Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rousseau's Isolated Savage

I'm reading Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality for the first time in several years (preparing for a Humanities course). It strikes me that his conjectural history of the development of humans has a fatal flaw: the assumption that humans first existed as solitary beings. (And he seems to mean this quite literally; once we can fend for ourselves, mother cuts us loose (dad didn't stick around), and we're off to forage on our own in the vast world.) This seems quite Cartesian and artificial, and I wonder whether anthropology now would simply refute this story. He sees dependence on others as the greatest of evils, but he seems thereby to be reading his own individualism back onto "man in his natural state."

I haven't yet figured out just what this implies for the rest of what he says, but it seems like a serious problem. It seems like one could get at the origins of inequality by looking at the history of the division of labor, without this quaint, and what seems to me implausible story about isolated "man" who needs no others. Thoughts?


  1. Fatal indeed, these days, especially reasoning itself is hypothesized to have evolved for social interaction.

  2. I think studies of our evolutionary history undercut Rousseau. We were social before we were homo sapiens.

  3. i have always been impressed by the things cavell says about rousseau in the first part of 'the claim of reason', just because they sound like they make this projection intentional, part of the individual's myth-making about his society (and his relation to it). i believe there's something about how rousseau recognizes this (and it's internal to his somewhat paranoid self-conception)? so if there's a flaw it's not that it's scientifically inaccurate, but that it embodies a picture of rousseau's natural self that falsifies his natural relations to others (and the history that has led to them). but i've never studied rousseau so i don't know how well the text bears that reading out.

    what would the other story (the polar opposite myth) be? about a never-isolated man who always needs others?

  4. I just glanced at the Cavell. Yeah, R says that other "state of nature" theorists didn't go back far enough, and while he claims to be going that extra mile, he also acknowledges that it's conjecture. I'd have to double-check this, but I think he may even suggest that his conjectural tale isn't meant to be an empirical hypothesis either. But then, of course, what is it? A myth? (Could perhaps be pointing out the mythical quality of all "state of nature" theories, but he seems fairly committed to his position, so he would not say it's a false myth...)

    About falsifying his natural relations with others: it is true that Rousseau was a bit of a "solitary" being--his mother died in childbirth (with him) and his father was often away on business. (So he effectively had nothing in the way of a nuclear family.) So perhaps one could read a projection of his story about the original man.

    More in the coming weeks if I can untangle the web any further...