Was Rousseau an Enlightenment figure?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (painted portrait)

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

According to Immanuel Kant, Enlightenment is the process of humankind overcoming the inability of making use of one’s intelligence, with two decisive characteristics. First, using intelligence is supposed to be independent of others, without others instructing or guiding it. Second, the inability of using it independently does not originate from a lack of intelligence, but from inertia, indecisiveness or a lack of courage. (1)

Bringing another pivotal figure of that epoch into consideration of whom Kant was an admirer, Rousseau, who was nonetheless an ardent critic of the Enlightenment, much in contrast to the excitement of his contemporaries, it appears as a valid question whether he was a character of the era of Enlightenment, but not necessarily a figure of Enlightenment.

According to Rousseau, the exact thing which enables a human being to reason, his intelligence, “has its needs, just as the body does“ (2), which causes harm on the virtues, in particular on the urge for freedom. In his “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences”, he considers arts and sciences as inevitable endeavors of an independent human mind at work and points out its perils. The sciences destroy the fundamental urge for freedom, an expression of self-preservation, because “the sciences … and the arts spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down … and make them love their slavery.” (3).

They also have harmful impacts on on authenticity because of vanity. “In place of contemptible ignorance, we will substitute a dangerous Pyrrhonism…” (4). The arts as a sign of luxury “bring with it … the corruption of taste” (2), because “every artist wishes to be applauded” (5) and “will lower his genius to the level of his age” (6).

The arts and sciences render people unable of noticing their bondage and create new corruptions of the intellect. They not only distract people from their dependence, but make them blind to it by giving it treacherous countenance, thusly depriving them of their ability of breaking free from a new dependence. Vanity and the need for approval impedes determination and courage. These new shackles cause the inability of the individual of using his mind independently. One evil seems to be traded for another, even for the same. Humankind at best gains a treacherous state of intellectual maturity. A state of universal enlightenment does not seem to be attainable.

Kant, in contrast, albeit “as things are at present, we still have a long way to go before men as a whole can be in a position of using their own understanding confidently” (7), saw “distinct indications that … the obstacles to universal Enlightenment … are gradually becoming fewer” (8). For Kant, universal Enlightenment seems possible, whereas Rousseau’s only hope is to bring those “who have no need of teachers” (9), men of the caliber of Bacon, Descartes and Newton, together with the powerful, because “it is the task of this small number of people to raise monuments to the glory of the human mind” (10) – hardly a state of Enlightenment of all humans.

Taking into account Kant’s definition of Enlightenment, Rousseau shows the ability of using his reasoning without guidance and making the result of it public with mature self-responsibility, being aware of the dangers: „I anticipate that people will have difficulty forgiving me for the position I have dared to take. […] I can expect only universal censure …. and I cannot count on public approval.” (11)

Rousseau’s bold and trenchant argumentation against the Enlightenment despite the ubiquitous excitement about it in society characterizes an unguided use of a mature mind. He is indubitably a person beyond the state of self-incurred immaturity of an unenlightened individual.

Nevertheless, according to Kant’s definition, Enlightenment is the process of humankind emerging from intellectual maturity, not the final state. Being a figure of Enlightenment necessitates playing a promoting role in that global process, while Rousseau, per dint of his heavy critique, does the opposite. Kant himself makes a distinction between an “enlightened age” and “an age of enlightened”: “If it is now asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.” (12)

Rousseau, thinking well-conceived, original and unpopular thoughts publicly and being both aware of the personal disadvantages it can entail and his own vices, shows all the hallmarks of a person able of using his mind without tutelage, with courage, self-responsibility and the maturity of yielding it prudently. Nevertheless, considering his heavy critique against the perils of Enlightenment and his indications towards its universal elusivenesss, he appears less as a figure of Enlightenment than a character of an enlightened age.

1) 7) 8) 12) Immanuel Kant: “What is enlightenment?“, 1784
2) 3) 4) 5) 6)  9) 10) 11) Jean-Jacques Rousseau: „Discourse on the arts and sciences“, 1750

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