Who Was Jean-Jacques Rousseau?

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a prolific writer in a number of genres. His insights into moral psychology, and particularly what he had to say about human needs for approval from others, have continuing resonance. In this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast Chris Bertram discusses this aspect of his work with Nigel Warburton.

Listen to Chris Bertram on Rousseau's Moral Psychology

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau is generally seen, especially in Britain, as the worst sort of intellectual: absurdly self-regarding, and dangerously naive, in his fond belief in the natural goodness of humanity, which fed the excesses of the French Revolution, and maybe sowed other totalitarian seeds.

I have come to think he deserves more respect. While recently researching the roots of secular humanism, I found that he stood out from the list of dead white males I was considering. While other thinkers made important contributions to this or that movement, Rousseau made the weather. Also, he is psychologically fascinating – he makes other thinkers of the age seem wooden.

His thought is as relevant as ever, for he confronted deep human needs, such as the need to reconcile personal integrity with social belonging, the need to reconnect with the natural world, the need to escape the hyped-up tinny crap that passes for culture and seek out some sort of authenticity, and above all perhaps, the glorious yet embarrassing need that drives us all, the need to be ourselves...

Continue reading Theo Hobson's article: Jean-Jacques Rousseau: as relevant as ever 

Further Reading

Jean-Jacques Rousseau remains an important figure in the history of philosophy, both because of his contributions to political philosophy and moral psychology and because of his influence on later thinkers. Rousseau’s own view of philosophy and philosophers was firmly negative, seeing philosophers as the post-hoc rationalizers of self-interest, as apologists for various forms of tyranny, and as playing a role in the alienation of the modern individual from humanity’s natural impulse to compassion. The concern that dominates Rousseau’s work is to find a way of preserving human freedom in a world where human beings are increasingly dependent on one another for the satisfaction of their needs. This concern has two dimensions: material and psychological, of which the latter has greater importance. In the modern world, human beings come to derive their very sense of self from the opinion of others, a fact which Rousseau sees as corrosive of freedom and destructive of individual authenticity. In his mature work, he principally explores two routes to achieving and protecting freedom: the first is a political one aimed at constructing political institutions that allow for the co-existence of free and equal citizens in a community where they themselves are sovereign; the second is a project for child development and education that fosters autonomy and avoids the development of the most destructive forms of self-interest...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Rousseau by Christopher Bertram

Related Topics

If you’re interested in Rousseau, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

 DemocracyEmpathyThe Enlightenment | HumeLockeMoral Psychology | Social Contract

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