The Specifics Of That Which Is General

– A Discussion Of Rousseau’s General Will Essay, Research Paper

Rousseau’s concept of “the general will” (la volont? g?n?rale) has been generally misunderstood. It has been criticized on the one hand as a form of vacuous idealism, and on the other hand as nothing more than another name for majority rule. But the concept is, in fact, neither of these. Rousseau constructs a sophisticated and meaningful picture of the general will that manages to avoid both of these extreme positions. Situated between those two poles, it provides a solid foundation for the state that Rousseau envisions. In the role that he has assigned to it, the general will does not fall short; but that does not mean that the general will is beyond criticism. In this paper I will argue that what needs to be questioned in Rousseau’s theory is not the general will’s efficiency, but rather its possibility. In order to make this argument, my first project will be to clarify just exactly what Rousseau means by “the general will.” Taking him at his word when he says, “[a]ll of my opinions are consistent, but I cannot present them all at once,”1 I will try to piece together the many and various comments on the general will that Rousseau makes throughout the Social Contract in order to form–ultimately–a single coherent picture of the phenomenon. After that, I will raise some questions about that picture, and consider the adequacy of the foundation that it provides for a society. Then I want to take up the deeper question concerning what makes Rousseau’s general will possible. Has the criticism addressed so far against the general will been misdirected? Should it be applied, not to Rousseau’s elaborate notion of the general will, but rather to the condition of its possibility?2

1) Three Versions of the General Will

It seems to me that at least three different meanings or versions of “the general will” can be identified in The Social Contract. Each of these forms of the general will can be distinguished in terms of its subject (that which does the willing), its object (that which is willed), and its relationship to the “private will.”3 The best place to begin in order to identify and compare these three different forms is with that version of the general will that I will characterize as “ideal.”

The following is a chart demonstrating the similarities and differences of the 3 types of General Will, using the distinctions mentioned above:

Subject – That

which does the

willing. Object – That which is

willed. Relation to the Private Will.

Ideal General

Will Hypothetical

contract with all

members of

society. General Good – The

means to a particular

social end. Therefore

there are multiple

objects. No necessary relation to the

Private Will.


General Will Actual contract

with all members of

society. General Good. General and Private Will are

necessarily identical in terms

of their various objects.


General Will Majority of the

members of

society. Not necessarily the

General Good. Relationship is completely


A) “Ideal” General Will

This form of the general will is “general” in terms of its object. The object that is willed is the “general good,”

which is the good of all–”the general interest” (SC 155). The generality of this object is its applicability to all

the willing subjects in a given society. Whatever is willed must be in the best interests of every member of this

group; its good effects must extend to all of them universally. But, for Rousseau, there are two possible types

of “the general good” which can be willed in a way that will satisfy this requirement: the good which is the

universal end of a society; and the “goods” which are the particular means to that singular end. The object of

the ideal form of the general will is the latter (SC 153, 158-159). The ideal general will wills all of the

particular means that are required to reach the end which is posited as a society’s telos.

Thus, there are actually multiple objects belonging to this form of the general will. Each one corresponds to a

different moment in the history of a society as it confronts diverse challenges and opportunities along the way

to its final general good. For Rousseau, all the means that lead to that end constitute the particular goods–with

universal applicability–which are the successive objects of the ideal general good. Each constitutes, in its own

particular moment, the general good of a society which ought to be willed by all the members of that society.

But Rousseau acknowledges that this form of the general will may not always be found “generally” in all of

those subjects. In fact, at any given moment it may not be actually willed by any subjects at all; but he does not

think that would make any difference. In his presentation of this type of general will Rousseau relies

(implicitly) upon a Platonic distinction between the “ideal” and the “actual.” He insists that the real existence of

this form of the general will–the reality of its object, and the reality of the subject’s obligation to will that

object–would remain the same, “constant, unalterable and pure,” even if that will were completely unactualized

in practice (SC 204). The ideal general will is an ideal form. At any given moment, its particular object cannot

necessarily be located through empirical observation, for it is not guaranteed to exist in actuality. Determining

this object is a strictly rational project that requires locating oneself, as a member of a society, in the light of

that society’s overall telos, and then making decisions about particular means to that end in terms of what one

honestly knows to be the general good. What complicates this process most of all is the fact that there is no

necessary correspondence between the object of the ideal general will and what Rousseau calls “the private

will.” The private will always has a particular subject: each individual in the society (SC 177). And its object is

always the uniquely private good of that particular subject. “[E]ach individual can, as a man, have a private will

contrary to or different from the general will that he has as a citizen. His private interest can speak to him in an

entirely different manner than the common interest” (SC 150). All the private wills of the members of a society

taken together constitute the “will of all,” whose reality, (as opposed to that of the ideal general will), is always

strictly empirical. “There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will. The

latter considers only the general interest, whereas the former considers private interest and is merely the sum of

private wills” (SC 155). Conflict between the two is inevitable. The private will “acts constantly against the

general will,” Rousseau states categorically at one point in The Social Contract (SC 192). At other times he

allows that “it is not impossible for a private will to be in accord on some point with the general will”; but he

quickly adds, “it is impossible at least for this accord to be durable and constant” (SC 153). The subjects of the

ideal general will are always going to be particular, individual citizens, but because it must contend for those

subjects against the private will, the general will may not even win a majority. Thus, the ideal general will’s

objective generality, which is a function of its ideal nature, will not necessarily correspond to an empirical,

subjective generality.

B) “Originary” General Will

But Rousseau also speaks of the general will as something that is “general” both objectively and subjectively. It

is necessary for this “originary” form of the general will to exist prior to the general will in its ideal form in

order to give the latter its normative strength, and also in order to give the society whose good is to be willed a

just foundation. There must be some stage in the overall history of the general will, Rousseau argues, when the

general good of a society is necessarily willed generally by all the subjects in that society.4

Such a subjective generality is possible only when the object of the general will is identical with the various

objects of the private will. What each individual wants to will as his or her own individual good must be made

to agree perfectly with what all the people ought to will as the general good of their whole society.5 The

moment when all of these objects are identical is the moment of a society’s origination; upon it Rousseau will

build his entire state. He explains this moment in an extremely important paragraph from Book II, Chapter

IV, that deserves extensive commentary:

The commitments that bind us to the body politic are obligatory only because they are mutual, and their nature is such

that in fulfilling them one cannot work for someone else without also working for oneself. Why is the general will

always right, and why do all constantly want the happiness of each of them, if not because everyone applies the word

each to himself and thinks of himself as he votes for all? This proves that the quality of right and the notion of justice it

produces are derived from the preference each person gives himself, and thus from the nature of man; that the general

will, to be really such, must be general in its object as well as in its essence; that it must derive from all in order to be

applied to all; and that it loses its natural rectitude when it tends toward any individual, determinate object. For then,

judging what is foreign to us, we have no true principle of equity to guide us (SC 157).

Here Rousseau explains how right, justice, obligation, and social stability are all framed by the original

agreement of general and private will. This agreement permits one to trace social relations back to an interest

which is selfish–but not purely selfish. It is, at the same time, social, since its object is simultaneously the good

of the whole and the good of each individual. However, it is more than just a fortunate coincidence that

permits us to trace the genealogy of a society back to this agreement. Without it, Rousseau argues, no society is

possible at all. There is no other way of founding a society. Lacking an originary agreement or ‘contract’ which

permits the general will to be general both subjectively and objectively, there would be “no true principle of

equity to guide us.” Right and justice could not be grounded; the Rousseauan state could never get underway.

Original general will allows the state to get underway by founding the social contract. The agreement between

general and private will is, in essence, a “proto-social contract” because it already constitutes a people.6 It

unites individuals in a situation which is mutually advantageous for all, where “one cannot work for someone

else without also working for oneself.” In such a situation the “quality of right and the notion of justice it

produces” can be derived from the only sure and stable source: “the preference each person gives himself, and

thus from the nature of man.” When a group’s private interests and its general interest can be made to intersect

so perfectly, there is no longer anything standing in the way of their formation as a society. In this agreement,

the essential gesture of constitution has already taken place; all that remains is to work out the contractual


This is where the social contract proper enters. It is commonly assumed that the only foundation of a

Rousseauan society is the social contract;7 but Rousseau explicitly denies this. While the social contract does in

fact serve “as a foundation for all other rights” he argues, “[n]evertheless, this right does not come from nature.

It is therefore founded upon convention” (SC 141). The main convention which supports and structures society

is itself based upon another convention. The general nature of all conventions ought to be such that they must

be equally beneficial to each of the parties that enters into them (SC 146-147). Concerning the social contract

in particular, Rousseau says that it requires a founding convention which will make possible that each subject,

“while uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before” (SC 148). The

convention which can satisfy all of these requirements, and thus successfully found the social contract, is the

agreement of the general and the private will on the telos of society. This telos is the “common good” which is

the “purpose for which [the state] was instituted” (SC 153). It is the “cause” that “each people has within

itself,” which “organizes them in a particular way and renders its legislation proper for it alone” (SC 171).

Individuals in a society must be made to see the telos which is in the best interest of the entire group as

something that is also in their best interest individually and privately. Agreement on that end allows a society to

begin. For if the opposition of private interests made necessary the establishment of societies, it is the accord

of these same interests that made it possible. It is what these different interests have in common that forms the

social bond, and, were there no point of agreement among all these interests, no society could exist. For it is

utterly on the basis of this common interest that society ought to be governed (SC 153). By positing this form

of the general good as its unitary object, originary general will clears the way for the ideal general will to

follow, willing the various general goods that are the means to that end. In the history of a state, the ideal form

of the general will first emerges when the newly constituted society moves the focus of its deliberations from

the singular end which it has projected ahead of itself to the particular means which are required in order to get

to that end. At this point the correspondence between private and general will ceases, and thus, “[u]nanimity no

longer reigns in the votes; the general will is no longer the will of all” (SC 204). Thus, both the ideal and the

originary general will have the general good as their object, but not the same form of the general good. The

objects of the ideal general will are multiple, transitory, and dependent on the single object of the originary

general will, which arises from the original agreement of private and general will that founds the state.

This foundational general will is constant even if the ideal general will that follows after it is not. This

follows because each individual’s private will continues to be tied up in the original general will, and

individuals cannot ignore their private interest. “Each man, in detaching his interest from the common interest,

clearly sees that he cannot totally separate himself from it… Apart from this private good, he wants the general

good in his own interest [which is the object of original general will], just as strongly as anyone else” (SC 204).

While all subjects ought to will according to ideal general will, they cannot help but will the original general

will. To do otherwise would be to deny their rational, self-interested natures. Rousseau, who insists that his

arguments are based on “reason” and “the nature of things,” denies that such a modification of human nature is

possible (SC 146). He allows that humans are eminently capable of resisting the general good when it is

opposed to their own interest: this is the reason why the ideal general will does not necessarily enjoy subjective

generality. But when the general good appears in the guise of the private good, humans necessarily will it–

perhaps without realizing it; perhaps in spite of themselves.

Such constancy is possible, of course, only as long as the original agreement between private and

general will is preserved. As long as this correspondence between general and private will continues, it

functions as the ultimate source of a society’s vitality, “the true constitution of the state” (SC 172). This

enduring, foundational general will is the “law” which is,

the most important of all. It is not engraved on marble or bronze, but in the hearts of citizens… Everyday it takes on

new forces. When other laws grow old and die away, it revives and replaces them, preserves a people in the spirit of its

institution and imperceptibly substitutes the force of habit for that of authority… [It is] a part of the law unknown to our

political theorists but one on which depends the success of all the others; a part with which the great legislator secretly

occupies himself (SC 172).

But once the agreement of the general and the private will is shattered, society loses its foundation, and has no

guarantee of continuing. Rousseau seems to be saying that a state will persist just as long as its originary

general will remains constant, but dissolve as soon as it changes.

C) “Actual” General Will

Rousseau appears to recognize yet a third form of the general will in The Social Contract. This form is simply

the empirical will of the majority. “After this primitive contract [the social contract],” he says, “the vote of the

majority always obligates all the others” (SC 206; see also 150). Thus, returning to the Platonic distinction

between the ideal and the actual, we can describe this third form as the “actual” general will. It is simply

whatever a society’s simple majority manifests at any given moment.8

This type of general will would therefore seem to be general only in a subjective sense, (and then just to the

point of a simple majority). Contrasted with the ideal general will, which is thought to exist even if no subjects

will it, this form of will clearly has no existence whatsoever without willing subjects. But its subjective

generality need not be universal; it only requires a simple majority. In addition, this manifestation of the

general will would not require a general object. The majority need not will what is in the interest of the whole,

or even what is in the interest of itself as a majority, (since conflict with individual private wills may thwart

even that). The object of the general will in this form would not have to agree at all with the object of the ideal

general will, but, on the other hand, neither would it have to agree with the objects of the private will, (in the

way that the original general will does). Its relationship with the private will would remain completely

undetermined, as would its relationship with the object of the (ideal) general will. So it is clear that this is in

fact a distinct form of the general will. It differs from the two previous forms in all of the key areas on which

we have focused our attention: its subject, its object, and its relation to the private will. What is perhaps most

interesting to notice in Rousseau’s treatment of the actual general will, however, is the fact that he seems to

believe that it will not, in practice, constitute a significantly different form of the general will than the ideal

general will. He thinks that in a healthy society, what the ideal general will requires for an object will be

realized in an actual majority vote. Thus, confounding Plato, the actual would collapse back into the ideal–or

rather, the ideal would never fail to be actualized.

Rousseau’s assumption seems to be that so long as a society remains founded upon original general

will, it will always be possible to get at least a simple majority of the citizens to manifest the ideal general will

in their voting. Hence, majority rule will prove an adequate mechanism for managing the day-to-day

governance of the state, and Rousseau allows it to do so (this is the main principle that is agreed upon and

formalized in the social contract (SC 147, 206)). Rousseau believes that we can have confidence in a majority

vote as long as we remain founded, as a community, upon the originary general will.9 “We always want what is

good for us, but we do not always see what it is” (SC 155). A society that remains securely founded “is never

corrupted, but it is often tricked, and only then does it appear to want what is bad” (SC 155). So the voting

process must be structured in order to allow the ideal general will to manifest itself. This amounts to making

sure that each citizen is aware that she or he is being questioned about the general will, and has a chance to

respond individually. “[T]he law of the public order in the assemblies is not so much to maintain the general

will, as to bring it about that it is always questioned and that it always answers” (SC 204).

If, when a sufficiently informed populace deliberates, the citizens were to have no communication among themselves,

the general will [in the ideal form, based on the originary form] would always result from the large number of small

differences, and the deliberation would always be good… it is therefore important that there should be no partial society

in the state and that each citizen make up his own mind (SC 156).

D) The Three Forms Reunited

Breaking Rousseau’s general will down into three distinct forms has allowed us to understand it better,

so that we are now in a position to consider it once again as a unified whole. Ultimately, I believe, Rousseau’s

presentation of the general will does give us a single coherent picture. As we have just seen, the actual general

will ought to be a reflection of the ideal general will, which in turn ought to find a stable foundation in the

original general will. As long as “the characteristics of the [original] general will are still in the majority,”

Rousseau maintains, the whole pyramid is guaranteed to stand (SC 206). He seems to consider all three

moments of the general will to be essentially linked together, and all grounded in the same founding moment.

Though I believe that it is appropriate and worthwhile to distinguish the three forms that we have considered,

to think of any of these forms as radically independent of the others would be a distortion.

In all of its different manifestations, the general will is what governs and preserves a society. It founds

the state in such a way that membership in it is mutually beneficial for all who sustain the social contract. It

informs and sustains the laws, and all other actions of the government (SC 195, 199, 219. 176). In all of these

respects I can find no fault in Rousseau’s account of the general will, and in the functions that he calls upon it to

carry out in his society. Our analysis has revealed that Rousseau’s theory of the general will is coherent and

persuasive. I conclude, therefore, that those who have found that theory to be inadequate are mistaken. Such

criticism of the general will has been misdirected. What is most problematic in Rousseau’s political theory is

not the general will, but rather the condition of the general will’s possibility. 10

2) The Origin of the General Will

Our close analysis of the general will has revealed that it can, in fact, serve as a very sound foundation

for the state–if it can be made to exist. We have traced the general will, in all of its various shapes, down to an

original, founding moment: the moment of agreement between the general good and the private good in the

minds of the people. What needs to be questioned, I would argue, is not the efficacy of the will which arises

from that moment, but rather the very possibility of that moment.

Rousseau claims that this founding moment must be created by a “legislator.” The legislator is the

formalizing or actualizing force behind the creation of the state, the “demiurge” that intervenes from the outside

in order to bring about the original general will which in turn gives rise to the society. Unlike other concepts in

Rousseau’s political theory, the concept of the legislator is spelled out very succinctly and directly in the course

of only a very few pages in The Social Contract.11 Rousseau begins by clarifying the need for a legislator. The

problem is that people are simply unable to say what they really desire, or what they ought to desire. Any

multitude is, unfortunately, “a blind multitude, which often does not know what it wants (since it rarely knows

what is good for it)” (SC 162). There always already exists, for Rousseau, an end for every group, which is in

the best interests of both the group as a whole and of all the individuals in that group. In a sense, Rousseau

argues, everyone in the group already desires the right end, but they fail to realize it. “By itself the populace

always wants the good, but by itself it does not always see it…. It must be made to see objects as they are, and

sometimes as they ought to appear to it. The good path it seeks must be pointed out to it” (SC 162). Any group

of people in its natural state, before the organization of society, will find itself caught up in disagreements

between the general and the private will. No agreement appears to exist between the two in a “state of nature,”

though Rousseau believes that such an agreement does exist at a deeper level, beneath the surface.12 This

agreement must be defined through the work of the legislator.

Private individuals see the good they reject. The public wills the good that it does not see. Everyone is equally in need

of guides. The former must be obligated to conform their wills to their reason; the latter must learn to know what it

wants…. Whence there arises the necessity of having a legislator (SC 162).

The legislator confronts an apparently impossible situation. On the one hand, he faces an “undertaking that

transcends human force,” but on the other hand he has, “to execute it, an authority that is nil” (SC 164). Both

sides of this difficult situation deserve careful consideration.

The “undertaking that transcends human force” is the task of bringing humans to acknowledge their will, even

though it be against their will. The legislator must lead individuals to a deeper understanding of themselves, in

spite of their natural resistance.

He who dares to undertake the establishment of a people should feel that he is, so to speak, in a position to change

human nature, to transform each individual (who by himself is a perfect and solitary whole), into a part of a larger

whole from which this individual receives, in a sense, his life and his being; to alter man’s constitution in order to

strengthen it… In a word, he must deny man his own forces in order to give him forces that are alien to him and that he

cannot make use of without the help of others (SC 163).

The legislator must first of all locate the deeper good which is both general and private, the telos which is

capable of uniting a group of individuals into a society, and then he must make all the individuals aware of this

good so that they can will it unitedly. This twofold task would require extraordinary powers. The human who

could do it would have to be something more than human. Rousseau says that he would have to be,

a superior intelligence that beheld all the passions of men without feeling any of them; who had no affinity with our

nature, yet knew it through and through; whose happiness was independent of us, yet who nevertheless was willing to

concern itself with ours; finally, who, in the passage of time, procures for himself a distant glory, being able to labor in

one age and find enjoyment in another (SC 162-163).

Who are these superhuman legislators? Rousseau, very honestly, calls them “gods” (SC 163).

The other side of the legislator’s “impossible” situation is the fact that he is given no authority to accomplish his

task. Just as the legislator must have an extraordinary character, he is constrained to occupy an “extra-ordinary”

office in the government. “This office, which constitutes the republic, does not enter into its constitution” (SC163). The legislator must create a society from the outside. He cannot have the obligating authority of a state or

a government behind him in his work because “only the general will obligates private individuals,” and that is

precisely what the legislator is working to bring about (SC 164). The legislator cannot address himself to the

people’s obligations, for they have none. Prior to the advent of the original general will, there is no authoritative,

obligatory power from which to draw. Thus, the only power left to the legislator is the power of persuasion.

But here another problem presents itself:

The wise men who want to speak to the common masses in the former’s own language rather than in the common

vernacular cannot be understood by the masses. For there are a thousand kinds of ideas that are impossible to translate

in the language of the populace. Overly general perspectives and overly distant objects are equally beyond its grasp…

For an emerging people to be capable of appreciating the sound maxims of politics and to follow the fundamental rules

of statecraft, the effect would have to become the cause. The social spirit which ought to be the work of that institution,

would have to preside over the institution itself (SC 164).

Prior to the founding moment of originary general will, the common people are incapable of understanding the

legislator’s principles. The extraordinary legislator must necessarily be so far above the ordinary people that it

would be impossible for them to understand him if he speaks to them directly, in his own language. Thus, he

cannot even use the power of persuasion, because he is left without a voice.

The only solution is to find a new voice, which situates itself between the language of authoritative obligation

and the language of rational persuasion. Because “the legislator is incapable of using either force or reasoning,

he must of necessity have recourse to an authority of a different order, which can compel without violence and

persuade without convincing” (SC 164). This new authoritative voice is the voice of myth. The lack of a

language with which to communicate their extraordinary understanding to the ordinary masses “has always

forced the fathers of nations to have recourse to the interventions of heaven and to credit the gods with their

own wisdom, so that the peoples might obey with liberty and bear with docility the yoke of public felicity” (SC164). The legislator has no other method to which to turn; “he must of necessity” make use of such myths.

Rousseau believes that this is the only way that the originary coincidence of general and private will, which is

necessary to found a state, can be brought about.

At this point we can clearly see that what is most tenuous in Rousseau’s theory of the state is not the general

will, but rather the legislator which is needed to produce it. Two obvious criticisms apply to Rousseau’s

legislator. First of all, it seems completely unrealistic. This criticism might not matter to another political

theory, but it surely applies to The Social Contract, since the explicit project of that work is to “inquire whether

there can be some legitimate and sure rule of administration in the civil order, taking men as they are?” (SC141, my italics). Or perhaps Rousseau’s description of the legislator is his own way of responding to that initial

question in the negative.13 He does not disguise the fact that he believes that the legislator faces a nearly

impossible task; and he speaks wistfully of these “god-like” creatures as if he does not really believe that any

exist. But assuming that Rousseau does consider the legislator a realistic possibility, and does want us to take

him seriously in this matter, a second criticism would apply. Given that Rousseau believes that the only

resource at the legislator’s disposal in her efforts to instill an originary general will in a people are

“metanarratives” that attribute a metaphysical source and foundation to his project, what would happen if the

people simply refused to believe her? Here Rousseau’s state seems to ultimately rests on a foundation–not of

the general will, and not even of the legislator–but rather of myth. Doesn’t this seem a rather unstable

ground?14 But whatever the answer may be to that question, this much, I believe, is clear: the most

questionable link in Rousseau’s story of the origination and maintenance of a society is not the general will, but

rather the legislator who is the condition of its possibility. While Rousseau’s account of the general will is

sophisticated, well-argued, and coherent, the story of the legislator is so fantastic that he does not seem to

believe it himself. And while the general will emerges as an efficacious mechanism in Rousseau’s state, the

legislator’s chances of success in her task look slim indeed. Clearly, Rousseau’s critics would do better to look

beneath the general will to the legislator, who makes maintenance of the state possible.


1. Jean Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract, trans. and ed. Donald A. Cress, Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

The Basic Political Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987) 141-227. 160. Hereafter cited internally as SC

followed by page numbers from the Cress translation.

2. For his comments I wish to thank Marc J. Ramsay.

3. Andrew Levine believes that for Rousseau different forms of the will can be distinguished only in terms of

their object. This leads him to a confused picture of the general will, which recognizes only a single form of it,

overlooking entirely the other two that I will discuss in this paper. See The Politics of Autonomy: A Kantian

Reading of Rousseau’s Social Contract (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1976) 40-43. On the other hand,

Ramon M. Lemos recognizes that the “generality” of the general will can refer to both subjects and objects, and

this allows him to offer a much more complete picture of the phenomenon. See Rousseau’s Political

Philosophy: An Exposition and Interpretation (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1977) 135-143. N. J. H. Dent’s more

recent discussion of the general will continues in this same tradition. See his A Rousseau Dictionary (Oxford:

Blackwell, 1992) 123-126.

4. A good account of the necessity of this correlation can be found in N. J. H. Dent’s 23-40.

5. The important question of how this agreement is to be brought about will be taken up at the end of the essay.

For now I will assume, with Rousseau, that the agreement is possible, and investigate the consequences.

6. John B. Noone, Jr. uses this term in, Rousseau’s Social Contract: a Conceptual Analysis (Athens: U of

Georgia Press, 1980) 78.

7. James Miller, for example, mistakenly argues that the social contract is the unique act which constitutes a

people as a people, and that the general will emerges after that constituting act. See Rousseau: Dreamer of

Democracy (New Haven: Yale UP, 1984) 61-62.

8. Kennedy F. Roche argues that the concept of majority rule is the closest that Rousseau ever gets to

explaining just exactly what he means by “the general will” in The Social Contract. While I agree with Roche

that this is one of the ways in which Rousseau explicates “the general will,” it should be clear from my

arguments up to this point that I do not think that Rousseau limits himself to this formulation of the general

will. (See Rousseau: Stoic and Romantic (London: Methuen, 1974) 69-76.) Paul Weirich presents a more

balanced discussion of majority rule, arguing that it is one possible, valid manifestation of the general will, in

his essay “Rousseau on Proportional Majority Rule,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 47

(Summer 1986): 111-126.

9. For a good account of how Rousseau’s use of the majority rule convention does not amount to a simple

defense of the right of the majority to dominate a minority, see Stephen Ellenburg, “Rousseau and Kant:

Principles of Political Right,” Rousseau After Two Hundred Years: Proceedings of the Cambridge

Bicentennial Colloquium, ed. R. A. Leigh (Cambridge: University Press, 1982) 3-36; 12-15. See also

Ellenburg’s Rousseau’s Political Philosophy: an Interpretation from Within (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1976) 53-55.

10. For another affirmative account of Rousseau’s theory of the general will, which situates it within the

modern liberal tradition, see John W. Chapman, Rousseau–Totalitarian or Liberal? (New York: Columbia

UP, 1956) 124-144.

11. In comparison, the complete concept of the general will can only be reconstructed by piecing together

various texts and arguments that occur scattered throughout the entire book.

12. On this point see Ronald Grimsley, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1983) 98-99.

13. Judith Shklar makes this suggestion in her essay, “Rousseau’s Images of Authority,” Hobbes and

Rousseau: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Maurice Cranston and Richard S. Peters (Garden City, New

York: Anchor Books, 1972) 333-365; 342. See also her Men and Citizens: a Study of Rousseau’s Social

Theory (Cambridge: University Press, 1969) 154-164.

14. If it is true, as Jean-Fran?ois Lyotard has argued, that the present age is characterized by “incredulity

toward metanarratives,” would that mean that a Rousseauan state is no longer possible? Was it ever possible?

(cf. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian

Massumi (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984) xxiv.)


and Referenced:

Chapman, John W. Rousseau–Totalitarian or Liberal?. New York: Columbia University Press, 1956.

Dent, N. J. H. A Rousseau Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

Ellenburg, Stephen. “Rousseau and Kant: Principles of Political Right,” Rousseau After Two Hundred

Years: Proceedings of the Cambridge Bicentennial Colloquium, ed. R. A. Leigh. Cambridge: University Press,

1982. (3)36; 12-15.

Ellenburg, Stephen. Rousseau’s Political Philosophy: an Interpretation from Within. Ithaca: Cornell

University Press, 1976.

Grimsley, Ronald. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1983.

Lemos, Ramon M. Rousseau’s Political Philosophy: An Exposition and Interpretation. Athens: U of

Georgia Press, 1977.

Levine, Andrew. The Politics of Autonomy: A Kantian Reading of Rousseau’s Social Contract.

Amherst: U of Massachusetts Press, 1976.

Lyotard, Jean-Fran?ois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington

and Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Miller, James. Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

Noone, John B. Jr. Rousseau’s Social Contract: a Conceptual Analysis. Athens: University of Georgia

Press, 1980.

Roche, Kennedy F. Rousseau: Stoic and Romantic. London: Methuen, 1974.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. On the Social Contract, trans. and ed. Donald A. Cress, Jean-Jacques

Rousseau: The Basic Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

Shklar, Judith. “Rousseau’s Images of Authority,” Hobbes and Rousseau: A Collection of Critical

Essays, ed. Maurice Cranston and Richard S. Peters. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1972. 333-365.

Shklar, Judith. Men and Citizens: a Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory. Cambridge: University Press,


Weirich, Paul “Rousseau on Proportional Majority Rule,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

47 Summer 1986: 111-126.


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