The State as a Person?: Anthropomorphic Personification vs. Concrete Durational Being

By Oprisko, Robert; Kaliher, Kristopher | Journal of International and Global Studies, November 2014 | Go to article overview

The State as a Person?: Anthropomorphic Personification vs. Concrete Durational Being


Oprisko, Robert, Kaliher, Kristopher, Journal of International and Global Studies


Inscribing a corporate personality into the substance of the state is a tradition as old as international relations. Thucydides refers to city-states with feminine possessive pronouns, merging the plural persons that represent the citizens into a singularity (Thucydides, 431 BC). Recent literature, beginning with Wendt's "The State as Person in International Theory" attempts to fully engage the concept of personhood for the state (Wendt, 2004). To this end, we review the recent literature in order to flesh out the debate. Next, we argue that the state is a social person with a distinct yet fluid personality but that it is not a biological person because, unlike living beings, a state can exist indefinitely as an idea and can be resurrected long after it has died, has been consumed by a larger state, or has fragmented into many smaller states.

The near universal personification of state identities encourages us to adopt a policy of what Guattari calls "being an ideas thief' or what Michael Weinstein refers to as "love piracy": the incorporation of concepts into an argument without incorporating the thought-traditions from which they are stolen or pirated (Guattari, 2009, pp. 22-23; Weinstein, 1995, p. 4). We feel this is a necessary methodological choice because the practice of inscribing state personhood is so old, while the formal engagement on doing so is relatively young, which suggests that the line of inquiry is already standing upon the entirety of international relations literature generally. (1)

The Debate Thus Far: A Review of the Literature

In "State as Person in International Politics," Wendt asks, "Is the State a person?" and answers with a resounding "Yes." He concludes not only that the state is socially and consciously a person but also that it emulates the traits of a biological organism (2) (Wendt, 2004, p. 291). Wendt's article opens conversation for scholarly debate concerning the topic of state personhood. The resultant debate within the literature has organized itself into two diametrically opposed camps: those who favor the notion of state-as-person and those who do not. In addition, current literature is trending in two directions. In one, the focus of debate rests almost completely on Wendt's social qualities of personhood and dismisses the biological. In the other, there is a resounding absolutist assumption that Wendt is either right or wrong, with no partial acceptance of state personhood being supposed or considered. By outlining this bi-polar debate, it is possible to place this work's contention of social (but not biological) state personhood within the literature and amend the failures of previous theorists.

State-as-Person

The "state-as-person" school of thought is led by Wendt, who asserts that state personhood is not simply the implication that the state acts "as-if" it were person but rather that the state is an intentional, physical, and conscious organism (Wendt, 2004). The heart of Wendt's argument relies heavily on the notion of intentionality, especially as conceived of by John Searle. Although Searle himself has very little to do with International Relations theory, Wendt appropriates Searle's theoretical and conceptual constructs concerning the reductionism of collective intentions. Using Searle's constructs, Wendt posits that states are persons because of "Collective Intentions and Actions," which state, "There really is such a thing as collective intentional behavior, which is not the same as the summation of individual intentional behavior." (3) Wendt furthers his argument by providing numerous though sometimes inaccurate comparisons between the state and the biological organism and their respective qualities and abilities, such as homeostasis and reproduction.

Alexander Wendt identifies Arnold Wolfer's essay "The Actors of International Politics," written in 1959, as the only other major work sustaining debate on state personhood. …

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