Critical Reflections on Ownership
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Critical Reflections on Ownership

Mary Warnock

In this thought provoking work, Mary Warnock explores what it is to own things, and the differences in our attitude to what we own and what we do not. Starting from the philosophical standpoints of Locke and Hume, the ownership of gardens is presented as a prime example, exploring both private and common ownership, historically and autobiographically. The author concludes that, besides pleasure and pride, ownership brings a sense of responsibility for what is owned and a fundamental question is brought to light: can we feel the same responsibility for what we do not, and never can, own? Applying this question to the natural world and the planet as a whole, a realistic and gradualist perspective is offered on confronting global environmental degradation. Critical Reflections on Ownership examines the effect of the Romantic Movement on our attitudes to nature and is a salient commentary on the history of ideas.
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Chapter 6: The unowned: the romantic idea of wilderness

Mary Warnock


Let us turn back now, as I promised, to chapter 3. There I considered some aspects of gardening, and I hope to have shown that the essence of gardening is to claim, or reclaim, a plot of land, to attach it to oneself and make it serve some human purpose, whether utilitarian or aesthetic. It is thus ownership in action; and this is as true of the small plot belonging to a cottage as it is of the rolling parklands that surround a mansion. But alongside the desire to tame and improve nature, and more or less contemporary with that particularly painterly approach to the improvement of property which saw it primarily as something to be looked at, as picturesque, there was a growing and near-contradictory sense that nature is almost sacred, and should as far as possible be left alone. There was a growing belief that the intervention of man to improve nature in fact inevitably despoils it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that alleged progenitor of the French Revolution, became notorious also for the first expression of such ideas. His first publication of them was in his entry for a prize essay competition, in 1754, entitled The Discourse of the Origin of Inequality among Men, in which he attempted to look back to a time when men lived in a state of nature; but he elaborated them far more influentially in his two novels, which achieved huge popularity in pre-revolutionary Paris.

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