I am trying to define the concept of ownership or "having" with basic more primitive concepts.

My first try is:

I own X == Only I can take X

But does the word take imply taking ownership of? So perhaps this definition is circular.

My second try is:

I own X == I can pick up or use X

Other tries:

I own X == I can use X or you can use X if I allow you to use X


I own X == I can put X inside the place in which I live. 

I'm starting to think that I don't understand what the word "own" means.

Perhaps (as in "it's mine I can do what I want with it"):

I own X == Only I can say who can do something to X
  • Ownership involves possession and the possibility of gaining or losing possession to others. In other words, economics. It's a link in the Commercial Transaction Frame.
    – jlawler
    Aug 30, 2019 at 0:07
  • @jlawler true, but then how do you define "possession"? For example I could own a book and leave it in the middle of a field. But I still own it. Because it's my book. But I no longer possess the book. And if you asked "whose book is this?" I would say "It belongs to me." I can own a pet cat. But when it goes out at night do I possess the cat?
    – zooby
    Aug 30, 2019 at 3:10
  • I wouldn't define it. It's a social primitive term and takes different forms in each culture. It has to be referred to the frame it appears in.
    – jlawler
    Aug 30, 2019 at 15:33

1 Answer 1


This seems to me to be a pretty good example of the futility of trying to reduce meaning to definitions. You might paraphrase the verb as "having the right to dispose of property", but then an infinite regress of questions may follow. In this sense, defining "own" is as easy as defining "dog" – not at all easy.

Given your final version "Only I can say who can do something to X", I need to point out a few problems. First, anybody can say, utter or pronounce something: you presumably are using "can say" to refer to the concept of "right". Second, we would judge a definition to be wrong if it fails to include cases that would be recognized as being an instance of the concept. When two people co-own ("joint tenants") a thing, each has the right to dispose of the thing (legal details omitted): so it is wrong to make exclusivity part of the definition of owning.

Objections might be raised to using the word "dispose", which in common usage means "get rid of" (I've borrowed this from a more specialized philosophical context). I mean "do whatever you want". That might suggest that, if I own a brick, then by my definition I can rightfully bash you on the head with the brick, which is clearly false. The reason, though, has to do with the concept of "right", not the concept of "owning" (I also cannot bash you with a borrowed or rented brick).

If you're a speaker of English, I bet you do know what the word means, the problem is that you probably haven't thought about every allied concept and proposition that relates to owning.

  • Your answer owns, upvoted.
    – LjL
    Aug 29, 2019 at 23:09

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