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Rousseau and Critical Theory

An excerpt from Alessandro Ferrara's latest book

4005009What follows is an excerpt of Alessandro Ferrara’s 2017 book “Rousseau and Critical Theory”, published by Brill in Leiden, Netherlands and Boston. The excerpt includes selections from the Introduction, Part 1 and Part 3. 

Among the modern philosophers who have shaped the world we inhabit, Rousseau is the one to whom we owe the idea that identity can be a source of normativity (moral and political) and that an identity’s potential for playing such a role rests on its capacity for being authentic.

The idea of authenticity brings unity to many other contributions for which Rousseau is usually credited – i.e., the supposition that the incentives through which society coordinates its reproduction influence the character of human beings and lead to substituting amour-propre for the natural self-love, the conviction that the best education consists not in shaping the human mind in accordance with preordained models but in shielding the human being from the prevailing cultural models, the notion of a political regime which protects our life and property and yet leaves us as free as we were beforehand. Such an idea runs subterranean through Rousseau’s entire work and contains important teachings for contemporary Critical Theory, contemporary views of self-constitution (Korsgaard, Frankfurt and Larmore), and contemporary political philosophy.[1]

Authenticity as the keystone of Rousseau’s work

Rousseau’s idea of authenticity can be gleaned in backlight, so to speak, from his critique of the inauthenticity generated by a social competition for intrinsically divisive, zero-sum goods. Ever since competition for rank, property or power made its appearance in primitive agricultural societies, contends Rousseau, “it became to the interest of men to appear what they really were not”[2] in order to secure the rewards – wealth, power and prestige – afforded by a pattern of social reproduction based on a competitive division of labor. These rewards are zero-sum objects. In order for the acquisition of wealth to constitute a meaningful goal for me, there must exist others who are not rich. Similarly, people can take an interest in power only insofar as they see the possibility of gaining power over others, and they can develop an interest in glory and prestige only insofar as these amount to signs of distinction from others. Furthermore, the outcome of any competition depends, among other things, on what others believe of us. Thus by rewarding conformity with the existent roles and successful participation in the division of labor with such zero-sum goods, all societies – but especially modern civil society – have indirectly put a premium on cunning, on the ability to mislead and induce fear, on envy and diffidence.

On the other hand, through competition society induces not just insincerity, but also inauthenticity. Because it pays off to appear other than one is, the gap between external conduct and inner reality widens. The fear of losing ground in social competition makes it convenient for people to choose the solid ground of established, stereotyped forms of self-representation rather than undergoing a toilsome search for their true motives and identity. As Rousseau has Saint-Preux, one of the characters of Julie, or the New Heloise, report, in Paris people “have to go into society every night to learn what they’re going to think the next day”.[3] Under the pressure of competition people then become so dependent on the opinion of others, that even their sense of self-cohesion is endangered and the self is gradually reduced to pure exteriority, a mere copy of what society requires. At the apex of social evolution, in the Parisian society celebrated by Diderot as a source of new possibilities for self expression and as an exhilarating kaleidoscope of life-styles, Rousseau saw a gallery of masks under which persons no longer existed, total reification in the area of the relation to oneself and a pervasive inauthenticity.

This insight into the relation between patterns of social reproduction and dominant character traits is, along with the normativity of identity, one of the most valuable elements in Rousseau’s legacy. Today, in a globalized world, such critique speaks to us in an entirely new guise. The pressure towards inauthenticity, which once affected the relation of the individual to herself, manifests itself now as an homogenizing force exerted on every country in the world, and especially on the poorest and weakest ones. The matrix of incentives is exactly the same. In a global economy where competition enjoins state-actors and enterprises to lower the cost of labor and increase ‘flexibility’ in labor contracts, each country, especially if peripheral and poor, can hardly afford the toilsome and uncertain search for an original economic profile and can hardly refuse the incentive of success, or even simply survival, that comes with ready-made policies of flexibility and low labor costs.

The first plane on which a remedy to this predicament can be found is the redressing of the inequitable social pact that spontaneously came into being with the rise of agricultural societies and has caused the free-born human being to live everywhere in chains. The redressing of the inequitable pact, again, cannot consist for Rousseau of a reversal of evolution aimed at undoing property or social inequalities entirely. It rather consists in a forward-looking uncoupling of social inequalities and political inequalities: in the just society based on the social contract, all citizens, while remaining (moderately) unequal from a social point of view, will have equal political influence on the determination of the general will, will enjoy equal protection of the laws and will remain as free as they were before. Had this remained the sole plane on which Rousseau sought to remedy the ills of subjectivity-eroding social arrangements, he would be remembered only as a brilliant political philosopher – the inventor of an idea of legitimate government that reaches beyond the classical liberal criterion of “consent of the governed” and understands legitimate government as presupposing an active, democratic element of “authorship of”, not just passive consent to, the laws one obeys.

Instead, Rousseau’s remedy for the ills of societal competitive reproduction includes much more than preventing social inequalities from resulting in political domination: it also required the strengthening of the individual’s defense against the corrupting influence of competition for divisive rewards. Such strengthening, in turn, can be seen from two perspectives. On the one hand, it can be understood as a program for an education to autonomy, outlined in Emile. On the other hand, it can be understood as a personal search for authenticity.

Politics and the normativity of identity

Rousseau’s view of the normativity of identity bears an up to now undervalued relevance for political philosophy. To those who may be wary of applying categories drawn from the realm of individual agency to things political, I cannot offer here a real argument in defense of the comparability of individual and political identities. I can only remind them of a glorious tradition that starts with Plato’s point, in Book II of The Republic, about the greater fruitfulness of addressing the question of justice in the polis, compared to a text written with larger characters, and then reverting back to the question of the place of justice in individual life, the same text written with smaller characters.[4] In modern times, the comparability thesis has been defended in the famous opening of Leviathan where Hobbes asserts that the commonwealth or State “is but an Artificiall Man” and, within it, sovereignty “is an Artificiall Soul”.[5] It has been endorsed by Locke when he grounds majority rule and political obligation on the conceptual necessity to imagine the polity as endowed with the unified agency of “one Body”.[6] It has been reiterated by Hegel in his famous formula of the “I that is We, We that is I” and in his understanding of the entwinement of individual conscience and Spirit, of the rise of the modern autonomous individual and the post-conventional Sittlichkeit. It surfaces again in Habermas’s use of psychological-developmental concepts (pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional stages of moral development) for making sense of cultural evolution.[7]

Having said this, the link between the normativity of identity and politics is forcefully highlighted by Rousseau in the pages of The Social Contract where he discusses the role of the “legislator”.[8] Who is the legislator? He is certainly not a Platonic “philosopher-king” who can authoritatively impose his understanding of the just polis and then, once the just polis is established, rule it with wisdom. Were it so, the legislator would dispossess the people of its sovereignty. Yet, if the legitimate sovereign is the people, why is a legislator needed? It is needed because Rousseau’s political philosophy rests on the distinction of the “will of all” and the “general will”.[9] Empirically, both can manifest themselves in the same way, namely as a unanimous act of the will of the totality of the members of the deliberative body, but only the general will takes the common good of the deliberative body as its object. The unanimity of the will of all, instead, may rest on the fortuitous convergence of the particular individual wills that address their own particularistic good.

Consequently, the will of a deliberative body can legitimately qualify as the “general will” only when it targets and tracks the common good. Now, unless we construct a probabilistic caricature of Rousseau’s view, according to which what everybody wants sometimes randomly coincides with what is also good for everybody, the formation of a truly general will requires that we have a shared collective representation of what is good for everybody. Only if we know to what it amounts, can we will the common good. At this juncture the role of the legislator becomes relevant. The legislator can remedy the fact that the people, qua legitimate sovereign, even when it wants to pursue its own good does “not always discerns it”.[10] In fact, qua “blind multitude” (multitude aveugle), a collection of individuals “rarely knows what is good for it”.[11] A lot of work needs to be done, before the aggregate will of single individuals and of the various parts of the social body can engender a truly general will, aimed at the pursuit of the common good. The empirical will must be “made to see objects as they are, sometimes as they ought to appear; it must be shown the good path that it is seeking, and guarded from the seduction of private interests; it must be made to observe closely times and places, and to balance the attraction of immediate and palpable advantages against the danger of remote and concealed evils”.[12] In Rousseau’s terminology, “the people must be taught to know what they require”.[13]

This is what the legislator supposedly does, what Lycurgus, Solon, Moses and others have actually done. The legislator is not in a position to determine what the common good is, cannot performatively infuse normativity into this common good, cannot transform the “putatively common good” into the common good by fiat. He can only gesture at what it consists of, in order for the individual minds to recognize it and for the individual hands to be raised in approval.

The fact that the legislator, according to Rousseau, neither dictates nor merely records popular preferences and dispositions, but indicates or suggests what they should be raises two problems. First, in which directions does he point? Second, by virtue of what the legislator does to convince the sovereign people to follow his lead, from whence does his special authority draw that force which Rousseau, in a paradoxical way, calls “a mere nothing”?[14]

Concerning the first question, in order to discern in which direction the legislator’s hand points, we need to recall that for Rousseau the common good, no less than Julie’s individual good, always gives away something of the subject whose good it is. To grasp the common good does not mean to acquire knowledge of something “independent of who we are”. In Rousseau’s words,

As an architect, before erecting a large edifice, examines and tests the soil in order to see whether it can support the weight, so a wise lawgiver does not begin by drawing up laws that are good in themselves, but considers first whether the people for whom he designs them are fit to endure them.[15]

Thus the legislator does not purport to indicate what is good in general, independently of the people to whom this good is destined or on the basis of some model of justice valid for all seasons and in all possible worlds, but indicates those principles of justice with which a people can “wholeheartedly identify”.

The legislator in the public realm shows the sovereign, just as Lord Bomston shows Julie in the private realm, proper lines of conduct that respond to a singular normativity. Instructive from this point of view is the error imputed by Rousseau to Peter the Great. Peter the Great wished to turn his Russian subjects into “Germans or Englishmen, when he should have begun by making them Russians” and thus “he prevented his subjects from ever becoming what they might have been, by persuading them that they were what they were not”.[16]

Concerning the first question, then, it could be stated that the good that the legislator shows the sovereign people is not something independent of the subjective qualities of the given people, as though it were a principle equally valid for all peoples. Rather, the common good consists of some moral vision that the people in question ought to adopt as its own and as the object of its will – a vision that, again, emerges as an “ought” or a normative directive from the people’s own self-representation.

Two centuries and eighteen years thereafter, in 1980, this view of the “singular normativity” emanating from a people’s self-representation powerfully re-emerges in Rawls’s interpretation of the validity of “justice as fairness” qua interpretation of the terms of the just political life of a modern democratic people. In his words:

What justifies a conception of justice is not its being true to an order antecedent to and given to us, but its congruence with our deeper understanding of ourselves and our aspirations, and our realization that, given our history and the traditions embedded in our public life, it is the most reasonable doctrine for us.[17]

Moving on to the second question, on what can the legislator rely in order to persuade his people to pursue the common good? In a famous passage, Rousseau reminds us that the legislator “cannot employ either force or reasoning”. It goes without saying that the legislator cannot legitimately use force. Less clear is why he couldn’t use reasoning. Why not? In lieu of reasoning, argues Rousseau in the same passage, the legislator must have recourse “to an authority of a different order, which can compel without violence and persuade without convincing”.[18] How should the phrase “persuade without convincing” be interpreted?

Rousseau suggests that such form of persuasion has often resorted to calling for “the intervention of heaven” and to invoking divine authority in order to achieve what mere human prudence could not possibly have motivated people to reach for. However, this recourse to the capacity for “persuading without convincing”, typical of religious symbols, cannot be employed in an instrumental spirit, in order to persuade any people of anything the legislator might repute “good for that people”. Tables of stone can be engraved, direct communication with divinity can be feigned, dreams can be reported, but he who wished to establish his recognition as a legislator on such basis would not go very far. He could function as the legislator of a crowd of fools but “he will never found an empire”.[19] What persuades and mobilizes peoples then are not the symbols of transcendence as such, but the legislator’s infusing their aura into a normative substance that reflects something deeper and lying neither at his own nor at the people’s disposal. The legislator shows the people what the people, just as Luther, cannot but do, on penalty of becoming other than it is.

The force to which the legislator appeals in order to lead the minds of the individuals towards the general will – thus runs Rousseau’s answer to the second question – is the normative force of identity, the normativity which emanates from the way in which we want to answer the question “Who are we, politically?”.

Let us now return to our first question – in which directions does the legislator point? Rousseau’s legislator points to what the people’s will must take as its object in order to be “general”, but what we have learned from our reconstruction of Rousseau’s philosophy of authenticity is that the legislator’s finger does not point outwards, towards a mythical rising sun far at the horizon. Rather, that finger is pointed inwards: it indicates to the people that we (for the legislator is a member of the people, not an external advisor or an authority standing above the people), we as we like to think of ourselves, can do no other than adopt this kind of political regime, basic structure or set of constitutional essentials. The normativity to which the legislator appeals, in urging this singular good on us, is ultimately the normativity of identity.

Today we witness a resurgence of an interest for truth in politics, truth as distinct from justification – an interest which signals a distancing from what is supposed to be a certain inability, on the part of liberal-democratic thought, to really come to terms with the dimension of truth. What is found attractive in truth, as opposed to justification, is its Unverfügbarkeit, its transcending the dimension of agreement, of compromise, even of good reasons or the best argument within public reason. To those who are particularly receptive towards the normative force of the non-negotiable and of what seems to compel us independently of consensus, this revisitation of Rousseau’s work can suggest that the moment of Unverfügbarkeit in truth, so appealing to them, must not necessarily be harnessed to the idea of the cognitive representation of something independent of us – as two millennia of variations on the theme of Plato’s myth of the cave have inclined us to think. Such a moment of irreducibility to agreement and consensus could be articulated in a practical, rather than cognitive, way – namely, as the indication of a normative substance, an institutional framework, a constitutional scheme which we cannot afford rejecting without thereby losing the ability to answer the question “Who are we?” in the way we cherish to answer it.

Rousseau has long been recognized as a classic in many disciplines – philosophy, political theory, sociological theory, education, literary studies and the history of French literature – and no longer than 50 years has passed since he acquired that status within Critical Theory too.

The main point emphasized is that when we read Rousseau from the vantage point of our philosophical horizon, situated at the crossroads of a critique of foundationalism articulated in various competing vocabularies during the first half of the 20th century and the subsequent responses that, at the turn of the new century, have either indulged in its celebration, often adding little of substance, or tried to sidestep this critique in the direction of a neo-naturalism, or ventured into offering solutions of various nature and even more diverse fortune to its pending interrogations, then the perceived relevance of Rousseau’s work significantly changes relative to past epochs. It has morphed from being a sectorial relevance – linked, for example, either with his critique of modern society’s character-corrupting patterns of reproduction, or with the originality of his idea of popular sovereignty when compared to the natural law and liberal ideas of popular consent, or with the originality of the psychology embedded in his theory of education – to being a more general, holistic relevance linked with the central motif underlying his multifarious life-work. That central motif has been identified as the idea that identity – both in its individual and collective dimension – can be a source of normativity, and can exert such normative function by virtue of its projecting authenticity.

Long reputed an existential ornament of little consequence for the constitution of agency and the self, authenticity qua peculiar alignment or mutual resonance between central motifs and outer manifestations of symbolically structured centers of agency – be they individual psyches or human groupings – has come to matter to us in a new way because of this momentous transformation undergone by our philosophical horizon. At this juncture, Rousseau still has some important insight to offer. Whether this insight will prove capable of orienting our critical imagination, necessarily remains an open-ended story.

Alessandro Ferrara, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, Italy, studied philosophy and sociology at Berkeley and Frankfurt. Among his books are The Democratic Horizon. Hyperpluralism and the Renewal of Political Liberalism (2014), The Force of the Example. Explorations in the Paradigm of Judgment (2008), Justice and Judgment (1999)  and Reflective Authenticity (1998).


[1] In an abridged form, the present post presents an argument about Rousseau’s relevance for contemporary political philosophy drawn from A.Ferrara, Rousseau and Critical Theory (Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2017). In that volume a more detailed discussion can be found of the centrality of authenticity in Rousseau’s critique of modern society (Chapter 1), of the influence of his thought on Critical Theory (Chapter 2), and of the implications of his conception of the normativity of identity for some contemporary theories of self-constitution (Chapter 3).

[2] J.J. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind (1755), in J.J. Rousseau, The Social Contract and the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, edited by L.G. Crocker, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 224.

[3] J.J. Rousseau, Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), trans. J.H. McDowell, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press 1968, book II, letter 14.

[4] Just as reading a text with small letters is easier for a short-sighted man if the opportunity is offered to read first the same letters on a larger scale, so it is suggested by Socrates to “start our inquiry [about justice] with the community, and then proceed to the individual and see if we can find in the conformation of the smaller entity anything similar to what we have found in the larger” (Plato, The Republic, 55) [369a].

[5] Th. Hobbes, Leviathan, edited and with an introduction by C.B. Macpherson. (London: Penguin Classics, 1985), 81.

[6] J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government, critical edition with an introduction by P. Laslett, revised edition. (New York: New American Library, 1965), § 96, 375.

[7] J. Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), 69-94.

[8] See Rousseau, The Social Contract, in The Social Contract and the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 40-48.

[9] Ibidem, 30-31.

[10] Ibidem, 41.

[11] Ibidem, 41.

[12] Ibidem, 41.

[13] Ibidem, 41.

[14] Ibidem, 44.

[15] Ibidem, 46.

[16] Ibidem, 48.

[17] J. Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory”, Journal of Philosophy, 1980, 88, 519. A similar view can be found in Political Liberalism (1993), Expanded Edition, (New York, Columbia University Press, 2005), 28.

[18] Rousseau, The Social Contract, 45.

[19] Ibidem, 46.

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