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notes to Rousseau

The reading group schedule with links to the readings for the summer has been posted at:

Platypus Marxist reading group summer 2009, June 28 - August 16

Radical bourgeois philosophy: Kant-Hegel-Nietzsche

We will address the greater context for Marx and Marxism through the issue of bourgeois radicalism in philosophy in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Discussion will emerge by working through the development from Kant and Hegel to Nietzsche, but also by reference to the Rousseauian aftermath, and the emergence of the modern society of capital, as registered by liberals such as Adam Smith and Benjamin Constant.

"The principle of freedom and its corollary, 'perfectibility,' . . . suggest that the possibilities for being human are both multiple and, literally, endless. . . . Contemporaries like Kant well understood the novelty and radical implications of Rousseau’s new principle of freedom [and] appreciated his unusual stress on history as the site where the true nature of our species is simultaneously realized and perverted, revealed and distorted. A new way of thinking about the human condition had appeared. . . . As Hegel put it, 'The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite.' "
-- James Miller (author of The Passion of Michel Foucault, 2000), Introduction to Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Hackett, 1992)

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Book sources

The readings are mostly linked to HTML web text sources; a few are PDFs that I've scanned or are available on the web.

But I would encourage the following book purchases which will make matters much simpler:

- Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Hackett: ISBN 0872201503)

- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (Univ. Chicago: ISBN 0226763749)

- Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Hackett: ISBN 087220166X)

- Kant, Perpetual Peace (etc.) (Hackett: ISBN 0915145472)


- Kant, Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: ISBN 0521654084)

- Hegel, Intro to Philosophy of History (Hackett: ISBN 0872200566)

- Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Hackett: ISBN: 0915144948)

- Nietzsche, Basic Writings (Modern Library: ISBN 0679783393)

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Notes on the readings

I'd like to write some notes to you now about beginning this reading group mini-course with Rousseau.

The schedule is such that the reading for the 2nd week of Rousseau is much shorter than for the 1st. This will allow for a comprehensive discussion of both texts by Rousseau at the 2nd session. So I will address, first, Robert Pippin's short 2003 essay in response to the forum in the journal Critical Inquiry "On Critical Theory," and then address both Rousseau texts, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, and The Social Contract.


Pippin takes us through a history of modern philosophy, and distinguishes roughly 2 periods (though he does not explicitly do so): 1.) Kant-Hegel, the turn of the 18-19th Centuries; and 2.) 19th Century, post-Hegelian philosophy. He describes this turn as follows:

"the modern form of life coming into view after the middle of the nineteenth century or so was in some basic way unacceptable, unaffirmable, pathological even, certainly ugly. (A “recoil” most dramatically first obvious much earlier, in Rousseau.) To cut to the chase: it then became obvious how difficult it would be to theorize, as it is now put, this gap, or absence or lack in this new, comprehensive form of life. No appeal to an underlying, unrealized human nature (Feuerbach, the early Marx) was possible (if one truly took Kant’s critical results to heart and abstained from Marx’s neo-Aristotelian essentialism); no appeal to an independent moral criterion was possible (after the historicizing Hegel); and the idea of an underlying historical teleology, such that what was “missing” was what was “not yet actual,” but being realized, began to seem a metaphysical regression."

Leaving aside Pippin's misunderstanding of (the early) Marx (as "neo-Aristotelian essentialism"), obviously the question of 1848 is raised by Pippin (Pippin describes the crisis coming "after the middle of the 19th Century," not only with Marx, but also Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, et al.).

So, we have, on the one hand, "Kant (or the Kantian moment), as the hinge on which something quite new in the history of philosophy and social and perhaps aesthetic theory swings open." And we have the crisis of the 19th Century circa 1848. And Rousseau prefigures both (but, in Pippin's account, Rousseau is more associated with the "recoil" or "revulsion" from modernity).

Pippin laments the fact that after 1848, "the idea of an underlying historical teleology, such that what was “missing” was what was “not yet actual,” but being realized, began to seem a metaphysical regression." Obviously, he doesn't think that Hegel really is subject to such a critique (of metaphysical regression). So, then the question becomes, what is meant by "what is missing" as something "not yet actual, but being realized?"

Here, I'd like to point to my essay on "Capital in History: the need for a Marxian philosophy of history of the Left" (2008), which addresses the issue of the broader historical context for capital as social modernity:

For, broadly speaking, in trying to address Kant-Hegel-Nietzsche, we are addressing the emergence and crisis of modern, "bourgeois" society, the preconditions of the constitution of capital in the bourgeois revolutions, which Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Hegel and Constant address, and the manifestation of the crisis of capital with the industrial revolution and the global crisis of the 1840s leading to the revolutions of 1848, from which Marx originates, and its aftermath, which Nietzsche addresses.

Understanding capital as a transitional condition of social history, the end of pre-history and the threshold of true human history as freedom, is paramount, here.

This understanding is largely missing in Pippin, of course (though it is indicated, however cryptically, in the last line from Pippin I highlighted, above). But it is indicated in Rousseau, with whom is inaugurated, paradoxically, both a radical conception of freedom (see the James Miller epigraph, above) and a negative "recoil" to the history of civilization.

Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

The most important thing to emphasize and use to frame Rousseau is the issue of the history of civilization itself, what is motivating Rousseau's imagination of an originary "state of nature" to which the "noble savage" (e.g., Native Americans) seem closer for Rousseau than their more "civilized" European brethren.

The question is, why is Rousseau motivated, as virtually no one before him, to imagine the "loss" involved in the birth of civilization, or the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled agricultural civilization? Why does the entire history of civilization come into such radical question for Rousseau?

-- Because the emergence of the modern, "bourgeois" society Rousseau is registering in the 18th Century seems to be both the "perfection" of the civilization that preceded it, and to open radically new possibilities. This paradox and ambivalence is what is motivating Rousseau's investigation of human nature and freedom.

Rousseau, The Social Contract

Rousseau's Social Contract is a trickier text to tackle, because it appears in many respects to be the very opposite of the anarchic individualism Rousseau seems to champion in the Discourse on Inequality.

But this is only apparent, and is really an artifact of the 1960s New Left, which found the 2nd Discourse (on Inequality) more sympathetic in its "anarchist" negativity than The Social Contract, despite and indeed because the latter text was much more inspirational for the bourgeois radicals of the American and French Revolutions.

The key category for Rousseau's Social Contract is the "general will."

While it might appear to be some totalitarian collectivism, modeled after the ancient "democratic" polity of Athens, etc., it was actually Rousseau's (admittedly obscure) attempt to grasp modern society's dynamic of individual and collective freedom.

Rousseau's radical idea was that the freedom of the individual member of society found its actual ground and possibility in the freedom of the social collectivity. The individual owes his freedom to society. (This seems radically opposed to his account of the loss of freedom due to civilization found in the 2nd Discourse.)

What Rousseau is trying to address is the phenomenon of social freedom. Rousseau's category of the "general will," which he explicitly emphasizes is not the mere sum of individual wills or their average, but is in fact more than the sum of its parts, is meant to do more than reconcile the individual and society, but rather demonstrate the actual transcending of both the individuals and the empirical social collective they comprise. The "more than the sum of its parts" aspect of society is for Rousseau key to grounding the collective efforts of social individuals as subject to change and progress in freedom. (What Rousseau is saying about society is of course really only about modern society, of which Rousseau himself might not have been so clear.) This is going to be very important to Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations can thus be considered in extended dialogue with Rousseau. -- And for Hegel!

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Philosophical constitution of modernity

I want to make a controversial claim, which is that capital (as Marx understood it) has a dimension of "philosophical" constitution. In other words, just as capital has a political constitution, through the liberal-democratic "bourgeois" revolutions, that, had they not taken place, would have prevented the constitution of capital, so it goes that without certain developments in the realm of "philosophy" capital would not have found its historical constitution. (This also goes for the "scientific revolution" and the Protestant Reformation, which might be considered important components of the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment in the 17th-18th Centuries.)

The point is that ideas and intellectual production matter. The alternative is to too try to find, e.g., Rousseau and Kant already expressing the "commodity form" in thought, etc., which, while true to a certain degree, also begs the question of their importance, and tends to involve an impoverished notion of "ideology," as merely "reflecting" social conditions, etc. But thinking should not be so disenchanted. Thinking is not secondary but (just as) primary (and consequential as physical action may be).

The point would be, rather, to find in canonical thinkers of modernity, e.g., Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Hegel, et al., forms of thought in which thinkers as subjects participate and act (thinking as doing) that are "bound up with" social-historical developments. Retrospectively, we can't help but find these thinkers to be expressing something "ideological" about the modern society of capital. But, more importantly, we need to be able to recognize that the influence of their thought is part of what made modernity happen. These thinkers were themselves (in their thought, an active) part of the transformation in which they were bound up. Modernity took place in their thinking. -- They were revolutionary thinkers.

Forms of thought matter. Failure to think is as important and consequential as thinking in certain ways can be complicit or compromised. Thinking is part of historical transformation. Thinking has the character of both a means of emancipation and an obstacle to this.

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On postmodernism and regression

I would like to say something about the issue of "postmodernism" as raised by Pippin.

Although postmodernism still flies in sclerotic academia, its time is long since past.

What makes Platypus possible is the definite end of postmodernism (as well as the concomitant exhaustion of the 1960s "New Left").

What that means is that it needs to be emphasized that certain problems have been with us a very long time, now. That is Pippin's point. Postmodernism was the latest attempt to try to go beyond Kant (or "beyond Hegel and Nietzsche" as a book from the 1990s by a scholar of the Frankfurt School puts it), while clearly falling below Kant (and Rousseau!).

The point is that even if Marx were wrong, Hegel and Nietzsche would be right. And even if Hegel and Nietzsche were wrong, Kant would be right. And even if Kant were wrong, Rousseau would be right.

What this means is that the regression we diagnose has its positive dimension, which is the regained saliency of earlier thought's ability to critique the present. Not only have we fallen below Marx and so need to revisit him, but we've fallen below the radical bourgeois philosophers of revolution, and so need to revisit them. We need to revisit what Marx took for granted in order to be able to grasp his attempt to critique and get beyond them.

So postmodernism is actually more dated than are Rousseau and Kant (let alone Marx!). Just because aged academics (or their younger sycophants) don't realize this doesn't change the fact that this is indeed the case. It's not for nothing that towards the end of his life Foucault imagined that he had been trying to carry on the Kantian project all along (or, that Rosalind Krauss embraced Kant at the end, etc.). Kant is the beginning and the end, so to speak. The attempts to get beyond Kant have been of mixed success: Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. Hegel is closest to Kant; as Adorno put it, Hegel is Kant "come into his own." Marx and Nietzsche express the crisis of bourgeois society. Everything since them has either at best reiterated their problematic, or avoided it in a regression to a pre-Kantian perspective. That is Pippin's point.