You are here: Home / Synopses / Alain Grosrichard: ‘Gravité de Rousseau’

This project is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) research grant and is supported by the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) and Kingston University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

AHRC logo

CRMEP logo

Synopsis of Alain Grosrichard, ‘Gravité de Rousseau’

[‘Rousseau’s Gravity’]

CpA 8.2:43–64

A complex assessment of Rousseau’s writings as a whole, this article serves as a critical complement to Louis Althusser’s more narrowly focused ‘Sur le Contrat Social’, the preceding essay in the issue of the >Cahiers devoted to ‘The Unthought [Impensé] of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’ (CpA 8.1). Where Althusser illuminates the conceptual discrepancies [décalages] in Rousseau’s Social Contract through a close reading of the text, Grosrichard broadly synthesizes Rousseau’s oeuvre as a delicate conceptual balancing act. Althusser had concluded his critical account with the claim that the ‘moral preaching’ of Rousseau’s fictions were themselves the ‘fictive triumph’ of the failure of his theory of the social contract. Reversing the value judgment, Grosrichard takes this conclusion as his point of departure, though he only announces it as such at the end of his analysis: ‘The sole ambition of the preceding pages was an attempt to think together what are usually separated and opposed in Rousseau, the “theory” and the “literature”’ (63).

Grosrichard’s main claim is that the balancing act that comprises Rousseau’s ‘split’ oeuvre in toto is itself the dramatization of the fundamental balancing act at the heart of Rousseau’s thinking, that between a discourse of natural man, whose tendencies are toward repose and equilibrium, and a discourse of perverted man ‘subjected’ to the symbolic order of civil life, whose tendencies push toward disequilibrium. The place of Grosrichard’s article in this issue of the Cahiers is apt, in that its main claim effectively serves to ‘balance’ Althusser’s metaphorical emphasis on tension and discrepancy in Rousseau’s thought with a countervailing metaphor that is nonetheless crucially dependent upon Althusser’s own: holding Rousseau’s oeuvre together is a ‘gravity’ which aims toward, yet never achieves, equilibrium. The counter-weights of sentiment and reason balance around the central pivot that is the subject. Much as gravity is never discernible in itself, and is only registered in its effects, themselves tantamount to the constitution of the physical world, so too is the operational subject of Rousseau’s thought only discernable in the balancing act that is his work.

The main body of Grosrichard’s article is divided into four sections. The first introduces the fundamental concepts of the analysis to follow - e.g., gravity, counter-weight, eccentricity, equilibrium - and how they globally apply to Rousseau’s corpus. The second, and longest, section is a reading of Emile, a work of fiction which also functions as Rousseau’s fundamental statement on education. From Emile, Grosrichard turns to The Social Contract in the third section, before concluding with a fourth section which synthesizes the preceding two and presents the function of ‘natural religion’ in Rousseau’s thought as the representational medium of a moral sentiment grounded in nature.

Grosrichard’s lyrical opening evokes an implicitly Lacanian framework for the analysis to follow as it contrasts two silences which motivate Rousseau’s thought, the silence of natural man and the silence of the slave. Natural man experiences a ‘rich silence’, because he never needs to represent his needs or desires in speech. Nature ‘speaks’ through him, so he remains silent in himself; a similar silence is enjoyed by those ‘happy peoples’ whose ‘General Will need not speak [prendre la parole] because their state speaks faithfully on their behalf’ (43). By contrast, the silence of the slave correlates to that of a General Will that has been subjected to the tyranny of representation. In this instance, the subject is effectively silent because the discourse in which he is embedded is not his own; it is the discourse of the other. ‘It is between these two silences that Rousseau’s oeuvre is born, breaking the one to escape from the other’ (44).

In Grosrichard’s reading, Rousseau understands the world and its composite representational structure as the product of a perversion in nature, and the history of the world as the fruitless quest to find the gravity that will restore balance to nature. In this perverted world, the subject, be it individual or collective, experiences a progressive ‘toppling outside of himself’ [basculé hors de lui-même] (44), that results in a life lived in a permanent state of eccentric - in the technical sense of ‘off-centre’ - relation to the nature at its source. This eccentric state is the state of representation itself. In Rousseau’s vision, contemporary man no longer confronts immediate nature, but the eccentric world of representation, that is, ‘the man of man’. If man’s own faculties are responsible for the disequilibrium of his existence, it is the function of natural instinct to serve as a remedy. In this regard, natural sentiment counterbalances excessive reason. The oeuvre of Rousseau seeks to let nature speak without representation, but the problem concerns how a ‘discourse without a subject’ can speak. In other words, one must pass through the self [le moi] in order to produce a speech or discourse about that which does not speak, to find ‘the common place where the gaze is confounded with the spectacle’ (45). Ultimately, Rousseau’s discourse operates in the ‘distance maintained between an exterior which it pushes away yet continuously belongs to, since it is written discourse and representation, and a silent centre it never managed to reach, since reaching it would have meant silencing and cancelling itself as discourse’ (46). What is more, ‘the story of Rousseau’s oeuvre is the story of a split at the interior of the world, which becomes, little by little, interior to writing itself. The work is thus itself gripped in the process of perversion it denounces; it accomplishes it by saying it’ (46).

Grosrichard follows Rousseau in recognizing Emile as his most important work. In effect, the figure of Emile functions as a concept in Rousseau’s thought, a concept which serves as a ‘centre of gravity’ that allows Rousseau to organize a constellation of responses centred on the problematic of the subject’s equilibrium. The major insight dramatized in Emile is that the duplicity of the world is no longer conceived as a relation between nature and civil society where one is extrinsic to the other. Rather, Emile is a hybrid subject - both natural man and citizen - who maintains the mutually dependent, though no less contradictory, natural and civil orders. Emile is a natural man developed through the artifice of education. His education is nonetheless a ‘genetic’ process, wherein faculties are only developed according to a natural order. Rousseau’s Emile is not subjected to external norms; his own existence is the genetic development of a nature that knows no authority other than itself. For Rousseau, the genesis of the faculties is determined by a ‘real temporality, that of a living individual, who is born, suffers, desires and could die at any moment - in short, who is made of a mind and a body. Thus the genesis in Emile is not simply a linear transformation of sensation, but a parallel double transformation: not a succession of the forms of the intellect either, but a succession of couplets of calibrated forms [formes équilibrées]’ (51).

Emile’s existence is one of repeatedly achieved states of equilibrium, where faculties are only developed at the ‘favourable moment’. In this regard, it is crucially important for Grosrichard that the ‘idea of God’ emerges in Emile at precisely the same moment as sexual desire, the desire for reproduction. In Grosrichard’s formulation, ‘desire is finitude, aware of itself, the opening to an other, to infinity’ (53). In other words, the moment of sexual desire is the favourable moment for the idea of God to appear, which will then function as a counterweight keeping this natural desire in equilibrium. This intimate connection between Emile’s most fundamental sexual instincts and the moral law of religion prepares Emile for his entrance to the civil order, a moment which also serves as the end of his education.

In the next section, Grosrichard turns to The Social Contract, which he reads as the complement to Emile in two senses. On the one hand, unlike Emile, which develops the foundations of the natural order, The Social Contract develops those of the civil order. On the other, The Social Contract is also the narrative of Emile expanded from the individual subject to the ‘people’ as a collective subject. The ‘people’ carry the natural law within, but it is obscured; hence the need for a legislator. ‘And as the educator must employ artifices and ruses in order to give force to reason, and to make the child accept it, so too will the legislator here use the force of religion’. Religion as such, in the history of humankind, functions like the idea of God in the personal history of the individual. When God is introduced at the ‘unfavourable moment’, forcibly ‘revealed’ through the schemata of representation, the result is alienation and despotism. In a manner analogous to Emile’s genetic presentiment of God at the time of his sexual development, however, Rousseau develops a concept of religion as a naturally occurring counterweight to the perversions which occur in the development of men left to their devices in nature. In this vision, the law naturally arises from the General Will itself rather than being introduced from without.

Grosrichard summarises the relation between these two major works, and their bearing on his broader thesis, as follows: ‘Although Emile and The Social Contract apparently develop in two independent fields, they in fact converge toward a centre which is never said as such: moral and religious ideology can only support itself by applying itself to a positive, political legality, and the political state only finds its fixed seat [assiette] with a moral and religious ideology. This might be the centre of gravity of Rousseau’s theoretical oeuvre: each religion, each system of laws, like each language, is only a positive variety, tied to the irreducible difference among climates and lands, of Religion, of Right, of language and they can coexist without contradicting one another…. [Each difference] can be referred back to a self-same universal Subject of reason, Man, in whose heart the law of God is given without intermediary’ (59).

In the final section of his article, Grosrichard reads Rousseau’s literary efforts as expressions of a discourse which recognizes the impossibility of fully turning back on itself as it traverses the field of representation to return to some kind of legible origin that would function as a critique of representation itself. This problem of legibility, or readability, is absolutely crucial. For Rousseau’s theoretical work recognizes that the only access we have to ‘the original Book’ of the world is via the ‘secondary and disfigured representation’ that is the world as we see it (64). The representation cannot be eliminated; it is intrinsic to the experience of nature itself. Grosrichard concludes by giving the dismissive conclusion of Althusser’s essay (CpA 8.1:42) a positive twist. Rather than Rousseau’s literary works being a ‘displacement’ of his theoretical problems, his fictions are the necessary dramatization of a subject that seeks to coincide with itself. ‘The whole history of Rousseau’s oeuvre, the passage from “theory to literature”, is the passage from the demand that the world and its representation must overlap - in short, that the world must be named - to the preliminary demand to make the representation I give of the world coincide with the representation I have of the world - in short, to name myself’ (64). The artifices of literature are a necessary consequence of Rousseau’s thought because ‘in order to name the world, I must be named myself in order to render transparent the discourse that will be abolished as it names the world. And in the end the whole oeuvre exists because the subject is the unnameable’ (64).

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


English Translation:


Primary Bibliography:

  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Emile, trans. and ed. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1979.
  • ---. The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Selected secondary sources:

  • Althusser, Louis ‘Sur Le Contrat social’, CpA 8.1.
  • Derrida, Jacques. ‘Nature, Culture, Ecriture: La violence de la lettre de Lévi-Strauss à Rousseau’, CpA 4.1.
  • Grosrichard, Alain. ‘Une expérience psychologique au XVIIIe siècle’, CpA 2.3.
  • ---. The Sultan’s Court: European Fantasies of the East, trans. Liz Heron, London: Verso, 1998.
  • Mosconi. Jean ‘Analyse et genèse: regards sur la théorie du devenir de l’entendement au XVIIIe siècle’, CpA 4.2