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Synopsis of Martial Gueroult, ‘Nature humaine et état de nature chez Rousseau, Kant et Fichte’

[‘Human Nature and State of Nature in Rousseau, Kant and Fichte’]

CpA 6.1:1–19

Martial Gueroult (1891-1976) was a widely respected historian of philosophy known for developing a structural and genetic method that focused almost exclusively on the immanent features of philosophical texts irrespective of their external historical, social, or indeed personal conditions. In 1951 he was elected to the Collège de France on the strength of his major studies of Fichte and Maïmon. According to the sociologist Jean-Louis Fabiani, Gueroult’s well-known antipathy to historicist approaches to philosophy was instrumental to his appointment (Fabiani, pp. 124-5). Throughout the 1950s, Gueroult developed a reading of Descartes’ philosophy ‘according to the order of reasons’ that was a deliberate riposte to phenomenological efforts to read Cartesian rationalism as the effect of an ineffable personal experience transmitted via the texts the Cartesian corpus. François Regnault cites the impact of Gueroult’s reading of Descartes on his own thinking in CpA 6.2:23. In the 1960s, Gueroult developed an equally rigorous reading of Spinoza’s Ethics whose arguments for Spinozism as an ‘absolute rationalism’ which forbade reference to a speculative arrière-monde extrinsic to conceptual thought would be instrumental in the invocation of Spinozist arguments against phenomenology in the work of Louis Althusser and Gilles Deleuze, among others.

This article, first published in the Revue Philosophique in 1941, is exemplary of Gueroult’s general method. As Regnault notes in the introduction to this issue of the Cahiers, Gueroult’s virtue is to present philosophical thought as a movement of concepts, and to reveal moreover how the content and function of philosophical concepts are transformed as the concept moves from one domain to another. This article is at once an assessment of tensions in Rousseau’s thought concerning the concept of nature and its relation to human morality, and an argument for how the tensions inhering in Rousseau’s concepts are resolved by Fichte through the intermediary of Kant’s account of practical reason.

Gueroult begins by focusing on the relation between the concepts ‘essential man’ and ‘real man’ in Kant and Fichte’s respective critiques of Rousseau. In Kant’s view, against Rousseau, man is ‘by nature’ worse than the animals. From 1794 onward, Fichte shares the view that man is ‘by nature’ at best similar to animals. The state of nature is the reign of violence. Social life, by contrast, is the instrument of a moral culture that makes the development of virtue and the ‘reign of goals [fins]’ possible (CpA 6.1:3).

Gueroult notes, however, that the critical rejoinders that Kant and Fichte develop against Rousseau can be found in Rousseau’s work itself, particularly in The Social Contract. What problematizes the matter further is that the term ‘nature’ remains equivocal in Kant and Fichte’s usage as well. For Kant, man’s nature is ‘essential man’. What man opposes to the animal is his freedom, grounded in his capacity for theoretical and practical reason. ‘Real man’, by contrast, is man after the fall. When Kant claims that man is ‘bad by nature’, he is referring to mankind’s fall from grace. Kant’s first position does not contradict Rousseau, but the second one does.

A similar equivocation is in play in Fichte’s oeuvre. Gueroult summarizes Fichte’s position in his Contributions to the Correction of the Public’s Judgment Concerning the French Revolution [1793] as follows: ‘the nature of man designates his essence, and the state of nature, the spontaneous and originary conformity of man to his essence’ (4). The foundation of all contracts must be found in this originary state. The law of man’s nature is equivalent to the moral law. Here Fichte is with Rousseau against Kant, affirming the excellence of man’s nature. Yet this ‘nature’ persists in society, whence Fichte’s divergence from Rousseau. With Kant, society provides a juridical order which safeguards our rights. With Fichte too, the state is conceived as an instrument for freedom. But for Fichte, right is a condition of morality, not a consequence of it, a position captured in Fichte’s theory of the Notstaat, a state based on needs. Gueroult writes: ‘By forging a rapprochement between the Kantian concept of man, defined by practical reason, and the concept of human nature described by Rousseau, Fichte believes he can confirm, against Kant, Rousseau’s thesis on the excellence of this nature’ (5).

For Fichte, the social contract is a contract like any other, which means it is first of all grounded in nature and thus revocable there as well. There is no antithesis between nature and society for Fichte, unlike Kant and Rousseau. Gueroult describes this moment in Fichte’s writing as indecisive and equivocal, and argues that this tension will only be resolved in Fichte’s work after 1794, which witnesses a more robust critique of the Rousseauist valorisation of the state of nature.

Man’s natural tendencies are, for the Fichte of this period, hostile to law. They are given over to drive [Trieb] and idleness. By seeking to bring man back to his nature, Rousseau seeks to eliminate man’s vices. But to bring man back before the advent of his vices would also bring him back before the advent of his reason. Fichte detects a profound contradiction in Rousseau’s thinking. The latter wants to bring man back to moment of repose before an excessive development of sensibility. But, at the same time, he thinks this repose might be used for the ‘moral improvement’ of humanity. Gueroult notes: ‘this is a contradictory supposition, for it imputes to natural man the preoccupations of social and cultivated man: those of Rousseau himself’ (7). The error of Rousseau’s thinking is its blindness to the paradoxes which arise from its retrojective manoeuvres. The ideal state is posited as either fictive or ‘back then’. What has already been is what must be. But the ideal can only be realized through action, an action conditioned by the historical augmentation of needs which took us out of the state of nature in the first place. In Fichte’s own words: ‘[Rousseau] weakens sensibility instead of fortifying reason’ (8).

Gueroult notes, however, that the Rousseau under critique here is not that of the Social Contract, but the Rousseau of the two Discourses. The question is: What does Rousseau mean? Is Rousseau consistent? Obviously, ‘essential man’, the one referred to the state of nature, is an ideal which perhaps never existed, and most likely never will. Gueroult asks: ‘How do we determine this state of nature or ideal man? By addressing ourselves to the unadulterated interior sentiment, availing ourselves of all social life brought to us, be it advantageous or perverse, and by listening to the voice of pure consciousness [conscience] which is the voice of nature itself’ (8). According to the Discourses, when we listen we hear the reign of sensibility, naivety, simplicity, and ignorance. Instinctive selfishness is dominant. Thus described, this ‘essential man’ corresponds to the ‘real man’ of Fichte, characterized in terms of his Natur-Trieb. ‘Radical evil is nothing but the abandonment to natural laziness [paresse] and the refusal to make use of freedom to definitively detach oneself from the animal plane. This is not essential man for Fichte, whose natural state is moral law’ (9). What is more, this conception in Fichte corresponds to neither the real nor the essential man of Kant. For Kant, real man is at once superior and inferior to animals; his essence is superior, but allowing its corruption makes him inferior. A return to Rousseauist nature would be, for Kant, further evidence of man’s perverted nature.

This first section of Gueroult’s article establishes the fundamental confusion in the concepts of nature, essence, and reality, as they pertain to humankind in Kant and Fichte’s respective assessments of Rousseau. In the remainder of his article, Gueroult takes leave of Kant and provides a brief reading of Rousseau, and the contradictions therein, before concluding with an account of what he sees as Fichte’s persuasive resolution of these tensions.

Gueroult reads significant changes in Rousseau’s formulations in The Social Contract when they are compared to the earlier Discourses. ‘Man’s nature’ and the ‘state of nature’ are henceforth oppositional concepts in Rousseau’s thought. Man’s essential nature is his freedom, but this freedom is only developed via the general will. The errors and depravities which have historically marked man’s social life are codified as accidents, deviations from the pursuit of the general will. Natural liberty, that is, man’s liberty in the state of nature, can no longer be aligned with his essential liberty, which is both moral and civil. The paradox in Rousseau’s thinking is thus: man’s essential liberty is still ‘natural’ in its essence, but it is not to be found in the ‘state of nature’. In order, for this essential liberty to flourish, there must be the application of reason and will, along with the establishment of society. But Rousseau is at pains to have this essential liberty still be anterior to society in an a priori sense. Rousseau’s concern, in Gueroult’s reading, is at once philosophical and historical, and this accounts for the equivocation of Rousseau’s theoretical pursuits. When faced with the question, ‘does society degrade man?’, Rousseau has two different answers: philosophically, no (the answer of The Social Contract); historically, yes (the answer of the Discourses). The dispute here concerns the theoretical concept of essence, in this case, the essence of the social. In the Discourses, this essence seems to be a matter of historical development; the ‘abuses’ man suffers in society are not accidents, but are instead congenitally linked with the historical development of the ‘social’ in a determinate way. In The Social Contract, the essence of the social can be determined, and valorised, a priori; in this case, the historical record of social abuses are deviations from the true essence of social life.

Gueroult praises Fichte for his ‘intuition of this fundamental equivocation’ in Rousseau. In Fichte’s Sittenlehre from 1798, Rousseau is judged negatively for confounding two orders, which are not only distinct, but opposed: nature (in the sense of animality, or the ‘state of nature’) and moral conscience. Rousseau wants ‘moral conscience’ to be something that is at once natural and divine, that is, equally grounded in nature, but also taking us out of ‘nature’. Rousseau is unable to think in clear concepts as long as he makes elusive recourse to poorly formulated ‘tendencies’. Gueroult then offers an extensive distillation of how Fichte resolves this conceptual tension:

According to Fichte, moral conscience is, from the formal point of view, the prescription to act rationally and through a clear concept. For an action is only truly free, and consequently moral, when it is not dictated by tendency, but willed by an intelligence that has become capable - thanks to a free reflection - of elevating itself to a concept absolutely above all nature and all tendency. And yet, the primitive ground of this conscience is the absolute tendency toward the absolute, which, first divided into an objective tendency (nature) and subjective tendency (free activity of the I, or ego [moi]), is reunited anew once it has reached a superior degree of reflection. It is thus a moral tendency. This moral tendency receives content from the objective tendency, whence the imperative: ‘Realize freedom (in concreto),’ and its form from the subjective tendency, whence the imperative: ‘Act with freedom.’ These two imperatives are united in the commandment: ‘Act with freedom in order to realize freedom.’ The result is that I will be unable to act morally if I realize the content while neglecting the form, thus believing it possible to realize freedom without acting freely (the same goes, moreover, if I were to observe the form while neglecting the content, which amounts to a critique of Kant). It is thus that the moral tendency prescribes free action, and by the same stroke prescribes that we not act under the empire of tendency. It thus possesses causality only insofar as it does not make of this causality a tendency. For that, it asks that one become aware of freedom and duty in such a way that we act, not by tendency, but by virtue of this sole conscience that is moral conscience. It is thus addressed to intelligence and commands it to be independent as intelligence, which is only possible if this latter is uniquely determined by a concept independent of all blind impulse; only if the moral conscience is no longer manifested as an instinct, but as the clear conscience of an a priori principle. It is thus manifested before action, in order to prescribe it, and not solely afterwards, as remorse or contentment (17).

In Fichte’s view, Rousseau’s error is to remain at the level of ‘moral tendency’. The contradictory elements of his thought are a result of his inability to elevate his thinking to the level of the clear concept. Gueroult ends his account with a long passage from Fichte’s Bestimmung des Gelehrten, elaborating this critique, and which concludes as follows: ‘There is no doubt that sentiment never commits an error. But judgment commits one when it characterizes sentiment in an inexact way and takes a mixed sentiment for a pure one’ (19).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • Fichte, J.G.. Foundations of Natural Right. Frederick Neuhouser, ed., Michael Baur, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • ---. The System of Ethics. Daniel Breazeale and Guenter Zöller, eds., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Mary Gregor, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and other later political writings, Victor Gourevitch, ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • ---. The ‘Discourses’ and other early political writings. Victor Gourevitch, ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Selected secondary literature:

  • Deleuze, Gilles. ‘Spinoza et la méthode générale de M. Gueroult’. in Idem., L’Île déserte et d’autres textes: 1953-1974. David Lapoujade, ed. Paris: Minuit, 2002.
  • Fabiani, Jean-Louis. ‘Sociologie et histoire des idées: l’épistémologie et les sciences sociale’ in Enjeux philosophiques des années 50. Paris: Editions du Centre Georges Pompidou, 1989.
  • Giolito, Christophe. Histoires de la philosophie avec Martial Gueroult. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1999.
  • Gueroult, Martial. L’Évolution et la structure de la science chez Fichte. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1930.
  • ---. Descartes selon l’ordre des raisons. 2 vols. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1953.
  • ---. Spinoza I: Dieu. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1968.
  • ---.Spinoza II: L’âme. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1974.
  • ---. Dianoématique II: Philosophie de l’histoire de la philosophie. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1979.
  • ---. Dianoématique I: Histoire de l’histoire de la philosophie. 3 vols. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1984, 1988.