Philosophy/History Types: How is Rousseau regarded?

Okay - so I like to read about philsophy, history and, well, the history of philosophy. This has deepened over recent years. Prior to this, if someone mentioned Jean-Jacques Rousseau (wiki link) to me, I would have stated that I have the impression that he is not a paricularly good guy, but couldn’t tell you why, beyond maybe remembering that he wrote on child education but had himself claimed to have given up 5 children to a foundling hospital.

Now, with a bit more context under my belt, I am trying to see if I understand where Rousseau “fits” in both an historical and philosophical context. My attempts to summarize:

  • Historical: Rousseau was the equivalent of a “pundit” in Enlightenment, pre-Revolution France, and might fit into the role of Bill O’Reilly today - meaning a Conservative opinion-maker using Right-Wing values to serve his agenda. Someone who champions the common man, old-school values, and a belief in God based on knowing What’s Right (I suppose that would make Rousseau’s *Confessions *the equivalent of O’Reilly’s *A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity *- heh). He took a position contrary to the Enlightenment who were the liberal thinkers of their day. His role in pre-Revolution France and his influence over the thinking of the leaders of the Revolution peg him as having historical significance within the context of European history and the history of revolutions and revolutionary systems of government.

  • Philosophical: Here’s where I am lost a bit - I can’t figure out where Rousseau offered anything new or pivotal to the ongoing “philosophical dialectic.” I mean, he commented on child education, religion and the need for a belief in God based on a knowledge of “what feels right,” about a system of government, etc. I get that - and many other “philosophers” overlap into these areas, too - but do any of his ideas transcend the historical significance at the time (i.e., influencing revolutionary thought in late-1700’s France)? If I were to point to Rousseau, where did he innovate? Child education - well, one could say he sparked the recognition of the power of upbringing in a child. Okay - interesting in educational circles, but not a big philosophical deal. His system of government played out into the French Revolution and is seen as an example of how attempts at a benevolent dictatorship devolve into…dictatorships. And he marketed his autobiography as the first modern, fully disclosing memoir, but that was more marketing than fact, although **Confessions **is often cited as a key development in the genre, if only due to its popularity of the time.


  • Where did Rousseau innovate in the realm of philosophy?
  • And, given what he disclosed about himself in his memoir, and what history seems to reveal about his general demeanor - was he anything more than a hypocritical prick who, regardless of the specifics of his political and religious positions, proclaimed his righteousness to his true believers while behaving like a high-maintenance diva and dishonorable person behind the scenes?*
    *good lord - I equated him to O’Reilly; was he really a post-election Sarah Palin? :wink:

I would prefer this to focus on Rousseau - if my characterizations of O’Reilly and Palin cloud that discussion, I am sorry - feel free to say “that didn’t help” and then, hopefully, stick to Rousseau - set me straight and maybe use diffrent modern “equivalents” to illustrate your argument…

How broad is your scope of philosophy? In terms of metaphysics, I don’t believe Rousseau made any contributions. I cannot even recall what his were.

In terms of political and social philosophy, I rank him with John Locke as the philosophical founders of the modern democratic republic. Locke is generally credited as the founder of modern republicanism where the government should be a neutral arbiter and avoid allowing any one faction to possess tyrannical powers. Rousseau is credited with the notion of popular sovereignty, and that government only derives its powers through the consent of the governed, and thus elected leaders are the only legitimate rulers of a society.

It is confusing that we lump a lot of writers into the category of ‘philosophy’ when few actually delved into metaphysics, ontology or epistemology, or that several philosophers did write both metaphysical and political works - going back to Plato and Aristotle. And many social/political philosophers did/do a poor job of linking to any metaphysical or epistemological claims.

I totally agree - which is one reason I am attempting to isolate any contributions to philosophy.

I hear you about grouping him with Locke - I guess my point is that I kind of want to write Rousseau off - his offering spoke to the same subject as Locke and others, but the manifestations of it were deemed to be a failure, i.e., the French Revolution. So he offered an “evolutionary alternative” but one that didn’t survive the way, say, Locke’s has so far…which, again, would relegate Rousseau to an anecdotal place in that conversation.

What? Rousseau was the preeminent French enlightenment thinker. And I don’t really know why you’re calling him a “conservative”. He fits entirely into the liberal enlightenment tradition.

If you’re talking about his legacy, I’d say his two biggest are that governments rule by the consent of the governed and that people have the right to change their government if it doesn’t meet the needs of the people, and I’d also call him the “great-grandfather of Socialism”, in that modern socialism and communism came out of his ideas as moderated through a bunch of other people. But his writings laid the framework for the idea of both socialism and the social welfare state.

I am reading A Wicked Company by Philipp Blomright now - a history of pre-revolutionary Salon life in Paris. Good book. It goes into detail about the parting of ways between Enlightenment champions like Diderot and Holbach and Rousseau who came out strongly against them on key issues, most clearly with their atheism vs. his deistic writings.

While some of his writings laid the framework that you describe - he had some clear influence on Marx and Engel - I would argue that M&E discussed them more thoughtfully in Kapital. His approach to socialism had more influence on Robespierre and Saint Just, which perverted it to a form of fascism during the Reign of Terror.

Again, I am thoroughly open to being educated here - I am trying to articulate my understanding based on my self-guided reading to date…

I would not blame the failure of the French Revolution on any failure of Rousseau any more than I would blame the failure of the Glorious Revolution on Locke. I think history has shown they were both right, but ahead of their times. I think the Social Contract will always have a place on the shelf next to the Two Treatises of Civil Government.

I am looking forward to what others have to say though.
On preview:

I agree with this wholeheartedly, but did not want to make the claim out of fears of accusations of bias - which I am. :wink:

Well, Rousseau was clearly not an atheist, the way that Diderot and Holbach were, but I don’t think, “Not an atheist” equals conservative.

I am very open to hearing that I am “over interpreting” how he is portrayed in the book. I got the impression that while Diderot and Holbach were, I dunno, the equivalent of the neo-atheists of today (e.g., Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris), Rousseau championed a form of faith that was meant to be more Populist. I guess that is the impression I am trying to articulate and am open to hearing I have wrong: that Rousseau took more of a Populist stance vs. the aristocrats elitist stance on atheism…

I don’t know what you mean by a “Populist” stance. His attitude about religion is laid out in the “Civil Religion” section of his Social Contract.

Basically it’s, In the beginning, all states were theocracies, and the people believed that they were all doing God’s will. But that meant that every state had its own gods. There weren’t “wars of religion” because all wars were wars of religion, and there was no idea that there was a difference between church and state. The state’s laws were divine commandments and vice versa.

Then Jesus came along, and he separated the two, by setting up the idea of a spiritual kingdom separate from the earthly one. This has led to all sorts of trouble for Christianity, because there’s a big controversy over where a person’s moral duties end and their civic duties begin.

He goes on, and looks at this controversy and concludes basically that what’s needed is complete religious tolerance. It’s important that people have a religion, because a moral code is what keeps you human, but that it isn’t so important what it is.

So, in one sentence of his “tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of citizenship.”

Rousseau a conservative? I always had him down as a hippy. When I did Political Philosophy he was presented as the opposite side of the coin to Hobbes who thought that everyone was evil.

Captain thank you - very helpful. Okay - so I am inclined to want to dislike Rousseau, because the points I learn about seem to emphasize the negative - his outright manipulative and neurotic(?) behavior and how his positions were twisted to ill use by the Revolutionaries. But it sounds like the ideas you present here still garner respect? Is he generally portrayed as a douchebag - but maybe, like, say, Picasso, people accept all of personal failings as part of the complete person who also made lasting contributions? Or is he not generally thought of as a dick - in which case, which groups ten to dump on him and why?

Well, Rousseau’s personal life was kind of messed up (the masochism, the kids he abandoned, the quasi-maternal relationship he had with a married woman who had another lover, and he could be kind of techy and later in his life had some paranoid moments). But the same was true of more than just him…Voltaire was a sarcastic asshole who had an affair with a married woman in her husband’s house and later fell in love with his own niece, Diderot had a bunch of affairs and quarreled with pretty much everybody he came in contact with.

I thought Rousseau rejected the enlightenment and was an early figure in romanticism.

This is what I was coming to say. I think Rousseau has to get a lot of the credit (or blame) for Romanticism: how can anyone who said “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man” be lumped in as a footnote to Locke? This is a man who managed to make breastfeeding your own baby popular among the elite.

And while I personally find a lot of Romanticism annoying, it’s not just a literary movement: it really is a distinct way of looking at the world that influences us to this day.

That is the feeling I get, too.

Not sure about his personal failings, but at least he wasn’t the kind of boots licker Voltaire was and probably less of a self-agrandizing arrogant asshole too.

Man, maybe my teacher was right and I should have studied more closely. I always thought Rousseau was primarily remembered for his anti-societal views, namely that we’d all be better off reverting back to the law of the jungle. He wasn’t a loony and knew this wouldn’t be practical, but I swear I remember reading him stating somewhere that society would function best nonexistent.

Oh schnikes, a quick Wiki browsing shows that indeed [del]I am[/del] my professor was mistaken. On the plus side, the error has the advantage of being ubiquitous.

National Socialism as well, according to Bertrand Russell. IIRC, Russell’s view was that Rousseau was wary of democracy and conceived of the General Will as something more mystical, and that this concept suited certain despots who sought to portray themselves as acting in the name of the people without actually voting. Russell, perhaps uncharitably, classified Rousseau as:

Tom Tildrum - THAT’s the “vibe” I have picked up about Rousseau - the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” aspect to his assertions about the role of government…

Why are you so focussed on his personality? It’s pretty meaningless if you’re judging how he’s regarded today.

I can pretty much state that any International Relations/ Political Science/ Philosophy and maybe even sociology course at university level will have Rousseau’s writings in the very first year.

That’s a good indicator as to how academia thinks of him today.