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.



mattski 06.28.12 at 12:39 am

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.

But are they really new needs? Haven’t we always been a social animal?


Matt 06.28.12 at 1:26 am

I’m glad to see you mention the botany, Chris.

For anyone looking for a good introduction to Rousseau’s Social Contract, let me recommend Chris’s book on it from Routledge. It’s clear, nicely written, and I found it very useful.


hartal 06.28.12 at 1:57 am

Daniel Little review Joshua Cohen’s book Rousseau http://understandingsociety.blogspot.com/2010/08/rousseau-democrat.html; careful attention to the meaning of a “free community of equals”. How does that compare to a free association of producers? Community to association? Equals to Producers?


Freddie 06.28.12 at 2:09 am

What a great post.


Both Sides Do It 06.28.12 at 3:00 am

This makes me want to do a Rousseau-ian reading of David Foster Wallace. Or at least read one.


Mark J. Lovas 06.28.12 at 7:08 am

I had a thought like mattski….I thought hunter- gatherers (and pastorals?) were very attentive to what others had— not that anyone had much……At any rate, the brief summary you ( Chris Bertram) have provided seems to me to generate a paradox only if there is an assumption about the non- existence of something like a common good. I am also not sure whether your summary does not play too heavily on the idea of seeming. Now maybe that is Rousseau’s idea– I cannot say— but the alleged paradox has no pull for me. I doubt whether we can actually keep track in the way it suggests of how we appear to others. Not that we can keep track at some level and then it gets complex, but, rather at even low levels, it is confusing. My view of him that he thought this about me because I seemed like that is oh so quickly shattered if I get a little accurate information….say an honest, but revealing remark from him—- but re-reading what you have written, this might be a description of what some people think is going on……


Niall McAuley 06.28.12 at 8:22 am

Rousseau may have been completely wrong as mattski suggests, but that doesn’t stop him being important or influential. Freud was completely wrong about everything (except perhaps his own neuroses), but he is still important and influential.

Freud I would put down as unhelpful, but what about Rousseau?


QS 06.28.12 at 11:41 am

If you want a short intro to Rousseau’s ideas on the “new” social needs, read his “Letter to d’Alembert” which is published by Cornell as Politics and the Arts.

Nice writeup, though I think in the 3rd paragraph you’re inadvertently describing a post-market society. Otherwise, it’s a restatement of Veblen (who built off of Rousseau’s ideas 100 years ago). Veblen’s ideas still hold true today because the basics of the socio-economy have not changed (social anonymity mediated by market relations, both of production and consumption).


QS 06.28.12 at 11:48 am

#7, I side with Bertram (I think) on this, in that Rousseau’s most important legacy (his “helpful” side) is in his proto-romantic rejection of modernity, or in other words, his ideas as expressed in the First Discourse and summarized in his “Letter” which I mentioned above. To put it crudely, Rousseau was the first thinker whose rejection of modernity (the arts, sciences, and urban city) proved influential. Rousseau noted things in the 18th century which thinkers like Simmel (“Metropolis and Mental Life”) and Veblen would not expand upon until the end of the 19th.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.28.12 at 11:57 am

It’s simply silly, if not preposterous, to talk about the likes of a Rousseau or a Freud as being “completely wrong,” be it possibly, probably, or wholly. If one comes to such judgments unaided as it were, it’s time to consult inquiring minds better equipped at such assessments then one’s own. As there’s more Freud-bashing than Rousseau-bashing, we should mention the philosophers that have found much of enduring value in Freud’s work: Jonathan Lear, Sebastian Gardner, Donald Levy, Richard Wollheim, David Sachs, John Deigh, Ernest Wallwork, Michael Stocker, Marcia Cavell, Ilham Dilman, Jim Hopkins, Ernest Wallwork, John Cottingham, and Paul Ricoeur (among others).

Also, I thought to point out that there is an interesting comparison to be made between more than a few ideas held by Rousseau and identical or similar ones put forth by Gandhi, especially with regard to the critique of modern civilization (some of these are mentioned in Iyer’s book on Gandhi’s moral and political philosophy).


hgdfg3445d 06.28.12 at 12:07 pm

The Guardian has an article by Terry Eagleton on the same topic: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/27/rousseau-our-selfish-age-philosopher


Harold 06.28.12 at 12:17 pm

Awareness of how we appear to others came in with the beginnings of language and sociability according to Rousseau, for whom “natural man” was solitary and pre-social. He writes that: “Men, who have up to now been roving in the woods, by taking to a more settled manner of life, come gradually together, form separate bodies, and at length in every country arises a distinct nation, united in character and manners, not by regulations or laws, but by uniformity of life and food [custom], and the common influence of climate. Permanent neighbourhood could not fail to produce, in time, some connection between different families. Among young people of opposite sexes, living in neighboring huts, the transient commerce required by nature soon led, through mutual intercourse, to another kind not less agreeable, and more permanent. Men began now to … make comparisons; they acquired imperceptibly the ideas of beauty and merit, which soon gave rise to feelings of preference. In consequence of seeing each other often, they could not do without seeing each other constantly. A tender and pleasant feeling insinuated itself into their souls, and the least opposition turned it into an impetuous fury: with love arose jealousy; discord triumphed, and human blood was sacrificed to the gentlest of all passions.

As ideas and feelings succeeded one another, and heart and head were brought into play, men continued to lay aside their original wildness; their private connections became every day more intimate as their limits extended. They accustomed themselves to assemble before their huts round a large tree; singing and dancing, the true offspring of love and leisure, became the amusement, or rather the occupation, of men and women thus assembled together with nothing else to do. Each one began to consider the rest, and to wish to be considered in turn; and thus a value came to be attached to public esteem. Whoever sang or danced best, whoever was the handsomest, the strongest, the most dexterous, or the most eloquent, came to be of most consideration; and this was the first step towards inequality, and at the same time towards vice. From these first distinctions arose on the one side vanity and contempt and on the other shame and envy: and the fermentation caused by these new leavens ended by producing combinations fatal to innocence and happiness.
As soon as men began to value one another, and the idea of consideration had got a footing in the mind, every one put in his claim to it, and it became impossible to refuse it to any with impunity. Hence arose the first obligations of civility even among savages; and every intended injury became an affront; because, besides the hurt which might result from it, the party injured was certain to find in it a contempt for his person, which was often more insupportable than the hurt itself.

Thus, as every man punished the contempt shown him by others, in proportion to his opinion of himself, revenge became terrible, and men bloody and cruel. This is precisely the state reached by most of the savage nations known to us ” (Discourse on Origins of Inequality).


bert 06.28.12 at 1:36 pm

Perfect for the treadmill at the gym: Chris on Rousseau [mp3]
The title of this blog gives me cover to post a dissenting link: Berlin on Rousseau [mp3 – it’s a BBC radio broadcast from the 1950s]
Both well worth a listen.


Niall McAuley 06.28.12 at 1:51 pm

The piece Harold quotes is an example of something which is completely wrong, no matter how preposterous it may be to say that.


hgdfg3445d 06.28.12 at 2:55 pm

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
Has this ever been more true in human history?
e.g. “The richest 1% of the [UK] population, about 300,000 persons with an income of more than £3,000 a week, are estimated to possess wealth of about £1tn. The richest 10% control wealth of about £4tn. To put these figures in perspective, Britain’s total GDP is £1.45tn. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/31/how-to-kickstart-uk-economy)


(a different) matt 06.28.12 at 3:04 pm

Thank you for this note. It’s far better than the lazy, gratuitous Rousseau-bashing one often sees on the interweb.


Chris Bertram 06.28.12 at 3:04 pm

“completely wrong”. Well yes and no. Any 18th-century account of the evolution of the human race is going to be completely wrong as science, for rather obvious reasons. Rousseau was clearly mistaken in his claim about the asocial nature of the original humans (though his descriptions fit orangutans fairly well! as Robert Wokler discusses in his classic essay “Perfectible Apes in Decadent Cultures). But for some reflection on the connections between Rousseau’s philosophical anthropology and modern work, specifically Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest, see ch 2 of my book. Rousseau’s emphasis on the need for recognition as a component of the good and his phenomenology of some of the interactions that result (see Emile book 4) seems, on the other hand, to be of abiding interest and importance.

I see now that I wrote the second para in such a way as to suggest that amour propre only emerges with modernity. That wasn’t R’s view: it emerged with the “golden age” in the bit quoted by Harold (slightly different account in the Essay on the Origin of Languages btw). But it is with modernity that it becomes “inflamed” and where things really go bad, as with the description of the “European minister” from Inequality.


mattski 06.28.12 at 6:09 pm

I didn’t intend any Rousseau bashing, btw. More just curious. I will track down letter QS mentioned.

Seems to me most social animals depend for their survival on setting up hierarchies and that very much entails a keen awareness of how the individual is perceived by others.


hartal 06.28.12 at 6:20 pm

I can’t remember what, if anything, Axel Honneth says about Rousseau on recognition in his work. See that he gave this paper recently

Sunday, April 08, 2012
Honneth talks at University College London
On April 19, 2012, Professor Axel Honneth talks at a conference on Rousseau at the University College London.

His keynote lecture is entitled “The vicissitudes of recognition: The legacy of J-J Rousseau”.


rm 06.28.12 at 6:39 pm

A word for the “keen awareness of how the individual is perceived by others,” with all the behaviors and customs that mediate that awareness, is rhetoric. There’s a reason rhetoric is one of the oldest fields of study.

I just wanna know from people who actually know their Rousseau whether or not I am correct enough for English 101 purposes to tell the students, when they read part of “The Social Contract” in their freshman reader, that Rousseau theorizes civil rights and representative democracy. How is he the progenitor of totalitarianism, through the Jacobins and Marx? I guess? Because he doesn’t seem to leave room for civil disobedience — once you accept that your government is legitimate you have no right to break the contract? Huh?


sean matthews 06.28.12 at 8:04 pm

I am in the second.


LFC 06.28.12 at 8:44 pm

I’m sure there’s a lot of good stuff in Chris’s book on The Social Contract, but the opening paragraph of its Introduction may well be worth the price all by itself.


mattski 06.28.12 at 8:47 pm

A word for the “keen awareness of how the individual is perceived by others,” with all the behaviors and customs that mediate that awareness, is rhetoric.

Not if you’re a chimp, or a wolf, eg.


Chris Bertram 06.28.12 at 9:32 pm

LFC, I can reveal that the “original owner” was Bruce Dickinson, later lead singer of Iron Maiden (see final para of same).


js. 06.28.12 at 9:45 pm

I just wanna know from people who actually know their Rousseau whether or not I am correct enough for English 101 purposes to tell the students, when they read part of “The Social Contract” in their freshman reader, that Rousseau theorizes civil rights and representative democracy.

Well, he’s actually against representative democracy. He has an argument that the will can’t be represented, so you can’t actually have some individual “represent” other individuals’ wills. Frankly, I don’t know what to think about this argument. And while Rousseau argues that a (legitimate, his-type-of-democratic) state allows it citizens to gain “civil liberty”, the relation between what he calls civil liberty and what we call civil rights is not at all obvious. And CB’s book is really quite good on a lot of this stuff.

Anyway, I’m pretty much in the Rousseau-lover camp, but I don’t think it’s at all crazy to hold he should have thought harder about procedural constraints to limit the exercise of majoritarian power, e.g. A lot of people I think go from this to arguing that he was a progenitor of totalitarianism, etc. Which, frankly, is a bit mad I think.


Wonks Anonymous 06.28.12 at 9:46 pm

As an American, I was taught in middle school that Locke was good and Rousseau was bad, which is why America turned out so much better. Then I read an actual Frenchman (Bertrand de Jouvenel) and found that the quotations of Rousseau hardly resembled the character I had been taught.
Yes, enlightenment figures were ignorant of much that modern science has taught us. Which makes the modernist-provincialist (I wasn’t sure if the term “presentist” would unfairly exclude the future) in me wonder why we look to them so often for insight.


LFC 06.29.12 at 1:33 am

Chris B. @24
ah yes, just looked at final paragraph
(I wouldn’t recognize an Iron Maiden song if my life depended on it, but anyway I now know who Bruce Dickinson is…)


Main Street Muse 06.29.12 at 1:34 am

The man who wrote The Social Contract also was the man who handed his five children over to the foundling home rather than take responsibility for them himself. Rousseau was a great thinker, perhaps, but a reprehensible man. http://bit.ly/MtNaFp

Happy birthday indeed.


mattski 06.29.12 at 1:43 am

Oh dear. Read a little of “Letter to d’Alembert”. It’s easy to see where comparisons to the Taliban, for example, might come up.


QS 06.29.12 at 8:09 am


Jacob 06.29.12 at 12:05 pm

Another to add to the growing list of resources on JJR.

He believed that freedom to participate in the legislative process would lead to an elimination of inequality and injustice and promote a feeling of belonging to society.

Happy Birthday Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Linca 06.30.12 at 12:19 am

Rousseau was pretty clear that his “noble savage” was a theoretical construct, not a representation of reality, so calling him “completely wrong” on what is a rhethorical method is a bit extreme… That’s how Voltaire attacked him anyway, and it’s not like Voltaire was right on that particular subject.


Bumstead 06.30.12 at 2:15 am

“Hobbes is just Rousseau in a dark mirror..”

Hal Incandenza says this in DFW’s Infinite Jest (when he’s ‘talking’ to the college admissions people, explaining the person that he was inside). I was always curious to know what he may have been getting at. So I’m thinking now that maybe it’s Rousseau’s proximity to totalitarian thinkers?? I don’t know much about Rousseau at all so this thread has been pretty interesting. I’ll be checking out CB’s stuff on him. Thanks.


bianca steele 06.30.12 at 2:39 pm

I doubt Wallace was talking about politics. More likely their views of human nature.

Camille Paglia blames JJR for everything that’s wrong with education and psychology in modern times, fwiw. If you think there’s any value, even evidentiary value, in anything she says. And no one except Chris has mentioned literature: if it weren’t for The New Heloise, there would be no Dangerous Liaisons, and an entire tradition of novels wouldn’t exist.


Harold 06.30.12 at 5:01 pm

“The notion that Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality was essentially a glorification of the State of Nature, and that its influence tended to wholly or chiefly to promote “Primitivism” is one of the most persistent historical errors. – A. O. Lovejoy, “The Supposed Primitivism of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality” (1923).[26]

“As far as the noble savage is concerned, that phrase is from Dryden and does not appear in Rousseau’s writings. In the years I taught the history of political theory at Columbia to a sizable class of undergraduates, I would offer students a hundred dollars if they could find “Noble Savage” anywhere in Rousseau. I never had to pay up” –Peter Gay, “Breeding Is Fundamental: Jenny Davidson reflects on Enlightenment ideas about human perfectibility”, Book Forum [April/May 2009]


bianca steele 06.30.12 at 6:46 pm

There’s a whole strand of intellectual history, running straight through Lovejoy to Peckham, that consists essentially in repetitions of the phrase, “this attribution of the promotion of primitivism to [insert thinker’s name here] is one of the most persistent historical errors.”


Harold 07.01.12 at 12:14 am

Is that so? Do you even know who A. O. Lovejoy was, Bianca?


Harold 07.01.12 at 4:05 am

“Arthur Lovejoy’s critical role in dispelling the myth cultivated with such care by many eighteenth-century philosophes should be recalled … ” Mario Einaudi, The Early Rousseau ( 1967) p. 5.

In his suggestions for further reading, Nicholas Dent calls Lovejoy’s essay “A classic essay on the Second Discourse”. See Nicholas Dent, Rousseau (Routledge 2005), p. 80. (This book has a cover blurb by Christopher Bertram, University of Bristol, UK, who calls it “the best introduction to Rousseau’s life and thought in English.”)

and also:
Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction
By Robert Wokle http://books.google.com/books?id=4QTpVSZNhBUC&pg=PA155&lpg=PA155&dq=Wokler+Supposed+primitivism&source=bl&ots=tK1At5rNRw&sig=c_5-fzW6z30mOS9X4_w00vRvR8w&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wrPvT4TiFs6M0QGjv_36Ag&ved=0CFoQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=Lovejoy&f=false

Plus just about every college syllabus on introductory courses about Rousseau that comes up on google, where it is required reading.

Lovejoy wrote the essay as a devastating and definitive critique of Irving Babbit’s 1919 book “Rousseau and Romanticism”, in which like Camille Paglia, he blamed all the ills of society on Rousseau. (Babbitt, founder of a movement called “The New Humanism”, was a mentor of T.S. Eliot’s.)


bianca steele 07.01.12 at 6:54 pm

I was referring to Peckham’s essay “Darwin and Darwinisticism.” I doubt the similarity in wording of his title to Babbitt’s has any appreciable significance.


Harold 07.01.12 at 8:41 pm

Peckham’s windy generalities conceivably have a faint parallel with the style of Babbitt and his school (if you are referring to Morse Peckham), though to say so may not be very fair to Babbitt. There is no school leading from A. O. Lovejoy to Morse Peckham, however, since the Lovejoy supported his assertions with evidence, which is why he continues to be cited by experts in the field.

Lovejoy’s essay should be part of a Rousseau casebook. (I feel a little silly having to argue about this).

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