Conscious States in a World of Make Believe

11 February 2022, 1551 EST

We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night


wrote the first draft of “What’s it Like to Be a State?” sometime in late 2017, during an unusual time in both my personal life and my research career. I was about halfway through my PhD at the University of Cambridge and was feeling both immensely homesick and quite bored—trapped in a small town that felt ripped from the Victorian era. I filled my free time watching large numbers of pre-recorded NBA games and, also, for some reason, reading philosophy of mind.

It was thus an interesting time to be exploring issues of consciousness and state identity. Personally, I felt conflicted longing for a country that had made the collective decision to elect Donald Trump, which I described to foreign friends and colleagues as a bout of momentary collective psychosis.

Professionally, I spent much of my research time wrestling with the levels-of-analysis issues inherent to understanding states as actors, as well as theorizing collective trauma, the subject of my dissertation and forthcoming book. Though Brent Steele, in his contribution to this special issue, outlines the levels-of-analysis debates with regards to ontological security studies beautifully, I argue that there are some distinct challenges inherent to conceptualizing collective trauma, due to individual trauma’s psychological complexity.

We anthropomorphize states in both our discourse about international politics and, in turn, in international political practice and that we should acknowledge this fact and explore its consequences

I went out in search of another answer and a close friend of mine, Sean Fleming, who wrestled with related issues in his recent book, alerted me to Schwitzgebel’s 2015 article, as well as the lively debate it had inspired in philosophy of mind. The argument hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew I had to write something—anything—riffing on what I considered to be an immensely rich and thought-provoking argument with enormous implications for IR.

Funnily enough, Schwitzgebel’s answer to the levels-of-analysis problem—arguing, via a materialist ontology that states might really be conscious actors—is not the one I chose for my book project, nor is it my preferred way of conceptualizing states as actors. Had I been a more experienced academic at the time, perhaps I would have highlighted this better in the piece, rather than simply demonstrating the pragmatism of conceptualizing states as conscious for scholars of multiple philosophical leanings.

Materialism can be intuitively appealing and anthropomorphic language can engage audiences that might otherwise feel alienated by abstract subject matter

Personally, I am a proponent of the ‘as if’ conscious state—the alternative I carve out in the piece’s discussion of Ringmar and Hans Kelsen. I believe we anthropomorphize states in both our discourse about international politics and, in turn, in international political practice and that we should acknowledge this fact and explore its consequences. In the words of Vonnegut, “States are who we pretend they are.”

Nevertheless, I believe many IR scholars do operate with materialist ontologies of the state (and likely also consciousness) that may commit them to a belief in state consciousness. My article thus set out to explore what different traditions of IR scholarship have committed themselves to, with regards to states as actors, as well as to explore what all this anthropomorphic language means for our analysis.

For better or worse, IR scholars across traditions have a tendency of anthropomorphizing states, while paying little attention to what differentiates human beings from other potential forms of social systems or robots. Materialism can be intuitively appealing and anthropomorphic language can engage audiences that might otherwise feel alienated by abstract subject matter. But these positions have consequences, both in theory and practice—the article was an initial foray into framing and understanding these consequences.


ow, I’ll shift gears, and respond directly to the fantastic contributions to this symposium. But before doing so, I’d like to briefly thank Alexandria Innes, Brent Steele, Patrick Jackson, and Simon Frankel Pratt for their fantastic pieces. All four of them are scholars whose work I admire and, further, in my interactions with Brent, Simon and Patrick (I’ve yet to meet Alexandria, but hope to soon), I’ve found them to be incredibly kind and generous—exactly the sort of academic mensches[1] I hope to be in my interactions with students and colleagues. As I have told a couple of them privately, having them respond to my work makes me feel how I imagine Mario Chalmers must have felt getting to dole assists out to Lebron, Wade, Bosh, and Ray Allen. I’ll let them decide who’s who in the analogy, but I hope they all stay in touch when I’m playing for a second-rate team in Greece. 

Alexandria Innes writes that, if we treat states as conscious—a broader, richer concept than personhood—we need to have a hard look at why we don’t hold them to higher standards in terms of their violent conduct. I found myself nodding along vigorously reading Innes’ contribution (dangerous for someone with a history of back pain). In fact, in another paper I’m working on, I trace thinking about state consciousness back to late 19th and early 20th century crowd psychology, most notably via the work of Gustave le Bon, whom historian Robert A. Nye refers to as “the supreme scientific vulgarizer of his generation.” Early social psychologists writing in Le Bon’s wake theorized group minds as necessarily violent and irrational, prone to violent spasms and chauvinism. Much of this work was infused with racist, sexist, and elitist pseudo-scientific assumptions about how the common man or woman responded to social contagion, but it nonetheless had a pronounced influence on the way early international theorists understood nationalism and large-group politics.

Even today, after citations to Le Bon have largely dropped out of mainstream IR, I argue that unravelling this history may offer the beginnings of a response to Innes’ provocative challenge. Perhaps the longstanding elitism of the social science academy lowers our expectations of large political groupings, ‘embodied’ in state apparatuses. And, perhaps, if we had a more sanguine view of how individuals can come together in complex and ‘minded’ political systems to achieve peaceful and productive goals, we could hold them to a higher standard.

My goals were simply to explore how the concept of consciousness lurks within so much of our treatment of states as actors

This relates to the central point that Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s contribution: that the concept of moral personhood, rather than an empirical account of personhood according to observed criteria, should guide both scholarship and policymaking. On this normative point, we are in accord, and my hope is that one potential outcome of the piece is to inspire more thoughtful reflection on the normative consequences of our treatment of agency and personhood in the social sciences.

Our theories often fail to provide adequate grounds for differentiating human beings from corporate actors and informing moral inquiry into how we treat one another. Too often, the behavioralist and rationalist assumptions of our models reduce both human beings and states to social robots (and particularly limited, selfish ones, at that). However, when we turn to describing social science findings, our narratives often go in the opposite direction, anthropomorphizing these actors and even problematically assuming common (Western/heteronormative/etc.) motivations. Wittgenstein’s answer, which PTJ outlines well, provides an intriguing potential alternative.  

Though I could have certainly made this clearer in the piece, my goals were simply to explore how the concept of consciousness lurks within so much of our treatment of states as actors, as well as how foregrounding this multifaceted property can inspire more dynamic, analytically useful (though still limited!) models of the international system that theory both describes and informs. Indeed, I believe clarifying these goals would have answered some of the concerns Simon Frankel Pratt has in his piece, as I agree with his point that ontological positions in IR are relatively calcified and oftentimes evangelists of particular positions avoid critical introspection into the commitments they may have signed up for.

Consciousness is an inadequate criterion for justifying human beings’ uniqueness

Further, by making these goals more explicit, I could have also concluded the piece more strongly with yet another, follow up future goal: inspiring social scientists to greater reflection on why human beings deserve unique moral standing in our theories and how we can better afford it to them. In both theory and practice, we create states in our likeness and thus, as Innes rightly points out, we have trouble subordinating states’ rights to those of human beings.

Consciousness Studies literature from scholars like Schwitzgebel and Chalmers demonstrates why consciousness is an inadequate criterion for justifying human beings’ uniqueness and may, in fact, only lead us to deeper appreciation of states’ complexity. We need to infuse our social science with something more in the way of moral reflection on human personhood and be wary of our treatment of human beings as social robots.

Finally, I want to turn to Brent Steele’s piece, which offers a terrific (and quite useful) insider’s account of how the piece relates to levels-of-analysis challenges faced by ontological security studies and critical IR more generally in recent years. Though Steele’s receptive to the piece’s argument, he maintains his skepticism that my article (or the excellent recent work of Ejdus and Rečević in European Psychology) will convince holdouts.

While I agree with Steele’s assessment of certain critics’ inflexibility, given Steele’s humility, I want to offer a different spin on the story he tells that acknowledges the centrality of his work and that of ontological security studies—both in my own personal development and that of much of the best critical IR scholarship of recent years. In many ways, this piece was inspired by the larger vision of the international system Steele, as well as Mitzen, Kinnvall, and others, have forwarded through their community-building and scholarship.

A world of minded states can prove far more intuitive than the stripped-down rationalist power or security-seeking social robots of much mainstream IR

As Simon Frankel Pratt points out in his contribution, “The awkwardness of international politics is a vastly under-recognised dimension of the world.” By exposing the degree to which anxiety-related insecurities permeate politics at multiple levels, the ontological security studies tradition combats neuro-chauvinism by asking us to look for minded qualities of macro-level groupings. The work ontological security studies scholars have done bridging levels-of-analysis divides in varied ways helped me conceptualize how mindedness is not a limited, isolated quality trapped in human skulls. Rather, it is a complex, multifaceted one that can extend to social realms.

Now, of course, this should not necessarily entail lazy anthropomorphism conflating human personhood with that of other agents (which PTJ and Pratt rightly caution against). But I also see now more than ever, as I teach Steele’s 2008 book and Mitzen’s 2006 EJIR article in my final year undergraduate course, how appealing reference to states’ minded qualities can be for young scholars. Indeed, a world of minded states can prove far more intuitive than the stripped-down rationalist power or security-seeking social robots of much mainstream IR. Recognition of this complexity endows the macro-social realms of international politics with a vibrancy that’s missing from rationalist models, much in the way that ethnographic insight can illuminate the parsimonious individual-level models built around homo economicus.


y hope is that by demonstrating the coherence and attractiveness of a model of the international system as a ‘middle-school dance’, comprised of conscious and profoundly awkward and anxious state actors, that we embrace it not as our sole model, but one worth wrestling with alongside alternatives. We, as scholars, can thus become more flexible transcending levels of analysis, recognizing there’s potentially irreducible knowledge to be gained from different vantage points. And, finally, recognizing states’ potential consciousness can inspire intellectual humility—a recognition that the ‘problem of other minds’ transcends individual-level analysis and provide epistemological limitations even from telescopic vantage points.

[1] I spent significant time trying to find a non-gendered equivalent to the Yiddish term ‘mensch.’ No luck thus far, but please message me if you find one.