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Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

One of towering figures of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is also one of the most divisive political thinkers of modern times, read by some as a theorist of modern democracy and by others as a theoretical precursor to twentieth-century ‘totalitarianism’. Born in Geneva, Rousseau moved to Paris in 1742 and shortly thereafter met Condillac and Diderot. His life would be marked by a series of complicated relationships with friends and lovers, and a series of moves to various locales around Europe, fleeing authorities threatened by his ideas and presence. In addition to works of political inquiry, Rousseau wrote novels, such as La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), and also produced one of the most famous examples of modern autobiography with his Confessions (1770). He first gained notoriety with his winning entry to the Academy of Dijon’s essay contest, a negative response to the question ‘Has the restoration of arts and sciences tended to purify morals?’ that took the form of what would come to be known as Rousseau’s First Discourse, the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750). This critique was further developed and revised by Rousseau’s Second Discourse, the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1754), a more ambitious work that theorized a ‘state of nature’ prior to the corrupting forces of civil society. Unlike Hobbes, who viewed the ‘state of nature’ as a violent scene, and Locke, who found the origins of ‘civil society’ in the ‘state of nature’, Rousseau posited a site of equality lost with the advent of ‘civilisation’. His major political work, The Social Contract (1762), complicates the Second Discourse by reading in the society that results from the contract the emergence of a ‘general will’ that transcends particular interest and that allows for greater moral development. Rousseau’s treatise on education, Émile (1762), further explores the social demand to nurture human beings’ inherent tendencies toward the good and also contains a satirical critique of religion that resulted in the book’s banning in France.

In addition to essays by Jacques Derrida, Jean Jean Mosconi, and Martial Gueroult, in volumes four and six, as well as the reproduction of a large excerpt from the Essai sur l’origine des langues in volume five, the entirety of volume eight of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse is devoted to the ’unthought’ of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The articles therein address many of the theoretical tensions and productive avenues which inhere in his writings. Rousseau’s importance for the Cahiers pour l’Analyse is manifold. As a precursor to Marx, Rousseau raises a series of questions surrounding the relationship between freedom and equality, the distinction between the social and the political, and the conflict between ‘natural’ and ‘historical’ (or ‘cultural’) tendencies in the constitution of subjectivity. Volume eight of the Cahiers is itself a rich investigation into the problematics of this major thinker who remains an inexhaustible source of ideas at the origins of modern political and social thought.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Jacques Derrida, ‘Nature, Culture, Ecriture (de Lévi-Strauss à Rousseau)’, CpA 4.1 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Jean Mosconi, ‘Sur la théorie du devenir de l’entendement’, CpA 4.2 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Martial Gueroult, ‘Nature humaine et état de nature chez Rousseau, Kant et Fichte’, CpA 6.1 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Jacques-Alain Miller and Jean-Claude Milner, ‘Avertissement: Nature de l’impensée’, CpA 8.Introduction [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Louis Althusser, ‘Sur le Contrat Social (Les décalages)’, CpA 8.1 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Alain Grosrichard, ‘Gravité de Rousseau (L’Oeuvre en équilibre)’, CpA 8.2 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Patrick Hochart, ‘Droit naturel et simulacre (L’Evidence du signe)’, CpA 8.3 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Marcel Françon, ‘Le langage mathématique de Jean-Jacques Rousseau’, CpA 8.4 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘Une lettre à propos de “Lévi-Strauss dans le dix-huitième siècle”’, CpA 8.5 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]

Select bibliography

  • ‘The Dicourses’ and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • ‘The Social Contract’ and Other Later Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Emile, ed. and trans. Allan Bloom, New York: Basic Books,1979.
  • Confessions, ed. Patrick Coleman, trans. Angela Scholar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.