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Rousseauian Constructivism JON MANDLE ROUSSEAU'S POLITICALPHILOSOPHYfocusses on the idea of the general will. Unfortunately, it often seems as though this central idea raises more questions than it answers. This paper will develop an interpretation of Rousseau's political philosophy that starts from an understanding of the general will. I do not claim that this reading solves all of the paradoxical and difficult aspects of Rousseau's moral and political thought. For example, I do not discuss his account of freedom or his theory of moral education. However, I believe that it is necessary to understand Rousseau's notion of the general will properly before addressing these other topics. As Judith Shklar writes: "The general will is Rousseau's most successful metaphor. It conveys everything he most wanted to say."' Patrick Riley has demonstrated that the notion of a general will has its origins in theological disputes. But, as Riley also notes, there are a number of possible approaches to Rousseau, "each one laden with real fruit. One can (and somewhere should) approach Rousseau as the high point of the social contract tradition. ''~ In this paper, I present an account of the general will which attempts to identify more clearly Rousseau's position in this social contract tradition , especially through a contrast with Hobbes. As I demonstrate in the concluding section, a proper understanding of the general will reveals important connections to recent constructivist theories of ethics and justice. At one level, Rousseau's understanding of the "fundamental problem" of political philosophy is clear enough. He states it explicitly: "Find a form of association that defends and protects the person and goods of each associate with all the common force, and by means of which each one, uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before." This is the fundamental problem which is solved by the social contract (SC, 53 [360]).3 1Men and Citizens (New York: Cambridge, 1969), 184. Patrick Riley, The General Will before Rousseau (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 256. All quotations from Rousseau appear in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oeuvres Complktes, vol. III (Paris: l~dition de la PMiade, 1964). I rely on the followingtranslations, and abbreviations: SC: On [545] 546 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 35:4 OCTOBER a99 7 The social contract is what can make a political order "legitimate and reliable" (SC, 46 [351 ]). Arid Rousseau is no less explicit about the content of the social contract which solves this problem. This contract "can be reduced to the following terms": "Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole" (SC, 53 [361]).4 So, the social contract is an agreement to be guided by the general will, and such an agreement renders political rule "legitimate and reliable." In addition, Rousseau tells us: "Only the general will obligates private individuals" (SC, 69 [383], my emphasis). The problem, then, is why does Rousseau believe that such a social contract, one which establishes the sovereignty of the general will, and only such a contract, provides the basis for legitimate political rule? 1. SOVEREIGNTY We will begin by considering the notion of sovereignty. For Rousseau, as for Hobbes, the sovereign is the ground for all genuine political obligations. It will be useful to contrast their views concerning the establishment of a sovereign. For Hobbes, a commonwealth is formed when individuals "conferre all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon one Assembly of men, that may reduce all their Wills, by plurality of voices into one Will" (L, 227).5 One way in which this can be done is through mutual covenants, in which the individuals say to one another, "I Authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorise all his Actions in like manner" (L, 227). Indeed, Hobbes defines a commonwealth as: One Person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutuall Covenants one with another, have made themselves every one...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 545-562
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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