Rousseau’s Natural Man as the Critic of Urbanised Society

Ville Lähde

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7557/4.2761

Keywords

Rousseau; Discourse on Inequality; social critique; conceptual history; state of nature; natural man; concept of nature

Abstract

Rousseau’s description of the pure state of nature and the natural man in his Discours
sur l’Origine et les Fondements de l’Inégalité parmi les Hommes
(1755) has been a controversial topic in Rousseau studies. Natural man has no stable human relationships, language or developed reason, and does not recognise other humans as akin to him. How is it possible to reconcile Rousseau’s views on the pure state of nature with his speculative history of humanity? How could mankind even begin to develop? Why did Rousseau create such a seemingly disharmonious and disagreeable construct? This article introduces a new strategy of interpretation. Instead of proposing a single interpretation of the pure state of nature, it proposes to view Rousseau’s understanding of human nature as a literary device which allowed him to address many questions at once. His insistence on the solitude and ignorance of natural human beings is examined as a part of his critique of other philosophers. This, however, does not explain another tension within the depiction of the pure state of nature. Sometimes natural human beings are ignorant, incapable of learning or surpassing their instincts, but, at other times, they seem very smart and resourceful. This article shows that the latter sections of his work imply a critique of contemporary societies. In these sections, Rousseau introduces his analysis of urban life.

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