Rousseau: A Study of His Thought

Rousseau: A Study of His Thought

Rousseau: A Study of His Thought

Rousseau: A Study of His Thought

Excerpt

From whatever point of view he is considered, Jean-Jacques Rousseau must be accounted one of the outstanding figures of the eighteenth century. His influence, good or bad, is still discernible in literature, philosophy, religion, politics and education; but his actual doctrine has become somewhat obscured by the haze of controversy and the sheer mass of erudite criticism with which it is now surrounded.

Rousseau himself is responsible for much of the confusion, because of the frequent ambiguity of his expression, and also because ofhis deliberate cultivation of paradox; but there are other obstacles to understanding for which he can hardly be blamed. One of these is the fact that the more popular presentations of him tend, naturally, to exploit the curiosity-value of his life, and consider his works separately in the intervals of biographical narrative; another is that serious discussions of his thought are apt to be highly specialized. It so happens that Rousseau comes up for attention in a number of different academic disciplines, and is, in consequence, studied more often in the parts than in the whole. This, again, is understandable, in view of the scope and density of his writings, but the results are unfortunate, to say the least. For example, the student of French literature may encounter the Nouvelle Héloïse in the history of the novel--and will probably hasten on to something more digestible; the student of education will note Emile as a source of some modern attitudes, but is unlikely to become familiar with more than the first sections; those concerned with history, politics and philosophy may be called upon to study the Contrat Social in various contexts, involving, perhaps, Plato or Hobbes or Locke, but disregarding Rousseau's other writings; and it is rarely that he is set specifically against the religious background, although this may well be the way to make most sense of him. As for the general reader in search of human interest, he may try the Confessions, as the record of an unusual and disturbing personality, but is less likely to tackle the Dialogues, or to understand the significance of the Rêveries.

The aim of this book is to counteract this dismembering of Rousseau, by providing for the student and the general reader alike a perspective . . .

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