Academic Social Science - Rousseau Redux

William H. Young

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was a novelist, essayist, composer, and philosopher who came to Paris in 1741 and destroyed the ideas of the Enlightenment at the moment of its triumph, extolling the primacy of feeling and will over the sovereignty of reason.[1] He laid the intellectual groundwork for the French Revolution. “It would have been better for the peace of France if this man had never existed,” remarked an early-nineteenth-century visitor to Rousseau’s grave.[2]

Rousseau had “more effect upon posterity than any other writer or thinker of the eighteenth century,” conclude Will and Ariel Durant in Rousseau and Revolution (1967).[3] His utopian political idealism profoundly influenced the theories of Kant, Hegel, and Marx. His thinking underlies many different tenets of academic social science: postmodernism; progressive political science; public processes; economic and cultural Marxism; romantic environmentalism and sustainability; and progressive education, which are discussed below.

In the essay that first made him famous, A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750), Rousseau declared that:

Luxury, dissolution, and slavery have always been the punishment of our proud efforts to emerge from the happy ignorance in which eternal wisdom placed us….Peoples of the earth, know that nature intended to preserve you from knowledge, as a mother snatches a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child.[4]

Rousseau argued that man is corrupted by civilization and scientific empiricism and progress, which creates luxury and inequality. He immensely influenced the adversaries of Western civilization during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries[5]—and the anti-Western ideas adopted by academic social science from its outset to the present day.

Postmodernism dismisses Western knowledge and objective truth or facts arrived at through reason and science as oppressive. That anti-Western ideology was brought to academic social science in the 1990s by French thinkers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, who were influenced by Rousseau as well as Nietzsche. In postmodernism, the self is the principal source of knowledge and interpretative feelings of the moment replace reason as the highest human attribute.[6]

Progressive political science reflects Rousseau’s proposed solution for mankind, which he noted in Confessions (1782):

I saw that everything depended basically on political science, and that no matter how one views the problem, every people is just what its government makes it. The great question of the best possible form of government seemed to lead me back to the other question: “What form of government is most suited to produce a nation which is virtuous, enlightened, wise—in short, in the highest sense of the word, as perfect as possible?”[7]

Ernst Cassirer observes in The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1979) that with Rousseau, human society is to become a collective being with a perception of what is best for society as a whole.

A new norm for human existence appears here; instead of the mere desire for happiness, perfection through the idea of law and social justice is made the standard by which human existence is to be measured and tested.[8]

Rousseau created the concept of the “general will,” a supreme and sacred moral will to replace knowledge and become the law of the state. He described how this would work in The Social Contract 1762):

Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole…He who dares to undertake the making of a people’s institutions ought to feel himself capable, so to speak, of changing human nature, of transforming each individual…into a part of a greater whole from which in a manner he receives his life and his being…of substituting a partial or moral existence for the physical and independent existence nature has conferred on us all.[9]

Immanuel Kant built upon Rousseau’s general will, calling it “public reason.”[10] Progressive political science and Herbert Croly’s progressivism include the concept that social justice—through social construction of the individual—should be the product of a collective “will” of American democracy, superseding the rule of law by deliberative representatives. Today’s social science processes for democratic governance by the public limit deliberation through criteria for “public reason.”[11] See my article Academic Social Science and Governance.

Rousseau rejected representative democracy and majority rule because he thought the people’s representatives would govern in their own interests rather than in accordance with the general will. His solution was special individuals to whom he referred as “Legislators,” intelligent and charismatic leaders who instinctively understand the general will and then legislate and persuade the people to accept it.[12] The task of the legislator was to minimize private interests and activities seen as inimical to the general will. The individual was to be absorbed in the collective life of the state.[13]

Rousseau’s idea that a general will of society be determined by governing elites and applied to produce social justice through the state formed the basis for Hegel’s historicism and state theory, which was adopted by academia as I described in Academic Social Science and Governance. Hegel held that it was through the French Revolution’s claim of “pure will” that one could now begin to glimpse the highest synthesis of civilization. The French Revolution was more “world historic,” superior to the American Revolution because it never accepted America’s lowly standard of human nature—settling for man as he was. The French Revolution established the notion of a “higher possibility” for modern democracy, which included genuine justice (something approaching economic equality) and involvement in human development.[14]

The belief in economic equality—or liberation from the inequality of private property—that pervades academic social science reflects economic and cultural Marxism, but has roots in Rousseau’s A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755):

The first man who, after having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying, This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”[15]

Rousseau considered that all economic, political, social, and moral inequalities are unnatural, and arose when men left the “state of nature,” established private property, and set up states to protect property and privilege.[16]

What should states do about that? Rousseau’s answer in A Discourse on Political Economy (1755) was:

As virtue is nothing more than the conformity of the particular wills with the general will, establish the reign of virtue….

What is most necessary…in government is…above all in protecting the poor against the tyranny of the rich. The greatest evil has already come about, when there are poor men to be defended, and rich men to be restrained….It is therefore one of the most important functions of government to prevent extreme inequality of fortunes; not by taking away wealth from its possessors, but by depriving all men of means to accumulate it….by securing the citizens from becoming poor.[17]

Note the priority here on preventing inequality and the means of achieving it. One duty of the legislator was to regulate private property in such a way that economic rivalries would not emerge to distract men from their common allegiance to the general will.[18] Likewise, the mission of academia’s Marxism is to eliminate inequality through regulation by the state, as I explained in Academic Social Science and Our Capitalist Economy. In the academy’s concept of sustainability, the state would invoke its “will” to allocate resources to, and set wages for, the private sector.[19]

Rousseau’s subjectivism and mystical intuitions in his novel La Nouvelle Heloise (1761) ignited nineteenth-century Romanticism in literature and philosophy, a backlash against rational thought and the bourgeois life and a turn to worship of the sublimities of nature.[20] During the 1960s, academia turned away from what social philosopher Theodore Roszak called, in The Making of a Counter Culture (1969), the “rationalistic mentality,” which he derided as “objective consciousness,” and toward the primacy of feeling and nature

After Rousseau, romantic environmentalism underlies contemporary sustainability in academic social science—still seeking to thwart the Promethean progress of the West. In ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus took fire and the mechanical arts from the gods, giving mankind the ability to remake nature to suit his own needs. The “back to nature” movement of that time was the Cynic philosophy espoused by Diogenes, who condemned materialism and considered civilization a mistake. In the Cynic philosophy, man without property was the ideal; poverty was the way of virtue. The French philosopher Voltaire called Rousseau the “dog of Diogenes gone mad.”[21]

In Enchanting Sustainability, Peter Wood reported an effort by academic sustainability advocates to include “enchantment” in the scientific paradigm of an objective relationship with the natural world to include “a more personal connection with the living earth.” This would add:

an emotional way of knowing the world that is separate from the rational, [to] move beyond reason and science in favor of a combination of intuition and empathy.

Rousseau influenced academic concepts of sustainability through his romanticism about nature and science as well as his opposition to industrialization and advocacy of radical egalitarianism. See my series The Reverse Metamorphosis of Sustainability.[22]

Rousseau’s treatise on education in fictional form, Emile or On Education (1762) inspired John Dewey and progressive education.[23] Dewey opened Schools of Tomorrow (1915) with a quotation from Rousseau:

We know nothing of childhood, and with our mistaken notion of it, the further we go in education the more we go astray. The wisest writers devote themselves to what a man ought to know, without asking what a child is capable of learning.

Dewey then commented:

These sentences are typical of the Emile of Rousseau….His insistence that education be based upon the native capacities of those to be taught and upon the need of studying children in order to discover what these native powers are, sounded the keynote of all modern efforts for educational progress. It meant that education is not something to be forced upon children and youth from without, but is the growth of capacities with which human beings are endowed at birth.[24]

Dewey wholeheartedly embraced and endorsed Rousseau’s educational views.[25]

Dewey “taught that the school, which heretofore had been the locus of intergenerational transmission of received knowledge, learning, and wisdom,” needed to be transformed. He instilled “child-centered rather than content-centered education.”[26] This approach by his disciples later facilitated the rapid incorporation of postmodern multicultural beliefs and fads into education through academic social science—the social construction of the student, knowledge, and reality—starting in the 1960s. Rousseau’s approach is reflected in the present-day pedagogy called “constructivism,” in which groups of students construct their own personal versions of knowledge or truth, ironically with tragic consequences for American public education.[27] See my article Common Core State Standards-Our Literacy Problem for evidence of those ruinous results.

Academic social science is discernibly imbued with the radical theories and beliefs of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the French Revolution he inspired, with widespread negative consequences for America as well as France. Incidentally, the visitor to Rousseau’s grave and prescient commentator quoted at the outset was Napoleon Bonaparte.[28]


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).



[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau,, 27 October 2014.

[2] Lawrence Klepp, “Born Free,” The Weekly Standard, 30 October 2006.

[3] Will and Ariel Durant, Rousseau and Revolution, The Story of Civilization: Part X (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 3.

[4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in Julia Conaway Bondanella, ed. and trans., Rousseau’s Political Writings (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987).

[5] Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, eds., The Western Heritage (Brief Edition): Combined Volume, Third Edition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2002), 341.

[6] Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 3–24. Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 4, 72.

[7] Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions, J. M. Cohen, trans. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1953).

[8] Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, Fritz C. A, Koelln and James D. Pettegrove, trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 154.

[9] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, in Bondanella, Rousseau’s Political Writings.

[10] Cassirer, Philosophy of Enlightenment, 274. Patrick J. Deneen, “The Talking Cure,” The Weekly Standard, 19 February 2007.

[11] Deneen, “Talking Cure.”

[12] Ernest van den Haag, “The Desolation of Reality,” in William A. Rusher with Ken Masugi, eds., The Ambiguous Legacy of the Enlightenment (Lanham: University Press of America, 1995), 71. Bryan Magee, The Story of Philosophy: The Essential Guide to the History of Western Philosophy (New York: DK Publishing, Inc., 1998), 127–29.

[13] Frederick Watkins, “Introduction to Rousseau,” Constitution Society,, 17 October 2014.

[14] James W. Ceaser, Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 75–77, 166. Ronald J. Pestritto, Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 16–17.

[15] Jean Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755), in Bondanella, Rousseau’s Political Writings.

[16] Durants, Rousseau and Revolution, 29.

[17] Jean Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Political Economy (1755), in Bondanella, Rousseau’s Political Writings.

[18] Frederick Watkins, “Introduction to Rousseau,” Constitution Society,, 17 October 2014.

[19] William H. Young, The Reverse Metamorphosis of Sustainability, National Association of Scholars,, 23−24 June 2011.

[20] Jean Jacques Rousseau, Julie, or the New Heloise, Philip Stewart, trans. (Hanover: Dartmouth, 1997).  Durants, Rousseau and Revolution, 3, 169–70, 178–82. “English literature, the Romantic period,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Theodore Roszak, Where The Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1973), 132–36. Gina Pischel, A World History of Art, Revised Edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 583–84.

[21] Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in Bondanella, Rousseau’s Political Writings . Cassirer, Philosophy of Enlightenment ,154. Durants, Rousseau and Revolution, 149. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961), 188.

[22] Young, Reverse Metamorphosis of Sustainability, 21−24 June 2011.

[23] Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile, Or On Education, Allan Bloom, trans. (New York: Basic Books, 1979). Henry T. Edmondson, III, “John Dewey Revisited in an Age of Educational Decline,” The Political Science Reviewer, Vol. 29, No.1 (Fall 1999), Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 160.

[24] John Dewey and Evelyn Dewey, Schools of Tomorrow (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2007) (First Published 1915), 1‒2.

[25] Edmondson, “John Dewey Revisited,” 216.

[26] Robert Lerner, Althea K. Nagai, and Stanley Rothman, Molding the Good Citizen: The Politics of High School History Texts (Westport: Praeger, 1995), 22, 15, 19–20.

[27] Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 393–94. Heather Mac Donald, The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), 96–97.

[28] Klepp, “Born Free.”



Images: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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