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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

February 3– Rousseau’s Historical Anthropology: Some Basic Concepts

Rousseau can be thought of as the founder and source of many of the radical movements in social and political thought of the last two and a half centuries. Radical democracy, Marxian and non-Marxian socialisms, anarchism, even to some extent radical environmentalist movements owe something significant to his thought. The one very significant contemporary exception would be feminism. Although Rousseau was an inspiration to the very early modern feminism of someone like Mary Wollstonecraft, he was also (and for very good reason) the object of her most vigorous criticism.

Most of the theorists we are investigating this year have been founders or innovators, beginning with Plato, who founds political philosophy itself. Machiavelli and Hobbes, especially the latter, were also great innovators who, between them, managed to supplant the tradition of natural law begun in Platonic idealism. They did this by emphasizing the necessity of beginning any theory of politics by looking at human behaviour in the same way that one might scientifically examine a physical universe conceived in mechanical, non-teleological terms. Hobbes in particular showed the inconsistency that exists between the old tradition of natural law and the behaviour of people in a market society, and in doing so laid down most of the basic principles of liberalism.

You’ll notice that I’ve left Aristotle and Locke out of this group of great innovators. Although each did produce important innovations – Aristotle introducing a view of politics itself as a teleological process; Locke establishing that a market society does not need a self-perpetuating absolutist government – despite this, their innovations are relatively minor when compared with the first group. They might derive their greatest significance from consolidating and adapting what others had begun. Rousseau was something else again. If after Hobbes, political theory would never be the same again, then after Rousseau, nothing would be the same again.

In Rousseau, there is some movement back to the classics. There is an effort in his work to recapture and rework something genuinely true in the classical notion of human virtue: an awareness of the need to include some kind of teleological dimension (or something like it) in our understanding of society and also a recognition of the political relation between people as performing an essential ethical function. But this movement back to the classics is not a reactionary movement on Rousseau’s part, since he cannot accept a view of society as being both organic and hierarchical by nature.  Because Rousseau breaks with liberalism he is able to appropriate and rework certain dimensions of classical philosophy. But since, like the liberals, he rejects a hierarchical organicism as being natural, the classics have only a limited value for him. They are not a stopping point. In a spirit of modernity a bit like that of  Hobbes, Rousseau also finds it important to rely (but not exclusively) on a framework of scientific knowledge to help in understanding the actual complexities of human nature. The new science that Rousseau will make important use of in his political thought will be the first stirrings of evolutionary biology during the Eighteenth century ( about 100 years before the Darwinian model of species evolution appeared on the scene). Rousseau does not wish to return to a past that is lost and gone, although he has strong sympathies for those who would like to return to the earliest human past. He wants to use a new understanding of the human past to break through the limitations of the present in favour of a possible future that brings together and synthesizes many more layers of human nature and potential than have been favoured so far by the mainstream of political philosophy. What allows this is a fundamental theoretical breakthrough, one that foreshadows the much more imposing systems of Hegel and Marx in the Nineteenth century.

Rousseau is the first political theorist to attempt to grasp human nature as a product of a process of social evolution and to grasp the socio-historical process as founded on the evolution of human biology. He therefore also becomes the first political theorist to construct a political philosophy inside a general framework that sees humankind as being its own (albeit till now unconscious) author. For Rousseau, what could be called human nature is not something simply given (like the universal and eternal laws of matter in motion that Hobbes pursued). Human nature is something that the social activity of human beings produces and constitutes over time. This has two dimensions: a biological dimension and a cultural-psychological dimension.

Let’s take a first brief look at the biological dimension. The biological structures and features that distinguish us from the rest of the animal world Rousseau now sees as the product of a process of evolution. This makes him also an important forerunner of Darwin and of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. As a matter of fact, Rousseau manages to achieve fundamentally the same view of human evolution as the most modern anthropological theory. He does not see biological and cultural evolution as two distinct and successive stages, but as a combined process. The slow and gradual creation of a cultural mode of existence by our hominid ancestors is a crucial factor in biological evolution. (We have these large brains because some of our ancestors with smaller brains were already starting to use tools, cooperate in production, and speak to each other). For Rousseau, once biological evolution (which is also affected by our social activities) has been brought to a certain point, what primarily distinguishes humans is the extent to which they are formed (in their deepest psychological levels) in and through their cultures. And their cultures change and succeed each other in history. Their cultures are even open  to conscious direction. So you could say that humans do really make themselves, although this is not their intention or the intention of their pre-human ancestors. They are not “authors” in that sense.

For Rousseau, then, there is no such thing as a separate, fixed and permanent human nature, not in Hobbes’s sense of an individual human nature, or in Plato’s or Aristotle’s sense of a  psyche that derives its identity from its specific function within a whole. In fact, what distinguishes humanity as a species is its unheard of capacity, grounded in its unique biology, both of which have developed historically, to constitute its own “nature”, its second nature, if you like. As a biological species it distinguishes itself by being the cultural animal. And culture is not something it can do without. It is, although highly, if not infinitely variable, of the essence. Human nature has changed in the past in its wants, needs, motivations and self-conceptions. Its biological nature necessarily involves an openness to change at the cultural and psychological levels. It is therefore capable of changing again. No one model of human nature or society conceived by our past is therefore sufficient. And we must start all over again in our efforts to comprehend it.

Hobbes and Locke had tried to conceive of  what man would be like outside of or prior to society, i.e. man in the state of nature. But both of them had read back into their conceptions of man as such the characteristics of the bourgeois societies in which they lived. They attributed to the human individual what were the requirements of only one social structure, which they happened to inhabit and support. They read back into the natural man the characteristics and characteristic relationships of the socially formed human beings around them. Rousseau will turn their own method against them.

What you find when you break society down into its simplest units is not individuated, already rational, linguistically competent, temporally conscious, potentially moral human beings engaged in a limitless struggle for power in which they need protection by a sovereign state. If you truly and persistently try to conceive human beings apart from society, you find neither Hobbes’s self-steering systems of appetites and aversions, nor even Locke’s more mysteriously and ambiguously moral individuals. What you find instead is either an imaginary “man” or a hypothetical non-human creature. One can think of Rousseau’s natural man in two ways. First, he is an imaginary construct, in the sense that no human being can exist outside society. (Already there is a reworked shadow of the Aristotelian notion that outside the polis there are only gods or beasts). What you find is your own imagination. This is what Hobbes and Locke found, inasmuch as they thought they were talking about human nature in general and per se and not the specific human nature of a certain time and place. The second thing you find is a non- or proto-human animal.

Rousseau wishes to go beyond the simple acceptance of what has been made “to date” as natural. To be sure, the “natural man” in this second aspect is also an imaginary construct, a scientific hypothesis, a theoretical entity, but one that represents the most basic requirements for reconstructing a process of evolutionary and historical development. Hobbes and Locke undermined feudal and traditional inequality, the hierarchies of classical and medieval society, with their initial assumptions about human equality. But they supported and rationalized the new inequalities of bourgeois society by reading into human nature the perpetual strife and limitless egoism of the market society. For Rousseau, neither form of inequality is justified by nature.

The cultural evolution of human wants, needs, motivations and social relations Rousseau thinks cannot be understood apart from grasping the ways in which different human societies organize the production of their everyday material existence. One thing that importantly distinguishes one society from another is a basic set of relationships that guide people in their activities of production (and reproduction): the type and degree of the division of labour (beginning with the sexual division of labour), the technologies involved (which will correlate to different understandings of what knowledge is and how it is produced) and the kinds of property systems involved. These interconnected relations (what Marx will call “modes of production”) form, shape and mold the actual wants, needs, desires, motivations, self-perceptions and political relationships of people.  Here there is an important premonition of crucial elements of Marx’s “historical materialism”, together with the idea that humans are inherently and always social animals whose “nature” (and now the word must be understood differently) changes with the mode of production. One important difference between Rousseau and Marx, however, is that for Marx, human nature can for all intents and purposes be taken to be the “sum total” of human historical social relations. Rousseau, on the other hand will have a more inclusive understanding of our historical social natures, more inclusive primarily in accepting and valuing highly the “animal”, bodily life of human beings. For Rousseau, there is a bodily core to all dimensions of human existence which is never fully fixed by the historical-cultural forms it must take. In a sense, then, “nature” still transcends the particular forms we have made of it. It still retains a critical function. One of the ways in which we can judge different societies is in reference to what they have made of our essential embodiment.

Since Rousseau is the first theorist to grasp the developmental character of a social human nature, he is also the first to give substantial attention to the phenomenon of alienation, even though he does not use this term explicitly. The alienation that Rousseau analyzes is also two-fold: it is first of all a tension between what is necessarily always retained in humanity of its original animal nature and the demands, performances and toil required by different societies at various stages of development. This first dimension of alienation is alienation from nature, including elements of one’s own human nature that are shared with other animals. The second dimension to the alienation he describes is a tension between the individual and collective capacities people develop in the course of their historical activity and the social systems that both develop and later inhibit these capacities. Most of previous human history was for Rousseau a history of such alienation – of people producing social and economic systems that escaped their individual and collective control and became inhibiting and compulsive, apparently external forces.

Now, with respect to the first kind of alienation, Rousseau is really the first to see and describe it as a problem, with perhaps the possible exception of the Cynics. Ancient philosophy (and Christianity for the most part) welcomed the suppression of humanity’s original animal nature as a good thing. The socially necessary frustration of the amoral, non-rational, animal sense of well-being (included in what Rousseau describes as “amour-de-soi” – which we will get to shortly) was seen as inherently good. It represented the victory of a divine or god-like reason over mere animal lust and passion. But for Rousseau, the supposedly rational repression of biological desire becomes a psychic malaise, an anxiousness and unhappiness, an illness. This psychic malaise has become worse as society progresses in technical rationality.

The liberal idea, as opposed to the ancients, had been to free human nature, conceived as a limitless self-seeking, from the authority of social constraints, to let it be guided by clear-headed calculation in the belief that such reasoning would recognize the utility of the state and its laws. Rousseau rejects this kind of individualism, and this view of reason. He is the first to break with possessive individualism. But against the ancients, he finds that the social nature of the human being remains profoundly problematic, and unfinished. The kind of individualism engendered by the relations of a market society Rousseau condemned as a form of alienation. The market not only separates individuals from each other, sets them against each other in competitive and exploitative relations. It not only forces each individual into a compulsive struggle with everyone else in which each must relentlessly pursue economic gain at the expense of competitors. At the psychological level, it also intensifies to an extreme the human propensity for the individual to “live outside himself”. Humans, by way of the symbolism in language and the abstraction required by reason, are the only animals capable of identifying their being with the image of a separate self subject to the judgement of others. In the market, in which a relative price is put on everything, a person’s very sense of self, of his/her sense of being and of value, is the being and value of a commodity, constantly subject to downward and upward fluctuation, at the mercy of the self-interested desires of others. The sense of self, of the enjoyment of being, is ensnared in a web of “invidious comparison”. My sense of  self-worth becomes inversely proportional to that of others’. I can only see myself as good if I am judged “better” than the rest. This way of living, in which the sense of self and the feeling of happiness depends on the regard of others, becomes a form of alienation, in that my life over time imperceptibly becomes dedicated to living the demands and under the standards of those upon whom I depend for recognition. Thus even though my motivation may be extremely selfish, I can be subtly induced to conform to the demands of others, and without any explicit or obvious violence. In time, I can forget that there might have been a difference between  what I truly desire to do and to be and what  various social institutions establish as desirable. For Rousseau, you could say that there is no greater oppressive collectivism than the conformity imposed by the rules of economic and psychological survival in a society penetrated by market relations. This desire for recognition that Rousseau calls “amour-propre” is not something that remains permanently the same across different social forms but takes quite different forms in history. Although it is present in early stages of society, it cannot reach the extremes of alienation produced by the market society because in those earlier traditional forms, individuals were not called upon or compelled to shift for themselves.

The main problem of modern politics will, for Rousseau, turn out to be this alienation of human beings in the market society. It is an alienation of individuals from each other or from community. Community is doubly split by the market into a competitive struggle  among individuals and also into a struggle between economic classes, what in the Second Discourse Rousseau calls “the rich” and the “supernumeraries”. It is also an alienation of the individual from him/herself, from one’s own will. And finally, it is an alienation in individuals from levels or modes of their own psyche and desire, an alienation from ways of being that would interfere with the abstracting, calculating rationality demanded by the sorts of economic performances required in the unending struggle for limitless economic gain. Rousseau saw the emerging liberal doctrines of thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke as destructive not only of community, but of true individuality. Yet he refused to go behind the fundamental claim staked out by liberalism for human freedom and equality.

“Human nature” thus turns out at least to be a much more complex concept than Hobbes and Locke could have imagined, or, for that matter Aristotle and Plato. There is a similar complexity  with regard to the role of reason in this whole process of the social self-constitution `of human nature. Rousseau begins the self-questioning of the type of reason that had dominated Western philosophy since Plato. And since Rousseau, this questioning of reason has only grown stronger and more refined. For Rousseau, it is a critique of reason  from the point of view of the “passions”, a rejection of the of the model of human nature as a separate and independent reason controlling bad and blind animal passions. Reason for Rousseau is no longer the unproblematical essence of human nature. The life of reason, as either Plato or Hobbes understood it, in spite of their very substantial differences, could no longer be understood as a life of freedom and happiness.

Rousseau’s critique of reason becomes an interpretive problem because in the Social Contract Rousseau seems to rely very heavily on reason in his political prescription. On the one hand we have, in the Second Discourse, a defense of the passions at the level of simple animal being against the dictates of reason. On the other hand, in the Social Contract, we will have a call for the submission of  the passions to a rational understanding of right. Most interpreters see the Social Contract as replacing or overcoming the individualism and anti-rationalism of the Second Discourse. Or they will see it as an admission on Rousseau’s part that since the individual cannot be liberated from society, he mus be liberated through society.

In the Social Contract, Rousseau will be exploring the possibility of a form of society in which freedom is self-restraint. Such self-restraint is warranted when it comes in the form of a universal recognition of the freedom and equality of all persons. And this self-restraint can be achieved when law takes the form of a certain democratic outcome, i.e. when the law becomes the rational formulation of the universal recognition of the freedom and equality of each and every person. It is still too early to get into the important question for understanding Rousseau of whether or not there is a break between these two works, or what the relation between them might otherwise be. Let me simply suggest two things here: that this whole question of a “break” between these two central works is based upon a prior acceptance of a dualistic understanding of human nature, that reason and passions are (or are like) two separate substances. I don’t think Rousseau shares this dualism. Rousseau’s critique of reason can also be understood as a critique not of reason per se, as though human reason itself were something fixed and eternal, completely independent of human embodiment. The reason Rousseau is criticizing is not this separate thing, above and beyond the passions, but intimately and internally linked to their historical development. He is criticizing the understanding of a reason (and the glorification of that reason) which is the reason that has grown up with and also helped form the project of a separate and self-sufficient human subject. Second, Rousseau’s very defence of the passions in the Second Discourse is rather “rationalistic” itself. That is, it is an attempt to use reason, including rational scientific explanation, to understand the changes, shifts and modifications of the passions themselves, including their increasing distancing from “reason”.

So far, I have been attempting to give a somewhat preliminary overview of what Rousseau accomplishes in the Second Discourse that also looks forward to and anticipates the Social Contract. Next time we will be in a position to examine in more detail some of the major steps in Rousseau’s argument, as well as some more of his key concepts.

Rousseau: Study Questions –

  1. How does Rousseau’s account of human nature differ from those of Hobbes and Locke? What according to him is wrong with their approaches to understanding human nature?
  1. In what ways does Rousseau differ from Hobbes and Locke in thinking about the relation between the individual and the social?
  1. Why does Rousseau criticize reason and rationality in the second Discourse?
  1. What do Rousseau’s basic terms characterizing human nature mean: amour-de-soi, compassion, free agency, perfectibility and amour-propre?
  1. If Rousseau does not believe in “progress”, what is the purpose of writing the second Discourse?
  1. What are the main factors contributing to the development of inequality according to Rousseau? Why is inequality a bad thing?
  1. Is Rousseau’s social contract for all times and all places? What kind of actors are needed in order to entyer a social contract of the kind he describes?
  1. How is Rousseau’s social contract different from those of Hobbes and Locke?
  1. Is Rousseau’s idea that liberty is in obedience to a law that we prescribe to ourselves different from Hobbes’ and Locke’s idea of freedom? From the Ancient’s idea of freedom?
  1. What does Rousseau mean by a “general will”? how does it differ from a “particular will” (and from the “will of all”?)
  1. What does Rousseau see as the main problems are in actually forming a general will? How does he propose to address those problems?

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