"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Rousseau on Inequalities in Society: An Instance of Kantian Enlightenment?

Kant defines enlightenment as “man's emergence from his inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.”[1] By making public use, Kant means “that use which anyone may make of it as a man of learning addressing the entire reading public.”[2] By sufficient freedom, Kant means that ideas that threaten the power of the guardians of institutional or societal rules are not excluded.

Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century philosopher famous for his duty-based ethics.

For example, an enlightened Roman Catholic priest would publish ideas questioning and even criticizing Church dogma when he is acting as a scholar, even though he would fulfill his duty in his conduct as a priest by defending those very teachings. A priest could thus go public as a heretic as long as he does so on his own time as a scholar and member of society, and an enlightened bishop would tolerate the scholar’s freedom to think and publish outside the box.

Rousseau would object to Kant’s prescription for how to become enlightened and Kant would object in turn to Rousseau's preference for the state of nature over society and the associated expansion of reasoning. Does Rousseau fit Kant's concept of enlightenment even though Kant would object to some of Rousseau's ideas?

Rousseau was a “heretic” of sorts. Writing to people living in societies, he was critical of the very existence of society itself, and thus of the power of its guardians. In his essay on inequality, he contends that the unnecessary, or artificial, sources of inequality stem from humans living in society rather than in the state of nature. Every inequality of institution must increase the natural inequalities of the human species.”[3] Accordingly, “the origin of society and of the laws, which increased the fetters of the weak, and the strength of the rich; irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, fixed for ever [sic] the laws of property and inequality; changed an artful usurpation into an irrevocable title; and for the benefit of a few ambitious individuals subjected the rest of mankind to perpetual labour, servitude, and misery.”[4] By thinking freely and publishing the results, the citizen of Geneva aimed a lethal arrow at not only human society, but also its guardians. Rather than coming from the guidance of guardians, his ideas on the impact of them, as well as the defended institutions, properties, and laws arose from his own reasoning. He was free thinker, enlightened in Kant’s sense of the word.

This is not to say that the content of Rousseau’s essay on inequality conforms to Kant’s prescriptions for how more people or a people can become enlightened. For example, Kant laments that the constrained use of reason that had become second nature to the vast majority of people in his day who astonishingly were virtually incapable for the time being of freeing their use of reason.[5] According to Rousseau, however, the increased use of reason stimulated by living in a society instead of in the state of nature engenders self-love, and therefore pride, jealousy, and increased as well as technologically more severe warfare. Antipodal to society itself, “it is reason that makes man shrink into himself; it is reason that makes him keep aloof from everything that can trouble or afflict him; it is philosophy that destroys his connections with other men.”[6] Living in society is self-contradictory with respect to the impacts of the expanding and more complex reasoning.[7]

In short, the Prussian professor claims in his essay that a greater use of reason is part of becoming enlightened, whereas the citizen of Geneva advocates in his essay a reduction in the use of reason to that level and simplicity that is natural for human beings (i.e., in the state of nature). That Rousseau's published ideas on reason conflict with the significance of reasoning in becoming enlightened does not mean, however, that Rousseau's reasoning about reason in the state of nature versus in society is not an instance of enlightenment. That is, Rousseau's own use of reason can fit Kant's definition of enlightenment rather than the lesser reasoning that Rousseau prescribes. Put another way, Rousseau was a philosopher who claims in his essay that philosophy destroys a philosopher's social connections.

As a professor of philosophy at a university, Kant undoubtedly defended and protected the discipline institutionally; that is, old Kant was a guardian of some things not present in the state of naturenamely, professorships in philosophy, the discipline of philosophy, and philosophizing itself. Rousseau's published ideas critical of the artificial sort, or excess, of reasoning that is the root, trunk, and branches of philosophizing thus evinces freedom of public thought beyond the guidance of institutional guardians such as Kant; the philosophical establishment (e.g.,  tenured professors) would have been inclined to discredit or even ban Rousseau's threatening ideas. In writing published texts in philosophy, Rousseau was doing the very thing that he argues in his essay should not be done; he was doing Kantian enlightened public thinking.

Furthermore, Kant claims that people “will of their own accord gradually work their way out of barbarism so long as artificial measures are not deliberately adopted to keep them in it.”[8] A society’s guardians determine and defend such measures. Although Rousseau too is critical of the artificial measures and their societally rather than naturally powerful enforcers, he advocates a return to the state of nature (including barbarism) rather than moving toward an enlightened society.

Therefore, Rousseau would oppose Kant’s advocacy of an enlightened prince who considers it his duty in religious matters not to prescribe anything to his people as a means of encouraging more people to become enlightened. Under his rule, “ecclesiastical dignitaries, notwithstanding their official duties, may in their capacity as scholars freely and publicly submit to the judgment of the world their verdicts and opinions, even if these deviate from orthodox doctrine.”[9] To Rousseau, who is less concerned in his essay on inequality about the religious domain than is Kant in his essay on enlightenment, the various forms of government, including monarchy, “owe their origin to the various degrees of inequality between the members, at the time they first coalesced into a political body.”[10] The solution to the increased societally-based inequalities is to return to the state of nature, rather than to count on an “enlightened” prince, who is actually compromised by power and position (i.e., inequality). So Rousseau criticizes a governmental means by which a people can become enlightened in a Kantian sense, but in doing so, he demonstrates that his freedom of public thought was not constrained or guided by a prince.

Therefore, Kant would have to obey his own reason in counting Rousseau among the enlightened as per Kant's own definition, even while rejecting and perhaps even attacking Rousseau's ideas that would detract from such enlightenment if put into effect. To the extent that Kant himself was not enlightened, he would hardly have been able, at least for the time being, to tolerate such ideas even as he would have had to admit that Rousseau was enlightened. Put another way, being both an institutional guardian and a philosopher, Kant would have been in a tight corner. Generally speaking, we can conclude that enlightenment exists uneasily with the lack thereof in a society, especially if the lack pertains to the guardians. Accordingly, I suspect that a society is at ease only if the vast majority of people, including most or even all of the guardians, are enlightened.




[1] Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (World ebook Library).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Harvard Classics, Charles W. Eliot, ed., Vol. 34 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1910).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kant, An Answer.
[6] Rousseau, Discourse.
[7] Interestingly, Kant’s first version of his categorical imperative, a criterion useful for assessing whether a given act is ethical, logical contradiction in a maxim being universalized such that it holds for everyone indicates that the act is immoral even if performed by one person rather than everyone. We are rational beings, so a logical contradiction means bad news. Therefore, does the logical contradiction in universalizing an increased use of reason in society to everyone resulting in everyone impeding society itself mean that living in society is unethical? Perhaps Kant would say that society would have to be impossible rather than merely impeded for there to be a logical contraction.
[8] Kant, An Answer.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Rousseau, Discourse.