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Property

January 7, 2010 3 comments

In an attempt to impose some order on my usually miscellaneous seminar papers, I’ve been focusing my writing lately on the idea of property. I’m not sure what exactly I hope to accomplish with this; I have no determinate question I’m trying to answer, and no determinate position I want to defend. One thing I’ve been surprised to find is that thinkers seem to have found the issue progressively less important over the course of the last millennium: almost every scholastic finds room to treat property directly; most moderns deal with it, but often more obliquely (i.e., as an operative assumption only sporadically thematized); and it more or less disappears as an immediate point of concern by the 20th century. (Quite a few, obviously, are still concerned to diagnose the consequences of capitalism, but that rarely turns into an analysis of ownership “in-itself,” or of private property as a discrete historical institution.) It’s tempting to read this as tracking the emergence and effective triumph of the money economy in the consciousness of the West, though I haven’t done nearly enough historical work to know to what extent that’s true. Especially so far as it holds, it’s starting to seem to me that an analysis of property at a deep conceptual level—i.e., in its relation to God and creation, Christian discipleship, human will itself, labor, political society, distribution of wealth, etc.—actually could prove politically meaningful. It could clarify the ways that property’s modern form has affected the structure of our thinking on those other issues, and it would have the potential to illumine the contingency of certain features of modern life that maintain an air of inevitability. And given the (relatively unstudied) history of identifiably theological reflection on this theme, it could prove a worthwhile locus for pushing forward the fundamental questions of political theology in a different context.

Posted by Brian Hamilton