19.4.5: Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Francophone Genevan philosopher and writer, whose conceptualization of social contract, the theory of natural human, and works on education greatly influenced the political, philosophical, and social western tradition.
Identify the components of Rousseau’s philosophy, particularly the idea of the General Will
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Francophone Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the Enlightenment in France and across Europe. It was also important to the French Revolution and the overall development of modern political and educational thought.
- In common with other philosophers of the day, Rousseau looked to a hypothetical state of nature as a normative guide. In The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men, he maintained that the stage of human development associated with what he called “savages” was the best or optimal in human development.
- In his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, Rousseau argued, in opposition to the dominant stand of Enlightenment thinkers, that the arts and sciences corrupt human morality.
- The Social Contract outlines the basis for a legitimate political order within a framework of classical republicanism. Published in 1762, it became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the western tradition.
- Rousseau’s philosophy of education concerns itself with developing the students’ character and moral sense, so that they may learn to practice self-mastery and remain virtuous even in the unnatural and imperfect society in which they will have to live.
- Rousseau was a believer in the moral superiority of the patriarchal family on the antique Roman model. To him, ideal woman is educated to be governed by her husband, while ideal man is educated to be self-governing.
- general will
- A philosophical and political concept, developed and popularized in the 18th century, that denoted the will of the people as a whole. It served to designate the common interest embodied in legal tradition, as distinct from, and transcending, people’s private and particular interests at any particular time.
- The Social Contract
- A 1762 treatise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in which he theorized the best way to establish a political community in the face of the problems of commercial society. The work helped inspire political reforms and revolutions in Europe. It argued against the idea that monarchs were divinely empowered to legislate. Rousseau asserts that only the people, who are sovereign, have that all-powerful right.
- Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences
- A 1750 treatise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which argued that the arts and sciences corrupt human morality. It was Rousseau’s first expression of his influential views about nature vs. society, to which he would dedicate most of his intellectual life.
- state of nature
- A concept used in moral and political philosophy, religion, social contract theories, and international law to denote the hypothetical conditions of what the lives of people might have been like before societies came into existence. In some versions of social contract theory, there are no rights in the state of nature, only freedoms, and it is the contract that creates rights and obligations. In other versions the opposite occurs—the contract imposes restrictions upon individuals that curtail their natural rights.
- The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men
- A work by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau that first exposes his conception of a human state of nature and of human perfectibility, an early idea of progress. In it, Rousseau explains how, according to him, people may have established civil society, which leads him to present private property as the original source and basis of all inequality.
- “noble savage”
- A literary stock character who embodies the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other” who has not been “corrupted” by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness. In English, the phrase first appeared in the 17th century in John Dryden’s heroic play The Conquest of Granada (1672).
Introduction: Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Francophone Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the Enlightenment in France and across Europe. It was also important to the French Revolution and the overall development of modern political and educational thought.
Rousseau was born in 1712 in Geneva, which was at the time a city-state and a Protestant associate of the Swiss Confederacy. His mother died several days after he was born, and after his father remarried a few years later, Jean-Jacques was left with his maternal uncle, who packed him away, along with his own son, to board for two years with a Calvinist minister in a hamlet outside Geneva. Here, the boys picked up the elements of mathematics and drawing. After his father and uncle had more or less disowned him, the teenage Rousseau supported himself for a time as a servant, secretary, and tutor, wandering in Italy and France. He had been an indifferent student, but during his 20s, which were marked by long bouts of hypochondria, he applied himself to the study of philosophy, mathematics, and music. Rousseau spent his adulthood holding numerous administrative positions and moving across Europe, often to escape a controversy caused by his radical writings. His relationships with various women had important impacts on his life choices (e.g., temporary conversion to Catholicism) and inspired many of his writings. His decision to place his five children (born from a long-term domestic partnership with Thérèse Levasseur) in a shelter for abandoned children was widely criticized by his contemporaries and generations to come, particularly in light of his progressive works on education. Rousseau died in 1778.
The Theory of Natural Human
In common with other philosophers of the day, Rousseau looked to a hypothetical state of nature as a normative guide. Contrary to Thomas Hobbes’ views, Rousseau holds that “uncorrupted morals” prevail in the “state of nature.” In The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men (1754), Rousseau maintained that man in a state of nature had been a solitary, ape-like creature, who was not méchant (bad), as Hobbes had maintained, but (like some other animals) had an “innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer.”He asserted that the stage of human development associated with what he called “savages” was the best or optimal in human development, between the less-than-optimal extreme of brute animals on the one hand, and the extreme of decadent civilization on the other. Espousing the belief that all degenerates in men’s hands, Rousseau taught that men would be free, wise, and good in the state of nature, and that instinct and emotion, when not distorted by the unnatural limitations of civilization, are nature’s voices and instructions to the good life. Rousseau’s “noble savage” stands in direct opposition to the man of culture (however, while Rousseau discusses the concept, he never uses the phrase that appears in other authors’ writings of the period). In his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1750), Rousseau argued, in opposition to the dominant stand of Enlightenment thinkers, that the arts and sciences corrupt human morality.
The Social Contract
The Social Contract outlines the basis for a legitimate political order within a framework of classical republicanism. Published in 1762, it became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the western tradition. Rousseau claimed that the state of nature was a primitive condition without law or morality, which human beings left for the benefits and necessity of cooperation. As society developed, division of labor and private property required the human race to adopt institutions of law. According to Rousseau, by joining together into civil society through the social contract, and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others, and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law. The idea of general will denoted the will of the people as a whole. It served to designate the common interest embodied in legal tradition, as distinct from, and transcending, people’s private and particular interests at any particular time.
Although Rousseau argues that sovereignty (or the power to make the laws) should be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between the sovereign and the government. He posits that the political aspects of a society should be divided into two parts. First, there must be a sovereign consisting of the whole population, women included, that represents the general will and is the legislative power within the state. The second division is that of the government, being distinct from the sovereign. This division is necessary because the sovereign cannot deal with particular matters like applications of the law. Doing so would undermine its generality, and therefore damage its legitimacy. Thus, government must remain a separate institution from the sovereign body. When the government exceeds the boundaries set in place by the people, it is the mission of the people to abolish such government, and begin anew.
Rousseau’s philosophy of education, elaborated in his 1762 treatise Emile, or On Education, concerns itself with developing the students’ character and moral sense, so that they may learn to practice self-mastery and remain virtuous even in the unnatural and imperfect society in which they will have to live. The hypothetical boy, Émile, is to be raised in the countryside, which, Rousseau believes, is a more natural and healthy environment than the city, under the guardianship of a tutor, who will guide him through various learning experiences arranged by the tutor. Rousseau felt that children learn right and wrong through experiencing the consequences of their acts, rather than through physical punishment. The tutor will make sure that no harm results to Émile through his learning experiences. Rousseau became an early advocate of developmentally appropriate education.
Although many of Rousseau’s ideas foreshadowed modern ones in many ways, in one way they do not; Rousseau was a believer in the moral superiority of the patriarchal family on the antique Roman model. Sophie, the young woman Émile is destined to marry, as a representative of ideal womanhood, is educated to be governed by her husband, while Émile, as representative of the ideal man, is educated to be self-governing. This is an essential feature of Rousseau’s educational and political philosophy, and particularly important to the distinction between private, personal relations and the public world of political relations. The private sphere as Rousseau imagines it depends on the subordination of women, in order for both it and the public political sphere (upon which it depends) to function as Rousseau imagines it could and should. Rousseau anticipated the modern idea of the bourgeois nuclear family, with the mother at home taking responsibility for the household, childcare, and early education.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau
“Emile, or On Education.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emile,_or_On_Education. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Discourse on the Arts and Sciences.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discourse_on_the_Arts_and_Sciences. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
- “Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
- “General will.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_will. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
- “Discourse on Inequality.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discourse_on_Inequality. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
- “800px-Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_painted_portrait.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau#/media/File:Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_(painted_portrait).jpg. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.