Human Rights, Legal Personhood and the Impersonality of Embodied Life

Miguel Vatter, Marc de Leeuw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Since Locke, the concept of person has been closely linked to the idea of a subjective natural right and, later, to the concept of human rights. In this article we attempt to trouble this connection between humanity and personhood. For personhood is also an apparatus or dispositive of power. In the first half of the article, we identify a fundamental problem in the usual way human rights are connected to legal personhood by making use of insights drawn from Roberto Esposito’s discourse on biopolitics and critical race theory. While human rights are intended to offer protection to the “precarious” reality of human embodied life, we hypothesize that the fiction of legal personality generates a dis-embodiment whereby this human life is left exposed and defenseless. In the second half, we propose reconstructing the idea of legal personhood so that it may be more adequate to the required conception of human rights with insights drawn from Helmuth Plessner’s political anthropology of embodied life and from the analysis of disembodiment recently articulated by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages21
JournalLaw, Culture and the Humanities
Early online date2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2019


  • Human Rights
  • personhood
  • biopolitics
  • embodiment
  • Plessner
  • Coates
  • human rights


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