Monday, 31 August 2015

The Power of Man

Posted by Gregory Kyle Klug
      and Thomas Scarborough

What is man?  The answers to this question vary – typically according to the scientific discipline which asks it.  Chemistry, genetics, biology, psychology, history, or religion, all yield different answers as to what man is.  

In fact all of these disciplines are in some way symptomatic of the essence of man, and none should we dare to exclude from our explorations.  And then, too, since the middle of the 20th century, linguistics has joined the inquiry into the nature of 'man' – language being what we call a semiotic code which reveals (in coded form) much about the structure and function of the mind.  With this in mind, the purpose here is to reflect on the importance of a single word in our language in revealing what man is, namely: 'power'.

'Power' has one of the highest word frequencies in English.  According to research of the University of Central Lancashire, 'power' boasts 385 occurrences per million.  This makes it a word which is weightier than love and war and the weather.  It plays a bigger part in our language than dogs and cats, and hours and minutes. Plato, in fact, implied that this is the one word which defines man.  What he (or she) does with power, he wrote, is 'the measure of a man'.

At first sight,  it might seem difficult to discern any coherence in the many variant definitions of power.  In fact sociologists David and Julia Jary present it as a prime example of an 'essentially contested word'.  We speak of the power of an earthquake, one's power of mind, colonial power, a power pitcher, the power of a performance, even the power which one has over one's own self.  How might we derive, from all these many uses of 'power', a unified insight into the nature of 'man'?

Power is a 'transformational capacity', wrote the sociologist Anthony Giddens.  'Despite resistance', wrote the sociologist Max Weber.  In fact, on closer inspection, it is the triumph of power over resistance in all our human activities which would seem most appropriately to define it.  This is a definition, too, which we can universalise: power is 'the ability to overcome significant resistance in a relatively short period of time':
• Physical power: Military power overcomes the resistance of enemy forces. 
• Social power: A popular movement overcomes the resistance of history.
• Intellectual power: A theory resists being known, until the power of mind reveals it. 
• Moral power: We have the power to choose against the resistance of pain, and pleasure.
• Power of imagination: The imagination overcomes the resistance of familiarity.  And
• Sexual power:  All resistance crumbles (need we say more)?
Contrast this with the eighteenth century French philosopher Paul d'Holbach, the first to (scandalously) suggest that the laws of Newton now applied to man: '[Man] is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control.' Yet power, if we are to believe the linguistic evidence, belongs to the very essence of man, in virtually every sphere.  In fact, it is a theme of Biblical proportions.  The opening chapters of Genesis grandly portray not only the power of God, but man's procreative power, physical power, and intellectual power. 

Power is far more than the narrow conception of it which was extolled by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: namely, the 'will to power' which drives us to achieve.  Rather, it is to be found in all the ordinary moments of life.  And this is not who we may yet become, but who we are. 
O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
–William Shakespeare


A single post does not permit a survey of the many aspects and examples of power.  Author Gregory Kyle Klug unfolds further thoughts on the subject at The Philosopher and at What is Power?


  1. I was privileged to have a part in this post. I think that it makes a small yet significant contribution to the question of free will in particular -- broadening the debate by shifting it into linguistics.

    I am ever mindful, at the same time, that the power of 'man' is easily broken: "Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall." However, that is beyond the focus of this post.

  2. Yes, it is an interesting word - and one whose many shades causes problems. I noted in my book on nuclear POWER how politicians and nuclear industry shills like to say how relaint we are on nuclear power when what they are really talking about is nuclear electricity. And we're not really reliant on that either. But how much humbler it sounds!

  3. Thanks Greg. I feel like sharing an anecdote and what it triggered.
    Your post made me think of an encounter with a powerless person whom I have known for a few years, who is struggling with poverty and heavy drug withdrawal. I had advice to give her, but I knew that it would take her -- more than anything else -- an almost measurable amount, or dose, of hope, to pursue this possibility I was presenting her, knowing that it might ultimately fail, that the 'resistance' of things might be too strong.

    I was struck by the fact that hope, like power (now I realize it), is suited to be more or less quantified, taken as an energy (that should not be wasted), some sort of energetic matter, at the very moment when what is at stakes are complex *qualities* (ingenuity, resourcefulness, diplomacy, all those higher level human qualities that can't be numbered like in role playing games!). What was really asked from her was, ultimately, an *amount* of power or hope to actualize these qualities.

    And this brings me to highlight with you that this word, power, (like 'hope'... and 'faith'?) has a linguistic peculiarity. It turns the subject, the man or woman ;-), into a measurable, quantifiable, force at the very moment the subject self-actualizes (or not!)... qualitatively. Which I personally find rather paradoxical. The 'power' (or 'hope'/'faith') semiotic element turns the most complex things, the most complex and highest semiotic elements, into quasi-numerical values.

    A glimpse of the 'life force'..., this vital energy that been banned from text books a century ago?

    In this case, power would define life itself.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Perig. Perhaps we all can relate with your friend to some extent. Where does the power come from? It seems to me when one embraces pain or resists pleasure when necessary that this violates what would otherwise be a sort of psychological conservation law: it leaves the "books" off-balance. Such energy cannot have a merely material origin. If so, how can it rightly be viewed as a power at all? Or at least as an "active" power which I distinguish in the longer essays at the links above?
      In the essay at my site I say that there is no objective unit of measurement that can be applied to the non-physical forms of power, unlike the physical ones, which can be measured by horsepower, the newton, the watt, the foot-pound of torque, etc. And yet, even though there is no objective unit of measurement for things like intellectual power or moral power, we know by experience that they are real. To me, this harmonizes well with a non-materialist view of the universe.
      But also, to your point, power of the sort that adds energy to the universe that wasn't there before (active rather than passive power) is rather similar to hope and faith, which similarly are not (traditionally) viewed as contingent upon merely material causation, but are imposed upon the material world from without.

  4. Er... are you using 'power' int two quite different ways though sometimes? The capability to do work - and as a measure of work done?

    The laws of physics don't ike the idea of 'power of the sort that adds energy to the universe that wasn't there before'... although the idea that Black Holes (if they exist) reduce the totla energy in the universe is intriguing.

  5. Pardon me, I admit that came out wrong...what I was trying to express was the idea that human beings have the capacity to initiate a new line a causation that wasn't there before, or that could not have been predictable. If this happens, there is definitely no physical energy that is added, but then the power of choice depends on what may be called a 'spiritual' energy. I agree that wherever there is energy in a closed system, the law of conservation stands. To believe otherwise is indeed not really an option.
    George Berkeley was working on a volume on the nature of spirit, but the manuscript was lost mid-way, and he gave up the project. Perhaps he would have said something along these line, but we'll probably never know.

    1. "Spiritual energy' - this is where we await Perig's post currently 'partly drafted' on ESP - but sheduled 'maybe' for later this month?

      But maybe if you, Greg, get the inclination (and have the time), it would be great to return to the fray here on that topic.