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Reviewed by:
  • The Legacy of Rousseau, and: Rousseau and the Politics of Ambiguity, and: The “Confessions” and Correspondence, Including the Letters to Malesherbes
  • Patrick Coleman
Clifford Orwin and Nathan Tarcov, eds. The Legacy of Rousseau (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). Pp. xiv + 331. $17.95 paper.
Mira Morgenstern. Rousseau and the Politics of Ambiguity (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996). Pp. xviii + 270. $18.95 paper.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The “Confessions” and Correspondence, Including the Letters to Malesherbes (The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 5), trans. Christopher Kelly, ed. Christopher Kelly, Roger D. Masters, and Peter G. Stillman (Hanover and London: Dartmouth College, published by University Press of New England, 1995). Pp. xxxvi + 700. $25.00 paper.

The Legacy of Rousseau is a collection of essays by friends and students of the late Allan Bloom, most widely known for his The Closing of the American Mind but best appreciated by eighteenth-century scholars for his translation of Rousseau’s Emile and Letter to d’Alembert (under the title Politics and the Arts). The volume focuses less on the history of Rousseau’s influence than on the relevance of Rousseau’s thought to contemporary issues, in particular “the modern dissatisfaction with modernity” (xi), a theme developed through arguments with such figures as Richard Rorty and Charles Taylor. While the notion of legacy is broadly defined, the writers discussed are in fact limited to a few big European thinkers, including Tocqueville and Nietzsche (usually cited favorably), and some prominent North American liberals (generally viewed unfavorably). Given the origin of the volume, this focus is understandable and the polemical edge is welcome, but literary scholars will surely not be the only readers disconcerted to find a paper on Rousseau and the “cult of sincerity” which mentions no autobiographies and even omits any reference to Rousseau’s Confessions themselves. Not that Arthur Melzer’s comments on the contradictions of modern society’s obsession with sincerity are not justified—his remarks on bourgeois culture containing the seeds of its own critique (292) would find many echoes in literary studies of modernity. But they illustrate a pervasive tendency in the book to reduce Rousseau’s work to a series of thematic statements whose coherence and heuristic value are determined at some distance from the actual texts. The word “charm” is used rather preciously by a number of contributors as a way of acknowledging the power of Rousseau’s writing, but the styles and modes of address of that writing are viewed as significant. The result can be a tonic reminder of the big philosophical picture, but at the price of ignoring the contexts of particular statements. In some cases, the cost is minimal. Steven Kautz, for example, accuses Richard Rorty of radicalizing the dichotomy between community and individual privacy developed in Rousseau’s work. The critique stands on its own merits, with Rousseau serving only as a suggestive point of departure. In other cases, particularly the cluster of essays on nationalism (Marc F. Plattner), international relations (Pierre Hassner), and ethnic difference (H. D. Forbes), the effort to use Rousseau as a source detracts from the value of the discussion. In emphasizing the urgency of fostering a communal spirit in Poland, Corsica, or Geneva, Rousseau may look like an important resource for analyzing national identity, but the closer one looks at the texts, the less likely they are to answer contemporary questions. The modern idea of nationalism, and still less of ethnicity, isn’t really there: while Rousseau may be interested in the integrity of people, the self-conscious differentiation of one’s own group from another has no place in his political theory. Not only does Rousseau seem to take for granted who counts as Genevan or as Polish (no criteria for making or modifying a judgment of inclusion or exclusion are offered), it is difficult to imagine Rousseau’s citizen being encouraged to raise such a question any more than he should ask who really believes in the civil religion—social peace is an overriding value. Still, Forbes’s critique of Charles Taylor’s version of multiculturalism is in itself important and acute, not least because of its appreciation for the specifics of...

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