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  • Political Anthropology and its Animal Other in Rousseau's Discours sur l'inégalité
  • Andrew Billing

1. Human Norms and Animal Foundations

The most innovative and consequential eighteenth-century French discourses on the animal, from Maupertuis and Condillac through to Diderot and La Mettrie, qualify or repudiate both orthodox Thomist Christian doctrine, which views animals as irrational creatures created for the service and use of man, and the Cartesian dualist perspective, in which animals lack a rational soul and are held to be analogous to machines.1 In its most radical materialist versions, in diverse conceptions of transformationism and biological continuism or in speculations on interspecies couplings and animal/human hybrids, French Enlightenment discourse substitutes an open boundary for an absolute frontier grounded in a demarcating property or attribute.2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau's distinctiveness with respect to Enlightenment discourse on animality lies in his linking of this unsettling of traditional ontological presuppositions to normative questions in the moral, legal, and political realms. The topic of the animal/human relation arises above all in the Discours sur l'origine, et les fondemens de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (1755),3 the work Rousseau claimed contained his most fundamental reflections.4 It is well known that in the Discours, Rousseau presents a conjectural genetic account of human passage into political society from an originary state of nature. It should not be overlooked, however, that Rousseau also terms the state of nature an "état d'animalité" (217) or "condition animale" (143), and the animal/human distinction underpins the one between nature and society that is usually viewed as the fundamental opposition governing the work and corresponding to its two principal sections. For Rousseau, animality is the speculative origin of the human, a hypothetical, infra-historical "degré zéro"5 condition of indifferentiation in which the distinction between the animal and the human has yet to be produced [End Page 1] via the agency of historical contingencies. Since Rousseau assigns a radical foundational significance to this animal origin of the human, an originary animality effectively serves in the work as the foundation of natural right and thus the ultimate source of moral law and of the principles of political right. Furthermore, Rousseau argues that a persisting natural similitude entails that humans are obliged to respect certain moral duties towards living empirical animals.6

The foundational significance that Rousseau ascribes to animality within the Discours's natural right framework means that despite the work's emphasis on normative topics, he is also obliged to address the ontological questions concerning the source and extent of human specificity explored by other Enlightenment thinkers. Here, however, Rousseau's representation of the animal/human relation contains obscurities, centered on the meaning of key faculties including liberty and perfectibility, whose significance has disconcerted the commentators. The established line of interpretation, sustained by critics as diverse in their orientations as Burgelin, Cassirer, Starobinski, Derrida, de Man, and Duchet and recently defended by Jean-Luc Guichet in his remarkable study Rousseau l'animal et l'homme,7 proposes that these obscurities are resolvable. On this view, despite Rousseau's ascription of a common sensibility to both humans and animals exemplified above all by the faculty of pity, liberty stands in the Discours as the unique property of the human and the ultimate cause of human distinctiveness. Nonetheless, some critics have argued that the Discours's ambiguities reflect either deliberate reticence, or a failure to identify a determinative human property. Leo Strauss argues that the equivocations derive from an ecumenical desire to make the political arguments of the Discours acceptable to a broad audience, including those not disposed to subscribe to Christian eschatology or Cartesian dualism. Elisabeth de Fontenay, who nonetheless characterizes Rousseau as "—jusqu'à un certain point—le fondateur d'un droit moderne des animaux,"8 suggests instead that the equivocations amount to a conceptual "brouillage" and signal Rousseau's inability to identify a "critère décisif et exclusif"9 permitting an ontological differentiation of the animal from the human.

In the first part of this essay, I will argue that the ambiguities of Rousseau's discussion of human specificity in the Discours sur l'inégalité are not...


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