“Before the Appropriation of Land, he who gathered as much of the wild Fruit, killed, caught or tamed, as many of the Beasts as he could; he that is so employed his Pains about any of the spontaneous Products of Nature, as anyway to alter them, from the state which Nature put them in by placing any of his Labour on them, did thereby acquire a Propriety in them…”
– John Locke, “Second Treatise of Government” (italics his)
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”
– Billie Holliday, Strange Fruit
i am not sure how the John Locke passage, nor the book that it’s excerpted from, will be taught in class. we were given a content warning for references to human slavery, and the wikipedia entry for the essay notes that the chapter titled “On Slavery”, which we read, has generated centuries of controversy and confusion. the entry goes on to note that Locke does, in fact, justify the existence of slavery, though the scholars treat this as some kind of historical necessity, considering the regime he was writing for and under and its own investment in chattel slavery across the world.
perhaps though, scholars are justifying their own continued reliance on a writer who unambiguously justifies the right to legally own another human being. to those scholars’ credit, Locke’s own writing, on some levels, is incompatible with the existence of slavery in any form. he opens the second statement with a powerful declaration that, in nature, no man has any power over another man, going so far as to say that Adam did not have authority over his own son in Eden.
in the chapter that directly follows the defense of slavery, however, Locke wrote the argument that, to this day, justifies the existence of private property and the absolute right of a property owner to dispose of the property as they see fit. some of the same excerpts i had assigned to me in this humanities degree are on property law syllabi nationwide, though i will admit that the portion regarding ‘killing, catching or taming’ was omitted in the law school portion of the assignment. it likely would have made the intimate connection between property rights, criminal law, and chattel slavery too apparent.
i don’t think that the text shouldn’t be taught, nor do i find it entirely useless. his suspicion that the introduction of a foreign agent, money, into his “natural” order of property ownership being connected to the labor expended on the property is an obvious precursor to marxist and pro-labor thinking, and the opening image of an anarchic Eden is still inspirational in it’s own right.
instead, i am urging you to reconsider the idea that reading can make somebody a better person, or that there’s some inherent connection between bookishness and humanism. in the first two days of my new program, i’ve met a student who has a degree in moral philosophy who posts things on social media in favor of a genocidal, imperialistic foreign government, while vaguely alluding to some issues with our own country.
i recognize that i am hardly the first to stumble upon the power of interpretation, but the beginning of my current graduate program has also instilled in me a new suspicion about a certain method of interpreting the world, analytic philosophy. i’m the only person in my precept group without a background in the field, and our preceptor is a professor in the philosophy department, so i suppose the university assumed i had some kind of natural proclivity to the field, since my application made no mention of an interest in it.
reading an essay by an older graduate of my program, who studied analytic philosophy and went on to attend law school before beginning a career as a bureaucratic lawyer, more or less confirmed my suspicions. the author cited Wittgenstein and went on a bizarre, inconclusive exploration of the way objectivity is expected to differently in legislatures compared to courtrooms, before concluding that our democracy would benefit from repealing some of the legal excesses of the Citizens United decision that codified essentially the right unlimited corporate speech (political donations) in elections.
by using these pre-formed philosophical methods of philosophical inquiry, the author is attempting to add academic and intellectual credibility to a legal/political position that would be considered common sense to anybody who happens to not be the ceo of a multinational corporation. and it’s not like this kind of rhetorical move is limited to insecure graduate students trying to get some writing published for their resume. Locke too is clearly attempting to call on the unimpeachable credibility of the Bible by choosing the garden of Eden as the setting for which he demonstrates the inevitability of private property.
i am interested in and excited by the writers and thinkers relegated to the field of continental philosophy, which is housed in the divinity school at UChicago, away from the capital P Philosophers. Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Judith Butler, or Lauren Berlant (which i realize is a lot of B names) all stand out to me as writers who refused to be troubled with things like western logic, proof, or empiricism in envisioning a different way to to think and live on this planet. Berlant, for example, by willing to foreground inherently subjective phenomena like emotions, is able to much more quickly and adeptly describe what it means to live under capitalism, the way our laws and jurisprudence continue to stack the odds against us, and proposes a way of living that does not require a fascistic supreme court overturning a fresh case against their own interest.
this is not to discredit the achievements others have made in the fields of analytic philosophy, or even the legal field; the two fields so similar in their adherence to rules and working within a set of outcomes prefigured by those rules. Cheryl Harris, for example, follows the logic of Locke and the american legal system to depict whiteness as a kind of property, noting each system, whiteness and property ownership, give “owners” tangible benefits that can and are passed from generation to generation at the exclusion of the “other”. a genuinely radical conclusion reached by tracing the thoughts and writings of generations of racist, property owning, white american men.
i however, have done enough of this kind of thinking and writing in law school, and came to my current program to start thinking outside of the box. at 28 with no obvious job prospects on a planet whose continued existence is in peril, i don’t feel like i have the time to continue dealing with proofs and so-called objective logic. continental philosophy and the other fields relegated to the periphery of academia seem to provide me more freedom of movement, so to speak. One has to be able to walk, think, and write without proving that your foot exists, can move, and did indeed make the motion to take a step. time is of the essence.
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