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  • On the Concept of Authority
  • Pablo Oyarzún R. (bio)

Authority is or presupposes some specific type of power. The mark of this particularity, the one that everyone will spontaneously agree to identify as such, is the index of recognition that accompanies authority, and makes of its power a legitimate one.1 It is commonly understood that with this is linked the genesis, the status, and the regime of authority with the liberty of the subjects who attribute authority to a certain bearer. This way, the power of the authority is distinguished from every other form or type that involves violent coercion, which gravely restricts or suppresses the liberty of those who are subject to it. Otherwise said, authority is not only constituted as such on the basis of sheer imposition: there must be reasons to lend this quality to a person; the liberty of those who lend it reveals itself eventually if these reasons—which may be of very diverse nature (needs, aptitudes, competences, responsibilities, delegations, traditions, and so on)—are no more available, by virtue of which the recognition may be withdrawn, with the consequent collapse of the corresponding legitimacy index. [End Page 225]

However, it is clear that this explanation lies far from the actual character of authority. Although it can be granted that sheer imposition and naked force are not sufficient to constitute authority (though they can be concurrent to form its first installment), authority itself—whether it is vested in individuals or in offices—is imposing and enjoys a force of its own, which finds its only suitable responses in respect and obedience. When one pays attention to the mode in which these responses are concretely exercised by the subjects of a determinate authority, one can easily observe that the recognition that is at its basis does not require, but rather excludes consciousness of the reasons that may be involved in it. It is as if authority by itself were the sole depository of the reasons that establish it as such. The properness of an authority in full competence consists in that its resolutions and commands are not discussed. As Hannah Arendt conveniently points out, "Its hallmark is unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey; neither coercion nor persuasion is needed" (1970, 45). Consequently, what binds the subordinated to authority, less than an explicit set of reasons, is a belief in which the active forces are essentially affections: respect, reverence, awe, admiration, fear. There is, then, a multiple and complex determination—social and psychological, to mention only these aspects—at the foundation of authority, and this invites us to consider it, as Arendt herself does, as "the most elusive of . . . phenomena" to which political science applies, compared to the notions of "power," "strength," "force," and "violence" (1970, 45, 43). To this extent, if on the one hand, it is foreseeable that the concept of authority will resist attempts to elucidate it precisely because of its evasive complexity, then on the other hand, the attempt to determine the specific type of power and the specific relation of power in which authority consists gives the opportunity for an exemplary test in view of the possibility of shedding light on what I would call the general economy of social power.

In the following I will try two ways of approaching this phenomenon. The first outlines an examination centered on the structural and generative aspects of the type of power and of power relation that would be characteristic of authority in the context of its relevant social processing. This examination seeks to make clear that there is a plus of power in which authority consists.

In the second way I shall discuss this plus from the standpoint of a renowned [End Page 226] dictum of Montaigne on the "mystical foundation" of the authority of laws, paying attention to the commentary that Jacques Derrida devotes to this dictum in Force de loi.


As I suggested in the preamble, in every analysis of social power—and this means by now of all institutionalized power—the concept of authority appears as a central idea. There is no social power without authority, or (what amounts to the same) social power...


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pp. 225-252
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