Locke, Labor, and Personality: A Phenomenological Modification

There is something intuitive about Locke’s account of property in his Second Treatice of Government. Man after “he hath mixed his labour with” the land and “joined it to something that is his own,…[he] thereby makes it his property.” The product is the laborer’s product, because “the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.” In other words, since you own your own labor, then by “mixing” this labor with raw material, you own the product of the labor. Your ownership of your labor-power, transfers in some way to the product of labor.landscapes2

This explains the tendency among even those philosophers who attack private property to stamp their name on their product, namely, their books and articles. There is some connection between one’s labor and one’s product. Or, to put it differently, there is some connection between you and the product. Locke, however, while providing insight that there is a connection, does not adequately explain it. Some element is missing from his theory. What is it about labor and the labor’s product that forges a connection? What is it about the relationship that naturally brings about calls for legal protections and even the risking of bodily harm to defend one’s property? Something about the relationship takes the land in “common” and makes it personal.

I want to briefly argue here that what is missing is a phenomenological description of labor. It is better to view labor not as mixing ownership into material but the embodying personality. Hegel wrote, “A person’s putting his will into an object is the conception of property, and the next step is the realizing of it. The inner act of my will, which says that something is mine, must be made recognizable for others” (Phil of Right 51 add). He calls property an “embodiment of my will.” I won’t attempt to explain Hegel’s point in detail, but I will work with his statement on property as being the embodiment one’s will or personality. For Hegel, this embodiment can be any type of acquisition, including those not acquired directly by mixing with the earth or raw material. But for our purposes we will stick with labor as productive activity.

The stamp of personality is most evident, as mentioned above, on the placing of one’s name on an essay, blog post, article or book. It is declaration that thiproduct of labor is my product of labor. And when one publishes a book, they place the book on their shelf. They keep it close. They identify with its contents. A book contains its author in a strange, phenomenological way. It is not merely a book among books, but my book among other books. It is my presence among the literary world. Similarly your chapter among a compilation is not just a chapter among chapters.

There is a type self-referential relationship here. The product of labor, having embodied one’s will/personality/life becomes an extension of self — it represents, though vaguely, the self-hood of the producer. One’s interest in the product is at some important level an interest in oneself — one’s public self.

There is labor, of course, that does not result in one’s name on the product. Here there is a distinction between embodying personality and merely the expenditure of energy. Some work is mindless and lacking in creativity, making some quasi self-referential relationship with a product difficult. But if we stick with small-scale and creative production, this ‘stamp’ of personality is possible. Examples range from welding to artisanal sandwich-makers and from furniture makers to electricians. The resulting product is yours and you can identify with it.

We should notice that this phenomenological connection as extending self-hood to the product of labor does imply that if we have ownership of our-selves, then we have some ownership of the products of our labor. To abuse embodied personality, is to abuse the person.  But the nature of this ownership of products depends on the nature of the ownership of ourselves. So if we see ourselves as having obligations to others, then it seems that our products do not escape these obligations as well. But the crucial distinction here is between duties of justice and duties of charity, and fulfilling the latter is more conducive to the giving of self, friendship and brotherly affection. But I’ll leave this for another time. My point is that property rights extend absolutely only within the limits of obligations, whatever those might be.

Since this type of productive labor embodies your personality — it is an extension of your self — you have a stake in others’ judgment of it. What I mean is that products of our labor, including both objects we plan to bring to exchange or property for our own use, are public property not in the sense that they are legally owned by the public, but that they are available for public view and judgment. Our items at exchange and the yards of our homes are both products of judgment. It is my view, as I argued here, that much of our economic production today alienates producers from the possibility of their work being an end in itself through some type of feedback loop informing the producer that his work was good work — work worth doing in itself.

And, to my mind, this makes legal ownership second to the affirmation of labor as an end in itself. Locke is correct in connecting the mixing of labor and acquiring ownership, but what makes productive labor worth doing for its own sake is another’s affirmation that the labor was good labor The primary interest one ought to have is not a pay check (which makes labor a mere means) or legal ownership, but in making labor an end in itself. So while I do not deny that ownership is created through labor, what matters most is public recognition of the labor. It takes a community to make labor fully worth doing.

There is much more I could say, but I’ll leave it here. What Locke was missing is a certain phenomenological description of man and his products of labor. These objects disclose themselves to us not merely in matter and form, but also, and most importantly, as our personality. They disclose a sort of yearning we have for public recognition, not merely in the fact that we produced, but that we produced something good.


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