Recognizing Authority, Acknowledging Power

Concepts of control in Kojeve and Arendt, Part II

Below is the second segment of a three-part series adapted from a final paper for Sociology of Power and Authority at UVA.

While Kojève offered us a fully formed taxonomy of authority, complete with four pure types of authority and their attendant legitimating theories, Hannah Arendt in her text On Violence, published in 1970, is attempting something rather different. While similarly focused on the possibility of negation, Arendt bases her theoretical project around the construction and careful delineation of the vocabulary of power and authority, rejecting their synonymized status and explicating the fundamental differences each terms holds. Her terms differ from Kojève’s in that her ambition is not to parse the different variations of authority qua authority, but to redefine a traditional lexicon of domination and control, and in doing so reveal the connective fibers between them while resisting the urge to collapse them into one unified concept. [i] Arendt first engages with the category of power, which, she argues, corresponds to the human ability to act not as an individual but as a group, with political will buttressed by quantitative superiority. Power, for Arendt, never exists as the singular remit of the individual but only through the continued support of it by the group; as such, while the depth and breadth of its possibility for control can be extensive, it nevertheless relies upon collective approval and assistance for its continuation in its presently constituted state.[ii] This analysis of power complements the concept of authority advanced by Kojève, who argued in favor of the preeminence of recognition and acquiescence.

Arendt’s examination of strength, however, is an altogether different phenomenon within the theoretical landscape of political control. Strength is something Arendt recognizes as manifested exclusively in the guise of the individual, a “property inherent in an object or person and belong[ing] to its character,” distancing strength from any considered inquiry of power.[iii] Indeed, strength is by definition distinguished due to its individualistic, singular nature, and within the peculiarly personal essence of strength exists the preconditions for independence and agency. [iv] This very independence, however, attracts the animosity of the many, who combine in numbers to overwhelm the strength of the singular individual. This phenomenon of concerted action to ruin the ability of the minority, Arendt argues, was recognized even by the Greeks, but she finds that they missed their analytical mark; rather than being the expression of resentment and envy by the weak against the strong, Arendt contends that it is in the essential quality of a group and its power (see above) to stymie the possibility for independent action, action precipitated by the particular condition of individual strength. [v]

Having delved into the characteristics and compositions of proper power and strength, Arendt give short shrift to the concept of force, which she claims should be a term reserved for abstract, intangible influences such as the “forces of nature” or of circumstance, relegating force to a latent contextual or derivative power that cannot be artificially constructed or deployed by man, either singularly or in the form of a collective. Her analysis of authority is, while outlined in relatively greater depth, similarly unsatisfactory. She imbues the notion of authority, distinct from power, as a nebulous influence, lodged in either a person or an impersonal office, encompassing the form of power that a Senator, a father, or a priest might hold.[vi] But beyond this illustration of authority, Arendt offers little analytical nuance; it seems that authority itself is a derivate form of power, either the instantiation of power’s will through the formal structures of institutional administration, or strictly located in the unique milieu of familial (mainly patriarchal) dominance. But at times, when Arendt speaks of power, she seems to implicitly incorporate the specific modality of authority as well, locating it within power’s overarching matrix. [vii] While she acknowledges this point, noting that in the material reality of power relations these categories are rarely watertight, the fact remains that authority in her theoretical schematic seems lost within her more pointed focus and emphasis on power, and especially power’s relationship with violence.

The importance of divorcing power from its earlier inherent connection with violence in traditional political thought emerges in the final half of the chapter, where she devotes a considerable amount of analytical energy demonstrating the necessary theoretical space between the two. Violence in Arendt’s terminological model is defined by its instrumental character; it exists as a tool to be utilized and deployed, but is not an end in and of itself.[viii] Violence, then, is inextricably connected to the exercise of power, but remains distinct from it, and while power exists as the essential prerequisite of all government, violence does not; it remains a contingent, specific methodology of power application, yet nonetheless one that is not necessary in the constituting of either power in the abstract or government in the concrete.[ix] To buttress her conceptual argument, Arendt turns to the problematic of revolution, a consistent field of inquiry for philosophical investigations of authority. Revolution emphasizes and emblematizes the distinction and space between power and violence, while also reinforcing Arendt’s, and Kojève’s, insistence on authority’s dependence on valid recognition and acquiescence. Since the violence of the state can always anywhere overcome the violence of the street, it is not the pure application of violence by revolutionaries that existentially threatens the authoritarian status quo; rather, it is the loss of obedience, the renunciation by the wielders of the instruments of violence of their submission and compliance to the dictates of power.[x] Revolutions are never “made,” Arendt argues, but instead exist as the external manifestations of a fundamental shift in the equilibrium of power. [xi] As such, the irreducible determinate of power lies not in the capacity to deploy overwhelming violence, but in the ability to attain and retain the majority support of the population, introducing Arendt’s analysis of the importance of majority/minority dynamics.

This emphasis on communicative acts as the precursor to establishing legitimate foundations of power moves away from focusing on the instrumentalization of another’s will and towards a conception of authority that is grounded in a concerted effort at ascertaining a common resolve built upon collective agreement. [xii] From this analytical vantage point, the interactions between justified power and communicative action collapse into each other; power cannot exist, in Arendt’s theory of it, without the simultaneous event of collective speech acts that lend power its permanency and validity. [xiii] Power is, in fact, reducible in the final analysis to the efficacy and efficiency of communicative action, in which reaching agreement becomes an end in itself for all those involved. [xiv] This interpretation, linking the possession of power to the deployment of illocutionary speech at a mass scale, maps onto Arendt’s view of power as a distinct terminological category; power is also an “an end in itself,” serving as the very condition which enables a group of people to think and act as a collective body, undergirding the steering capacity of any state structure with the authenticity of public acceptance. [xv] This fundamental recognition that power (in any form) necessarily relies on some measure of collective agreement is a critical element of Arendt’s overarching political philosophy. It rescues the political agon and the integral nature of the demos from an ossified relic or subsidiary element of the social, revitalizing its essential character as the determinant element of any sociopolitical unit. The liberating potential of Arendt’s political power model, then, lies in her elevation of collective communication to the level of authoritative prerequisite, and in doing so necessarily incorporates a normative core to her analytical project. [xvi] The genuine legitimation of power can only be produced by the public-political realm “only so long as structures of nondistorted communication” characterize it in its essence, rejecting the validity of compliance bought by terror or the unmitigated use of force; that performance of power remains only a performance, and lacks the integral quality of true legitimacy.[xvii]

Arendt’s work separates and defines the five main spheres of discreet authoritarian and political activity: power, the remit of a collective; strength, embodied in the singular, independent individual; force, the manifestation of natural or contextual events outside the realm of human control; and authority, the influence of unique persons or offices; and violence, existing as a specific instrument of power. While this alone is a significant theoretical achievement, Arendt goes further, offering a highly sophisticated conception of the methods by which violence and power interact. This emphasis leads her into a discussion of potential for revolution and power-negation; mirroring Kojève, Arendt maintains that legitimate power — that is, power that is recognized and submitted to — must, in the final analysis, emerge from a communicative acts, for it is only through the medium of vision and persuasion that the quantitatively contingent base of power can be eroded. In this, Jürgen Habermas recognizes a kindred spirit, one who identifies and appreciates the fundamental importance of will-formation in order for a project of power to be sustained.

Eli Weiner is a Fourth-Year in the University of Virginia’s History honors program. His research focuses on the intellectual history of late-Victorian Britain, emphasizing the relationship between historical thought and efforts to reconfigure the structure of the British Empire. 



[i] Hannah Arendt, On Violence, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich, 1970), 43.

[ii] Arendt, On Violence, 44.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Arendt, On Violence, 45.

[vii] Arendt, On Violence, 46.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Arendt, On Violence, 51.

[x] Arendt, On Violence, 48.

[xi] Arendt, On Violence, 48-49.

[xii] Jürgen Habermas and Thomas McCarthy, “Hannah Arendt’s Communications Concept of Power,” Social Research 44, no. 1 (Spring 1977): 4.

[xiii] Habermas and McCarthy, “Hannah Arendt’s Communications Concept of Power,” 6.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Arendt, On Violence, 51.

[xvi] Habermas and McCarthy, “Hannah Arendt’s Communications Concept of Power,” 8.

[xvii] Habermas and McCarthy, “Hannah Arendt’s Communications Concept of Power,” 9.

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