University of Tasmania
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Towards a unified framework of power : a conceptual, practical and comparative analysis of Michel Foucault's and Hannah Arendt's accounts of power

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posted on 2023-05-27, 12:05 authored by Leesa WisbyLeesa Wisby
I remember when I was a child, there was a small hand painted wooden sign hanging in my grandfather's shed. It depicted an elderly man standing on a world globe and underneath was written the phrase Stop the world, I want to get off‚ÄövÑvp. An understandable sentiment perhaps, but one which holds significant consequences for the world and the individual who wishes to escape it. As a child I struggled to understand what it was that the elderly man wished to escape, but as an adult it became clear to me that to find one's place in the world required navigating a challenging path between power and freedom, one that was so difficult that occasionally it would have been beneficial to stop the world momentarily and to disembark temporarily. This idea raises an important question concerning how power in all its complexity mediates the relationship between the individual and their world. The answer to this question hinges on gaining a deeper understanding of how power is implicated in the activities through which human beings shape their world and how the world shapes human life and its possibilities. My thesis is about power and how it mediates lived experience. My aim is to provide a detailed account of the complexity of our individual experiences of power, to explore the implications of power within our everyday social relationships and to emphasize the empowering possibilities offered by the way that we live in the world with others. This will be achieved through conceptual, practical and comparative analyses of the accounts of power offered by Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt. Foucault and Arendt are two highly original theorists whose key insights on the relationship between human beings and their world capture the intricacies of power and its role in human life. While Foucault's and Arendt's accounts of power have been the focus of considerable scholarly analysis and debate in their own right, recently there has been a great deal of interest in the possibilities offered by a dual analysis of their work. Arendt's and Foucault's shared philosophical influences, their concern with modern politics and their rejection of traditional understandings of power have led an increasing number of scholars to explore the benefits of a twofold examination of Arendt's and Foucault's accounts of power (Villa, 1992; Allen, 1999 & 2001; Gordon, 2002; Dolan, 2005). The many interesting insights that have emerged from these varied analyses have not only articulated the many points of agreement and contention between Foucault's and Arendt's perspectives of power, but they have also further illuminated the complexity of the relationship between power and lived experience. My thesis aims to enable a more detailed understanding of the many ways that power shapes human existence; the way that power promotes human autonomy, the suffering of those who are subject to power and the moral implications of the way in which we exercise power over ourselves and others. From the perspective of my own concerns about power, a set of particular assumptions about the character of human existence in the world will guide my analysis. Providing the framework for my discussion are the notions of inter-subjectivity and the world-mediated character of human lived experience. These concepts are associated with the existentialist tradition and significantly inform the approach of (such philosophers as) Freidrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. With its origins in the work of Hegel and Fichte, the notion that the existence of an individual self is predicated upon the existence of other selves was key to the existentialist writing of both Heidegger and Sartre (Cooper, in Crowell, 2012: 44). Strongly influenced by the ideas of existential philosophy, Foucault and Arendt ground their accounts of power upon a set of shared suppositions and concerns about the character of human life (Villa, 1992; Allen, 1999 & 2001; Gordon, 2002). Building on the importance of this commonality I will emphasize the ways in which this shared world view provides a foundation for two distinctive accounts of power that emphasize different aspects of the relationship between human beings and the world. The accounts of power offered by Foucault and Arendt embody a set of key notions that at times are in conflict and at other times mutually imply each other. In examining these points of contention and agreement I will further the project of articulating Foucault's and Arendt's accounts of power as part of a wider framework. In this way I will offer an analysis that can reveal the complexity of the ways that power mediates lived experience in more detail.


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