What Is Power?

Constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.... To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power.

- Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, XI, 4

Podcast of the Day

Relations of power affect us all. But do we know what power is? Steven Lukes sets out his three-dimensional account of this key concept in conversation with Nigel Warburton in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.

Listen to Steven Lukes on Power

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

What do you mean by the term “domination” in your book’s title?

Shapiro: I think of it as the illicit use of power to get people to do things that are against their interests or that they otherwise wouldn’t do. It is a reactive idea. Much political philosophy sets up ideals like equality or freedom, and my view is that those ideals miss the fact that people usually have a much better idea of what they don’t want in politics than what they do want — what they’re against rather than what they support....

Democracy offers the best hope of limiting political domination. But which form of democracy is best? The two main systems on offer are American-style republican democracy or parliamentary democracy based on majority rule. Republican democracy is based on the separation of powers and checks and balances. As Madison put it in the Federalist Papers, ambition should be made to counteract ambition. You check the possibility of domination by the state by creating a lot of checks and balances within the state. The alternative, which is exemplified by the Westminster system, is competition for power over time. Governments replace one another over time, but while they are in power, they have a monopoly of power.

Continue reading Mike Cumming's short article: Politics against domination: A conversation with Sterling Professor Ian Shapiro

Further Reading

...Lukes suggests another, more radical, explanation for the essentially contested nature of the concept of power: our conceptions of power are, according to him, themselves shaped by power relations. As he puts it, “how we think about power may serve to reproduce and reinforce power structures and relations, or alternatively it may challenge and subvert them. It may contribute to their continued functioning, or it may unmask their principles of operation, whose effectiveness is increased by their being hidden from view...."

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article: Feminist Perspectives on Power by Amy Allen

Related Topics

 Freedom | Punishment | Violence

Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.

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