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What's it like to be a state? An argument for state consciousness

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 January 2020

Adam B. Lerner*
Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, UK
Corresponding author. Email:


Questions of consciousness pervade the social sciences. Yet, despite persistent tendencies to anthropomorphize states, most International Relations scholarship implicitly adopts the position that humans are conscious and states are not. Recognizing that scholarly disagreement over fundamental issues prevents answering definitively whether states are truly conscious, I instead demonstrate how scholars of multiple dispositions can incorporate a pragmatic notion of state consciousness into their theorizing. Drawing on recent work from Eric Schwitzgebel and original supplementary arguments, I demonstrate that states are not only complex informationally integrated systems with emergent properties, but they also exhibit seemingly genuine responses to qualia that are irreducible to individuals within them. Though knowing whether states possess an emergent ‘stream’ of consciousness indiscernible to their inhabitants may not yet be possible, I argue that a pragmatic notion of state consciousness can contribute to a more complete understanding of state personhood, as well as a revised model of the international system useful to multiple important theoretical debates. In the article's final section, I apply this model to debate over the levels of analysis at which scholarship applies ontological security theory. I suggest the possibility of emergent state-level ontological insecurity that need not be understood via problematic reduction to individuals.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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