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Why Rousseau Still Matters

December 14, 2009

Christopher Bertram in The Philosopher’s Magazine:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a figure of continued importance for us, and for the problems – social, political, cultural, personal – that we face today, even though he died over a quarter of a millennium ago. He had an insight into the problems of living and of living well in competitive, hierarchical and status-conscious societies such as his own and the ones we still live in today. He also had some solutions, both individual and political, to the problems of modern life. Those solutions have struck many people, and not altogether wrongly, as dangerous and impractical. Still, they continue to inform, either directly or indirectly, a great deal of modern thinking on legitimacy, freedom, justice and social order.

The core of Rousseau’s thinking is his moral psychology or philosophical anthropology. It is central both to his view of the fall of humankind from grace and in the solutions that he proposes for the ills of the human condition. It is also, unfortunately, a part of his thinking that is widely misunderstood, partly for good reasons to do with obscurities in his texts. In fact it is probably the case that most of the reception of Rousseau’s thinking in the humanities has been the reception of a “Rousseau” who espoused views somewhat different from the ones the actual Jean-Jacques was trying to express. We aren’t necessarily helped, in the task of recovery, by the man himself, whose literary abilities and appetite for rhetorical flourish mean that highly-quotable snippets – such as the claim that citizens of a just republic are forced to be free – are recycled into interpretation. The form of exposition can also be a problem: the two works in which Rousseau gives the most systematic exposition of his psychological views are the second Discourse (on inequality) and Emile. The Discourse is a speculative hypothetical reconstruction of the prehistory and history of the human race; Emile is a treatise on education which eventually turns into a novel. Both are a good distance from the conventional academic treatise.

The central element of Rousseau’s moral psychology is self-love, or care for self. Human beings, like all creatures, are driven to preserve themselves and their lives. Rousseau’s view is a long way, however, from any kind of approach where self-interest, or the maximization of utility, or the maximization of inclusive fitness is the explanatory driver. This is because Rousseau differentiates our desires into two basically different kinds, a differentiation that is reflected in his employment of two categorically different terms for self-love: amour de soi, and amour propre.

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