Was Jean-Jacques Rousseau an Enlightenment figure?

This essay compares some of the ideas expressed by Immanuel Kant countered by those expressed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau with regard to enlightenment. More specifically, it considers whether Rousseau can be classified as an enlightenment figure according to the definition of enlightenment proposed by Kant. I will argue that with regard to Kant’s definition Rousseau cannot be considered to be an enlightenment figure. The claims supporting this argument pertain to fundamental differences in their thoughts on what should be man’s natural or ideal state of mind; differences in opinion on what prohibits people from reaching this. While Rousseau wrote in the time associated with enlightenment, and certainly engaged in debate with enlightenment thinkers, I argue his ideas are firmly in opposition of it.

In ‘What is Enlightenment?’, Immanuel Kant defines enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity” in which immaturity is “the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another”, and “mankind’s final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error”. Kant makes strong cases for individualism, for education and learning, and for the use of reason for moral guidance, which should be unlimited especially in the public domain. These same characteristics naturally are associated with many enlightenment figures. Learning and education should free us from a state of ignorance, and use of reason is the means by which we retain this mature state of mind. Individualism means we should be free from restrictions imposed by societal norms, rules, and the people around us; we should be able to make judgements that are morally sound and truly based on our own reasoning. Subsequent claims connect the ideas expressed in Kant’s definition of enlightenment with Rousseau’s philosophy.

In his definition of enlightenment, Kant’s use of “emergence” suggest the state of mind in which one typically resides is not undesirable; he calls this state of mind “immaturity”. He states there is no need for revolution, and people can learn and improve themselves gradually. As part of the enlightenment, he tries to move away from the status quo, even while proposing a relatively mild course of action. While Rousseau might also wants to move away from the status quo, he wants to do this much more radically. He finds the customs and order imposed by society unacceptable and unnatural. Enlightenment does not help him in this regard, because in his view it only creates more luxuries, and strengthens society’s grasp on the individual. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality he states “I dare almost say that reflection is a state against nature, and that the man who meditates is a depraved animal”. The idea is not to think more deeply about the rules we live by, but to be free from them; enlightenment only provides the illusion of control “by disguising the fact that we are not free”. So, for Rousseau enlightenment only moves society farther away from the natural.

Kant also suggests anyone can free themselves from an immature state as it is “self-imposed”. He does not lay the blame for immaturity with any ruling or elite class, but with the individual. Anyone who does not think for his or herself should aim to “emancipate the human consciousness”. Rousseau, in contrast, says our constraints are not self-imposed, but rather they are imposed by society; they cause inequality among individuals: “So long as power remains by itself on one side, and enlightenment on the other, wise men will rarely think of great things, princes will more rarely carry out fine actions and the people will continue to be vile, corrupt and unhappy” (Rousseau, in Discourse on the Arts and Sciences). In his view enlightenment contributes to this by raises yet another elite class and providing additions grounds on which to be unequal. However, whilst he dismisses the elitist qualities of enlightenment, he acknowledges in his recommendations that this process cannot be reversed and that instead we should seek to mitigate enlightenment’s contribution to inequality, by having enlightened figures introduce political change. Still, this seems a compromising solution. In the end, what Rousseau cares about is not to further the ideas of enlightenment, but rather to mitigate yet another source of inequality by trying to influence it.

In conclusion, Rousseau claims inequality stems from artificial and arbitrary laws and is not “the original condition of man”. Inequality thus stems not from self-imposed constraints that the use of reason can fix, but from societal pressures. Enlightenment offers no relief from this, but rather makes it worse by adding sources of inequality. Thus, in light of Kant’s definition of enlightenment Rousseau cannot be regarded to be an enlightenment figure.

* For the Coursera course “Modernism and Post-Modernism I”, courtesy of Wesleyan University.

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