Knowledge, Control, and Ownership


"The significance of property ownership has rarely been appreciated. All sentient life is concerned with property, either instinctively or rationally. No organism capable of volitional action can escape the demands arising within it for some kind of property relationship. Survival of all beings capable of consciousness is predicated directly upon some kind of property relationship."[1]

This article will deal with the question of why sentient life (especially man) is by nature concerned with property. Following the lead of Ayn Rand I hope to show that private property epistemologically stems from the nature of man. What this means is that this article will try to prove that private property is the necessary outcome of the nature of man's relationship to the items around him.


With Objectivist epistemology in the background the full impact of this thesis may be more easily supported by parts of Michael Polanyi's interesting little book THE TACIT DIMENSION.[2] Polanyi's discussion of the from-to character of perceptual consciousness is most important for a clear understanding of the man/property relationship.

One can best see Polanyi's point by a few examples. In any form of perceptual awareness we integrate from a set of perceptual clues to a coherent entity.[3] Objectivists claim that the faculty providing the integration is reason. If so, then it is reason which brings us from any clue set X to coherent item Y. Perhaps a concrete example from Polanyi will make this point clearer:

It is the coherence of a thing that makes us attribute reality to it. We commonly recognize its coherence at a glance by merely looking at a real thing. I look at my right hand as I move it about in front of me, and I see a thousand rapidly changing clues as one single, unchanging object moving about at changing distances, presenting different sides at variable angles in variable light. The integration of innumerable, rapidly changing particulars makes us see a real object in front of us.[4]

This from-to structure is applicable not only to visual perception but to all other perceptual channels as well.


With this in mind one may well want to ask about what we do when we bring something from the clues to our integrative faculty. In answering this question we must suppose the concept of a sentient being, for without an integrating entity doing the perceiving the concept of perception is meaningless. Moreover, we must also assume that this sentient being is capable of having these perceptions. Thus it seems clear that the body is the medium through which the clues are transmitted to our integrative faculty. To use Polanyi's phrase this is what gives us the feeling of "being in one's body." Since we have an integrative faculty, that faculty tends to separate itself from the whole body for a particular part at a particular time. If asked to think of one's whole body, one will normally feel as if his mind is being surrounded by something. This is the feeling of "being in one's body." Because the integrative faculty draws upon the body, the body may also be viewed as a source of from-knowledge.

"Having identified the feeling of being in one's body with from-knowledge of the body, one can look upon all from-knowledge as akin to the sense of being in one's body. In this sense, then, to make something function subsidiarily is to interiorize it, or else pour one's body into it."[5] Simply put, the above passage may be summed up under the concept of "familiarization." "Interiorization" is Polanyi's concept for the method by which we familiarize. Familiarization, in this context, denotes that general feeling we have after the objects have been repeatedly interiorized. Consider, for instance, the difference in your overall feeling between entering your own house and a stranger's. By a process of interiorization the objects of your own house have become a part of you whereas those objects of a stranger's house have not. The above quote mentioned the process of "pouring one's body" into objects. At first, this may appear to be an extremely dubious metaphor. However, sit down and pick up a pen and start writing. Now ask yourself where the main focus of your perception lies. It is not where your hand is touching the pen but rather the point where that pen contacts the writing surface. You have poured your body through the shaft of the pen to the point. In short, the process of interiorization is really often a type of body extension.


It may appear that we are a long way off from the concept of private property. However, the relevance of this analysis will soon be apparent. Consider for a moment what one is actually doing in the process of interiorization. If we are right in maintaining that we "extend" our bodies to objects outside ourselves, then we must also be saying that we have gained some kind of control or mastery over those objects. The first place we gain control is over our own bodies. We come to know how the parts function. On a basically perceptual level, learning to do something is a process of body coordination with an object's action manifestations. For example, a beginning water skier is unable to control his skis. He has not yet learned to coordinate certain parts of his body with the physical nature of the skis. Eventually he will interiorize the skis such that control of them will be a rather easy process. We are now able to see that control is a concept involving fundamentally a twofold function. The two functions are, (1) expectation, and (2) manipulation. Control over any object X involves knowing what it does or can do (expectation) and then being able to direct those types of actions when one desires (manipulation). In the very early years of life our body probably happens to us, i.e., things are going on in our body which we are aware of but which we do not control. Eventually, and perhaps simultaneously, we come to expect certain bodily phenomena and then to manipulate them. Our first stage of control, then, is over our own body. If the thesis of from-to knowledge and interiorization is correct, it is a simple matter of logic for one to see that the next area of control is our environment. Control of environment begins with bodily control of interiorized items.[6]


Human beings like to be in control. The feeling of perplexity, which we regard as uncomfortable, is a sign that there is some area in which we are not in control. However, this is not because we want to feel in control as much as it is an implicit awareness that we must be in control. The only way man can act effectively with the objects of his environment is to have some measure of control over those objects. To be out of control is to change intentional doing to external happenings. Individuals seek control so that things do not happen to them. Since man's goal directedness comes about by choice[7] that which happens to us impedes our movement toward our goals. This is true whether our goal is long range (being a pianist) or very short range (picking up a pen).

At this point one may object that we are not always in control because there are many things we expect but do not or could not manipulate. Does not this refute the thesis that we must be in control? Obviously not. In the first place there are things we cannot control because of lack of knowledge (such as the weather). Weather changes thus happen to us. There are other things which we do not control but conceivably could control, such as running General Motors. In both cases, however, we can, are, and often must be in some kind of situational control. On one level all we have is expectation, i.e., GM policy set X. Situational control, however, is control of our own situation such that those areas in which we have no firsthand control are brought into a relation to our own situation to our own best advantage. In other words, we buy or not buy GM products, accept their advertising in our newspaper, or simply convince our friends that GM products are good or bad. At any point in time our own situation is somewhat different from the one we were in previously. During each point we are affected and are doing some affecting. (I am using the term situation here to mean all that which is associated with us—past or present.) In this light we are now able to see that the way we control our own situation has a very important relationship between what our future situation will be. What we want, what we can have, and what will happen to us, depend directly upon how we control our present situation and how we are able to anticipate coming situations.


Up to this point we have left untouched an important aspect of control—concept formation. Unfortunately we can only sketch its importance here since this is the most complex area. Even a semi-complete discussion would require another article. Basically, however, concept formation is a process of abstraction and integration.[8] One will quickly recognize that this is from-to knowledge on a different level from pure perception. We abstract from particulars and integrate them into the coherent entity. Because concepts are rooted in reality, situational control depends upon proper placement of concepts in their appropriate context. Since a concept is united by a single definition the context in which it is placed stems largely from its genus and differentia. The genus is the extension function while the differentia is the limiting function. For example, the concept "table" is conceptually extended by having the genus "furniture" which itself is extended by its own genus, etc. The concept's limiting function is its shape.[9] Since we know that concepts are rooted in reality and how they relate to each other, we are able to use the extension/limitation aspect of concepts to determine what we are doing and what we want to do. In the first case (knowing what we are doing), concepts are used as tools of recognition and description in order to place ourselves in a situation, i.e., in relation to other objects. In the second case (knowing what we want to do), concepts are the tools by which we guide our actions because concepts identify particular natures and therefore their known possibilities. Thus, one can see that concepts serve as the "pockets" in which interiorized items are placed. Consequently, concept use is, (1) the general spring of human doing, (2) the end product of interiorization, and (3) organizational units of environmental and bodily items. If what we have said has a spark of truth, one can easily see why Ayn Rand and many other Aristotelian thinkers place such a high premium on concepts.


Thus far we have mentioned property very little. This is because we needed to spell out, in some detail, certain epistemological theories to which the notion of property can be tied. Most people view property as something which they or someone else owns. This does not provide us with much that is controversial for that which is property is "owned" collectively or individually. Nor is the question of who owns property necessarily the most important. A great deal of wind would be taken out of the sails of libertarianism if it could be shown that collective use of property is the most beneficial to all. What is really being challenged by most libertarians is how property is controlled. The great virtue of the libertarian thesis is that, not only is collective ownership of property detrimental to some but that it is detrimental to all. If use of property means control over the items of the environment then one can readily see that statements to the effect that collective ownership of property is wrong stem from a recognition that, epistemologically, collective ownership means property out of control.

One may want to object that the state does exert control, only it is the wrong type of control. This statement is generally, though not entirely, false. The reason is that force is a primitive tool for setting things in a certain direction where the nature of what is being dealt with is not understood. This perhaps is too simple a generalization for the complex coercion of the state. Yet as a basic example consider the success of the Fabians as opposed to the violent Marxian socialists. The Fabians readily understood the nature of what they were dealing with.[10]


Property is the product of man's need for interiorization and control. Interiorization and control are functions of individuals. Because society is not an entity but a collection of individuals two aspects follow (1) property, i.e., the need for control of objects in the environment, is naturally rooted in each individual's nature and is necessary for his survival, and (2) there thus is virtually no control when property is collectively owned or utilized by means of force. This does not deny the possibility of collective property nor the possibility of being a part of such an endeavor. What it does say is that on any level above a primitive existence such a system will not sustain itself.

Those areas that are "publicly" owned still implicitly recognize our principle by employing some form of the division of labor. The method of division of labor is the social method of systematizing spheres of control. It is individual man that does the controlling along with his voluntary associations.[11] Voluntary division of labor provides the only framework whereby each individual controls that sphere which he is generally best at and which works to his advantage. Coercive divisions of labor, such as socialism, corporate liberalism, etc., deny the possibility of the fullest extension and refinement of spheres of control. These systems arrest this process by turning men into zombies, in effect, who mechanically perform actions already set down for them. Since this is true, one will come to realize that, contrary to Marxist dogma, society left alone would evolve towards a more perfect form of Capitalism and not Socialism.


Much work is yet to be done in the area of an epistemological defense of Capitalism. Here we have only touched upon what I believe to be the most important relationships of man to his environment. We have left unaswered such questions as to why some individuals are better able to extend their spheres of control. Moreover, we have only skimmed the effects of collective ownership. Perhaps, also, what has been said here will provide more evidence for an ethic of rational self interest. In any case, an underlying purpose of this article was to promote interest in these topics and thus to stimulate discussion. It is my hope that this article has been at least partly effective along those lines.

Douglas Den Uyl is a graduate student at the University of Chicago and received his A.B. in philosophy and political science from Kalamazoo College. He was co-editor of the 1972 edition of the A IS A DIRECTORY OF LIBERTARIAN PERIODICALS.


[1] Robert Le Fevre, THE PHILOSOPHY OF OWNERSHIP (Rampart College Press, 1971), p. 1.
[2] Michael Polanyi, THE TACIT DIMENSION (Anchor Books, 1967), Chs. 1 & 2.
[3] Ibid., p. 10.
[4] Michael Polanyi, AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST, Vol. 23, p. 28 (1968).
[5] Ibid., p. 33.
[6] Each new environment we enter provides us with an example of this.
[7] Ayn Rand, THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS (Signet Books, 1964), p. 9.
[9] Ibid., p. 41.
[10] For a very well documented but rather poorly written source, see THE GREAT DECEIT (Veritas Foundation, 1964).
[11] Voluntary associations are efficient because spheres of control come into contact in such a manner that each individual retains his control of the sphere he knows best, though often in a modified form.