The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes


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Journal of the History of Philosophy

The ultimate message of the project, though, was that which Francis Bacon had first expressed: human life could be made better through knowledge. In it, he also exhibited a keen, and sometimes ironic sense of detachment.

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In the following entry on the "Limits of the Human Mind," he styles part of his short essay on Montaigne, the mildly skeptical figure of the later French Renaissance. To Montaigne's own question, "What do I know? He thus celebrates empirical observation, rather than metaphysical theorizing, as the true end of human intelligence. Someone asked Newton one day why he walked when he wanted to, and how his arm and his hand moved at his will. He answered manfully that he had no idea. Musschenbroeck himself fell into this inadvertence. Has anyone ever been able to say precisely how a log is changed on the hearth into burning carbon, and by what mechanism lime is kindled by fresh water?

Is the first principle of the movement of the heart in animals properly understood? We do not understand the essence of matter any more than the children who touch its surface. Who will teach us by what mechanism this grain of wheat that we throw into the ground rises again to produce a pipe laden with an ear of corn, and how the same soil produces an apple at the top of this tree, and a chestnut on its neighbour?

The Autocritique of Enlightenment

Many teachers have said—"What do I not know? Ruthlessly trenchant fellow, wordy pedagogue, meddlesome theorist, you seek the limits of your mind. They are at the end of your nose. Woolf ; New York : Knopf, : Of the many individuals who wrote during the French Enlightenment, one man stands out for the originality and force of his ideas. The work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau — defies compartmentalization.

There is some debate among scholars in fact over the question of whether he should be considered an exponent of the Enlightenment or a harbinger of the Romantic Age that followed it. Rousseau himself was a deeply enigmatic figure, one that seemed to march to a different drumbeat set by demons. The one thing known about his early life is that he was born in Geneva.

The rest of the information about his youth has to culled from his autobiographical Confessions — , written just before he died, which paints a Romantic picture of a young roustabout introduced to life, learning, and love by an older woman. In contrast to his earlier writing, Rousseau abandoned his faith in human goodness in the state of nature, even as he argued that governments must represent the general will of those that were governed, rather than the particular interests of a ruler or an aristocracy. The work scandalized many Europeans, even as it inspired many of the leaders of the French Revolution a generation later.

It was subjected to censorship, although Rousseau was not punished. At the time he was already living in exile from his native France.

The Moral Architects

The question "What absolutely is the best government? But if it is asked by what sign we may know that a given people is well or ill governed, that is another matter, and the question, being one of fact, admits of an answer. It is not, however, answered, because everyone wants to answer it in his own way. Subjects extol public tranquility, citizens individual liberty; the one class prefers security of possessions, the other that of person; the one regards as the best government that which is most severe, the other maintains that the mildest is the best; the one wants crimes punished, the other wants them prevented; the one wants the State to be feared by its neighbours, the other prefers that it should be ignored; the one is content if money circulates, the other demands that the people shall have bread.

Even if an agreement were come to on these and similar points, should we have got any further?

As moral qualities do not admit of exact measurement, agreement about the mark does not mean agreement about the valuation. For my part, I am continually astonished that a mark so simple is not recognised, or that men are of so bad faith as not to admit it. What is the end of political association? The preservation and prosperity of its members.


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  • The Enlightenment in France.

And what is the surest mark of their preservation and prosperity? Their numbers and population. Seek then nowhere else this mark that is in dispute. The rest being equal, the government under which, without external aids, without naturalisation or colonies, the citizens increase and multiply most, is beyond question the best. The government under which a people wanes and diminishes is the worst. Calculators, it is left for you to count, to measure, to compare. As the particular will acts constantly in opposition to the general will, the government continually exerts itself against the Sovereignty.

The greater this exertion becomes, the more the constitution changes; and, as there is in this case no other corporate will to create an equilibrium by resisting the will of the prince, sooner or later the prince must inevitably suppress the Sovereign and break the social treaty. This is the unavoidable and inherent defect which, from the very birth of the body politic, tends ceaselessly to destroy it, as age and death end by destroying the human body. There are two general courses by which government degenerates: i.

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Government undergoes contraction when it passes from the many to the few, that is, from democracy to aristocracy, and from aristocracy to royalty. To do so is its natural propensity. If it took the backward course from the few to the many, it could be said that it was relaxed; but this inverse sequence is impossible. Indeed, governments never change their form except when their energy is exhausted and leaves them too weak to keep what they have.

If a government at once extended its sphere and relaxed its stringency, its force would become absolutely nil, and it would persist still less. Box ; Rea List this Seller's Books.

The Enlightenment in France

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The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes
The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes
The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes
The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes
The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes
The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes

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