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«Robert Oprisko, PhD Center for the Study of Global Change Indiana University roprisko Kristopher Kaliher Butler University ...»

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The State as a Person?:

Anthropomorphic Personification vs. Concrete Durational Being

Robert Oprisko, PhD

Center for the Study of Global Change

Indiana University


Kristopher Kaliher

Butler University



In “The State as Person in International Theory,” Wendt explores the analysis and comparison of

the classic unit of international relations to a human subject. In an unprecedented manner, Wendt

takes his comparison to the limit, finding connections between the biological aspects of personhood as well as the social. In this essay, we use a structure similar to Wendt’s but come to different conclusions. Using the works of Searle’s intentionality and Mitzen’s ontological security, among others, we find that the social category of state personhood is determined to be both accurate and helpful for progressing IR theory. We depart from Wendt’s argument, however, and see the attempt to attribute biological personhood to the state as detrimental. By adding in perspectives from theorists such as Bourdieu, Oprisko, Lomas, and Wight, we determine that an objective biological state cannot exist within a socially constructed world. This leads to the conclusion that the state is a social person but not a biological one. Furthermore, making connections between the person and state beyond a broad social context is problematic for progressing IR theory.

The State as a Person? 31 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”:

theincorporation 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 organism2 (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.


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.

Journal of International and Global Studies Volume 6, Number 1 32 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. According to Wendt, Wolfer is the “originator” of this debate, insisting that “if state behavior is to be intelligible and to any degree predictable, states must be assumed to possess psychological traits of the kind known to the observer through introspection and through acquaintance with other human beings” (Wolfer, 1962, p. 10). Wolfer provides the foundation for the “state-as-person” school of thought. His work originated within the historical context of the decline of Westphalian4 state-centric politics and the rise of international organization and non-state actors following World War Two.

Because the idea of state personhood has only recently sparked debate, many of the works within the literature are disorganized or relatively unaware of each other. For the purposes of consistency, we will briefly summarize and place other smaller works of the “state-as-person” school into their own sub-schools. This will help determine the placement of this work’s argument in the realm of debate, especially compared to these selected relevant theories. The work that is most passionately in agreement with Wendt (and maintains a position closest to the one presented in this work) is Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s “Hegel's House or People Are States Too,” which concludes not only that states are people but also that people are states. Jackson achieves this perspective by relying heavily on Hegel’s theory of constitutive relation, as both persons and states create and continually maintain social reality (similar to Hegel’s “House”), making them one and the same (Jackson, 2004, p. 282). Like the authors of this work, Jackson somewhat disagrees with Wendt’s “realist scientific abduction” of the organism in relation to person but does not further touch on biology (Jackson, 2004, p. 281).

Along with Jackson, Jennifer Mitzen views states as persons from the perspective of ontological security. Due to the uncertainty of intentions of states, states are trapped in the security dilemma not only physically but also ontologically. This notion of entrapment comes from an individual level, which Mitzen explains as “the need to experience oneself as a whole” (Mitzen, 2006, p. 342). Ontological security is a craving of personhood that is developed through relationships. Mitzen never directly engages the state personhood debate, but she all but shows her loyalty to it through her acceptance of the state-as-person in social and ontological terms.

Jorg Kustermans sees states as persons from an ideological lens, viewing their legal status as states as a claim to personhood (Kustermans, 2011). Luoma-aho touches on state personhood in her work concerning international relations theory and religion, seeing the anthropomorphic nature of the state as a structuring of political theory into a Christian-like religion (Luoma-aho, 2009, p. 296). Both of these works serve as markers for the diverse nature of state-as-person argument, which sees agreement within the literature in terms of the certainty of state personhood but not with respect to its logic within political theory. The lack of further established sub-schools of thought is not only a testament to how underdeveloped this issue remains but also gives credence to the sub-school proposed by this work, which suggests the possibility of the “social” personhood of states without the implication of biological personhood..

The State is Not a Person

–  –  –

thought are unique but are closely tied to definition and relevance of the state itself. Because of the relative agreement and shared basis of argument among the scholars within the second school, we will not be dividing this school into further categories.

When delving into literature that contends the state is not a person, it is pertinent to start with Colin Wight. Wight questions the reality of the state, noting that it is as much a theoretical concept as a physical one. For the sake of argument, Wight contends the state is real, but he disagrees with Wendt’s assertion that states’ having social agency fulfills the condition for identifying states as persons (Wight, 2004, p. 273). He asserts that the agents of social agency and human agency are vastly different, and because of this, “If agency is located in the state, then no themestation5 of human activity is deemed necessary” (Wight, 2004, p. 275).

Peter Lomas further explores the very nature of the state and disagrees with Wendt’s assertion that the state is routinely treated as a person within international politics as well as with his claim that “IR theorists should accept, and [capitalize] on, this practice” (Lomas, 2005, p.

349). In Lomas’ view, the relatively recent debate of state personhood is not a reaffirmation of strong political realism but rather renders the debate itself “wide open to contradiction” (Lomas, 2005, p. 350) Like Wight, Lomas sees that states consist of persons but clarifies that being comprised of persons lends to a state’s “group mind,” not its classification as a fully accommodating human. The idea of group mind is similar to Gilpin’s “conflict groups,” in which actions undertaken by the group are manifestations of the convictions of the individuals who comprise the group. Gilpin goes as far as saying that states themselves do not even act but rather that only individuals act, which may happen within the confines of a coalition (R. Gilpin, 1984, p. 290). To Lomas, Wight, and Gilpin, states are simply not all they are held up to be.

Furthermore, while some human characteristics are given to states, these characteristics are neither all-encompassing nor entirely accurate. States are almost never described as having human qualities such as “greed” or suffering human emotions such as “humiliation,” and if states are assigned human qualities, they are drastic oversimplifications that do not belong in IR or political theory.

Erik Ringmar acknowledges that scholars and practitioners of international politics have historically referred to states as persons “for at least four hundred years,” but he argues fervently against it, saying, “States clearly are not persons. States can be compared to persons to be sure, but that does not make them into persons. Most obviously, a state has no unified consciousness, no single memory, and no subjective will” (Ringmar, 2010, p. 4). Ringmar emphasizes that arguments that seek to grant personhoods to states are “explicitly Eurocentric,” before further suggesting that sociological tools, especially those used as toolkits for understanding identity and its formation, will be of particular importance for international relations theory generally and this line of argument particularly.

The Discourse of the Argument

Before delving into the necessary placement of this work within the context of the literature, it is noteworthy to acknowledge the spirited reply of Jacob Schiff to the entirety of the debate. Although his work does not fit into a traditional school of thought, it does question the validity of the debate itself. Schiff analyzes the structure and forum of this debate itself, analyzing the discourse rather than the content. He believes not only that the discourse itself must become standardized (e.g., What is an actor? What is a state? Are they the same?) but also that the reality of the state itself needs to be determined (Schiff, 2008, p. 365). He argues that Journal of International and Global Studies Volume 6, Number 1 34 both schools of thought are currently acting on multiple assumptions while also talking past one another.6 The discourse of state personhood is also examined in J. Samuel Barkin’s “Realist Constructivism.” Attempting to bridge the gap between the seemingly contradictory theories of constructivism and realism, Barkin determines that the two are not as different as they would appear (Barkin, 2003, p. 325). Rather, he says, constructivism and realism are mutually inclusive. The methodology and ontology of constructivism can give insight to the power relations that govern classic IR realism, such as the categorization of the state (Barkin, 2003). In addition, Barkin notes that by clearing up the debates within the contemporary theory, it is possible to see realism and constructivism working together to explain the physical and social world to which the state belongs (Barkin, 2003, p. 326).

The Social and Biological in Context

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