On December 1st, 2017, David Armitage, the Lloyd Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University, led the final meeting of the Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law. In preparation for the discussion, Professor Armitage had written the paper – “John Locke, Inc.,” a study on Locke’s relevance in study of corporations. This paper was written by Professor Armitage specifically as a “thought piece,” rather than something that has been fully fleshed out.
In answering the question of Locke’s relevance in corporations – Armitage frames his analysis around three approaches: first, that we observe what Locke himself discussed about incorporation, secondly, that we analyze his actual interactions with contemporary corporations, and third, (and by his own admission – the most speculative approach of the three) viewing Locke as an embodied being who encountered many contemporary corporations and saw their functions firsthand. The goal being that these approaches “might help bring Locke back into larger conversations about both corporations and international law.”
The discussion during the seminar focused on Professor Armitage’s paper and these approaches. A recurring theme throughout was that the corporation should be seen as the ‘genus’ for which the business corporation is just ‘one species’. Having that perspective provides us with a better frame with which to view corporations, and allows us to better understand Locke’s potential importance in the field.
One goal that Professor Armitage drove home is to think about Locke in his various different personi: as a (1) philosopher, (2) secretary, (3) bureaucrat, (4) information gatherer, even a (5) leader. These are particularly important because to understand the modern corporation, it is important to understand the history behind its underpinnings, for instance understanding the theories of persons, personi, artificial persons, impersonation/personation and how they relate to the broader concept of representation.
Just as importantly, Professor Armitage related back to Locke’s background as a physician – and to think the deep understanding that Locke would have of the “body” (i.e. human body) and how that could’ve potentially impacted his understanding of larger, more abstract bodies, i.e. “body politic”. While we commonly think more about Hobbes in discussion pertaining to corporations and international law, the more that we think about Locke’s many “embodied encounters” with the life of corporations, it becomes clearer that Locke has a large role to play as well. Professor Armitage discussed the importance of viewing from Locke’s point of view – for instance trying to view his writings through the lens of his medical training – to try to find a “3-dimensional picture” of Locke. He was a particular body in a particular time in particular spaces, engaging with others, and he had many direct and indirect relations to these very early “corporations”.
It was clear throughout the seminar that Professor Armitage has a tremendous and unparalleled knowledge of the history of John Locke – not just John Locke, the thinker and the historian, but truly the complete John Locke.