Henry S. Turner and Corporate Ontology

On October 6th, 2017, Professor Henry S. Turner of Rutgers University presented at the Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law at Duke University. Professor Turner presented on his paper “The Poetics of the Corporate Person,” and his book The Corporate Commonwealth: Pluralism and Political Fictions in England 1516-1651. The main thrust of the presentation and following discussion revolved around using literature to help develop an ontology of corporations.


To start the presentation, Professor Turner presented a brief ten minutes to discuss his motivation underlying both the book and this article. Turner’s main interest is the problem of the group person. What is it? How can we explore this question? Professor Turner points out that in order to explore the ontology of a corporation, we need to map the ontology of both the group and the person. His book focuses on the ontology of the corporation, where the article is more about the ontology of the person. His definition of ontology in the presentation and in his writings focuses on the characteristics and qualities that make up these two separate entities that merge into one. While some scholars argue groups are merely the sum of the members, Professor Turner believes there is something ontologically different about a collection of people in the group over the sum of the members.


This question of ontology is presented in an interesting format in both the book and his paper through literature. Professor Turners states when you look at the concepts of corporation, group, and personhood in the 15th and 16th century, you find writers discussing these topics in the fields of philosophy, law, and history. However, these were not the only disciplines that were concerned with these deeply philosophical questions. Literature, itself a discipline, was asking these same foundational questions. According to Professor Turner, literature provides an avenue to question and probe deep philosophical questions such as these questions on corporate form. He argues literature provides unique insight because literary writers were presenting these ideas in a format substantially different from these other disciplines. While the philosopher may be focused on the definition of personhood, the literary writer was playing with the concept and applying it to various situations, personifying it, and shaping the idea in a multitude of ways. A Shakespeare play, for example, is not presenting merely viewpoints, but reflected thoughts on ideas such as these ontological problems.


Further, on the specific topic on corporations, Professor Turner clearly argues the corporation is an idea. Turner states “it is an idea made real in the world.” Literature provides an avenue to approach and interact with the idea of a corporation, according to Professor Turner. This interaction between the development of the idea of a corporation is represented, argued, and furthered by these literary writers, such as Shakespeare who appears in both Turner’s article and book. Another example of representing forms of the corporation as an idea is developed by Hobbes. For Turner, law is not the only avenue to explore the corporate form because the ideas law is playing is has to come from somewhere. That somewhere is the surrounding culture in which the jurists are interacting with the ideas presented in literature, theater, and art.

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