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Russell, Rousseau, And Rationality:
A Marxist Critique

By Thomas Riggins

30 June, 2007

I 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 views.

This "Confession" 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 form of
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" in HWP:

"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" is.

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 itself."

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 of Rousseau.

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 man...."

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at [email protected]


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