can say that they both describe the relationship between a person and a thing. The person who has property or possessions is generally said to be able to determine their use as they see fit, without the ability of others to interfere in that process. A thing is “mine” if it is my property, and also if I possess it. I can do with it (almost) whatever I want.
I’m not concerning myself here with the legal definition of terms, with the different types of property, or with the restrictions imposed on them by customs and laws. All those apply equally to properties and possessions. Instead, I want to try to tease out what I see as a difference between the two terms. Indeed, distinguishing one from another is of great importance. As a society, we should try to clarify the meaning of words instead of succumbing to their abrasion and disguising in everyday use.
When someone says that something is “his or her own,” that person articulates a very close and irrevocable relationship to a thing. If I own something, it is native to me. It is no coincidence that the English word “property” carries two different meanings: a thing that belongs to someone, and an attribute or quality that characterizes someone or something. My personal property – or, rather, the sum of personal properties – describes me as a person. Properties are a constitutive part of my individual identity. The particularities of my being are inextricably linked to my properties: a craftsman owns his tools. A stamp collector owns his stamp collection. A publisher owns a publishing house. Parting with those properties would imply parting with the relevant part of one’s identity.
In colloquial speech, we might say that the stamp collector “possesses” a stamp collection and that the craftsman “possesses” his tools, but this is a misleading use of words. I might have come to count a stamp collection among my possessions by way of inheritance – and it would hence be more accurate to say that I “possess my grandfather’s stamp collection” instead of calling it “my property.”
It’s easier to give up one’s possessions than it is to give up one’s properties. “From each according to his abilities,” we say, and mean the sum of one’s properties rather than merely one’s possessions. Indeed, this is maybe where the contrast between the two terms becomes most evident and socially relevant: possessions are means to the realization of unrelated interests. For example: I might possess a car to allow for an easy commute – but my desire to commute is not intrinsically tied to the possession of a car. The latter merely facilitates the former.
By contrast, properties are a thing unto themselves. Their preservation and use is an end in itself. Through the use of properties, their owner realizes himself or herself.
The idea of property is thus tied to the social context: the owner’s identity emerges from the sense of meaning that is bestowed upon properties and that illustrates their social significance. A publisher is valued because the act of publishing has a social relevance. A craftsman is a respected member of society because his skillful use of his tools is recognized. An intimate relationship is forged between the person and the property – a relationship that is absent in the case of simple possessions: they can easily be destroyed or discarded or sold to others. Possessions don’t have meaning. They are means to their owners’ ends.
For a society, it is problematic when properties lose their value. But the bigger issue might be the increasing tendency to see properties as simple possessions that can be bought and sold at will. The commodification of property ruins companies, and it damages society. Today, the descendants of Henry Ford don’t run the Ford Motor Company anymore. Families like the Ochs-Sulzberger dynasty control few contemporary publishing houses. To the shareholders, the goods these companies produce and the services they provide are merely means, not ends in themselves. Not property is the problem – but possession.
Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Back to the future