What If We Didn’t Believe Corporations Existed?

It is axiomatic that the beginning of ideology is perception. If I do not perceive, for example, continuous identity (see Parfitt), then the concept of personal responsibility is at least troubled. If I perceive God to exist–with good intentions–some other beliefs flow from that. If I perceive a difference between acts and omissions, the ideology of “first, do no harm” is sensible; if I perceive no such difference it is not. And, within the realm of law, if I perceive markets and government as opposite, or private and public as distinct, various possible sets of ideologies flow from that. One cannot protect markets from the government if markets are the government, and one cannot protect the public sphere from the private if there is no difference. Some of these kinds of perceptions can be tested for their truthiness–others are neither true not true, just sets of perception categories.

It becomes easy, then, to support ideologies we are skeptical about by using the rhetorical framework which assumes a set of perceptions.

Something I’ve been wondering about recently: the role of the perception of the existence of corporations in ideology. Corporations can be described as existing–as most modern ideologies do–or there is no such thing as corporations, there are merely rights and obligations and liabilities that attach to people due to rules. The collection of rules can be corporate law without having to reify the corporation as a particle of the political and economic imagination. I haven’t fully worked this out yet, but my general, background guess is that the language of “corporations aren’t people,” much like “don’t think like an elephant,” actually creates the personification of corporations, which helps maintain and strengthen the sense of their existence–their inevitable existence–and the strengthening of the set of rights related to individuals because of corporate law.  “Corporations are evil,” or “are profit maximizing”–all do the same thing–they anthropomorphize a set of rules. That anthropomorphizing both condemns and naturalizes at the same time.

Inasmuch as some corporate rules might be socially beneficial, and others not, some de-naturalization of the corporate descriptor seems like it would be useful. In other words, trying to talk about corporate law without reifying corporations might actually do more to open up our imagination about corporate law.


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4 Responses

  1. Two points, one terminological and the other more basic.

    First, what you’re describing as “perception” is probably better described as “conceptualization.” No matter how much a corporation is anthropomorphized, it’s still something that can’t be perceived. So by framing your discussion in terms of perception, you’re falling prey to what you criticize.

    Second, regarding any attempt to avoid reifying bundles of abstract properties and relations: Good luck with that. Reification is ubiquitous, and probably unavoidable. Look at the words that are used in this post: responsibility, realm, ideology, law, market, government, public sphere. These all refer to reifications of various kinds.

    My guess is that reification is an inherent part of categorization, and therefore is central to cognition. So as I said, good luck trying to avoid it.

  2. See Felix Cohen, Transcendental Nonsense and the Functional Approach, 35 Colum. L. Rev. 809 (1935) for some inspiration.

  3. Erratum: (Derek) “Parfit”


    Setting aside the relevance of how one makes sense of what a corporation is, or how Teachout illustrates “perception,” or even how Parfit (and his reductionist theory of personal identity) has anything to do with all of this, perception is not necessarily better described as conceptualization if you believe such perception to be conventional and purpose-oriented, a sensible experience not in the first instance amenable to a verbal accounting. Here the sense experience is said to be “immediate” or direct, albeit cognitive, and thus non-conceptual and therefore indubitable. This has been described as positing “sensibilia” between us and the physical objects “out there,” in the world (and is a species of ‘realism’). Several Buddhist schools of philosophy hold such a theory, and it is perhaps close to what Bertrand Russell meant—by way of contrast to “knowledge by description” (which is necessarily conceptual)—with “knowledge by acquaintance,” although he probably did not intend to restrict it to “sense data” as such but basic facts: “Depending on the acquaintance theorist’s ontological commitments one might think one is acquainted with certain sorts of objects (sense data), determinate properties (this particular shade of yellow), generic universals (being yellow, being colored), and, crucially, facts (my being in pain now, something’s being yellow).” As Richard Fumerton also notes, this is an idea which goes back to the early empiricists (for whom ‘simple’ ideas originate in experience, being derived from objects or properties with which we are directly ‘acquainted’) so, for instance, the “thought” that I am in pain arises because of the “foundational” fact that I am, indeed, in (i.e., experiencing) pain, in other words, directly acquainted with the pain, the thought being in a relation of prior and absolute dependence on that experience, allowing us therefore to accurately “represent” the pain, hence, the belief that this knowledge by acquaintance, as a form of direct perception, secures the most basic sort of true knowledge.

    Insofar as perception refers more loosely and widely to how we “see” the world, ideology is not a question of epistemology alone but is deeply implicated in psychology as well.

    Finally, in as much corporations are groups of persons, any theory of what a corporation is must build upon an ontological conception of individuals as well as a notion of personal agency. From there, of course, one may attempt to construct a notion of “group agency” (and ‘joint intention’) that does not violate the tenets of either methodological individualism in Elster’s sense or the ethical individualism that serves as the basis for our conceptions of individual moral responsibility and legal culpability. Here I would turn to folks like Larry May, Christian List, Philip Pettit, Margaret Gilbert, and Raimo Tuomela for guidance.

  4. I wrote the above rather hastily before leaving for school so now I can finish the comment: all of the “perceptions” Teachout uses can be said to have truth-value, however elusive, contingent, perspectival, relative, etc. And I agree with Neal that the use of “perceptions” in the post is confusing or misleading.

    And even if there is true “continuity” with regard to personal identity (discrete frames or episodic experiences that, say, only ‘appear’ to be continuous for this or that reason) that need not be corrosive of personal responsibility. The Buddhist, for example, believes our conventional notions of personal identity are typically constructed from various (bodily and mental) “parts” that are causally connected but not in any substantive or enduring way such that we can speak of a “soul” or self that, as such, endures after death (there is rebirth, to be sure, but that is a new configuration of components with some causal mental continuity owing to, dependent upon, the previous ‘self’). A famous Buddhist story talks about someone stealing mangoes from another man’s trees and claiming, in defense (per the absence of continual identity), the mangoes he stole were not the ones that were planted (similarly, my cellular structure is wholly renewed after a seven year period and thus is not the same as that which appeared at birth), but they arose in _dependence_ upon the ones planted (the ‘that without which…’). So too I cannot appeal to the teaching of “no (substantive) self” or the absence of continual personal identity to claim that it was not I who robbed the bank yesterday (or seven years ago) but another “self” who no longer exists, for the “I” that exists today only exists by virtue of dependence upon the “I” that existed yesterday; there is a definite and unique causal connection that can suffice by way of attribution of responsibility (the person is therefore neither wholly the same nor wholly different at any two points in time). [apologies to Rupert Gethin]