Power and Knowledge

We are living in “knowledge societies”, in which science and information play such an important role that our lives are unimaginable without them. We feel the impact of knowledge at the individual and societal levels, in education and work, as well as in recreation and entertainment.  There are few, if any, areas of our contemporary lives that are absolutely exempt from the influence of knowledge.

On the other hand, our social identities cannot be constituted independent of power relations. Power is the fundamental element of the structure of our communities and is present in all of our social interactions. It is impossible to imagine our daily interactions free from any trace of power.

The breadth of the domain of these two concepts, power and knowledge, leaves no doubt that there must be overlaps in their influence range. In other words, there must be areas, in which these two phenomenon work simultaneously.

In this essay, I briefly explore these areas. I attempt to explain how power and knowledge influence each another. To that end, I first present various definitions of power and discuss which one is more comprehensive and thus, I use in this essay. Then, on the basis of this definition, I explore the effects of power and discuss the strategies by which power influences knowledge. The interaction of the components, however, is not in one direction but reflexive. Thus, I devote a section to the explanation of the effect of knowledge on power.


Power is the fundamental term in political philosophy and social sciences (Russell 1938: 10). A great extent of the political literature since the antiquity is built around and on the basis of this term. However, despite and probably because of the vast use, power is still a highly controversial term whose meaning varies significantly among the political philosophers. Fortunately, it is possible to categorise all the various uses into two general groups:

  1. Power-over: For a group of philosophers, such as Max Weber, power is the ability or potentiality to impose one’s will on others, especially against their own will. Weber defines power as “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance…” (1978: 53). Robert Dahl’s notion of power belongs to the same category. He states: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (1957: 202-03). Michel Foucault, also, deployed the term in a similar manner: “if we speak of the structures or the mechanisms of power, it is only insofar as we suppose that certain persons exercise power over others” (1983, 217).

  2. Power-to: Power, for the second group of philosophers, refers to one’s ability to perform a certain action. Thomas Hobbes (1985 (1641)) and Hannah Arendt (1958) are two of the thinkers who view power in this sense.

Amy Allen (2000) and Steven Lukes (2005) have argued that ‘power-over’ is, in fact, a form of ‘power-to’. According to them, power-over is also viewed as an ability to lure or coerce others to do what one wills. Based on this conception, power is always an ability that enables an actor to act on her own or to make others do what she desires. The current essay uses this conception of power.

From another point of view, conceptions of power can be divided into two categories: repressive and productive. A range of analyses of power, e.g. Marxist or Freudian methods, assume power as intrinsically limiting, disabling, censorious and repressive -“repressive hypothesis”. However, there is a second group of thinkers, like Foucault, who argue that power can also be productive and enabling, which reshapes and even produces relations and viewpoints in the social reality.

The conditions leading to this distinction can be viewed in this way: in the cases where knowledge opposes maintenance, development or expansion of power, its attitude toward science will be repressive. However, it also introduces new methods of knowledge acquisition or reinforces that serve its benefit. Therefore, the productive aspect of power should be considered as, if not more, important as its repressive side. In other words, it is important to investigate how power thwarts acquisition of knowledge as well as the way it produces, influences, or manipulates methods of knowledge acquisition.

It should also be noted that although there are references to various sources of power, the full explanation of these origins is beyond the scope of this essay. In other words, I mainly focus on the mechanism and relations of power, when it comes to acquisition of knowledge, rather than how and in whose hands power is concentrated.

Power and Knowledge

The relation between power and knowledge can be viewed from two different directions: how power affects knowledge and the influence of knowledge on power. In the following sections, I will discuss each category in detail.

Effect of Power on Knowledge

To sustain, develop or expand, power requires manipulating science. Science can justify power or provide it with tools to reproduce, grow and evolve. This is why we can observe throughout history, that those in power have always been trying to manage, control or at least monitor science institutions.

Power can affect science and the process of knowledge acquisition in various ways. These methods are not, however, mutually exclusive but are, in many cases inextricably, interconnected and continuous. However, to ease the description and explanation, two different levels of knowledge acquisition are distinguished at which power works: basic principles and methods. In the following sections, these categories are discussed in detail.

  1. Basic principles

The most important way power influences science is through premises, values and paradigms which affect further reasoning. In this sense, power lays the foundations on which further knowledge is built. John Locke’s critique of innate ideas and his notion of self-evident principles can be discussed to better explain this category of power influence.

In An Essay concerning human understanding (1775), John Locke criticised the doctrine of innate ideas which indicates that some propositions are inscribed, purportedly by God, on the mind from birth. Locke maintained that this doctrine discouraged the use of personal reasoning and became a tool for “dictators of principles”.

By establishing the doctrine of innate ideas and taking the position of the dictator of principles, power manages to thwart and manipulate knowledge acquisition. In this way, it can prevent the development of the kind of reasoning that undermines its existence or resists its privileged position.

Locke, however, did not deny the existence of self-evident principles. According to him, and subsequently Saint Thomas Aquinas (1945), a self-evident principle is a proposition whose truth becomes instantaneously evident when the meaning of all terms becomes known to the agent.

This leads us to two other strategies by which power affects basic principles. First, power defines the innate ideas or self-evident principles and ensures their effectiveness by what Locke called a principle of principles, that is, principles are not to be questioned. This principle blocks the way to questioning the basic principles on which knowledge is built. Therefore, it creates a place exempt from scrutiny which is perfect for power to nestle, develop and reproduce itself. In this way, power only works at the level of premises and does not necessarily need to alter knowledge acquisition methods. For example, by establishing biased premises, power can make sure to achieve a biased conclusion, even if the deductive reasoning is logically valid.

Second, the emphasis of Locke and Aquinas, in the notion of self-evident principles, is on the terms and their meaning. They maintain that one accepts a self-evident principle when she understands its terminology and one who does not understand the terms may never grasp the truth of those principles. Power can establish or manipulate the meaning of the terms through their usage. According to late Wittgenstein (2009), words obtain their meanings through usage. In other words, learning the meaning of words is not separate from their use.

Therefore, when power succeeds in manipulating the usage of words, its desired meanings of words are established. This is achieved via influencing the spread of a specific usage-meaning, for example by vast usage through media or banning/censoring the use. It can also be done by validating a specific usage-meaning, that is, by introducing them through reputable people or institutions, for example, influential politicians or scientists, research centres, universities, etc.

It should be mentioned that the influence of power on knowledge is not necessarily through an explicit deployment of force. Force is only one of the means by which power can put its influence into action. However, power can, and in many cases does, work at the level of thoughts, that is, when agents are thinking and reasoning. While they believe they are thinking independently and freely, power is, in fact, influencing the way they think. In other words, power can control the way a “rational” agent thinks at a certain condition. Power may also define what/who is rational.

Power also influences science by means of values. As many philosophers have argued, the idea of a value-neutral science is essentially unattainable. This idea rests upon the dichotomy between fact and value which is not always the case. A set of scientific data (facts) can, in many cases, be interpreted by different theories with the same order of accuracy. Therefore, a scientist chooses a theory not simply based on facts but also values. Moreover, the intended application of a science affects the scientists. These scientists are not indifferent to the potential use of their research which may arise various potential concerns: ethical, socioeconomic, religious, etc. These concerns potentially affect the method or the result of the research. Based on these arguments, science should be viewed as potentially value-laden.

Radical changes in basic, fundamental scientific principles lead to discontinuities in the history of science. They are the reasons why Thomas Kuhn discusses paradigm shifts (Rouse 1987, Okasha 2002) and Foucault distinguishes between various structures of thought and epistemes (Smart 2002: 23).

Based on Kuhn, a paradigm includes a set of fundamental theoretical assumptions and a set of problems – “exemplars” – that have been solved based on them. Examples of paradigms are geocentric (Copernican) system in astronomy evolutionism (Darwinism) in biology and the theory of relativity (Einstein) in physics.

Paradigm shifts are scientific revolutions in which a paradigm gives its way to a new set of fundamental theoretical assumptions. Examples of paradigm shifts include the move from heliocentric system to geocentric system, creationism to evolutionism and Newtonian mechanics to the theory of relativity. According to Kuhn, a paradigm shift is an act of faith. It does not necessarily mean that there is not any scientific and rational reasoning to support the shift, but the fact that they are not enough.

Changes in power relations can be the root of paradigm shifts (for example, changes in production relations based on Marxist theories). When the old relations of power, which was based upon or defended the old paradigm, is undermined and a new relation of power is established, the new power supports a new paradigm which can serve its purposes. Power presents itself in the form of the faith component of a paradigm shift. According to Rouse (1987), although power cannot change the truth, it can change beliefs and the viewpoints from which the truth is viewed.

  1. Methods

Scientific methods are also targets of power. The methods that are beneficial to power’s maintenance, improvement and reproduction are introduced, validated or prioritised and the ones resisting it are discredited. For example, the fact that natural sciences have proved able to understand and use the nature for the benefit of human beings has entitled them with a privileged position compared to social sciences. The privilege depicts itself vividly in the research funds which are allocated in higher amounts to natural research. As a result, the natural sciences have been advocated, by power, as perfect models of how sciences should be. Therefore, there is a hidden push driving social sciences toward implementing natural sciences’ research method as “the” correct method. This is not just limited to quantitative research but even applied to qualitative investigations. For example, qualitative theories in social sciences rely upon ‘local contexts’ for data (Pascale 2010). Antonio Gramsci (2001) referred to this issue as “science as fetish”.

Strategies of power

To influence sciences through their premises or research methods, power implements various strategies. One of the major, explicit strategies is funding education institutes, research centres and scientists. By allocating funds and facilities, governments and other research funding bodies prioritise, encourage and validate research topics, premises and methods that serve their interest. It also potentially affects the outcomes in a manner that the results would normally be in line with the benefit of the funding agent.

On the other hand, by refusing to fund certain research, power discourages the access to and spread of specific knowledge. In other words, by this strategy power propagates ignorance in that area of research. As Celine-Marie Pascale states, “ignorance is not simply ‘not knowing’ but an active misapprehension that systematically produces inaccurate information – ignorance is an active social production” (2010).

Another strategy of power to influence science is the ranking. In today’s academic world, everything is ranked: universities, schools, journals, conferences, etc. By achieving a higher ranking, a university’s methods are validated, a scientist’s findings are accepted and a journal gains reputation. In many cases, rankings can be translated into access to resources, including funding, staff, researchers and students. The ‘highly-rankeds’ play the role model for other counterparts, forcing them to follow suit if they want to be accepted in the community and continue having access to resources.

Effect of knowledge on power

There is another conception of the relation of power and knowledge which assigns an emancipatory role to knowledge, that is, the more one gains knowledge, the less under the influence of power she is. Power, thus, is deprived of its ability to twist the truth, obscure the reality and exploit the one who has acquired enough, proper knowledge (Rouse 1987).

This conception rests upon the assumption that there is an objective truth. It presumes a reality that can be revealed by the deployment of proper methods. Power, which is essentially repressive in nature (based on this conception), relies on a distorted depiction of the truth and thus attempts to block or twist the representation of this reality. Therefore, by acquiring knowledge, actors undermine power, liberate themselves from repression and achieve emancipation.

An argument against this notion asserts that there is not necessarily an objective truth. Our relation to reality is not direct and without any mediation but depends upon our beliefs, theories and ideologies, which comprise a filter through which an input from the world has to pass.

As I mentioned before, even if, contrary to Kuhn, it was possible to obtain a set of ‘pure’ data, which all scientists agreed on its good quality, they could still interpret it with various theories. These theories are the means by which the data from the world becomes understandable to us.

Concluding remarks

As I argued above, there is a mutual relation between power and knowledge. While knowledge may help one resist power and its suppressive tendencies, it is also influenced by power. Power can prioritise and validate scientific principles, methods and paradigms and use knowledge to maintain, reinforce, and evolve its privileged position.

It is, however, possible, as Lukes (2005) argues, that the ideas presented here are themselves influenced by the current state of power; the relations of power that have shaped and continues to shape the current premises and methods of knowledge acquisition.

Originally Posted on pooyaka.wordpress.com


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