Lecture: Rousseau and the Counter-Enlightenment, 6/27/13

This presentation was given on June 27, 2013 at the Miller Learning Center at the University of Georgia for Brian Underwood’s Summer Research Fellowship with UGA’s Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities.

BU: My name is Brian Underwood. I am a rising fourth year student of History and Political Science. I am researching under Dr. Jennifer Palmer who joined us today because she won’t be able to attend the next session. Dr. Palmer received her Ph.D. in History and Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan in 2008, is a 2012-2013 Research Fellow at the Wilson Center for the Humanities and the Arts, and is currently researching “how slavery and colonialism shaped family and patronage in eighteenth-century France.”

My research centers around a single man – eighteenth century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The interest isn’t biographical, but philosophical, looking into the essence of Rousseau’s ideas – ideas which are still taught today. Specifically, I strive to understand the relationship between Rousseau’s philosophy and that of the Enlightenment. Without reifying it, the Enlightenment was an intellectual phenomenon arising in the late seventeenth century continuing to the late eighteenth century. It was not confined to any single country, nor even a single continent, and it affected fields as diverse as science, politics, art, history, religion, social relations, economics, so on and so forth – such is the nature of ideas. It was not a centralized movement – though certainly it had its leaders – but was rather a groundswell of a particular and identifiable set of ideas that proliferated over roughly a century. These ideas included the belief in man’s ability to understand and conquer nature, the utility in doing so, and the questioning of religious and political authority. Traditionally, Rousseau is considered part of the Enlightenment. With something as vast and expansive as the Enlightenment, it’s hard to believe that anything – let alone one single philosopher who conversed with and actually wrote alongside other Enlightenment figures – falls outside of it.

I believe it anyway.

But there are a couple problems in pursuing this topic. First, how does one define Enlightenment philosophy, as abstract and influential as it is? Second, how do you define Counter-Enlightenment philosophy? And last and most difficult, what is the nature Rousseau’s philosophy?

But before answering these questions, another question has to be answered first: why study intellectual history? Why study ideas? What does properly categorizing and understanding eighteenth-century philosophy matter to us in the twenty-first century?

A few weeks ago, I attended a panel in Atlanta entitled “Taking Ideas Seriously.” The answer actually came from a Doctor of Finance named Yaron Brook. In his words, “Ideas shape history. History is about ideas.” Voltaire, one of Rousseau’s contemporaries and most avowed critics, went further, stating, “History should be written as philosophy.”

Now, how do you do this? How do you go about defining these kinds of ideas?

First, you have to understand what this means. Quite simply, it means that ideas fundamentally shape human action; that you can track the progress or downfall of entire societies based on looking at the intellectual ideas that dominate its culture; that you can affect the future by looking at history to see which ideas have been successful and applying them to our current situation, while also understand the ideas that have been destructive and disregarding them .

My approach is largely a result of my experiences in Political Science and my subsequent encounters with numerous political science models, most of them which have same frustrating flaw – that they don’t take ideas seriously, that they treat human action as a result of purely deterministic, structuralist, materialist factors. My approach is different. It solves the frustrating nature of this flaw, not just because it was frustrating for me in studying these models, but also for my poor professors who had to listen to me complain about them. But what I do is I connect ideas with action. I try to understand how human action is shaped by ideas. Each of you in picking your own topics for your research did so based on certain ideas you hold – ideas on what’s important, what’s worth your time, and what’s worth studying.

Now, this particular approach has its supporters, such as famed social scientist Max Weber who wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Another great example is Life and Death in the Third Reich by Dr. Peter Fritzsche, in which he argues that the rise of Nazism in Germany was primarily a result of ideological conviction and belief in the ideas of the Volksgemeinschaft, or “people’s community,” an a largely nationalist, collectivist concept.

But before you can go about making these judgments, you have to be able to identify particular sets of ideas and the philosophers who formed them. This is what I like to call a sort of taxonomy of ideas, where the broader philosophy, the broader philosophical movement is sort of a genus. And so long as they all maintain that same characteristic which puts them into that genus, you can have variation on the species level.

So, moving on to defining the Enlightenment – how do you do this? How do you look at what the Enlightenment means? Well, you have to understand the essence of the Enlightenment. You have to look at those traits which pervade that entire genus.

I’ve just begun to look at the works of Dr. Peter Gay, and his work seems to confirm my suspicions, which is that there are certain fundamental characteristics which pervade throughout the entire Enlightenment. Dr. Onkar Ghate from the aforementioned speaker series in Atlanta, a Ph.D. in Philosophy, identified this as a fundamental battle between reason and authority – reason in the ability of man to understand nature, to conquer nature, for his own self-preservation, which requires self-improvement as well.  The Enlightenment also rejected anti-reason authorities.

So following from that, the Counter-Enlightenment – obviously – is a matter of going against the Enlightenment. It’s a reaction to the Enlightenment and a rejection of it – not just returning to the “good ol’ days” of feudalism, but looking forward to a Post-Enlightenment society.

I’d like to repeat why this important to us. The United States of America has been largely influenced by Enlightenment philosophy. But in order to properly plan our future, we have to understand the alternative sets of ideas that are out there. We have to be able to look at them, understand what shaped our history, and say, “There’s an alternative path for our future. What’s the nature of this alternative path, and should it be one we’re taking?”

Now, the work of Darrin McMahon notes that the Counter-Enlightenment was largely religious, conservative, and Catholic. And certainly, conservative Catholicism played a huge role in the Counter-Enlightenment, but it’s not the only example. Isaiah Berlin, who coined the term “Counter-Enlightenment”, identified it as the growth of German Romanticism, which, again, is certainly part of the Counter-Enlightenment because of the notion that emotion should take precedence over reason, that emotion is more important than reason in human action. And certainly again that’s part of the Counter-Enlightenment but it’s not the only part of the Counter-Enlightenment. The Counter-Enlightenment, generally speaking, rejected those central tenets of the Enlightenment – either rejecting reason outright or instituting new authorities to stifle the individual’s use of reason.

So where does Rousseau fall within the Enlightenment, Counter-Enlightenment battle? Well, first you have to look at Rousseau’s philosophy. His metaphysics, or his central assumptions about the nature of the world, are that the state of nature was a virtual Garden of Eden, that it was absolute abundance to the extent that there was no reason man should’ve ever left the state of nature. His epistemology, or how he believes man interprets the world, was based on the idea that man is an instinctual animal in the state of nature, differing only from other animals in that man’s a free agent. Rousseau’s moral psychology holds that man’s first passion is “self-love,” but self-love is often trumped entirely by a much more powerful emotion, which is the larger central tenet of his moral psychology – that’s pity. And as far as politics go, Rousseau maintains that in the state of nature, we wouldn’t need government institutions to rectify disputes, because we would have no conception of disputes. We’d have no conception of property, no conception of property rights, and no conception of violations of property rights, and [as] such, we wouldn’t need government.

This alone is a rejection of the Enlightenment – of the usefulness of reason to man and his ability to improve himself and move forward. But that’s not the only part of his philosophy.  There’s a second line of his philosophy, parallel to the first but still in-line with the first’s reasoning.

Obviously, we don’t live in the state of nature. Despite Rousseau’s claims that clothing and shelter are “hardly necessary” since man lived without them before he invented them, we now take these as staples. So we live in a civil society, and the second part of his philosophy is understanding how to rectify his perceived ills of civil society.

How does he do this? Well first,  he – to explain how we got to this “corrupted state” – some chance events activated man’s reason, activated his faculty of self-perfection, which eventually led to the development of property rights which then led to the development of vanity, violations of property rights, crime, injustice, inequality, so on and so forth. So what his solution is, is to recreate that original state of nature as much as possible in civil society, to recreate that original moral psychology of pity by binding man as close to one another as possible. This is the entire purpose of his Social Contract – taking away man’s individual powers and giving him powers that he can only use with the cooperation of his other – all his fellow man – the cooperation and consent. That passage was actually so powerful  — I paraphrased it – that Marx himself cited it directly in his essay “On the Jewish Question.” And in another book, called On Education or Emile, Rousseau sets out his program for how to live in a civil society. He accepts that reason allows us to understand morality, but he says that so often, reason takes us away from our “duties” – our duties to one another, the duties of pity. And he – it was either his First Discourse or his Second Discourse – he says that reason teaches us to live in a house, if we hear someone screaming outside and they need assistance, to look inward upon ourselves and not go help them, that we look after our own self-interests first. So in On Education, he accepts that – or he argues that we should work to reinstitute that pity to look at our actions, not only in how they benefit us, but also in how they benefit others – our actions in the context of others. More than that, he says that part our unhappiness – or, supposed unhappiness – in civil society results from a lack of power on our part – power meaning the ability to attain our wants. He doesn’t say that it’s because we don’t have a lot of power, but he says it’s because our wants, as we have gained them in civil society, are far too great. So he argues for a sort of Zen Buddhist simplicity where we don’t want anything except what we can make for ourselves, again returning to the state of nature.

So, the conclusion is, ultimately, that Rousseau is a Counter-Enlightenment figure, not just because he rejects reason, but also because he institutes new authorities over man’s individual action, over man’s use of reason, whether it be the collective, innate emotion, or – in the case of women, as he argues in On Education – public opinion.

And the process of this eventually moves forward. It represents a shifting paradigm in continental Europe at the time, which eventually ends up shifting to the more German philosophers, the German Idealism of Hegel, Schopenhauer, and even Marx who was highly influenced by Rousseau.

Again, why is this important? Well, we need to understand the nature of the Enlightenment, which not only has affected us, but the very fabric of our scientific world. Because whether you look at our research in science, social science, and the humanities as important, as useful, as a beneficial thing to our lives – and those of others – or whether you think it’s useful, it’s vain, and it’s never provided anything of substantial benefit, that it fundamentally a conflict between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment values.

Ideas fundamentally shape our lives. It’s up to us to know them and to choose those ideas which will affect our future positively. Are there any questions?

If not, I’m going to pontificate a little bit more. I have three minutes.

I just want to make a short statement about this opening picture which I found interesting. It’s ‘Prometheus’ by Grigori Karpovich Mikhailov in 1839, and I think it’s sort of emblematic of what I view is the Counter-Enlightenment. Prometheus, the giver of useful arts, of fire and knowledge to mankind, punished and rejected for doing so. And I think that’s sort of Rousseau’s attitude towards science. He is against medicine – not just, contemporary medicine of his time which was admittedly dangerous – but medicine in the abstract, saying that if we were diagnosed with some sort of illness, nature would take its course, and that we shouldn’t try to conflict with nature. Whether we die or whether a child dies before he’s twenty – which he accepts as an inevitability – is irrelevant to us, and that we shouldn’t try to stop it. So I believe that Rousseau’s got a number of problems that should be addressed, and I don’t believe he should be part of the Enlightenment.

Any questions? Alright, cool. Oh wait – oh yeah, go.

Audience member: You mentioned the Counter-Enlightenment. Do you – is that – I don’t know how to phrase this, but is it – does that exist in today’s age less so than it did previously?

BU: Well, I think that obviously there are a number of aspects of the Counter-Enlightenment, just like there were a number of aspects of the Enlightenment. Counter-Enlightenment produced many ideas such as collectivism, duty – reinstituted duty to the state which the Enlightenment had, in many ways, rejected. I believe that our modern world is still shaped by Counter-Enlightenment versus Enlightenment philosophy, but also we’re not confined solely to western philosophy, not in our modern age. We also have eastern philosophies and many other alternatives, but I was primarily focused on the conflict in eighteenth century Europe.

Anything else? Cool, thank you very much.


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