How to do History with Professor Armitage

The final Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law on December 1st, 2017, brought David Armitage, the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University, to Duke University. In preparation for the presentation and discussion, Professor Armitage prepared a short draft of an article titled John Locke Inc. The paper sought to engage John Locke with a topic that is not often tied to the philosopher: corporations. Three different perspectives were taken to garner the most complete profile of Locke’s thoughts on incorporation. First, how did his writings treat incorporation? Second, how did Locke interact with contemporary corporations? Third, how did the corporeal Locke relate to other people connected to corporations? By analyzing Locke through such distinct lenses, Armitage sought to expand the list of political thinkers who can be turned to in order to understand the origin of one of the most important type of institution in the modern age, corporations. The interdisciplinary nature of Armitage’s approaches led to a diverse range of questions during the seminar itself.

Armitage was very much open to the diversity of questions posed, as he thought of the paper as speculative in some ways. Despite the large trove of documents left by Locke, in an organized way as Armitage appreciated, and the philosopher’s engagement with corporations personally, there was a dearth of writing concerning incorporation. As such, Armitage made sure to note that he was drawing from limited explicit resources, and had to piece together parts of what Locke might have thought about corporations from writings on other topics such as state creation. Considering Locke’s thoughts on forming commonwealths as important to theorizing about incorporation led to one of the most interesting discussions in the seminar. Armitage noted that we often consider there is a distinct separation between corporations and states, but that this is largely a modern product. Ignoring corporations or commonwealths when discussing either is therefore anachronistic. His warning was indicative of his continual emphasis on not transporting our current conceptions to our analysis of the past. A similar concern was expressed in his review of ‘Corporate Constitutionalism and the Dialogue between the Global and the Local in Seventeenth Century English History’ in which he wrote that considering corporations in a specifically financial sense is part of a, “truncated definition of the corporation [and] is clearly anachronistic”[1]. Interestingly, similar to this response, much of Armitage’s answers were also lessons on how to engage with history generally, instead of just how this particular paper was formed.

For example, a second lesson for historians that Armitage emphasized in the seminar was what the previous speaker, Professor Fitzmaurice, called ‘micro-intellectual history’. Armitage argued for the importance of understanding thinkers as evolving persons themselves and how we cannot separate the thoughts from their experiences. His evaluation of such considerations was evident in his inclusion of an analysis of corporeal Locke. Combining an analysis of ideas with biography promotes a holistic consideration of the often contradictory ‘personi’ of philosophers, such as Locke being considered ‘the father of liberalism’ while also drafting the constitution for a prominent slave-holding state.

Professor Armitage’s seminar served as an excellent capstone to the Fall series as his research and breadth of knowledge enabled a deep engagement with the wide-range of themes considered throughout the semester including corporate sovereignty, corporations as subjects of international law, and the divide between public and private.

[1] Armitage, David. Wider Still and Wider: Corporate Constitutionalism Unbounded. (2015) Itenerario, 39, 502

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