Link of the Day: Chris Bertram Podcast on Rousseau

Primary version of this post is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with visual content!

Why Rousseau Matters

I found this at Alexander Bird’s Philosophy at Bristol blog which links to podcasts of philosophy talks given at the University of Bristol. The last entry is for July, and that is Chris Bertram’s Inaugural Lecture as a Professor. Bertram is one of the contributors to the collective blog Crooked Timber, which is perhaps the most influential political though blog around. Bertram is a leading Rousseau commentator, so I was very interest in hearing this (particularly as I as discussing matters relevant to Rousseau in both of yesterday’s posts) and was not disappointed.

Bertram disposes of the very persistent idea that Rousseau’ philosophy is based on a belief in the natural savage, explaining that what Rousseau is concerned with is how civilisation adds a different kind of self-love to immediate self-love of natural man. Rousseau’s goal is not the return to a ‘noble savage’ but to resist the most negative aspects of the self love which seeks recognition from others. Rousseau’s gaol is to mitigate, and eliminate social status anxiety and envy. Bertram perhaps slightly underestimates the degree to which Rousseau sees humans torn between the two kinds of self-love, between natural and social selves, and as he mentions himself, Rousseau thinks there is an ideal balance at a very early stage of social existence before inequality grows. I would say there is always a tension in Rousseau between the immediacy, the non-anxiety of he natural self and the anxious self-consciousness of the social self. There is always a wish to be more in accordance with nature, but as Bertram is explaining also a positive theory of social development. As I mentioned Pascal in both of yesterday’s posts, it’s appropriate to mention that I think there are some broad similarities on those issues (a divide in man between greatness and fallenness and what comes out of that).

Bertram gets in a few jokey remarks about academic status in relation to other professions, individual academic status anxieties, and rankings of university departments. These do bring the issues in Rousseau to life. Bertram finishes with some remarks on Raws’ version of egalitarianism and Rawls’ work on global justice, arguing for a more radical egalitarian approach. This is not my approach, but Bertram does a good job of presenting his approach in relation to Rousseau. Bertram’s approach is that of Marxist who has moved to a very radical form liberal egalitarianism, so paralleling the development of the late G.A. Cohen, who I posted on a few days ago, with reference to his sad death.

One small think which caught my ear was that Étienne de la Boétie, and his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, was mentioned as a forerunner of Rousseau’s criticisms of authority. That connected with yesterdays comments on Montaigne as a Boétie was a close friend of Motaigne and is mentioned in the Essays. I have noticed something recently about the reception of de la Boétie and I will deal with that tomorrow.

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