Roger Scruton on ‘Hegel’s conception of private property and its critics’

On Thursday 29 May, ECLA was visited by academic heavyweight, Professor Roger Scruton, who delivered a guest lecture on Hegel’s idea of property and its role in the larger framework of Hegelian philosophy.

Scruton introduced Hegel’s theory of property in the context of the work of Locke, one of the so-called ‘social contract’ theorists. Locke suggests that, because we are free individuals, we can appropriate things and constitute contracts. In contrast to Locke’s view, Hegel believes that we are only potentially free; the process of actualizing this freedom requires the fulfilment of conditions which often depend on social interrelations. For Hegel, we are social before we are free, reversing the assumption held by social contract theory.

The idea of social interaction plays into a larger aspect of Hegelian philosophy, the dialectic, in which an immediate form of consciousness requires conflict, opposition and alienation in order to progress into a more self-conscious state of being. For Hegel, self-consciousness arises only once we become able to see the self as an object, in other words, when we can look upon ourselves as others look upon us. It is in therefore in other people that we properly face ourselves and become free, self-conscious agents.

Scruton continued with a discussion of the famous ‘Master-Slave relation’ in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which would go on to influence Marx, Nietzsche and Sartre and others. Because the recognition of other people is necessary for freedom to be constituted, individuals enter into a ‘life and death struggle’ for recognition. Two parties risk their lives, but eventually only one of them will value life above freedom and retreat, resulting in enslavement to the victorious party. This creates a relationship in which the master is independent and free to use the other, the slave, to provide for his or her needs. Although the master does not recognize the slave as a full human being, the slave begins, in working for the master, to recognize himself or herself in the products of that labour. Through work, the slave has the opportunity to see his or her will objectified in real things. Meanwhile, the master becomes increasingly alienated from the products of the slave’s work, not knowing exactly how the things are made, and so becoming increasingly dependent on the slave. The relationship between master and slave thus reverses, with the slave becoming self-conscious and independent by working on things.

Scruton interpreted this part of Hegel’s theory in the Phenomenology of Spirit together with the Philosophy of Right, in order to understand better the effects of things on people. In the Philosophy of Right the subject matter has three elements (or ‘moments’): abstract rights, morality and ethical life. Property belongs to the category of abstract rights, which are the primary conditions for existence as a free subject. These abstract rights together constitute the state of affairs necessarily prior to a subjective perspective. Owing to their anteriority to subjectivity, such rights are, in Hegel’s analysis, necessarily universal. In appropriating, making and having things, we project ourselves onto objects and perceive ourselves as one object amongst them. The rightful designation of something as ‘mine’ signals that a subjective will has become part of the world of things, allowing one to recognize oneself as an object, to become conscious of the self as such and, simply, to become self-conscious. It is therefore in dealing with things, in appropriation and ownership, that subjectivity is made real, in a movement similar to that by which the slave becomes self-conscious in dealing with the products of his or her work.

Finally, Scruton explained the fierce reaction of Marx to Hegel’s understanding of the way in which subjectivity is realized in private property. For Marx, the expression of the will in the products of labour alienates one from oneself; the translation of our will into objects entails the loss of that will in the object, culminating in our enslavement to material things. This criticism was thoroughly analysed in the subsequent discussion, becoming one of the topics of an animated, in-depth exchange between Scruton, students and faculty.

Professor Roger Scruton is Research Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Oxford and Washington DC. He is a writer, philosopher and public commentator, specializing in aesthetics. An established conservative thinker, Scruton engages in contemporary political and cultural debates. His most recent books include: Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Oxford University Press, 2003; News from Somewhere: On Settling, Continuum Books, 2003; A Political Philosophy, Continuum Books 2006), Culture Counts: Faith and Healing in a World besieged, Encounter Books, 2007; and the third edition of A Dictionary of Political Thought, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

by Martin Lipman (’08, Netherlands)

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