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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

February 8 – Rousseau’s Critique of Liberalism and Modernity

Rousseau begins his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality by apparently agreeing with Hobbes and Locke that in political theory we must arrive at a true understanding of the state of nature and human nature. Only from this foundation can we derive what the natural rights of individuals are and therefore what political society must be. He apparently agrees with Hobbes and Locke that we must distinguish what is natural from what is conventional and artificial, and justify the latter by means of the former. But Rousseau’s actual use of the resolutive-compositive method, of notions like the state of nature, law of nature and social contract is very different and makes it impossible for any later theorist to use these notions again.

According to Rousseau no previous philosopher has actually gotten back to the state of nature. All of them, in speaking of the natural man, have described human beings who were already socialized. They then proceeded to read back rules of expediency derived from the experience of a certain few societies into nature and called these rules natural laws. This is the sort of major theoretical error one should, from the outset, try to avoid while attempting to separate the natural from the conventional. Yet some similar sort of operation can be undertaken without making these errors. When we resolve the history of human society (not our present local society conceived of as universal and permanent) into its elements, we do indeed find an individual. But if we are careful to remove everything social and conventional from this individual, what we are left with in the non-social individual is a non-human individual, a being who is “solitary, poor, and brutish” – that is, without language, reason, morality, technique, family, home, property and all the comforts of civilization – but a being who is also perfectly free, equal to all members of its own species (i.e., at least, there is no external power that has jurisdiction over it; it answers only to its own nature, its own instincts or drives), and perfectly happy (in the sense of being content). It is certainly not “nasty” because it has no interest in dominating other members of its species. Its life is not “short” because it does not live in anticipation of violent conflict nor does it have anything to “achieve” for which there is too little time available.  And it is mistaken in a sense to call it “poor”, because it cannot feel the lack of what it cannot imagine. This is “savage ‘man’”. Savage in the sense of the French adjective “sauvage”:  “raw”, wild, untamed, but also shy and unsociable. Savage man’s complete freedom, equality and happiness flow from his complete independence. He is completely “self-sufficient” as long as he is pre-human (among other things Rousseau is, like Diogenes, putting in a sharp dig against the pretensions of philosophical rationalism’s claim to win freedom and self-sufficiency in attempting to identify the individual with reason).

Now, one might notice that Rousseau, in his very individualism, transcends individualism, in the sense of the liberal claim of the ontological priority of the individual. The solitary man, the closest reality to the atomic individual is not human. The oldest layers of our essential nature are “sub-“human. The process of humanization is the process of socialization. If this is the case, then how can we derive obligation from our natural rights in the state of nature? Well, we can’t, really. Not in the way Hobbes and Locke tried to. Actually there are several stages and at least two uses of the idea of the state of nature in the Second Discourse. There is an “anthropological” (my term, not Rousseau’s) use of the notion of a state of nature; and this anthropological state of nature includes several temporal stages. There is also a juridical notion (also not Rousseau’s term) of the state of nature, which is closer to what Hobbes and Locke mean by the term.

The first stage of the anthropological state of nature, which Rousseau thinks is extremely relevant to assessing our present condition, refers to our pre-human ancestors. It is neither a condition of peace nor of war, because solitary, non-rational animals who live continuously and entirely in the moment have little but occasional and passing interest in each other. At this stage “human” nature can be referred almost entirely to what Rousseau calls two basic principles. These basic principles apply more or less to all the higher animals. These principles are “amour-de-soi” and “pitié”.

The first, and in a sense most basic is “amour-de-soi”, sometimes translated as “self-preservation”. There it is again, the good old desire for self-preservation. But weren’t we supposed to be given something different from Hobbes and Locke, for whom self-preservation is the first law of nature? Sometimes, however, “amour-de-soi” is, and more properly, translated as “love of self”. This does relate to what Hobbes and Locke said about human nature: it means a desire to continue living, a desire to preserve oneself. However, common as both these translations are, they preserve a misunderstanding of Rousseau. Better terms to substitute would be “love of existence” or “love of living” or “love of being”. There is far too much consciousness of a separated, distinct and individuated  “self” in the usual translations to be really suitable for the proto-human animal. Animals don’t have selves and are not selves. They do not identify their being with an image or concept that can then be compared against other images or concepts or against “moral standards”. Animals do not consider themselves “as…”.  It would be anthropomorphic to think of animals as having such a desire (to be recognizable and recognized as…). Animals have desires that preserve them (or not); not desires to preserve themselves. Animals are not conscious of the “selves” they “have”. Therefore “amour-de-soi” might be best translated as “love of existence” or “feeling of existence” – a positive feeling in this existence here, now.

At the same level is what Rousseau calls “pitié”. This is never translated as “pity” – that would be a gross mistake. It is often translated as “compassion”, which is much better, but it is important to avoid misunderstanding compassion as pity. Once again, you have to be a rational creature, absorbed in abstraction and comparison, in order to feel pity. Compassion serves much better than pity because at the animal level the relationship is not mediated by thinking and concepts. Compassion literally means “feeling with” or “suffering with”. In compassion, in this sense, there is almost a substitution of the one being for the other. “Empathy” would also do, just as “sympathy” would not. Sympathy implies that I am over here, immune to your feelings or sufferings, and you are over there, having that distress while I am not. But compassion or empathy try to indicate my not-being-separate-from-you.

“Amour-de-soi” and “pitié”  are the basic “animal passions” of human beings, passions that, if even in distorted or suppressed form, survive the coming of society and history and, along with “free agency” and “perfectibility”, are preconditions of an historical and social existence. At the proto-human stage these passions are simply given biologically, not yet filtered through the internalized standards, conceptual frameworks and demands of cultural traditions and social systems.

But so far Rousseau has not yet given us enough to explain how we might have arrived at our present condition of civilized, rational inequality, oppression and misery. And he must also be able to explain the evolution of human beings from proto-human animals. Rousseau does this by postulating two differences between the original proto-human and the rest of the animal world. Our ancestors also had what he refers to as “free agency”. That is, they were not entirely governed by a pre-programmed set of instinctual responses to environmental stimuli, but instead had modifiable drives that could be delayed, resisted and deflected. At the earliest stages this might have been shown, as he indicates, by no more than a propensity to imitate the behaviours of other species.  Because of this “free agency” and because our drives are modifiable (i.e. we can attach motivational energy to different objects through symbolic connections), we have what he refers to as “perfectibility”. Perfectibility does not mean the capacity to become “perfect”; in fact it means something quite different, that we are imperfect, unfinished, that we do not come into the world already fully formed. Perfectibility refers to an openness to learning and to the development of all sorts of capacities that are not “hard-wired”. Because of this the human is the cultural animal. Our biological and psychological structures pre-dispose us to the acquisition and development of culture.

Both free agency and perfectibility Rousseau thinks of as attributes that themselves are not already fully formed and developed in the proto-human. At the start, they are only rudimentary and unused, and are themselves only further developed to the human level in the historical course of socialization. The free agency and perfectibility of the human being, who has developed language and reason, are the result of the history of a society that, of necessity, engages in labour.  Yet this “gift” of perfectibility is two edged. The same capacity to take on, as second nature, a dimension of cultural existence that accounts for most of what we are and do allows, indeed forces, us to make both discoveries and errors, to acquire both virtues and vices. It is also, according to Rousseau, the “source of all our misfortunes”.

A good part of  the development of human skills, capacities and powers is, according to Rousseau, attributable to the development in human beings of a fifth crucial “principle” or attribute that he calls “amour-propre”. If this was present at all in our proto-human ancestor, it was so only momentarily. Its existence and development depend upon and take place in tandem with the production of language, reason and morality. As language, reason and morality come into existence, “amour-de-soi” tends to be transformed into what Rousseau calls  “amour-propre”. This is often translated as “self-love”, and appropriately so, because it pertains to the supposed existence of a self separated from other selves and open to invidious comparison with them. Self-love, which always involves comparing oneself to others and others to oneself, can emerge only at the human level, only along with conceptual thinking. It describes a condition in which my own sense of existence is dependent upon your recognition of me, upon my perception of your high/low estimation of me.

One can think of amour-propre as a distorted transformation of amour-de-soi. The animal that feels only the latter is at one with/in existence and experiences it as a sensual certainty in the now. With the acquisition of language in society, and along with it of reason, the sense of existence becomes something that seemingly must be confirmed only through symbolic interactions with others. The very sense of self becomes an image I hold on to, become so attached to that I am or must be it, but only at the discretion of others who assign significance to “my” qualities, characteristics and acts. I thus become dependent on two things: the opinion that others hold of me and what gives them the intellectual resources to make a definite judgement concerning me, the very framework of categories and preferences among those categories that any culture generates. My life comes to be in large part a search for the possession and recognition of such signs of significance.

So, we begin with an animal capable of making the transition from a purely biological to a biological and cultural mode of existence, the transition from amour-de-soi to amour-de-soi largely functioning as amour-propre.  This evolutionary process begins and gathers momentum only because of a natural accident. Rousseau does not think, like Aristotle, that there is an internal teleology working itself out in the form of the human being. There is a change in savage man’s ecological situation that selects for animals capable of beginning a social and tool-using mode of existence. This in turn begins the humanization of the savage “man”, and is the basic condition that introduces language, conceptual thought, imagination, a change in sexuality that is one of the bases of the family, moralities, the division of labour  -- just to name the most important.

Gradually we reach what could be called the second stage (or third, if the second is the transition from “savage” proto-man to this stage) of the anthropological state of nature. And this will be the level of most contemporary so-called “primitive” societies. Let’s call it the tribal stage. Here individuals are fully and completely human, and have well developed social relations, among many other things. Rousseau in fact calls this stage the happiest period of human history, being a sort of golden mean between what he calls the “stupidity and indolence” of the proto-human and the rat race of modern society. One of the main things that makes it golden is that at this stage there is no conflict between the individual and the community, paradoxically because of the near total identity of the individual with his/her community. There is as yet no division of the community into less and more powerful groups, or into economic classes. Even the sexual division of labour at this stage could be seen as (at least relatively) benign. Yet since it is a human community, it already contains, by virtue of the possession of “amour-propre”, some of the pre-requisites for the development of the oppression and misery that characterize later stages.

In any human community individuals will be both economically and psychologically dependent upon others. And it is this dependence that accounts for the possibility of oppression and misery, according to Rousseau. In the first stage, the savage man was only dependent on nature, i.e. on his internal predispositions. Such “individuals” were merely parts of nature. They had no self-conscious existence at all. It is only in human society, when they have already lost independence in that sense, that they become capable of gaining any sense and understanding of their own independent existence. It’s a paradox: you can only try to be or claim to be independent when that pure independence is already lost. With the simultaneous rise of self-consciousness-as-separate and dependence, the stage becomes set for an expansion of both wants and techniques that can change social relations drastically. This human development of amour-propre also brings with it the capacity to judge oneself that is crucial to the having of a conscience. It gives us the capacity to be virtuous, as well.

The proto-human was innocent, neither good nor evil; he had no capacity for or need for virtue, any more than would a tiger, or a lamb. In the tribal stage, the capacity is developed, but the need to be virtuous is not great, and not a great burden, because according to Rousseau, social institutions have not yet divided people against each other, nor magnified the material needs of individuals. At the tribal stage, the main expression of amour-propre is the need for honour, the need to be recognized as having taken one’s rightful place as a valued member of the community. Thus amour-propre can be a socially integrative force, rather than one that opposes individuals to each other.

A low level of wants also means a high level of leisure, of play and of devotion to activities enjoyable in themselves, sensual, expressive, social and aesthetic. Human nature at this stage, although relatively “poor” in technologically based power over nature, is rich and many-sided in expression. There is inner and inter-individual conflict, but the first is not very great and the second is managed primarily through the extension and intensification of kinship relations, rather than through the authority of the priest or the power of the state. Individuals at this stage are interdependent, but equal. Because they are equal, their equal mutual dependence in a way mirrors or repeats the freedom of the proto-human: they are separated from nature, but immersed in their second nature, their community, which is, like the first, benevolent.

But good things never last forever. Amour-propre supplies the sort of motivation that opens the possibility of further developments. A third  anthropological stage of the state of nature (which Rousseau has slide into the juridical state of nature) begins with the establishment of private property and ends with the state. A first step is into this third stage takes place with the development of agriculture and metallurgy. Individuals and society as a whole come to depend on a more differentiated division of labour in order to sustain ever higher levels of wants. When production becomes social, when one individual can no longer hope to acquire all of the skills needed to satisfy his own needs, a situation is created in which it becomes possible for some to get others to work for them. This third stage is coterminous with the development of private property in the means of production. This institution in turn rapidly generates an economic struggle for existence that heightens the level of psychological dependence and “living outside oneself” to a fever pitch. It also develops into a condition of economic inequality in property.

The institution of private property calls forth all the evils of the Hobbesian state of nature, all the evils that Hobbes sees as natural. Individuals who had been free and equal, now become subjected to one another and all become subjected to the market. And for Rousseau, this is a situation in which both, or all sides are corrupted, both masters and servants. Pitié is submerged by self-love and although the capacity for a rational morality has been developed, it has not been rendered actual.

The modern state and its social contract theory develop out of this situation of economic inequality and universal struggle. In picturing the social contract as a device to protect the private property of individuals, Rousseau is taking the Lockian view of civil society and turning it against the Lockians. Such a contract must necessarily benefit those who have the most to lose, that is those with property. It is they who concoct the social contract, according to Rousseau, but a contract that is fraudulent from the start. Such a contract freezes and makes permanent a situation of “artificial” inequality that has little, if nothing to do with the differences that might be found between individuals “in nature”. According to Rousseau, it is “the rich” who do this by manipulating the need for order and personal security that the poor as well as the rich have.

The contract at the basis of every modern state, Rousseau is saying, is fraudulent. And the “consent” at the basis of every modern state is also fraudulent. To the extent this is so, Rousseau has then demonstrated the contradiction that exists between “natural law”, which begins with the freedom and equality of all persons, and the law of the bourgeois state, which uses that initial freedom and equality to attempt to justify inequality and servitude, and which will end with a perfect parody of freedom and equality. The state that develops on the basis of the needs of private property does not, according to Rousseau, need to remain the perfect creature of the propertied. To the extent that the economic and social struggle among individuals, groups and classes becomes more acute and intense, the state continually gains room to become increasingly independent. It may thus gain in strength until it becomes a perfect despotism. “Here,” he says, “all private persons return to their first equality because they are nothing.” Such despotism would be a return to the law of the strongest, and thus in a very ironic sense, to the “state of nature”.

Is there a possible fourth stage? Rousseau’s Social Contract represents a possible way out. About that, next time.

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