Mini-Canon Assignment: How-To posts

[Here’s an archive of the “how-to” posts for the Mini-Canon assignment, from a previous semester:]

We want to keep focused on the realm of “great ideas,” even while we research stuff that more specifically interesting to us. The common oppositions help us start pretty high up on the ladder of abstraction:

Us / Them
Mine / Yours
Known / Unknown
Heaven / Earth

All of these oppositions involve drawing pretty basic distinctions. If we tried to get much more abstract than this, we would be looking at ideas like “unity” and “difference,” “the one” and “the other,” etc. When we’re talking about our keywords, “liberty” and “tolerance,” those very high-level abstractions are certainly important to us, but it’s hard to say anything with much practical significance if we don’t work our way down into the realm of the more specific and concrete.
Most of you have had some basic instruction in how to construct an argumentative essay: you start with a generalization, provide some specific support and analysis, and then return to the generalization. Your mini-canon assignment will be more narrative: you’ll be showing me development and debate. But narratives still have a similar structure. A short story (for example) sets expectations at the beginning, hopefully delivers on them in a series of entertaining episodes, and then comes to some sort of resolution. One of the ways we judge literature is on the basis of how well it hangs together, whether or not the pieces of a narrative all seem to belong to one another. I want you to tell me a good story about great ideas. You’re presenting a little slice of the Great Conversation, and have to act as the narrator of the more focused conversation. That means you have to make connections between the various “episodes” made up by your exemplary texts. And that will be easier if you have some very basic organizing principles to ground you. Hence, the common oppositions.

If you want to write about the history of ideas about “treason,” for example, it’s going to be a lot easier to orchestrate your narrative if you choose a basic distinction (us/them, for example) to provide the structure. If you want to write about religious issues, you have lots of options. Us/them, perhaps, for questions of religious tolerance or “holy war.” Known/unknown for more general questions. Heaven/earth to explore conflicts between faith and knowledge, religion and science, religious and secular authority.

I’m suggesting that you start with the common oppositions. Grab a piece of paper, and free-write. Draw pictures or diagrams. Do whatever it takes to get you thinking about Great Ideas, and exploring your own interests.

Just for fun, I’m going to go ahead and do the assignment with you, and post the results as we go. Look for the first “Example” post later this afternoon.


Looking at the four common oppositions, there are obviously plenty of options for an example paper. But I’m in the middle of some other projects that have me thinking about property issues, so I guess I’ll go and ahead and pick mine/yours as my starting place. Anytime you can make class work advance other class work, or your personal researches, that’s good. I’m trying to get a book outline together. I’m working on a scholarly, critical edition of two works on currency reform from 1849-50, and I know I’m going to be buried in early-19th century economics texts as soon as the Ohiolink requests arrive. I also know that I’ve got to translate that older stuff for a modern audience that is pretty unlikely to share any of the basic assumptions about property and its creation common in the earlier writers. So constructing some sort of conversation between the early sources and the current audience is absolutely necessary. For that narrative, I know I have a certain number of bases I have to cover:

  • The “Ricardian socialist” economists
  • Proudhon, author of What Is Property?
  • William B. Greene, author of the texts, who was influenced by Proudhon and the earlier economists
  • Kevin Carson, who claims to represent a modern version of the tradition of Proudhon and Greene, and who is known to many of my prospective readers
  • My potential readers, many of whom will consider the “labor theory” economics of most of these other figures antiquated or inadequate

There are others, of course. And, ultimately, there are too many others for me to work through this whole conversation with you. It’s extremely important to be able to recognize when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew in the time allowed. So, how do I narrow things down to a workable project?

I keep a notebook in my back pocket much of the time, and scribble in it to clarify my thoughts in instances like this. After a lot of scribbling the other day, I decided that the toughest challenge I faced was the difference between basic assumptions between the figures I was writing and about and an important slice of my potential readership. Clear explanation is one way to at least give the readers a chance to alter their initial positions. But I’m also something of a partisan in the debate: I think Greene may be right about some basic issues, where some of the readers I would like to reach are, in my opinion, wrong. So I need to go on the offensive a bit, philosophically.

More scribbling. Vulnerabilities of “vulgar libertarian” position: denial of possibility of “exploitation,” a priori reasoning, specifically “self-ownership” notion. . . Etc.

“Self-Ownership.” Now, there’s an interesting idea. It breaks down something like this:

I am me and I own me. “Am”=”Own”? Weird.

I think I’ll run with that.


I’ve got an idea what I want to look at, and, since I have a specific audience in mind, I know some things I really have to include. (You’ll have a little more flexibility, but still need to narrow things down.)

At this point, I can start picking some texts to look at. I know that I will need to work with Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government, specifically Chapter 5, “On Property.” It’s the standard work on property, particularly for my intended audience. I also know I want to use the chapter “Solidarity” from William B. Greene’s 1849 Equality (which reappears as “An Illustration” in his Mutual Banking the next year.) There’s also a piece from de Cassagnac’s book on the proletariat, where he says that there is no class conflict since everyone is a proprietor: you own yourself, so there’s really no class difference between you and a big capitalist. (My own arms and legs = Standard Oil. Yeah. I’m not sure I buy it either.)

Beyond that, I go to the searchable sources online. Wikipedia has a “self-ownership” entry, and it seems to be uncontroversial enough that there hasn’t even been a Talk page created. I’ll come back to it later. Google Books gives me some search-engine glitches, telling me at first that there are no instances of the phrase “self-ownership” in the database, and then finally giving me a couple of pages worth of listings for “Full view” books. The earliest listings there are from the mid-19th century, and relate to the debates over slavery and women’s rights.

  • Here’s an important set of clues. I started by saying that self-ownership was a rather “weird” notion. Things look rather different in a historical context where people can be owned by other people, if they’re women or of African descent. Similarly for any social system not based in the assumption of individual liberty. There are contexts in which it makes sense to ask “do I own me, or does someone else?”

Late-19th century uses tend to be more conservative, often appearing in the midst of defenses of the right to property. The usefulness of the term moves from one political camp to another, which is worth noting. Nothing here jumps out as essential to my mini-canon, but the context is useful.

The Making of America archives are a network of digital libraries. The UMich archive has a lot of very nice material on the slavery debates, which I will need to go back and look at seriously. I see essays by major abolitionists and public figures like William Garrison and Horace Mann. The Cornell archive, which has mostly journals, returns a couple of results, but then can’t find them in the articles. One of the two looks worth paging through, but only if other things don’t pan out.

Proquest’s American Periodical Series Online is accessible if you are on campus, or at another subscribing institution. I find 61 articles, going back to 1838. Most of the early material is related to slavery. Some relates to religion, and questions of whether we own ourselves or whether God owns us. In some turn-of-the-century libertarian sources, I find “self-ownership” and “individual sovereignty” defined as synonyms. The latter term gives me another line to trace, and an interesting one, since “individual sovereigntyism” was one of the names for the individualist anarchist philosophy of a guy named Josiah Warren. Warren and Greene knew one another and debated.

  • This introduction of a supposed synonym gives me a little more to play with. Are “self-ownership” and “individual sovereignty” the same thing? Does one describe the relation of the self to itself better than another?
  • The Warren-Greene connection means I don’t have to guess as much about what they would say to each other. I’ll have to go out on some limbs elsewhere, but here I can play it a little safer.

A quick survey of web resources tells me that I won’t have any trouble finding modern treatments and critiques of “self-ownership.” I make a few notes: check von Mises, Hoppe. I notice with some amusement a couple of guys who claim to have coined the term “sovereign individual” a few years back. APS Online shows instances of the phrase as early as 1836. I find a couple of instances even earlier, plus a tantalizing note that Nietzsche used the term in On the Genealogy of Morals, and a reminder that Georges Bataille (a philosopher I’ve written about on a couple of occasions) also made much of the term.

I’m guessing that this much research gives me at least half of my texts. The next step is to read through a bunch of stuff, make a few preliminary choices, and see if I can see a master plan around which I can organize the essay.


OK. I’ve narrowed my “exemplary texts” down to about a dozen, and I’ve got a rough idea of how the “conversation” works. Here’s a rough outline:

1. John Locke: 2nd Treatise on Civil Government. Locke sets up most of the modern interpretations of self-ownership, and his theory includes most of the potential contraditions and difficulties that arise later.

“Sect. 27. Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”

There are a numbers of questions raised here, not the least of which is how the assumption of property in one’s own person is justified. This is that problem of making “is” and “own” mean roughly the same thing. Maybe persons are simply not something ownable, in which case everything else in this argument comes apart, the whole theory of property being based on self-ownership. (We can imagine other sorts of labor-mixing property theories without much trouble, but that may be outside the scope of the paper. We’ll see.) The mechanism of gaining property by mixing one’s person with “raw nature” is an interesting one, consisting of a kind of theory of property by prosthesis. We would expect a mixture to change both ingredients. How complex do we have to make the “self” that is involved in this self-ownership?

2. Count Destutt-Tracy, A Treatise on Political Economy (1817). Destutt-Tracy argues that class-based social or economic analyses are incorrect, as they are based on distinctions that don’t exist. According to him, everyone is a proprietor, everyone is a consumer, and everyone is a worker. As long as I am not a slave, then I own myself, so I “have means,” and am in the same class as, say, my landlord, who owns a couple hundred properties. Hmmm. I guess that’s one way of looking at it. Tracy makes a good example of the most conservative reading of self-ownership. It might provide an argument against slavery, but it is obviously capable of promoting a certain blindness about social inequality.

3. Gerritt Smith, “Letter to The Workingman’s Advocate” (August 10, 1844). Smith, a prominent abolitionist, wrote a 52-page letter to Henry Clay in 1839, in which the right of human beings to self-ownership played a role in his repudiation of the slave trade. This single-page letter covers the basic claims against slavery, basing them in Christian doctrine as well as the natural rights tradition. In the broader context, this pulls a couple of ways: We can see why someone might ask whether they own themselves, but we can also see reasons why we might say that nobody owns a person (except God.)

4. A Childless Wife, “Why I Have No Family” (The Independent, March 23, 1905). This is a much later example of the self-ownership argument applied to women’s rights. I’ve looked at a number of similar essays, some of which emphasize women’s right to a place in the labor force or their right to equal standing before the law. This autobiographical piece has a little of all of that. In developing the “conversation,” it’s worth noting how concerns about freedom gradually expanded and the language of “slavery” was applied to the condition of all (women, children, wage-earners, etc) whose claims to self-ownership seemed thwarted to one degree or another.

5. William B. Greene, “Solidarity” (1849). This chapter from Equality deals with the question of property in terms of the division of labor, and the fact that very little property in modern times is simply extracted from raw nature. If human beings are necessarily social animals, then their labors are going to be interconnected in ways that make determining simple title to any particular good a fairly complex question. Do we ever pay off our debts to society, to our parents, to our teachers, to those who labored before us to create the context into which we were born? Greene ends up with a theory of “best title” for property, but he substantially undermines the simpler approaches on which libertarian property theory is based. Here, it would be worth mentioning the influence of Proudhon’s What Is Property?, large sections of which are devoted to showing that “property is impossible,” meaning that much of what we think of as property “free and clear” or “in fee simple” is more complicated than that. This is probably also the place to introduce Greene’s social psychology, much of which he borrows from Pierre Leroux. The “doctrine of life,” as he describes it, claims that “life is both objective and subjective.” This is another affirmation of our social nature, but it is also a claim that we are only living when we are in relations with others. While Greene believed in a self-ownership of the “best title” variety (modified by his sense of God’s ultimate sovereignty over humans) it would have been very difficult for him to construct a system as simple as Tracy’s.

6. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855).

“I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Whitman does all sorts of fascinating things with the notion of the self and of belonging. Although he was not an explicit partisan of any of the mid-19th century “religions of humanity,” as Greene was, he plays with the complex problem of individual being vs species or social being as well as the best of them. His grounds are sometimes spiritual, sometimes scientific. And there is a very interesting implicit theory of property in this “every atom belonging to me. . . belongs to you” stuff. Here, it’s time to introduce in greater detail a somewhat “decentered” notion of the self, which complicates the question of anyone owning it.

7. Stephen Pearl Andrews, “The Sovereignty of the Individual” (from The Science of Society, 1851). Andrews, himself known for some of the most mind-boggling social theories of the 19th century, helped to clarify and popularize the theories of Josiah Warren on “individual sovereignty.” Warren’s departure from the socialist experimental community of New Harmony, Indiana (around 1827) marks the beginning of the individualist anarchist tradition in the U. S. Warren and Greene mark two very different parts of that tradition. Warren insists on individualizing as a philosophical principle. This leads him to think of individual as “social atoms” much more than Greene or Whitman. But “sovereignty” also has a little different sense than ownership. It would be worth exploring some of the differences by a close reading of the text.

8. Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own (1844). Sometimes translated as The Individual and Its Property. Stirner was an influence on Nietzsche and on the individualist tradition in the U. S. This is a difficult book, but a careful reader of a couple of chapters is probably where I’ll find the means to really open up the “conversation.”

9. Stephen Kinsella, “How We Come to Own Ourselves” (Mises Institute blog, 9/7/2006). This is a good summary and analysis of the modern position, from the perspective of a follower of Murray Rothbard and Hans Herman Hoppe. It addresses some of the concerns I will have raised by this point in the paper, but not all. It is still no clear why we should think of “owning ourselves” as a logical relationship, particularly as the institution of slavery, which informed earlier discussions is now pretty universally dismissed.

10. Jean Baudrillard, Seduction (1979). Baudrillard started as an unconventional French Marxist and gradually became one of the most prominent “postmodern” philosophers. Seduction is another difficult work, but it succeeds in sketching out a theory of subjectivity that lets us talk about whether or not the modern economic subject is possessive or possessed. Baudrillard knows his Marshall McLuhan (theorist of media as “the extensions of man”) and has been one of the voices informing contemporary debates about the self and property in cultural studies circles. His beginnings in Marxist economics make him a little easier to tie to the earlier texts than a lot of contemporary theorists.

Where am I going with all this? The assignment is really to show development of ideas (if that’s what you find) or continuing debates about key problems. I’m going to argue that the existence of institutions like slavery and inequality before the law for women made it easy for a notion of self-ownership to exist in circles where it might otherwise have been rejected. It appears to me that the relationship between the individual and his property described by Locke always had something in common with the complex, “seductive” relationship describe by Baudrillard, and that a concern about the interchangeability of subjects and objects in the realm of property has haunted the discussion right along.

The details are not clear, I’m sure. And you’re not required to come up with some grand theory (though you’re welcome to try.) But that’s the skeleton of a narrative, which you can use as a guide.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2449 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.