On Susan Shell’s "Kant’s Theory of Property:" The Possibility of Self-Knowledge

Note: Major editing complete 8/01/07. It is now possible to learn from this essay.

The whole of Kant is concerned with alienation. Man is alienated from the earth – he returns to it on its terms, and no earthly enterprise is guaranteed success. Further, if reason can be said to be characteristic of divinity, man is alienated from the heavens. The very possibility of knowing involves the phenomena/noumena distinction, where phenomena which constitute experience are contingent on a noumenal realm that can never be experienced in-and-of itself.

These two forms of alienation perhaps signify an even greater alienation. We must posit a united, distinct self to say our representations are our own. But can that “transcendental ego” ever be known?

For Kant, the impossibility of self-knowledge as one would know another object is the key to his transcendental idealism. Knowledge of objects for Kant is only knowledge of accidents, but that still advances the sciences greatly. Self-knowledge must of necessity be knowledge of essence, not merely how one reacts to change. But please note that the impossibility of self-knowledge is not necessary for thought which uses a Kantian logic: ultimately, Hegel is an excellent reader of Kant whose philosophy relies heavily on similar thoughts. Hegel’s starting point is a self-knowledge so deep that all of history is the unfolding of Idea.

For Hegel, subjectivity and objectivity presuppose each other. Take any claim you’d justify on grounds that are subjective. Those very grounds only exist because of opposition to what is “objective.” The problem gets worse if you try to say that all is subjective or all is objective. An example of “everything is subjective” is the relativism so common nowadays, which relies on a formulation of universal tolerance – “don’t judge” – that is strangely beyond all subjective reasoning and has an objective status. An example of “everything is objective” is “it’s obvious I have a hand here” – G.E. Moore’s famous attempt to refute skepticism that invited a million skeptical questions which are more objective than the initial statement or demonstration. To say “well, maybe you and all the rest of us in this room are deluded in thinking you have a hand” is not a statement whose truth is subjective: you could get someone from outside the room to confirm if you were deluded or not. Ironically enough, the initial statement presupposes the subjective knowledge of how conversation works and what Moore is getting at just to be understood.

For Kant, self-alienation is exactly why his thought emphasizes subjectivity. The challenge is for man to see what he cannot know or have, and justify to himself what claims of knowledge or ownership he can make.

Hence, property in a dual sense is the issue: our representations, if they are ours, tell us what the borders of our thought are through consideration of the a priori laws structuring them. Parallel to that is an actual concern with private property: how is it we can make claims upon the earth when the only “claim” we seem to have is sheer control, a “claim” that may involve enslaving others as well as conquering nature?

The answer to how it is we have private property, that different wills are reconcilable with the freedom of all humanity, rests on a “general will” of all mankind which is dedicated to appropriating the earth. As mankind, we have decided to conquer nature so we can rest just a bit easier (this is called having technology in any sense, including having fire). Therefore, we are united as a community in this conquest: our right is not an individual right alone, but the right of all mankind. It seems a right presupposes a responsibility and vice versa, and one can turn to Kant’s thoughts on Newton to defend that logic. All of Nature, which we are a part of and yet is cruelly disinterested in us, destroys and creates in perfect symmetry – i.e. the law of conservation of matter.

Kantian thought takes community, substance and reciprocity and links them to say this: Community is dependent on reciprocity. But what community are we speaking about? It must be a community of substances of some sort. Substance is whatever underlies a manifold of changes: without it, one wouldn’t be able to see changes at all. That seems to imply that the ultimate substance is the transcendental ego, which underlies changes experienced in other objects (to some degree) as well as the self (to the highest degree).

However, do we experience ourselves as “substance?” No: other people in seeing how we change are the ones who presuppose that some “substance” lies underneath our malleable, aging, always-changing selves.

Hence it is ultimately ourselves as substance alienated from itself which allows for community in the sense of reciprocity. The communal recognition of right must of necessity be simultaneous with individual right.

“Substance” also links the right of the will over private property to the right of the mind over intellectual property. For the material substance of the earth is only physically manipulable through its accidents. Knowledge of essence is impossible, and the key to understanding the full significance of “accidents” is to see that a synthesis is at work. An “accident” comes about because reason has brought the noumenal into the phenomenal realm. But reason’s motion is not directed to the welfare of the object of experience as much as the appropriation of the object. Experience comes about because we are fundamentally self-absorbed, and yet experience is reason’s greatest production from which all knowledge stems.

Those formal laws which structure experience have their limits. The biggest limit is inherent in the fact, again, that reason is alienated from itself. Yes, it can appropriate and give us knowledge of the world that is useful. But does it ever truly give us knowledge about ourselves? It is easier to access the formal moral law (do whatever you can imagine everyone else doing and not causing harm) and the concept of freedom than it is to know oneself, for on Kantian lines, self-knowledge is impossible.

It should be noted that Kant is only echoing Augustine in making this claim. God knew Augustine better than he knew himself, and thus brought Augustine to the Truth through the Providence governing his life.

Philosophy in the Socratic sense, though, starts not with appropriating the world but with self-knowledge. The oracle at Delphi said “Know thyself” and however ironically Socrates treats that suggestion in the Apology, he seems to take it very seriously in terms of the other Socratic dialogues. Certainly such a knowledge is dependent on an investigation into the thoughts of others. But it is their thought, and not their material selves and their exercise of right, which matters most. There are no good guys or bad guys in this debate, but the classical sense of philosophy has been lost in our age for something wholly revealed, whether that revelation takes the form of the Bible or Providence (of God or Idea) or modern empirical science defended from Humean skepticism.


Shell, Susan. “Kant’s Theory of Property.” Political Theory Vol. 6 No. 1. (Feb. 1978) 75-90


  1. I’ve been stumbling through the Transcendental Aesthetic & Analytic for a 19th cent. philosophy class — I find what you say at the end of this essay about the difference between Socratic and modern philosophy to be especially interesting. The emphasis of philosophy seems to be completely changed, and with some good reason. When we discussed the phenomenal v. noumenal realm, the professor gave a quick nod to Platonists and the idea of forms — and it seems he this sort of ‘transcendent’ (that was meant by him as a pejorative, apparently) as simply holding no water by Kant’s time. He quickly explained the backdrop of the times — how whole systems of thought were crumbling, metaphysics was quickly becoming a circus, and yet at the same time science was attacked by the likes of Hume and the skeptics.

    I was wondering if you could unpack this change in narrative just a little bit more — is Kant ushering in a new age, or trying to preserve the old project within more manageable bounds? I’m going through the Deduction of the Categories tonight, and I must admit it is like trying to read a foreign language right now. How seriously were Platonic forms to antiquity, and would the ancients have even considered these Cartesian existential problems embedded in Kant as important? And, should WE consider these extensively? (I bet you could find a whole gaggle of Platonists in some university math depts, for example)

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