The commons

The first paragraph of a chapter I wrote on “The Commons,” for a forthcoming edited volume on gender and nature. 

The idea of “the commons” is derived from the Latin communis and the Old French comun. It is part of a series of concepts whose meanings draw on “common,” such as community, communion, commodity, communism, and commerce. Common means attributes or properties that are prevalent or shared alike by two or more things or groups of people. As with any word its significance can be shaped by context. Yet the systematic use of a word as a concept involves a framework through which that concept makes sense. For “the commons,” such systematic use implies the use of legal concepts and history even if that history is not always known or explicit. “The commons” is a key tenet in the history of common law. That is, the idea of the commons emerged from the property law concept of res communes (meaning: “it is in common,” or is common property). It did so in contradistinction to the concept of res nullius (“it is no one’s,” or no one’s property), and relied on the methodological principle of the recta ratio, or “right reasoning.” This involves principles of valid reasoning, not least how to think about what prevalence means or implies, or what is beyond reasonable debate and should be taken as an indisputable premise. In the “black letter” terms of common law (those things that are taken to be beyond reasonable debate, and usually pertain to property and contract law), “the commons,” or res communes, means “things common to all; that is, those things which are used and enjoyed by everyone, even in single parts, but can never be exclusively acquired as a whole” (Black 1968, 1469). As a tenet of property law, the commons involves assumptions about what it means to share properties and what it means to posit a notion of commonality or preponderance as the basis for resolving questions about the just distribution of goods and resources. […]

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