Happy birthday Jean-Jacques

by Chris Bertram on June 27, 2012

Today (the 28th, which it now is in Geneva) is the 300th birthday of Jean-Jacques Rousseau! It is fair to say that Jean-Jacques has divided people pretty sharply ever since he first came to public notice in 1749. There are those who love him, despite his madness, his misogyny and his occasional penchant for alarming political formulations, and there are those who loathe him as the progenitor of totalitarianism. For what it’s worth, I’m in the first camp.

Rousseau’s genius is to have perceived that the gains of modernity were accompanied by significant loss. He was obsessed with the idea that as civilization has developed, we have acquired new needs, needs which exceed our capacity to satisfy them alone. From that dependence on others arises a threat to our freedom; from our living together with others springs a new self-consciousness and a sense of how we appear in the eyes of others. Dependence on others provides each of us with powerful incentives to get others to do what we want; our consciousness of how we appear to them leads us to yearn for their recognition, for their love and respect. But knowing that they too have an incentive to represent themselves to us in ways that get us to fulfil their material and recognitional needs, we are forever gripped by anxiety, jealousy and resentment. We, and others, are dancers in a terrible masked ball of inauthenticity, from which we cannot escape.

Or maybe we can. Maybe we can be educated so that our sense of self-esteem is less dependent on the opinion of others. Maybe we can bring into being a social form in which each of us is secure in the recognition of our fellow citizens and in which we cease to be dependent on the whims of our fellows, but are subject instead to impartial laws that we ourselves have chosen.

That was Rousseau’s project, and it has not been without consequence: without Rousseau, no Kant, no Hegel, perhaps no Marx or Nietzsche; without Rousseau perhaps also no Robespierre (though he would have rejected as laughable the Jacobin claim to incarnate the general will). But we also should not forget, on his birthday, his contributions to music and literature, the beauty and pain of his autobiographical writings, and his sensibility to nature and contribution to the science of botany.

Happy birthday Jean-Jacques.

The handshake

by niamh on June 27, 2012

At last Sinn Féin have done it. They missed out on all the big symbolic moments of Queen Elizabeth’s official visit to Ireland last year. Then realized that they were way out of step with public opinion. Handshakes for slow learners. But better late than never.

Searching for John Snows

by Steven Berlin Johnson on June 27, 2012

Sometime in the early 1840s, a British doctor and statistician named William Farr took control of the Weekly Returns Of Births And Deaths, a publication of the Registrar General’s office where Farr worked. Variants of the Weekly Returns had been published by the state for at least two centuries before Farr took over, but for most of that time the Returns recorded only the name of the newly born or newly dead, and the parish where they resided. But Farr was what we would now call an Open Data advocate, and over time he greatly expanded the information disseminated through the Weekly Returns. By the mid 1850s, the Returns tracked age, cause of death, occupation–even the elevation of the dead’s primary residence. (Farr believed that people living in higher altitudes had healthier lives.) Inspired by a debate with one of his contemporaries, the Soho doctor John Snow, Farr even added information on the deceased’s regular source of drinking water.

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