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A discussion of rousseaus theory of the general will

Academic consensus is that Hegel misrepresents Rousseau. This arbitrariness contains the risk of the general will suppressing the individuality on which it is based. The people could decide to collectively commit suicide and Rousseau would need to praise this decision for its democratic quality. Since the general will is its own standard, there is no way to distinguish a good from a bad collective distinction.

Hegel claims to eliminate this problem by proposing a constitutional monarchy instead of radical democracy. The general will would then be embodied in the king and not in the people. Although his political system contains some checks on the decision- making competences of the king, Hegel did not completely eliminate the problem. The king too is an individual with an arbitrary will and can thus engender chaos within the limits of the constitution.

I end my article by concluding that the embodiment of the general will as such is the core problem for both Rousseau and Hegel. It would be better to suppose that no one can embody the will of the people and hence leave the position of sovereignty open.

In that case there are only claims to represent the general will, but no certitude. This leaves room for contestation between different interpretations of the will of the people. Introduction 1 Mary Shelley 1999Frankenstein, p.

Hegel misrepresents Rousseau and consequently criticizes him for the wrong reasons.


Hegel states that Rousseau considers the general will to be no more than a lowest common denominator of the collection of individual wills, 3 while Rousseau argues in Du contrat social that this is not the case. To arrive at this insight I will firstly discuss the meaning of the general will in Rousseau.

This theory will lead us to a central paradox, namely that the general will of the people transcends the individual and yet can only exist in individuals. The main thrust of his argument is that Rousseau leaves open the possibility that the general will destroys all individuality.

  1. The government interprets the laws and settles each case based on the perceived merits. Jim Jones, the leader, acted as a lawgiver persuading his followers that the end of the world was near and that they should commit suicide.
  2. In addition, when the individual joins society in order to escape death or starvation, he can be a sacrificial victim ready to give up his life for others.
  3. In effect, the institution of the sovereign may be inconsistent with a representative model, where the executive power of the government can be understood as requiring it. In various places Rousseau clearly states that morality is not a natural feature of human life, so in whatever sense it is that human beings are good by nature, it is not the moral sense that the casual reader would ordinarily assume.
  4. Those who just happen to have talents create new products and the desire for them. He regarded contempt of another, which could lead to hurt feelings, as a vice and as always bad.
  5. The latter is consistent with his view in Emile that all the passions are outgrowths or developments of amour de soi.

Individuals create the general will in a social contract, but this creation can turn out to be a monster consuming its makers.

I consider Hegel to argue that the general will of the people, as conceived by Rousseau, runs the risk of making the people run off a cliff towards their own death, just like lemmings do.

The general will remains tainted by individuality when, instead of the people, a king is made sovereign. For some it refers to the general interest, 6 for others to the driving force of insurrections.

Stern 2002Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit, pp. Knowles 2002Hegel and the philosophy of right, p. Rousseau 1978Du contrat social, p.

The only evidence for this theory is a documentary called White wilderness from 1958. Later it was revealed that the animals were actually pushed of the cliff by the film crew of the Disney documentary.

Rousseau, Het maatschappelijk verdrag, p. According to Rousseau, the solution to this riddle lies in the social a discussion of rousseaus theory of the general will. Where absolutist philosophers sacrificed individual liberty for security, Rousseau tries to reconcile both.

The government protects individuals, but the latter remain free because the power of government is dependent on the deliberations of the sovereign people. The sovereign has two main characteristics. Firstly, it is inalienable. If the sovereign would delegate the will to, for instance, a king, the will would no longer be general and the social contract, installing popular sovereignty, would be broken.

Secondly, sovereignty is indivisible. If sovereignty is inalienable and indivisible, then everyone should participate in the formation of the general will.

Every citizen should utter his own opinion, which cannot be delegated to a faction or corporation. The general will is however not identical to the consensus of the 8 CS, p. Hegel is much more optimistic about factions in the sense of corporations see, for example: How this is possible is explained by the third characteristic. The laws emerging from the sovereign can only have a general scope.

They cannot directly apply to individual cases. This follows from the generality of participation: Viewed separately, general participation and scope are insufficient. The people gains general subjectivity through the lawgiver. This education is not performed through reasoned argument, but through myths and stories.

One does not have to think here of fictional manipulation or far-fetched theology. The speech was meant to move people beyond their private interests. The civil rights movement did not demand privileges for themselves. The world was at stake.

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The lawgiver is the medium through whom these mobilizing ideas express themselves and inspire 19 Ibid. Habermas 1992The structural transformation of the public sphere, p. In principle, everyone is a lawgiver. The sovereign is formed insofar as the general will of the public body transcends its individual members and hence it can only decide on the grounds of transcendent motives, such as the ideas of liberty or equality. When members argue for a certain position, the reasons they can use within general participation are limited to the reasons with which they can persuade others to transcend their own individuality as well.

The same individuals are the necessary precondition and the field of application of the sovereign. They are the subjects of the sovereign in the two meanings of the term.

Whereas in the beginning, the people is a collection of private interests, afterwards these same people transcend themselves toward the general will.

This does not mean that the individual with his private interests disappears. Apart from the sovereign, there is a civil society of private individuals. Eliminating private interest would amount to undermining the general will of the sovereign that is made possible by the social contract.

Lauritsen restricts the unity of the sovereign to the a discussion of rousseaus theory of the general will of insurrection against the government. It should be clear that this is mistaken.

Whether this consent leads to an insurrection or not, is irrelevant. I use the term in the meaning Hegel gives it. They form a whole through interacting with each other. Within civil society they are the bourgeois pursuing his private interests. As a member of the sovereign, he is a citoyen transcending his individuality in the general will.

Consequently, the general will becomes incarnate in the same individuals it transcends. At first sight, Rousseau seems to sacrifice civil society at the altar of the general will. He demands a full alienation of individual rights to the community. In fact, every individual regains the rights he gives away, because he is a member of the sovereign to whom these are given.

General will

Later in the text Rousseau adds that the individual only entrusts those aspects of his life to the sovereign that are publicly relevant: I will discuss each separately. Hegel claims that, according to Rousseau, reason only forms a negative, external limitation on the will. He only states that the general will can never be mistaken. Whatever the sovereign decides can become contingent on what a lawgiver can persuade the people to consent to.

This would not be much of a problem if the private sphere was protected from the general will. As already mentioned, Rousseau takes this into account. It is however important to note that it is the sovereign, not the private individual, that decides on public relevance.

The general will puts a constraint on private wills and its formality leaves open the possibility of some arbitrary will determining the general will. The goal of Du contrat social was to find a system that could secure the freedom of individuals while at the same time being a collective order. If a lawgiver persuades the people to perform some terrible act, the only conditions are that 1 everyone participated in the deliberation and gave consent and 2 the scope of the decision extends to the whole people.

Hegel shows the possibility of the Rousseauian sovereign becoming a group of lemmings rushing off a cliff toward their death.

The lemming scenario is not simply a potential danger, but a real threat. James, Rousseau and German idealism, p. Heyde 1987De verwerkelijking van de vrijheid, p.

This approach confounds the domains of civil society and the state. Hegel argues that the state embodies a substantial and hence not merely formal will and that the highest duty of the individual lies in his citizenship.

The social contract takes private interest as both the foundation and the goal of the state, as is clearly true for Rousseau. A discussion of rousseaus theory of the general will, the general will is considered to be incarnated in the collection of individuals.

What Rousseau takes to be a balance between the sovereign and civil society tends to transform 1 the sovereign into a kind of civil society and 2 civil society into a potentially self-destructive sovereign.

Hegel shows that this explanation is insufficient. Stern 2002Hegel and the phenomenology of Spirit, pp. The generality of the state is not a product of individuals, but a presupposition.

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Even civil society is not simply a collection of particular interests, but contains a second principle of generality to organize those interests. Before the deliberation for the contract starts, the contractors feel some kind of community with each other. It is only on such a basis that they can entrust Zutrauen their particular interests to the state. There is no standpoint outside the state from where we can decide our loyalty.