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Reflections on Power and Power Relations

The idea of power seems widespread, but in some scholarly circles especially in the social sciences, it is a word that is highly ambiguous with more connotation than real meaning. With Dooyeweerd being a good philosopher of meaning, it seems useful to me to try to resolve some of these ambiguities. I will use Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects as a conceptual tool with which to do this.

To start this page, I am collecting ideas that might be useful to stimulate reflection.


Definitions of Power

First, the various definitions of power in Webster's 1975 dictionary, related to various aspects. Some things are meaningful in more than one aspect:

Aspect From Webster
Quantitative "7a the number of times as indicated by an exponent a number occurs as a factor in a product"
Physical "6a physical might or resources: strength, solidity ... 'a great flood moving with majesty and power'"
"8a an inherent property or effect ... 'adrenalin has the power of constricting the blood vessels'"
"9b(1) a source or means of supplying energy, especially electricity ... 'wind power'"
"9b(2) energy supplied from such sources"
"9c the time rate at which work is done or energey is transitted or transferred ... usually expressed in horsepower or watts"
"10a magnification; 10b the reciprocal of the focal length of a lens"
Biotic / Organic "6a physical might or resources: strength, solidity ... 'the dancer is using only a proportion of his power'"
Psychic / Sensitive "2a(2) a mental or physical ability or aptitude"
Analytical "2a(2) a mental or physical ability or aptitude"
"6b mental or moral efficacy: vigor, intensity ... 'the power of his curiosity surprised him'"
Formative "1a ability to compel obedience"
"1b military force or its equipment"
"2a(1) capability of acting or of producing an effect"
"6c political or national might"
Lingual "3b a document conferring legal authority"
"8b(1) the phonetic value of a letter"
"8b(2) the meaning or a word or phrase"
Social "1a ability to compel obedience"
"2b political sway, social sway"
"3a(1) a delegated right or privilege: prerogative"
"3a(2) delegated authority"
"4 one that has influence or authority"
Juridical "3a(1) a delegated right or privilege: prerogative"
"3a(2) delegated authority"
"3b a document conferring legal authority"
"3c legal authority"
"6c political or national might"
Ethical "1a ability to compel obedience"
Pistic / Faith "5a the sixth order in the celestial hierarchy"
"5b a supernatural being or occult force, or the ability to control them"

Reflections on the Webster definitions:

1. Notice the wide variety of aspects. Power has many manifestations in our experience, meaningful in many aspects either directly or metaphorically.

2. Perhaps the central and most important idea of power is that of the formative aspect, "capability of acting or of producing an effect". Without this, even the social version of power as authority is powerless.

3. However, in ordinary life, there is usually a social element.

4. The mathematical and physical uses of the word 'power' seem to be an retrocipatory analogy.

Social Science View

The social science view of power seems to be "influence or authority", i.e. its social aspect. However, this is mainly in the sense of being able to achieve what one desires, so there is also a strong formative aspect of "capability of acting or of producing an effect". Often there a compulsive connotation, "ability to compel obedience", which I have placed not only in the social and formative aspects, but also in the ethical aspect, the kernel meaning of which is attitude or self-giving rather than self-interest. Compelling is against the laws of the ethical aspect. This is what lends to the social science view of power a rather sinister connotation.

Foucault's idea that power pervades all things and is what enables all to occur, may be seen as an ambiguous recognition of the many aspects in which power is meaningful, either directly or metaphorically as shown in the table above. It might also indicate that Foucault was reaching for Dooyeweerd's notion of law-side, i.e. an laws that enable functioning.

His idea that "power is knowledge", which means that it is the socially powerful who dictate what we count as knowledge, rather than as fiction or myth, may be understood from the meaningfulness of the social aspect and a bit of juridical.

Power relations

Power relations are relationships in which one person has social-formative power over another, and is able to get the other person to do what they wish (whether by compelling obedience or in some less compulsive and even a more subtle way. Relationships are the generated objects that result from social functioning. Power relationships are such social objects in which power is operative by the nature of the relationship; usually this combines a measure of authority with formative ability to have a desired effect on the other person. Power relations can themselves be of various kinds, and may usefully be differentiated by aspects, including

Often if one person has one kind of power, then another might counter that power with another power relation. Think of how comedians and the media have aesthetic power over politicians by making them seem ridiculous.

The Ethical Aspect as the Antithesis of Power?

I stop at the juridical aspect, because the ethical aspect of self-giving love subverts power, not by countering power with power but by its self-giving nature. Genuine self-giving is almost the antithesis of power, insofar as power is driven by self-centredness, self-interest, etc. Usually, in this Humanistic age, power is seen as a way to get one's own way, i.e. going directly against the deep law of the ethical aspect.

However, power can be exercised in a way that does not go against the laws of the ethical aspect, i.e. power used sacrifically, for the sake of the other rather than for one's own sake. In the Christian holy book, the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth points out to his opponents that "the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep". The shepherd has some dominion or authority over the sheep, placing them in new pastures or taking them to market, and a bad shepherd will exercise their power in a self-centred way, such as being careless of them and using them for advantage. But the good shepherd makes sacrifices for the sheep, using authority over the sheep for the sake of the sheep rather than their own sake. (This was also expressed in the Jewish prophets, Ezekiel, chapter 34, when God rails against the 'shepherds of Israel' who do not look after the sheep, but treat them as disposable assets.

In true self-giving love, we make ourselves vulnerable to the other and seek the other's best. See reflections of Buber. Is not the best sexual love a biotic-sensitive-aesthetic expression of this self-giving?

More ...

... to be added later.

This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments are very welcome.

Compiled by Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext.

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