– 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.
contract with all
society. General Good – The
means to a particular
social end. Therefore
there are multiple
objects. No necessary relation to the
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
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,
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.)
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