by Margaret Davies. New York: Routledge-Cavendish, 2007. 176pp. Paper: $37.95. ISBN: 9781904385844.

Reviewed by David Schultz, School of Business, Hamline University. Email: Dschultz [at]


Concepts are embedded with ontologies and epistemologies. Much like the Rod Stewart song which once proclaimed that “every picture tells a story,” concepts envelop their own histories which provide a narrative of their meaning. Concepts can thus be viewed both historically and linguistically. Historically, as Bryce Gallie and others suggest, terms such as “power,” “authority,” and “democracy” are essentially contested terms, subject to indeterminate meanings that are fixed by historical circumstances and contexts. Linguistically, concepts, as Ludwig Wittgenstein articulates, derive their meaning both from their use and from their relationship to other terms. Concepts are situated within specific language games and assume their meaning within an ensemble words and usages. Concepts are social artifacts.

Yet to argue that concepts are embedded with ontologies and epistemologies suggests that terms are more than mere words. They are not only historically contingent and define other words but they have meanings that can structure social relations and therefore impact human behavior. Concepts have a Heideggerian sense in that terms such as “democracy” are not only descriptive, they can affect the structures of political power and organize the ways they operate as they are designed to produce specific outcomes or processes. Similarly, concepts such as “constitution” or “free markets” also are ontological in that they can affect specific ways human institutions operate.

“Property” too has its own ontology and epistemology. Explicating it is the subject of Margaret Davies’ short but informative and insightful book. Focusing primarily upon western conceptions of property, Davies aims to examine the term from multiple perspectives. According to the author, property is more than a legal concept. It is a pluralistic term, attached to it are three dimensions which form a “cultural matrix” for its understanding in the west. These three dimensions are its symbolic and cultural meanings, its legal, political, and social histories, and the philosophies that have justified its various conceptualizations. These three dimensions are the subject of the major chapters of the book – meanings, histories, and theories – which, along with the conclusion which seeks to offer critical alternative meanings to property, frame the structure of the book.

Chapter One aims to define the book’s project and orientation. Davies seeks to provide a critique of property, using a conception of critique that is reminiscent of the way the Frankfort Critical School applied the term. In doing so, she finds that liberal conceptions of the terms yield several major themes. First, property is a delineating term [*512] differentiating the public from the private. Second, property is often associated with class. Third, property is intermixed with concepts of person and selfhood. Fourth, property is almost always private, demarcating the boundary with the commons. Fifth, discussions of property divide over whether ownership is natural or a product of artifice. Sixth, disputes exist over how property relates to the law and, finally, questions persist regarding its linkage to power. These seven themes are explicated in the three chapters on meanings, histories, and theories.

Chapter Two (meanings) is a wide-ranging discussion of property within the west. It moves from looking at the term as a legal concept from a Austinian, Benthamite, and legal positivist perspective to its relationship to possessive individualism in the works of C.B. MacPherson. But Davies moves beyond the legal and philosophical and into the psychological and genealogical, drawing upon Derrida and Foucault to describe the role of property in constructing gender relations. Here, as well as in Chapter Four when she draws upon Lacan, she links property to the definition of the body and sexuality, showing how the term asserts and defends male heterosexuality and power.

Chapter Three (histories) continues the discussion that links property to male authority. Davies traces the concept of property to Roman notions of imperium and dominium. Her point in performing this genealogy is to connect property to power and then to the family. If families are the property of the father, then males have dominium over women and their children. If property also has a political dimension outside the family, its control provides imperium socially and legally. In either case, property provides control over women. Chapter Two also examines the role of property in the Middle Ages, indicating how the commons were privatized, comparing it to recent efforts in the electronic age to repackage common information for private sale. In effect, the postmodern commodification of knowledge is like a second enclosure movement.

Chapter Four (theories) examines Lockean and Hegelian conceptions of property. Davies describes how both are the major rival theories of property in the west, offering contrasting views on its relationship to personality. If for Locke property comes after the person has been defined, Hegel sees both acquiring meaning after being socially embedded. Davies explores the implications of these contrasting views of property and personality in this chapter, again noting its role in gender construction and in defining power.

The final chapter is less of a conclusion and offers more of an effort to critique where property is headed. Davies emphasizes numerous challenges to property, arguing for example that non-western conceptions of the term could [*513] force changes to its ontology. Second, in criticizing the commodification of knowledge, she discusses how the open source movement and Web sites such as Napster are challenging the idea that the tragedy of the commons associated with common ownership produce externalities. Within the file-swapping movement is an effort to contest patent and copyright laws that could produce new ownership patterns. Finally, alternative conceptions of property could force redefinitions of the body that yield new gender relations.

PROPERTY: MEANINGS, HISTORIES, AND THEORIES is a short book, yielding lack of detail as the most serious criticism of it. Yet Davies does not intend to present an exhaustive treatment of the subject, merely a summary overview. The book succeeds in that aim. It also is directly on target in arguing property is more than a “res,” it really is about the relationships among things and how we constitute the many “rei” within society. Finally, Davies performs a outstanding task in describing the inner relations between property, power, and sexuality. She takes the term property outside of its legal meaning and successfully explores the cultural matrix she sets out to articulate. Finally, Davies moves debate about the term beyond linguistics and into a realm of ontology that is highly informative and more interesting than most discussions of the subject.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, David Schultz.