Rousseau, And Rationality:
A Marxist Critique
By Thomas Riggins
30 June, 2007
propose to show that Russell's interpretation of Rousseau in The History
of Western Philosophy (HWP), is both unfair and inaccurate and misrepresents
Rousseau's historical legacy.
The chapter on Rousseau in
HWP has three parts: a biographical ( based on his "Confessions",
which I will not deal with), a discussion of his religious views, and
one on his political philosophy.
At the outset of his chapter,
Russell tells us that Rousseau's importance comes "mainly from
his appeal to the heart, and to what, in his day, was called 'sensibility.'
He is the father of the romantic movement, the initiator of systems
of thought which infer non-human facts from human emotions, and the
inventor of the political philosophy of pseudo-democratic dictatorships
as opposed to traditional absolute monarchies."
Russell further alleges that
two groups of self styled "reformers" have come down to us
from his time-- those who follow Locke (e.g., Roosevelt and Churchill)
and those who follow Rousseau (Hitler). I intend to show that the notion
that Hitler was a follower of Rousseau is absurd.
Russell's discussion of Rousseau's
religious beliefs is based primarily ( but not exclusively) on his interpretation
of a section of the novel "Emile" entitled "The Confession
of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar" and taken to represent Rousseau's
is in the tradition Enlightenment Deism. Rousseau accepts the God he
finds in nature and basically rejects institutionalized religions as
man made fabrications. In this respect he does not differ from thinkers
such as Voltaire and Thomas Paine, although he is much more emotional
about his form of Deism.
He says he believes "that
the world is governed by a wise and powerful Will. I see it, or rather
I feel it; and this is of importance for me to know." Further speculation
about the Will is not necessary and there is no dogmatic attempt to
get people to agree with him, "I am not dictating my sentiments
to you, but only explaining what they are." Like every one in his
times, including Locke and Newton, he saw design in nature as evidence
of "that Being, in a word, whatever it be, that gives motion to
all parts of the universe, and governs all things, I call GOD."
Rousseau throws in some attributes
( intelligence, will, power, goodness) that he finds personally convincing
but doesn't insist on anyone else agreeing with him on specifics.
He also believes in life
after death. Other Deists also have this hope (Paine). In the "Confession"
he further reveals that he is a Cartesian dualist with his inner feeling
(sentiment)-- i.e., self-consciousness, playing the role of the Cogito.
For some reason, Russell
thinks all this is anti-rational on Rousseau's part. "The rejection
of reason in favour of the heart," Russell writes, "was not,
to my mind, an advance."
Russell would never accuse
Descartes of rejecting reason for basing his philosophy on the Cogito.
This is Rousseau, but Descartes could have said the same thing. "I
have only to know that matter is extended and divisible, to be assured
that it cannot think... No material being can be self-active, and I
perceive that I am so. It is vain to dispute with me so clear a point.
My own sentiment carries with it a stronger conviction than any reason
which can ever be brought." The wording is a little different,
but the sentiment is the same as Descartes' statements about the Cogito.
Did Rousseau reject reason?
Rousseau finds two contradictory principles in the nature of human consciousness:
"one raising him to the study of eternal truths, the love of justice
and moral beauty [this is very Kantian]--- bearing him aloft to the
regions of the intellectual world, the contemplation of which yields
the truest delight to the philosopher--- the other debasing him even
below himself, subjecting him to the slavery of sense, the tyranny of
the passions, and exciting these to counteract every noble and generous
sentiment inspired by the former."
Rousseau is no irrationalist.
The sentiments that he cultivates are inspired by reason (the intellectual
realm) not the emotions (the passions). What could be clearer than the
following. "I am active when I listen to my reason, and passive
when hurried away by my passions."
Russell is making too much
of Rousseau's belief that the moral rules are, found "in the depths
" of the heart, "written by Nature in ineffaceable characters."
Rousseau believes that we can trust our "conscience" to tell
us what to do. In practice Rousseau seems to have some problems with
this (especially in his personal life), but in principle it is an embryonic
Kant's "moral world within."
Russell says there are two
objections to "the practice of basing beliefs as to objective fact
upon the emotions of the heart." But I have shown above, I hope,
that for Rousseau it is the intellectual realm, the realm of reason,
which is to guide the heart, not the realm of emotions and passions,
so we can skip these objections.
Russell now goes off the
deep end, in my opinion. He says, "For my part, I prefer the ontological
argument, the cosmological argument, and the rest of the stock-in-trade,
to the sentimental illogicality that has sprung from Rousseau."
We will see who is being illogical.
These very arguments which
Russell prefers, he says of them, earlier in the chapter, that they
"may not, to us seem very convincing, and we may feel that they
would not have seemed cogent to anyone who did not already feel sure
of the truth of the conclusion." In other words, they are not sound
arguments. Rousseau tried to guide his sentiments by reason. it is only
because Russell, wrongly, considered Rousseau an enemy of reason that
he could prefer logically unsound arguments to Rousseau's open admission
that he doesn't use these types of arguments because he doesn't think
they prove anything.
What can one say about Russell
being logical when he claims , "if I had to choose between Thomas
Aquinas and Rousseau, I should unhesitatingly choose the saint."
Unhesitatingly? Here is what Russell says about the good "saint"
"There is little of
the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas... Before he begins to philosophize
he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If
he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith,
so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation.
The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy,
but special pleading."
Why would Russell prefer
"apparently rational special pleading" to the open honesty
of Rousseau. Aquinas was a spokesman for the a powerful institution
that burned heretics and clamped down on free expression wherever it
could. It burned books. Rousseau had his books burned. He, like Russell,
was the victim of the followers of revelation. Rousseau at least thought
for himself and fought against the tyranny of the absolute monarchical
state. Doesn't honesty count? Russell thinks Aquinas not intellectually
honest. It doesn't seem intellectually honest to prefer the dogma of
the Catholic Church to the free thinking of Rousseau who rejected revelation
and apparently rational arguments in favor of it.
How did Rousseau get the
reputation as an "irrationalist"? I suggest that the answer
can be found in Georg Lukacs's book "The Destruction of Reason."
Lukacs, a Marxist, follows Engel's discussion of the British and French
Enlightenment as tending towards "the metaphysical mode" of
thinking. Engels means a type of mechanical "materialism"
which he contrasts to dialectical
thinking. He mentions Rousseau's "Discourse on the Origins of Inequality"
as a "dialectical masterpiece."
Lukacs writes that the picture
of "Rousseau as an 'irrationalist Romantic' is a product of polemics
against the French Revolution." What Rousseau was trying to do
in his social philosophy was to develop "the history of mankind
and human society out of its autonomous movement, the deeds and sufferings
of men themselves, and grasping the reason, i.e., the principles behind
the movement." Lukacs also points out that, according to Engels
the "Reason" that was lauded during the Enlightenment was
the "Reason" of the rising bourgeois class not some abstract
universal "Reason" and it was this bourgeois view of "Reason"
that was the object of Rousseau's criticism.
Now lets look at what Russell
says about Rousseau's political philosophy to see if it leads to Hitler.
Russell admits that the "Social Contact" has "little
sentimentality and much close intellectual reasoning," but that
it only gives "lip-service to democracy" and bolsters the
idea "of the totalitarian state."
Russell has problems with
the concept of the "general will." Rousseau says that people
who do not obey the "general will " must be "forced to
be free." Russell remarks that, "The general will in the time
of Galileo was certainly anti-Copernican, was Galileo 'forced to be
free' when the Inquisition compelled him to recant?" This indicates,
to me, that Russell didn't understand what the "general will"
What the social contact is
supposed to do (it is a theoretical construct not an actual historical
compact) is leave everybody as free as they were in the state of nature
but without the inconveniences of that state. The whole contract boils
down to one clause, according to Rousseau, "the total alienation
of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community;
for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions
are the same for all; and this being so, no one has any interest in
making them burdensome to others." This is pure Rawls.
Basically, the general will
is that we do what is best for the state and everyone in it. The general
will represents the maximum freedom possible for every individual. As
a citizen each wants what is best for the state in respect to the rights
and freedoms of all. However, Rousseau points out the "each man,
may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will
which he has as a citizen."
Here is a real example of
being forced to be free. The general will dictates that the state do
all it can to ensure the health of the population. My particular will
may want to make a fortune by marketing an adulterated medicine. This
could lead to an outbreak of plague that could also spread to my own
family or even myself. By preventing me having my way the state certainly
denied me the freedom to act as an individual, but it has enforced my
will as a citizen since as a citizen I agree with the general will.
The reason why Hitler cannot
be an outgrowth of Rousseau's thought is because Hitler's particular
will replaced the general will. For Rousseau the Sovereign is the body
politic, the people, and not a single individual. "If then the
people promises simply to obey, by that very act it dissolves itself
and loses what makes it a people; the moment a master exists, there
is no longer a Sovereign, and from that moment the body politic has
ceased to exist...."
Rousseau said for the general
will to express itself "there should be no partial society"
in the state and that "each citizen should think only his own thoughts...."
Totalitarian governments do not encourage this type of thinking for
oneself. A modern state cannot, however, really exist without partial
societies (labor unions, employer's associations, small business owners,
the AAUP, the AARP, the Bertrand Russell Society, etc.) Realizing this,
Rousseau said "if there are partial societies, it is best to have
as many as possible and to prevent them from being unequal... These
precautions are the only ones that can guarantee that the general will
shall be always enlightened, and that the people shall in no way deceive
A lot more could be said
about the "general will" and its contrast with "the will
of all" (something very different) but I think I have accomplished
my goal of showing that is only a superficial reading of Rousseau that
can judge him to be an irrationalist, and that there is nothing substantial
to the charge that Hitler and his government grew out of the doctrines
I should also note that Rousseau's
paternalistic attitude towards women marred his political philosophy
since the interests of half the human race were not taken into consideration
in formulating the "general will." However that correction
is easily made.
Finally, I think Russell,
Engels, and Lukcas, but not Hitler, would agree with the following sentiment
of Rousseau: "The noblest work of education is to make a reasoning
Thomas Riggins is
the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at email@example.com
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