Welcome to Part Two of this installment of Philosopher Fridays, dedicated to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Last week in Part One I laid the groundwork for the failure of human progress, and this week I’ll get into the paradox of leaving the state of nature and Rousseau’s criticism of metaphysics (and philosophy as a whole).
A quick recap from last week:
When we leave the state of nature to join forces and beat the odds, we create a system wherein we protect and hide our weaknesses, giving ourselves the illusion of independence and strength, causing the breakdown of society and a return to a state of nature for which we are no longer prepared.
The best we can do is hide our growing weaknesses, and hope they don’t turn up when we least expect it. As our technology increases in power, our interdependencies become less overt and more subtly structural in the way that it holds us up, allowing us to ignore our own survival instincts in favor or reason and choice, and our empathetic instincts in favor of the illusion of independence and power. More than that, it gives the illusion that those who climb to the top are actually holding the foundation up on their own. We’re able to climb this artificial scaffolding to such great heights, but when the foundation crumbles beneath, we have no natural strength left to catch us when we fall. If we stop ourselves from progressing too far, we can survive, but if don’t, we risk losing our natural selves altogether.
But why is important to hang onto our natural selves? Why, once we become so interdependent that we cannot survive alone, can’t we just keep ourselves connected to each other?
Because, Rousseau argues, the very means by which we build our interdependence are the same means by which we create the illusion of our independence, and in the end, it’s a paradox built into the metaphysical functions of language.
How it works:
The initial empathy that leads us to come together and form civilization is aroused by our very first statements of weakness and despair, what Rousseau calls: “the cries of nature”. When we hear the sound of another in pain, we respond, finding ways to augment that communication. At the same time, we develop reason as a respond to a perceived weakness in our survival skills – we need to find a way around what is given to us naturally, and so reason is born of deficiency, just as language is born of the cry of weakness. And the two – language and reason – grow together.
At first, we have only gestures that physically represent what we want to communicate. This level is tied very particularly to our bodies and our surroundings, and it only works for those who live together and communicate on a regular basis. The time may come when the small community formed from empathy discovers that its weaknesses exceed its strength, and so other communities must be found. But then, we need our language to do more than merely point or mimic – we need concepts, and thus we need words for those concepts.
It’s reciprocal – according to Rousseau, this kind of thinking requires words, and so the development of human thought parallels the development of human language. More importantly, this combination leads us away from the particularities of the body. We need general ideas, and words are our tools for logical organization. They create umbrellas for not just items, but constellations of topics, creating labels that build upon themselves.
At first, this is useful. Rousseau says:
…general ideas can be introduced into the mind only with the aid of words, and the understanding grasps them only through sentences… Every general idea is purely intellectual. The least involvement of the imagination thereupon makes the idea particular. Try to draw for yourself the image of a tree in general; you will never succeed in doing it. In spite of yourself, it must be seen as small or large, barren or leafy, light or dark; and if you were in a position to see in it nothing but what you see in every tree, this image would no longer resemble a tree.
To create new technologies that solve our problems by circumventing nature, we need reapplicable concepts – mathematical concepts, structural ones, and the like.
Purely abstract being are perceived in the same way, or are conceived only through discourse. The definition of a triangle alone gives you the true idea of it. As soon as you behold one in your mind, it is a particular triangle and not some other one, and you cannot avoid making its lines to be perceptible or its plane to have color… For as soon as the imagination stops, the mind proceeds no further without the aid of discourse.
But for Rousseau, this move away from true physical reference means stepping off of our foundation. Language used in this way makes it possible for us to abstract not only from physical representations (as in the case of the tree or the triangle) but from our abstractions themselves, until language is off and running on its own, meaninglessly dissolving into thin air as we tackle philosophical concepts like “substance” (find two philosophers who agree completely on what this word means, and I’ll give you a cookie), “mind”, “matter”, etc.
When we ascend beyond the limits of the bodily, we think we have learned to fly – but according to Rousseau, we’re actually falling. As we move further and further from materiality, we begin to lose track of what differentiates ideas from our imagination. And in this imaginary world, we have no need of the body or its instincts. The more we live in a world of our own making, the less we connect back to those original drives – pity and self-preservation seem less important than power, knowledge, and mastery.
This is the paradox – the very things which bring us together to build civilization in the first place are the very same things which become their own undoing. Rousseau makes the claim that humans alone are capable of making themselves miserable, and of choosing options that actively work against their self-interests. Free-will is not the key to heaven, for Rousseau, but the path to self-destruction. Reason is the means by which we are able to talk ourselves into thinking we are gods – when we are not.
Reason is what engenders egocentrism, and reflection strengthens it. Reason is what separates him from all that troubles him and afflicts him. Philosophy is what isolates him and what moves him to say in secret, at the sight of a suffering man, ‘Perish if you will; I am safe and spun.’ No longer can anything but danger to the entire society trouble the tranquil slumber of the philosopher and yank him from his bed. His fellow man can be killed with impunity underneath his window.
In short, empathy begets language, which aids survival, but then language also takes us away from both instincts, allowing us to rationally construct a world for ourselves where our fellow human beings don’t matter – and neither do our own bodies. Pity brings us together to develop reason, but reason pulls us apart. Says Rousseau:
Although it might be appropriate for Socrates and minds of his stature to acquire virtue through reason, the human race would long ago have ceased to exist, if its preservation had depended solely on the reasoning of its members.
And the entire thing – the entire means by which he comes to his conclusions – is itself a fiction, an abstraction of an abstraction. for Rousseau, the concepts of philosophy are as made up as his vision of the “noble savage” and about as useful, thereby proving his point even though it comes from a fictive starting point.
Its a fascinating and provocative perspective – one with which I’m not sure I’ll ever feel finished.