Awkward States

8 February 2022, 0910 EST

I have mixed feelings about Adam’s article. On the one hand, I think it does a very good job of outlining the realist metaphysical argument for treating states and other similar corporate actors as conscious, or as having minds, if you’re the sort of person who needs that. On the other hand, I am not the sort of person who needs that, and I’m not sure who is.

The awkwardness of international politics is a vastly underrecognised dimension of the world

To be clear, I think Adam has applied perspectives from the philosophy of mind in ways that critically examine our field’s common practice of anthropomorphising states, especially as the field draws on recent or current perspectives in what is sometimes (a bit problematically) called the ‘analytic’ tradition (at least insofar as I remember it). The ontological security literature, which I think is the main body of international-relations work dealing with the metaphysics of states-as-mind-havers, does not provide arguments aimed at persuading scientific realists that such minds are real in the same sense that cats or mats are real. A significant chunk of the field, however, does take itself to be realists about the referents of our theories; this audience is relatively ignored by the ontological-security folks. Some of this audience also likes to criticise ontological-security theories for invalid anthropomorphisation, and they may be persuaded to stop doing this now.

I do have some questions or concerns about how Adam makes his case. At some points, it seems as though he is arguing that the logical irreducibility of some predicates of social collectives implies the invalidity of ontological individualism. But this conflates linguistic and metaphysical problems. On p. 17 of his article, he seems to bring this together with a discussion of existence of emotions only associated with communal experiences to claim that states have phenomenological consciousness, which is an exciting conclusion but not one that is warranted by these two premises. There’s also a table on p. 15 that really stretches the ordinary language meanings of introspection and self-awareness by identifying these with state functions. At the very least this begs the question, in that the validity of it seems to depend on first accepting the premise that states can have minds.

These don’t really detract from the overall contribution of the piece, which is to show that if you think minds are multiply realisable representational and emotional systems, then states are possibly able to realise them.

Moreover, Adam’s analogy of the middle-school dance is profoundly wonderful. The awkwardness of international politics is a vastly underrecognised dimension of the world, perhaps only really appreciated by visual politics scholars examining various images of G20 leaders donning traditional clothing of host countries in summit photos. But, actually, these moments of awkwardness are fantastic entanglements of bodies in space, limited cultural awareness, stigma management, and diplomatic practice.

Adam’s analogy of the middle-school dance is profoundly wonderful

Lucky for us, then, that we do not need to accept any of the metaphysics that precede it, unless we are dogmatically willing to use only those analogies that have plausible origins in a realist social ontology. There are some people in the field who are like that—the largest group being Critical Realists, who are already committed to a view of ‘structures’ that specifically and carefully distinguishes them from mind-having agents. Besides maybe nodding while reading, it is unclear to me what they would do with this article.


his brings me to my main source of ambivalence: the practice of international-relations scholarship is indifferent to the conclusions Adam draws. Whether I’m right or not in my minor criticisms about reduction is irrelevant to the impact I think this article will have on what we actually do. Those who currently anthropomorphise states as if they were conscious either do so from within increasingly established, recognised, and validated psychoanalytic and semiotic traditions (for example, the ontological-security folks), or they do it as an analytical move and don’t really need to ontologise their models because they got along fine without doing so until now.

Nor will this really answer the concerns of those who criticise state anthropomorphism. Some (including, I must admit, myself) do so on pragmatist grounds—on the basis that it isn’t helpful or interesting and that mind-talk offers more satisfying answers when related to human beings. The rest do so in opposition to the specific psychoanalytic and semiotic ways by which most anthropomorphisers go about anthropomorphising.

I struggle to imagine a new research tradition that could be built on foundations Adam lays here

Either way, nobody is going to stop, and I struggle to imagine a new research tradition that could be built on foundations Adam lays here. The only fellow-traveller I can think of is Wendt, whose quantum social science is also based heavily on a theory of corporate consciousness. But from what I can tell, our field’s small number of quantum social theorists have mostly focused on the indeterminacy and superpositionality parts rather than the quantum theory of mind Wendt advances. I have some guesses as to why, but I’m sure this is not the place to share them.

Nobody should be unhappy that Adam wrote this article or that International Theory published it. The argument was makable, nobody had made it, and we have a journal devoted to exploring more philosophical or speculative questions. Now the argument has been made, and fairly well at that. As I cannot and will not conceal, this kind of work is like catnip to me when I’m at my least pragmatic and most pedantic. As a field we benefit from making space for stuff like this, and we have made space for it.

In that sense, it is the argument for state consciousness we deserve. It just is not one we need.