From Locke versus Rousseau to the Present
New Thinking in Political Economy series
It is useful to understand Rousseau’s work (1712–1778) as a response primarily to Locke. What Locke and Rousseau share and what makes them defining figures of the modern conversation is the recognition that the modern world was transitioning away from Feudal agrarianism into something economically novel with important social implications (a form of “creative destruction” to use Schumpeter’s phrase). What they also recognized was the existence of a new persona, a new form of self-consciousness. Locke welcomed the new persona, but Rousseau argued that a further transformation was necessary. Rousseau first gained attention and prominence with the publication of the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (Rousseau 1750) (hereafter the First Discourse). It was in response to an essay contest designed to highlight in a positive way the contributions of science and technology to the advancement of civilization. Rousseau argued against the original purpose of the contest, but still won the prize. He argued that the arts and sciences, and therefore the entire technological project, did not respond to genuine human needs. Rather, the technological project was a reflection of pride and vanity. Rousseau asks whether these arts and sciences have improved human character or the human condition. This puts the Lockean narrative on the defensive. The arts and sciences, according to Rousseau, are motivated by human vices: “Astronomy was born from superstition; eloquence from ambition, hate, flattery, and falsehood; geometry from avarice, physics from vain curiosity; all, even moral philosophy, from human pride” (Rousseau 1986, p._14).
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