Abstract

Guido Parietti, "On the Concept of Power", February 2015

“Power” is the modal concept of politics; nevertheless, despite the mole of discussions about it, it is significantly under-theorized. For decades, the debate – across political science and philosophy, from Weber to Lukes, including Dahl and Searle amongst others – revolved mainly around empirical and operational questions, while a conceptual definition has scarcely been thematized. The question of what power is has been reduced to the question of how power works; but the two are not the same, and addressing the latter presupposes a proper answer to the former. The definitions have been provided can mostly be reduced to a single tautological form: “one has power if one can (=has the power to) do such and such”. The circularity is due to the shared presupposition that power is like an object, to be empirically observed. To better understand the concept of power we should, instead, examine its categorial form – “power” represents not a thing, but a condition under which certain things may be done and thought – corresponding to possibility, as opposed to necessity. The best way to see this is to turn to Arendt, whose idea of power is the key to a proper comprehension of this basic category of politics. While the link between power and communication has been a staple of Arendtean studies, it has often been reduced to aspirational understandings, which tend to obscure its deeper significance. It is rather the formal aspect of the concept of power which allows us to get right its categorical role in defining politics.

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