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The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Hobbes to Locke). By C. B. Macpherson. Oxford University Press, Those of us who have had the good . C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke challenged the canonical interpretation of seventeenth-century . Introduction. The roots of liberal-democratic theory — Problems of interpretation — Hobbe: the political obligation of the market. Philosophy and political theory.

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Macpherson was a political philosopher who placed a genuinely novel interpretation on the history of political thought in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke when the book appeared in Macpherson was a Canadian philosopher who influenced quite a few young scholars in the s in North America and Great Britain. A first wave of criticism of narrow liberalism took this form:. The individualism that Macpherson identifies is of a specific sort; it is “possessive” individualism.

What does Macpherson mean by this? Here we have the heart of the theory of possessive individualism: Here is his formulation late in the book:. The core of the book is a set of interpretive chapters on Hobbes, Locke, the Levellers, and Harrington.

These chapters are careful, detailed, and closely textual and contextual. The book puts forward a fairly simple theory: The philosophical theories that are built on that ideology give shape to that set of assumptions, but they are ill suited to recognizing or critiquing those assumptions.

Macpherson highlights the interpretive challenge of discovering these underlying assumptions: What is the social context of this ideology? It is the reality of market society:. One of Macpherson’s more indirect goals in his philosophy is to provide an intellectually sound foundation for the liberal democratic state — a state that recognizes the worth of the individual while also recognizing the social obligations that we all have towards each other and that need to be expressed through the social programs of the state.

Fundamentally, Macpherson is interested in helping formulate a political theory off lays a powerful normative base for social democracy.

Macpherson’s interpretation of Hobbes’s philosophy provides an interesting discussion of “models of society” that is worth drawing attention to. He suggests that Hobbes formulates three models of society: What Macpherson means by a model here needs some careful interpretation. He refers to it posseessive an “ideal type” in this passage.

More specifically, a model is a specification of several key structural features of a social macphersno. Here is the model of a customary or status society:. Macpherson thinks that these four characteristics create a specific form of system behavior for societies that embody them: The most complex model is the possessive market society, with postulates defining allocation of work, rewards for work, enforcement of contract, individual rational maximizing, individual’s property in his labour, individual ownership of land, individuals want more utility or power, individuals have differential energy, skill, or possessions.

With these postulates including institutions and actorswe get a certain kind of social functioning. This is an “aggregation dynamics” argument.

In other terms, it is a micro-to-macro argument up the struts of Coleman’s boat. It is worthwhile drawing out the connections between possessive individualism and conservative libertarian political groups in the present.

The Tea Party seems to be a contemporary descendant of this ideology. Taxation is theft; the state has no legitimate role beyond protecting individual security and property; government regulation of private business activity is an immoral intrusion on liberty and property; individuals possess liberties and property that the state cannot limit; individuals deserve what they own and owe nothing to society or other citizens. Justice is served by simply protecting the possessions of individual citizens.


Robert Nozick seems to have represented many of these values in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Those who favor a more expansive vision of a democratic society have several core individulism that conflict with these: Individuals have obligations to other members of society; government has the responsibility of protecting the wellbeing of the least advantaged in society; government has the responsibility of protecting the public good against harmful possessive of private activities; decisions about public policies can and should be made through effective institutions of democratic self-determination; inequalities of wealth and power need to be restrained to ensure the political voice of the whole of society.

Taxation is legitimate for at least three different reasons: Justice is served by creating a system of legislation and policy that ensures the dignity and democratic rights of all members of society.

John Rawls expresses most of these value in Justice as Fairness: Our political sphere could still use a powerful and unifying theory providing a justification for these social democratic ideas. So Macpherson’s voice is still relevant, almost fifty years later.

Here is a review of the book by the great English Marxist historian, Christopher Kndividualism. Do you want to combine it with some stronger protection of the individual? It is a rather big difference in being allowed to prevent someone to walk across your field full of crops far out in the countryside with plenty of possibilities to go around – and to be e.

So nice to see someone post about MacPherson! This book is one fine piece of political thought, and a useful addition is his “Origins of English Individualism” which argues more or less successfully, I believe that English culture was remarkably individualist as early as visitors from the continent began remarking on it in the late Middle Ages.

Interesting how this kind of important work has gone largely unnoticed for decades. Much of the more Hayekian, civil society style libertarianism is just as much enamored of obligations to others in society, they just don’t think the state is the best way to go about it.

Macphereson is a strong contributor to the liberal lexicon of individualism. But as always just what individuals get to make the rules of the state ignores the plurality of society. This ignores a factual, emprical world where intricate rules are necessary to exist. Framing arguments about “state” solutions is accusatory as any rule set is a state and is a power set.

C. B. Macpherson

Wednesday, August 17, Possessive individualism. A first wave of criticism of narrow liberalism took this form: The repair that was needed [to liberal theory] was one that would bring back a sense of the moral worth of the individual, and combine it again with a sense of the moral value of community, which had been present in some measure in the Puritan and Lockean theory. The present study … suggests that the difficulties of modern liberal-democratic theory lie deeper than had been thought, that the original seventeenth-century indivivualism contained the central theort, which lay in its possessive quality.


Its possessive quality is found in macphesron conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them. The individual was seen neither as a moral whole, nor as part theorg larger social whole, but as an owner of himself. The relation of ownership, having become for more and more men the critically important relation determining their actual freedom and actual prospect of realizing their full potentialities, was read back into the nature of the individual.

Understanding Society: Possessive individualism

The human essence is freedom from dependence on the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession. Society becomes undividualism lot of free idnividualism individuals related to each other as proprietors of their own capacities and of what they have acquired by their exercise.

Society consists of exchange between politicql. Here is his formulation late in the book: What makes a man human is freedom from dependence on the wills of others.

Freedom from dependence on others means freedom from any relations with others except those relations which the individual enters voluntarily with a view to his own interest. The individual is essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities, for which he owes nothing to society.

Although the individual cannot alienate the whole o fhis property in his own person, he may alienate his capacity to labour.

Human society consists of a series of market relations. Since freedom from the wills of others is what makes a man human, each individual’s freedom can rightfully be limited only by such obligations and rules as are necessary to secure the same freedoms for others.

C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke – PhilPapers

Political society is a human contrivance for the protection of the individual’s property in his person and goods, and therefore for the maintenance of orderly relations of exchange between individuals regarded as proprietors of themselves. It is the reality of market society: These assumptions do correspond substantially to the actual relations of a market society. The concept of possessive market society is neither a novel nor an arbitrary construction. It is clearly similar to the concepts of bourgeois or capitalist society used by Marx, Weber, Sombart, and others, who have made the existence of a market in labour a criterion of capitalism, and like their concepts it is intended to be a model or ideal type to which modern i.

Here is the model of a customary or status society: The productive and regulative work of the society is authoritatively allocated to groups, ranks, classes, or persons.

Each group, rank, class, or person is confined to a way of working, and is given and permitted only to have a scale of reward There is no unconditional individual property in land. The whole labour force is tied to the land, or to the performance of allotted functions, or in the case of slaves to masters. Posted by Daniel Little at 6: Newer Post Older Post Home.


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