Social Power, Reasons, and Reason

Social Power, Reasons, and Reason

The paper examines the connection between power, reasons, and Reason. First, I argue that a plausible conception of social power must understand social power as based on the capacity to change “the space of reasons” and that, therefore, social power presupposes the effectiveness of reasons. In a second step, I discuss the claim that reasons (plural) are not only a precondition and a conditioning factor for power, but that Reason or rationality itself is a form or an instrument of power.


Titus Stahl

May 03, 2013


  1. 2.

    Preliminary remark Part of a larger project Intuition: 1. An

    understanding of power relations essential is essential for an understanding of the basic structure of society. 2. If a theory is conceptually unable to describe all relevant forms of power, it cannot evaluate them. 3. Thus: Plausibility of normative, critical social theory depends on its having an adequate conception of power.
  2. 3.

    Structure of the paper 1. Power and reasons - the

    basic idea 2. Three models of reason-based power 3. “Reason” as a form of power
  3. 4.

    The basic idea Social power: Capacity to influence the behaviour

    of others. Two types: 1. Capacity to modify behaviour of others by coercion or by modification of their environment: effects understandable without reference its to social character. 2. Capacity to directly shape the reasons of other persons: effects not understandable without reference to social relationships. Example: Threats.
  4. 5.

    The basic idea A slogan: A has social power over

    B (in this sense) if A can directly shape the practical reasons B has.
  5. 6.

    Three models of power This entails: Understanding of power depends

    on understanding of what it means to “shape practical reasons”, and thus, on an understanding of how reasons are socially produced, constituted or influenced. Main part of the paper: Three models of the sociality of reasons and of power.
  6. 7.

    The starting point Lovett: A model of social relationships as

    strategic situations: A and B stand in a relationship if the most rational action plans of theirs, given their preferences and expectations, are contingent on the action plan of the other.
  7. 8.

    The basic model Power (basic): An agent A has power

    over an agent B if the (institutional or non-institutional) features of their relationship make A in principle capable of choosing a strategy the choice of which constitutes a social situation which forms the basis of a (non-trivial) practical reason for B to act in some way or another.
  8. 9.

    The basic model Institutional power: 1. In virtue of the

    institutional rules of a practice, some of our potential actions can acquire some kind of normative status. 2. This status consists in other persons being legitimized to treat these actions in a certain way. 3. Apart from their actual consequences, the “mere” fact that an action has such a status can constitute a reason for persons to perform or avoid this action.
  9. 10.

    The basic model Four insights: 1. Exercises of social power

    (in this sense) are never actions. 2. Social power is not opposed to freedom. 3. Social power is not intrinsically normatively problematic. 4. Social power is always both constraining and enabling.
  10. 11.

    The extended model Problem with the first model: It allows

    only for an influence on the reasons of others in terms of bringing about reasons by changing their social situation. In doing so, it takes it as given, that certain reasons have normative force for persons.
  11. 12.

    The extended model Capacity to “shape the space of reasons”

    of other persons by changing the normative force of reasons for them: 1. Influencing their access to resources, their knowledge, their abilities and their institutional status (examples: social safety, legal status). 2. Influencing their self-conception. 3. Influencing their dependency on a social relationship (i.e. their reasons in favour of remaining within that relationship).
  12. 13.

    The extended model Power (extended): An agent A has power

    over an agent B if 1. A has power over B in the basic sense defined previously, or 2. A has the apacity to influence the standing of B in potential relationships of power by influencing B’s access to resources, abilities, knowledge or institutional status, or by influencing B’s dependency on certain social relationships, or by influencing B’s self-conception.
  13. 14.

    The radical model Criticism of the extended model: If examines

    both the existence and the force of reasons but not their content, i. e. the respect in which some fact speaks for some action.
  14. 15.

    The radical model Example: If an institutional status is a

    reason, the respect in which it speaks for an action derives from the institutional rules governing the attribution of that status and, indirectly, from the point of the institution.
  15. 16.

    The radical model 1. The scope of potential institutional reasons

    for some action in terms of reason contents is created by the institutional rules of social practices. 2. Whoever has the capacity to change institutional rules (X counts as Y in context C), is not only able to instantiate reasons (by bringing about X), but also to shape the space of potential reasons (by influencing the content of Y). 3. This is not only true for institutional reasons, but virtually for all reasons created by exercises of social power: Even the objective features of most situations in virtue of which we have reasons to do something have only this effect in virtue of their institutional features.
  16. 17.

    The radical model Two subtypes: Subjectivating power: Power to influence

    the rules governing the status of being a discursive or epistemic subject in some practice. Constitutive power: Power to influence the rules governing what socially counts as collective acceptance or non-acceptance of a rule; this amounts to the capacity to control the possible forms of norm-constitution.
  17. 18.

    The radical model Power (radical): An agent A has power

    over an agent B if 1. A has power over B in the extended sense defined above, or 2. A has the capacity to influence the possible space of reasons available to B, by influencing the institutional rules of shared practices, by influencing the rules of subjectivation, or by influencing the rules governing the status of actions as expressions of collective acceptance.
  18. 19.

    Summary of the three models This view about the connection

    of reasons and power 1. helps us to better understand the connections between different models of power 2. helps us to evaluate how far normative social theories really can describe and evaluate all relevant forms of social power.
  19. 20.

    Reason as power Claim that “Reason itself” is a form

    of power. Reason: a set of ideals or norm governing rational conduct and thought.
  20. 21.

    Reason as power First “outcome-oriented” interpretation: Conformity to the ideals

    of Reason either a condition for the attribution of some institutional status allowing exercises of power (“male reason”) or a (necessary or sufficient, instituional or objective) condition for filling out the status of the dominant part in a relationship of oppression. In both cases: ideals of Reason enable power only in connection with some oppressive institutional rules.
  21. 22.

    Reason as power Second “structural” interpretation: Norms of Reason itself

    enable or require a form of power. Trivial interpretation: Intersubjective institution of norms of rationality enables persons to exercise normative power (criticism, etc.). Hegelian conceptions of autonomy.
  22. 23.

    Reason as power Reason as power: If, within such a

    practice, there is a norm which prescribes to classify all forms of attempted collective non-acceptance of the rules of this practice as irrational, persons have (in virtue of that practice) reason exercise constitutive power such as to deny all other persons the action option of attempting to change those rules. The power of Reason: the power of a structure of norms of rationality which constitutively do not allow for change; but this still is the power of someone over someone.