Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

Personification in Three Legal Cultures: The Case of the Conception of the Corporate Unit

Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

Personification in Three Legal Cultures: The Case of the Conception of the Corporate Unit

Article excerpt

Do ideas matter? Does history matter? Does the history of ideas matter? Ron Harris presents us with a paper that engages all three of these questions. Addressing a paper that deals with questions of such magnitude requires taking seriously the intellectual plane on which they are presented, while simultaneously avoiding becoming ensnared in the question of the legitimacy of such meta-questions. To engage the paper then, we must ask a seemingly simple set of questions about influence-why would (or, of course, why wouldn't) ideas, history, or, most appropriately, the history of ideas, have influence?

Harris begins with the assumption that ideas have consequences. His paper, unsurprisingly, requires us to refine that assumption considerably. Looming above all other refinements is the issue of proportion: Do meta-ideas necessarily have meta-consequences? Do mid-level ideas necessarily have mid-level consequences?1 In Harris's case the meta- and mid-level ideas grow out of the seemingly political problem of intermediary associations, that is, the organized bodies that lie between the individual and the ultimate authority. The political problem is not a necessary problem of existence, of course, but a problem of intellect. In this case, it is the relentless logic of authority and power expanding until it is all-encompassing, tolerating no other organized body that might claim the allegiance, however partial, of the individual. Now, this problem is one of the intellect, and not a necessary problem of existence, because intermediary associations have always existed, and were certainly antecedent to the modern state.2

The relentless logic of authority-the nature of sovereignty-is one that has long bewitched theoreticians and historians. Harris does not tackle the entire issue, but does take on one very powerful aspect of the intellectual problem: the evolution of the idea of personification of entities in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany, England, and the United States. Personification is, simply put, conceptualizing an organized body of individuals as a person, a legal person, or a legal entity, so that it might be treated at law as if it were an individual rather than an amalgamation of individuals akin to the sovereign state.3 This paper, then, is a kind of intellectual history. Harris tells three stories whose content is delimited by geography, argues that the stories are interwoven, and seeks to spell out the connections among them. The stories are intellectual history in the sense that he is concerned centrally with the ideas themselves, rather than their impact on the social, political, or economic milieu in which they operated. He does not attempt to assess, for example, whether personification increased the efficiency of an economic organization, the transparency or responsiveness of a civic body, or the power of any association. His method is not unlike an older school of literary criticism that sought to discover how one author or school influenced or begot another. Moreover, given that so few authors are involved in thinking about personification, the stories, especially to the extent that they are interwoven, take on a prosopographical quality. What Harris does, and does magnificently, is trace the timing of intellectual events. Having worked in the American sources for many years, I have wondered which theorist outside of the United States made which point and who might have been aware of such authorship. Harris provides such nuggets, suggesting in many cases the reasons why an insight was well-received by other theorists. Even if one puts aside for the moment the intractable difficulties of causation, such juxtapositions have a compelling quality.

What level of idea is it that he traces through the alleys of western thought? If culture is a meta-idea, similar to authority or sovereignty, then personification is a mid-level idea. It derives meaning from larger concepts, but it has its own consequences. …

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