The Difference Between Having and Possessing
In everyday life, the concepts of having and possessing are used interchangeably. However, there’s a difference. While they may seem synonymous, philosophy makes a distinction between the two terms.
Considering objects and bodies on the one hand and existence on the other, we’re going to explore the dissimilarity in question. In fact, we’re going to go further, examining inequality in consumer society and legal law.
To have, according to philosophy
Colloquially, you say you have something when you possess a particular object. But, philosophy makes a separation between these two terms. The difference is established in a bodily and existential sense.
A study was conducted by the University of Navarra (Spain) concerning the concept of having. The researchers considered the opinions of the French philosopher and playwright, Gabriel Marcel, who argued that having is associated with incarnation. This means that existence is corporeal; suggesting that “your body” and “you” are the same. The being and the body are, in this way, united. Therefore, to have means to dispose of corporeality.
On the other hand, the Spanish philosopher, Leonardo Polo, defines the human being as one who’s capable of having. In other words, having appears as a capacity where corporeality is important. Thus, corporeal having is the most basic form of having.
As you can see, from a philosophical perspective, having is linked to bodies and objects. But, what about possessing? Doesn’t it mean the same? Polo claimed that there’s a difference between having and owning. For him, possession is a way of knowing things. In other words, it establishes a link between possessing and knowledge.
Possessing, from a philosophical perspective
Knowledge is one of the topics that was addressed in Plato’s dialogue, Theaetetus. In this work, a conversation takes place between Socrates and Theaetetus surrounding the nature of knowledge or science. The text points out the difference between having and possessing.
According to the Revista de la Asociación Española de Neuropsiquiatría (Journal of the Spanish Association of Neuropsychiatry), having is associated with the present moment. For example, you have an object or, in this case, knowledge. You have it now, at this precise moment.
On the other hand, possessing is interpreted as a potentiality. For example, you may own a laptop, but you might not have it with you at this precise moment. Therefore, possession is a potentiality. It’s there, but not necessarily present in the here and now.
The difference between having and possessing in the consumer society
The German philosopher, Erich Fromm, in his book To Have or To Be? (1976) explained two modes of existence: one of being and the other of having. He associated having as relating to property and possession. The world is there at your disposal, ready to become your property, according to the written laws.
Fromm sees having as related to possessing since possession is a sacred right of the human being in industrial and consumer societies. It comes from the concept of private property: what, by rights, belongs to you, is your property. Therefore, it’s your possession, claims an article published in Economipedia.
Fromm wanted to demonstrate and warn that, in current societies, the human being has become an object. He claimed that we’ve put aside our deepest and most spiritual existence, to continuously search for the acquisition of properties. These are objects that are ready to be consumed.
However, here comes the ethical warning. Although you can possess objects, it’s not possible to consider people as if they were your property. In fact, respect for the existential dimension of the human being is the one thing we can save in our current societies. But, it’s worth asking where this notion of property came from.
The right to property
Now, we have to turn to the field of law. Philosophy and law are closely related. Indeed, much of the theory of jurisprudence comes from the philosophy of law. Moreover, the concept of property is philosophically based on natural law.
Natural law isn’t written down but it has the force of human reason behind it. Therefore, it can be imposed on man as it’s recognized by human reasoning. Natural law applies to everyone, everywhere, in the same way.
An article published by the University of La Plata (Argentina) maintains that the right to property and, therefore, to possess, is based on the inherent faculty of the human being to defend and demand what belongs to them. Possession, then, originates from a human capacity that natural law protects. This law then becomes a legal right.
From this perspective, possessing is a constitutive part of the human being. It’s a natural law imposed and recognized by reason itself. In this sense, possession has an existential connotation far removed from the corporeality of having.
Is it helpful to know the difference between having and possessing?
On a philosophical level, understanding the difference between having and possessing implies recognizing your relationship with the world and yourself. It invites you to adopt an attitude of detachment toward material possessions, valuing more the experience and personal growth that derive from them.
You can also view the difference between having and possessing as an opportunity to cultivate a more meaningful life. This means you can promote a healthy balance between your material needs and your spiritual well-being.
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Casares, Tomás D. (1927). El derecho de la filosofía neoescolástica. Humanidades, 16, 119-144. Repositorio Universidad Nacional de La Plata. http://sedici.unlp.edu.ar/handle/10915/14666
- Diez Patricio, A. (2017). Más sobre la interpretación (II): ideas y creencias. Revista de la Asociación Española de Neuropsiquiatría, 37(131), 127-143. https://scielo.isciii.es/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0211-57352017000100008
- Sánchez, J. (2020). Propiedad privada. Economipedia. https://economipedia.com/definiciones/propiedad-privada.html
- Urabayen, J. (2018). Estudio del «tener» según Gabriel Marcel y Leonardo Polo. Studia Poliana, 5, 199-239. https://revistas.unav.edu/index.php/studia-poliana/article/view/26098