Savagery, Civilization, and Property: Theories of Societal Evolution and Commons Theory

David B. Schorr*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


This article argues that modern commons theory has been substantially shaped by early modern ways of thinking about the evolution of civilizations. In particular, it has hewed closely to models that gelled in the Enlightenment-era works known as "stadial theory," by authors such as Lord Kames and Adam Smith, and passed down to the twentieth century, to theorists including Garrett Hardin, Harold Demsetz, and Elinor Ostrom. It argues that stadial thinking reached modern commons theorists largely through the disciplines of anthropology and human ecology, paying particular attention to the debate among anthropologists over aboriginal property rights, colonial and international development discourse, and neo- Malthusian conservationism. The effects of stadial theories' influence include a belief among many that private property represents a more advanced stage of civilization than does the commons; and among others a Romantic yearning to return to an Eden of primitive and community-based commons. Thus do deep cultural attitudes, rooted in the speculative thinking of an earlier age, color today's theories - positive and normative - of the commons.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)507-531
Number of pages25
JournalTheoretical inquiries in law
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2018


FundersFunder number
Israel Science Foundation1822/16
Israel Science Foundation


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