Williams, David Lay. Rousseau's Social Contract: An Introduction

By Vaughan, Sharon K. | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Williams, David Lay. Rousseau's Social Contract: An Introduction


Vaughan, Sharon K., The Review of Metaphysics


WILLIAMS, David Lay. Rousseau's Social Contract: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xv + 311 pp. Paper, $29.99--This excellent work is one of the latest offerings from Cambridge Introductions to Key Philosophical Texts. Providing a thoughtful and clear guide for those who wish to study Rousseau's Social Contract, Williams's considerable knowledge and research about not only Rousseau but also Western political thought make this work highly recommended. It is not only for newcomers to the Social Contract but also for scholars who want to appreciate the nuances of the work as well as its significant place in political theory. Indeed, two outstanding features of this book are Williams's treatment of the most difficult concepts in the Social Contract, such as the general will and the evidence he provides to lay bare Rousseau's critical place in the tradition of political theory.

This type of scholarly attention is welcomed because even though Rousseau wrote the Social Contract more than 250 years ago, it continues to divide scholars to this day. As Williams points out, controversy began with its publication in 1762. From Voltaire in the eighteenth century and liberal intellectuals such as Bertrand Russell in the twentieth century to today's conservatives, Rousseau has been indicted for providing philosophical justifications for leaders from Robespierre to Fidel Castro. Rousseau's supporters are no less passionate in their praise for his work, and they run the gamut from Adam Smith and James Madison in the eighteenth century to the great twentieth-century philosopher John Rawls.

Williams begins by providing the historical and intellectual context necessary to situate Rousseau and to prepare the reader for a deeper understanding of his work. He then examines the text chapter by chapter, revealing the central arguments and clarifying difficult passages. After taking the reader through the text's chapters, Williams explores some of the most influential theorists in the history of political thought and their relationships to Rousseau's work. His main goal here is to provide evidence of Rousseau's "centrality and uniqueness" in political thought. He accomplishes this by applying three criteria to decide which philosophers Rousseau followed and deviated from when he wrote the Social Contract, and those subsequent philosophers who were influenced by his work: "First, Rousseau's predecessors must have had some discernible effect on his own development. …

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