On the Intention of Rousseau

"On the Intention of Rousseau," Social Research, Vol. 14, No. 4 (December 1947).


The antiquarian controversy about the intention of Rousseau conceals a political controversy about the nature of democracy. Modern democracy might seem to stand or fell by the claim that “the method of democracy” and “the method of intelligence” are identical. To understand the implications of this claim one naturally turns to Rousseau, for Rousseau, who considered himself the first theoretician of democracy, regarded the compatibility of democracy, or of free government in general, with science not as a fact which is manifest to everyone but rather as a serious problem.

An adequate understanding of Rousseau’s thesis presupposes a detailed interpretation of the Contrat social and Emile. For reasons of space alone, to say nothing of others, we must limit ourselves here to a discussion of Rousseau’s “first discourse” which is now conveniently accessible, thanks to Mr. George Havens, in a beautiful and well annotated edition. Rousseau himself said that all his writings express the same principles. There are then no other Rousseauan principles than those underlying his short discourse on the sciences and arts, however imperfectly he may have expressed them in that earliest of his important writings.

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