Reviewing Penguin edition of Rousseau’s Social Contract and Other Political Writings.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Of the Social Contract and Other Political Writings

Edited by Christopher Bertram

Translated by Quintin Hoare

Penguin Classics

Penguin Books, London. 2012

ISBN 978-0-141-19175-1


The recent series of posts on Rousseau has been based on studying the new edition of Rousseau which is detailed above.  I now reach the point of writing a review.

None of the study I have done of the book has led me to any negative conclusions about the edition. Hoare’s translations emphasise readability and naturalness in modern English over very precise reproduction of Rousseau, and it works very well.  It reads well, sacrificing a little of the feeling of precisely provocative wording in Rousseau, but without introducing inaccuracies, or vagueness.  The book is evidently designed for an audience of undergraduates and others engaged in the beginnings of the reading and study of Rousseau, so issues of the very exact details of the translation are not really at issue here.

Christopher Bertram’s editorial apparatus is equally well suited to the volume.  There are very readable  introductions to the volume as a whole, and for individual texts, and a light scattering of footnotes which do not provide all the context for reading Rousseau, but enough to enable the new reader to be reasonably informed about the historical background.  Bertram is the author of the Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Rousseau and the Social Contract (2003), along with material about Rousseau and contemporary political theory.  He is a professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Bristol, where his homepage provides useful links. A podcast of Bertram speaking at LSE  on one of the Rousseau texts in the Penguin edition can be found here.  Bertram is part of the group blogging team at Crooked Timber,  a leading place for left leaning commentary on political theory and political events. An ideal background for editing Rousseau’s political texts, and he uses his knowledge very well, presenting it at the right level for what is likely to be a reader who has not encountered Rousseau before.

The only strong  criticism I have of this edition is the lack of an index, which is really very annoying. Penguin is a popular publisher rather than an academic press, but it is at the  serious end of popular publishing, and other classics of political thought, philosophy, etc have come with indexes. This lack could be a serious drawback for students trying to find a relevant quote of passage when fighting to finish a paper before the deadline. There is a Kindle edition, so maybe Penguin have decided that indexes are not needed anymore, and are pushing everyone towards using searchable e-texts. That would be a shame. Kindle editions are not available outside those countries which host Amazon operations, which is not many. It’s possible to get hard copy books from Amazon delivered to those countries which do not host an Amazon bookshop, but Kindle editions cannot be downloaded. This is of course a complete scandal. I suppose the reason is copyright issues, but how utterly stupid.  There is no other way of downloading those books in those countries, the failure of online sellers and publishers to resolve these issues is deeply deplorable. As I am based in Turkey, which does not host an Amazon operation, I am not able to download e-books versions of recent title. Thank you publishing and online distribution industries for cutting me off from a major source of texts.  And on the subject of indexes, they are not just for searching purposes. The choice of terms used and the names in an index is one way of providing an entry into a book, a perspective which should not be lost.

This edition will inevitably fill the role that the G.D.H. Cole edition of Rousseau for Dent/Everyman used to fill, that is a convenient text for first reading and undergraduate study of Rousseau, along with use as a desk copy for those with more advanced interests in Rouuseau. I had a copy when I was a teenager, but never took a course on Rousseau at any level. I have frequently taught Rousseau at undergraduate level though, directing students to photocopied sections of my battered Cole volume.  If they want to read the whole thing they will probably get another edition, though the Cole edition is still available from a very small publisher. Anyway, I don’t see it as a problem is students read a bit of the Cole edition for the class and then look at a more recent edition. The whole Cole edition has a particular flavour of the reading of Rousseau from the early 20th century (the edition was revised for s 1973 reissue), it was first published in 1913, when a young Cole was on the way to be  a leading Guild Socialist (Medieval nostalgia voluntary co-operative socialism). He was very influential in his time, but is a name from the past now.

The Bertram/Hoare edition is a worthy successor, though not a direct successor. Both volumes have Social Contract at their heart, but have different accompanying texts.  In Bertram/Hoare that is largely constitutional proposals for Corsica and Poland; in Cole the accompanying texts were largely the three discourses (on: arts and science, inequality, political economy).  This represents a shift from a selection across Rousseau’s writings on political theory,  social and historical theory, to a focus on Rousseau’s political theory. The brief ‘Principles of the Right of War’ is the main bridge offered in the recent edition into the world of the Discourses. Penguin currently publish a stand alone edition of The Discourse on Inequality: they would provide a great service to Rousseau studies, and the general understanding of Rousseau, if they were to publish all three discourse in one volume.  The shift in the Bertram/Hoare edition to a focus on political texts is very understandable, the ideal scenario would be for the three discourses to be available together in one popular but serious edition.

In summary, the volume under review does its job admirably, and is an essential acquisition for anyone with interests in Rousseau, 18th century thought, and the history of political thought. Though the edition is suitable for those at an early stage of study of Rousseau, I think those with more advanced interests will find it highly useful as a desk edition, a book which can carried around to read on the move, can be taken to class, and so on.

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