Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 P - Power


Power: In society: The ability to make someone do or believe something if one desires it.

The ability to make someone believe something is also called influence.

On the logic of power

The following is a brief logical treatment of some logical issues related to power, influence, freedom and society that involves the logic of propositional attitudes.

At present this is the beginning of considerably more to follow later. If you have difficulties with my logical notations, bear in mind that all are provided with English readings, and that all the reasoning involved is fairly straightforward logic.

1. Basic definitions:

Logically speaking, using the
logic of propositional attitudes, one can define power thus - and "a" and "b" stand for names of persons (or - derivatively - institutions); "F" for a predicate; "C" for "causes that", "D" for "desires and "IFF" for "if and only if":

power(a,b,F) =def    bCFb IFF aDbCFb

which is to say: a has power over b as regards F iff (b causes that b has F iff a desires that b causes that b has F). Note this may be so for many reasons, some rational, some not, and some moral, others not, as shall be explained below - and note also that almost everybody has started out in life being much dependent on one's parents, and the way they chose to exercise their power over their children.

Less precisely, in terms of just statements, the above amounts to this:

power(a,b,q) =def    bCq IFF aDbCq

I.e. b tries to cause q iff a desires that b tries to cause q. Similarly

influence(a,b,q) =def   bBq IFF aDbBq

with "B" = "believes".

An interesting application of the definiton for power is when a=b

power(a,a,q) =def   aCq IFF aDaCq

This amounts by the above to: a has power over a himself as regards the doing q iff a tries to do q iff a desires to do so. Note that intuitively this is quite close to human happiness: To be able to either do as one desires and to desire what one does and not to do as one desires not to do. Similarly

influence(a,a,q) =def  aBq IFF aDaBq

a has influence over himself as regards the believing of q iff a believes q iff a desires to believe so. (Here there are great danger for the human weakness of wishful thinking.)

Accordingly, it is clear that the following seems an interesting generalization, that seems to be true of most persons:

(*)   (a)( aD (q)(power(a,a,q)) & (s)(influence(a,a,s)) )

That is:

(*) Everyone desires full power over himself and full influence over himself - to do only as he desires and to believe only because he desires to believe so. (Or as Daniel Defoe put it, in the early 18th C
   Nature has left this tincture in the blood
   That all men would be tyrants if they could.)

First, and in any case: The practical problem is that this requires cooperation and agreements to maintain or create a peaceful society that is in the interest of the vast majority, since that is the best general conditon for them to maximize their own power over themselves (often in the form of leisure) and influence over themselves (often in the form of self-control, sometimes in the form of - some - wisdom).

Here it is worthwile to check out at least cooperation, for this gives a logical analysis that is adequate to many modes of human cooperation, that covers but is not limited to economical exchanges.

Second, it is noteworthy, for logical and psychological reasons, for example, that there is a close relation between power (over oneself) and happiness, for happiness requires power over oneself, at least to some extent, and often leads to it or coincides with it: People want to do what they please when they please, and feel well when they can do so.

Third, for those who believe (*) to be cynical, misanthropic, egoistic, or Nietzschean, there are three relevant precisifications of it.

A. It is quite possible that there are persons many of whose desires are for helping others, such as their family or friends, and not harming many others, notably the members of the society or group they live in.

So, doing as one desires, and desiring to do so, are neither good nor bad as such, and their goodness and badness depend foremost on the desire (how well rationally founded - see below) and secondarily on the doing (how reasonable).

B. Believing only because one desires to believe so, is neither good nor bad as such, and the goodness and badness of this depends foremost on the belief and secondarily on the reasons for the desire to believe it, which is worse the less based on good evidence, rational thinking and relevant knowledge, at least rationally speaking.

And there is an important link here with wishful thinking, for if one approves of one's beliefs not because of the evidence one has, or relevant knowledge on has, or by other modes of rational thinking, but - simply and conveniently - just because one desires it were so, and therefore believes it is so, then one succeeds at believing what one desires, and has effectively deceived and deluded oneself.

Hence, in this sense wishful thinking is the emotionally, logically and rationally simplest way to come to believe things, and its only excuse is that it is very easy and does lead to a generally merely imaginary satisfaction.

C. One should note that there is a logically obvious generalization of (*), that also implies (*):

(**)   (a)( aD (b)(q)( power(a,b,q) & influence(a,b,q) )

That is;

(**) Everyone desires full power over everyone and full influence over everyone - to do only as he desires and to believe only because he approves.

And those with a need for this can be found especially in politics as leaders or bureaucrats, and in religion as priests or clergy. For these have the ways and means to obtain as much power and influence over others as is humanly possible.

2. On freedom, rationality and independence

If we consider the desire to have power and influence over oneself i.e.

aD (q)(power(a,a,q)) & (s)(influence(a,a,s)) )

it is clear we can make the point that in the case of influence over onself aDaBq is either rational, qualified and conditioned or else it is not, and is therefore mere wishful thinking.

Thus one can make various definitions c.q. distinguish various possibilities, that are in the following table only indicated for influence over oneself:

wishfully: aDaBq & aBaDq because a desires, likes, values, wishes for q
socially: aDaBq & aBbDaBq because a believes others desire this
deductively: aDaBq & aB(s & s|- p(q)≥) because a believes in a proposition s that implies p(q)≥

This can be precisified in various ways, and here we shall consider a quite general set of beliefs and desires that relate to personal freedom, rationality and independence.

For this we require

B(a) =def  the beliefs of a, and
D(a) =def  the desires of a

both of which are taken to be sets of propositions, so that we also have their union

B(a)UD(a) =def  (BUD)(a)

which is the set of a's beliefs and desires, with a convenient shorter formulation.

Now we can consider the following criterions for the beliefs and desires a person a desires to adopt or try to cause:

aDaBq IFF aB [ (s)( s rel aDaBq --> s e B(a) ) ] &
              aD [ (s)( s rel aDaBq --> s e B(a) ) ] - informed

aDaCq IFF aB [ (s)( s rel aDaCq --> s e D(a) ) ] & 

              aD [ (s)( s rel aDaCq --> s e D(a) ) ] - independent

aDaDq IFF aB [ (s)( s rel aDaDq --> s e (BUD)(a) ) ] &
               aD [ (s)( s rel aDaDq --> s e (BUD)(a) ) ]  - free    

In the first pair, a desires to be informed about coming to desire to believe q iff a desires that everything relevant to arrive at that desire is part of a's beliefs, and may come to believe that indeed this is so. Then a believes a is informed as to his belief that q. (The sense of relevance here is the logical and probabilistic sense.)

Of course, to come to this belief in a rational way a must have worked for it  usually (recently or long ago), though of course there are a lot of commonsensical beliefs for which this is true anyway, for else one could not survive in one's world.

In the second pair the same sort of criterions are formulated for desiring to try to do q: Everything relevant for that is to be part of a's desires to try to cause q is part of a's desires. If a believes this, then a believes a is independent.

In the third pair the same sort of criterions are formulated for desiring to desire q, that may be such that everything relevant for coming to that is part of the union of a's beliefs and desires. If a believes this, then a believes a is free.

The reason for (BUD)a in the last pair is that generally desires require for their adoption both desires and beliefs, the latter generally about the probability of the means to realize the former.

In either case of the three pairs of cases, the point is that everything relevant for a belief, action or desire that a comes to, is part of a's beliefs and desires, in the stated ways, which means in effect that indeed those beliefs, actions or desires that a comes to that conform to this, are up to a, and not to someone or something else.

For more on some subtle problems that are involved here see Freedom of Will.

Here it is merely assumed that a person a may come to believe and desire that a is free, independent and informed about some of a's own actions, beliefs and desires, and that indeed his beliefs that he is, sometimes may be true. (This holds notably so for many commonsensical things, events and actions.)

It should be noted that in any case it is usually possible, if one knows a person, and his knowledge and his modes of reasoning, to say with considerable confidence about many subjects about which the person holds beliefs or desires, whether these beliefs or desires were based on free, informed, independent and rational considerations or not, where "rational" is defined by reference to probability of truth in case of desires for beliefs and by reference to probability of success in case of desires for actions.


See also: Authority, Freedom of Will, Happiness, Leaders, Politics, Society, Will, Willing Wishful thinking


Jouvenel, Machiavelli, Mills, Mosca, Russell

 Original: Aug 20, 2004                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top