Revisiting Corporate Ontology to Upend the Status Quo

Henry S. Turner addresses his myriad concerns through the prism of the corporation’s ontology. On October 6, 2017, the professor of English literature joined the Duke Seminar on Corporations & International Law to voice those concerns and share his unique view of the corporation. More specifically, he came to explain and hear feedback on his essay titled The Poetics of the Corporate Person.[1] During the seminar, he identified his main academic concern as the “problem of the group person.”

Turner’s interests are myriad, ranging from the philosophical to the political. This is manifest in both Poetics and his 2016 book The Corporate Commonwealth, Pluralism and Political Fictions in England, 1516–1651.[2] In both works, his arguments are primarily philosophical and literary but express a desire to shift the political status quo. For Turner, the corporation should be the conduit through which we debate and define values in our society. We must imbue the form with ethical dialogue and definition if we are to live the “good life, rather than life merely.”[3] Moreover, Turner’s vision of corporate life could address explicitly political concerns that he raised in the October 6 seminar: his vision would reduce the importance of the modern commercial corporation and provide a meaningful method to challenge State power.

Turner’s corporation is set forth to solve the problem of the group person. Underlying the problem of the group person, however, is the “metaphysical problem of defining ‘ideas’ in general and their ontological status, of what the relationship might be between ideal entities and material or concrete bodies.”[4]  Turner’s corporate ontology thus proceeds from ethics and concepts of personhood, extending far beyond debates about the legal form.

Turner employs theatrical characters to build his corporate ontology. Theater directly addresses that metaphysical problem, as it “invites us to ask where the magnetic force of ideas comes from, especially those ideas that are powerful enough to hold us together.”[5] Theater employs the mimetic ontological mode. In the seminar, Turner imagined an actor playing Hamlet being animated with Hamletness by mimetic personation. In Corporate Commonwealth, Hamlet is presented as a critique of the corporate form: an example of a failure to take advantage of the corporate body’s potential to personify values. In Hamlet, the mimetic form points us to the magnetic force of ideas, but also reveals a “vacuum in political concepts.”[6]

By analogy, the corporate form is shown to be a concrete body to be animated by ideas. In theatrical terms, it must “borrow the bodies of its members who agree to personate it.”[7] Various ontological modes can act as the conduit for animation. In Corporate Commonwealth, Turner identifies four historical ontological modes: the material, mimetic, representational, and mystical.[8] In the seminar, Turner clarified that these ontological modes are expressive modes that can make ideas real in the world. And he noted that the crystallization of ideas affects action. Using the material ontological mode as an example, he explained that there is a moment of emergence when a confluence of material transactions becomes form, spurred by intersubjective agreement. He used the example of a table–at some point the wood, paint, screws, and brackets emerge from their parts and take on tableness, in part by being identified as a group entity. The corporation is a crystallization of ideas made real in the world in an expression through concrete bodies.

Turner imagines a pluralist landscape: orbs of corporations externally clashing, adjudicating and disseminating values, and internally acting as a sphere of antagonistic dialogue and definition. Subsuming all of intersubjective ethical society, corporate personhood deserves “meaningful, active, [and] open definition.”[9] To do otherwise is to shirk our duty to live the good life.

Turner’s audacious vision smashes against our conceptions of the corporation and the dichotomies that uphold our status quo. In the seminar, Turner slightly softened the ambition of his vision. He now sees a space for federal power, lessening the egalitarianism of his arguments on corporate participation. He views consumers as members of the corporation but seems open to practically limiting this notion. At heart, Turner’s vision seems an expression of a deep desire to upend the status quo. Whatever its effects, his vision adds to a tradition of progressive approaches to the ubiquitous idea of corporate personhood.


[1] In The Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature, 1500-1700 (Bradin Cormack & Lorna Hutson eds., 2017) [hereinafter Poetics].

[2] [hereinafter Corporate Commonwealth].

[3] Turner, Corporate Commonwealth, at 235.

[4] Turner, Poetics, at 13.

[5] Turner, Corporate Commonwealth, at 233.

[6] Id. at 156.

[7] Turner, Poetics, at 10.

[8] See Turner, Corporate Commonwealth, at 24.

[9] Id. at 235.

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