Rousseau on Seeing and Knowing

-I had intended to post this before seminar today, but I haven’t blogged since my introduction so I’ll admit that I actually forgot how to post on my blog. I’ve figured it out now.-

Seeing as our theme for the year is “Seeing and Knowing”, I thought I’d take a look at Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality in that light. In Part One of his Discourse, Rousseau describes what mankind might have been like in the purest state of nature. This “noble savage” (as Professor Crawford dubbed it in lecture) is unaware of the fact that it is alive and lives completely on its own, and in this natural state is content. In this sense, all men are equal, and the sexes are essentially equal as well. It is not until man begins to interact and reason, create language and the idea of property, and eventually form a society that Rousseau pinpoints the beginning of man’s descent into inequality. (This is of course an extremely brief summary of his argument).

In Part One, Rousseau states his view that “the state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and that the man who meditates is a depraved animal” (Rousseau 85). In our day and age we often express how proud we are of how far humans have come in terms of gaining knowledge of the world around us and inventing tools and medicine to improve our lives. Throughout the book I got the overwhelming sense that Rousseau did not feel the same way. In fact Rousseau has a far more negative view of knowledge, believing that it is reason and the knowledge of others that leads to comparison, which eventually leads to dissatisfaction in ourselves and what we have. Might he have a point? Everything that we’ve invented has led to some sort of inequality or problem for mankind, according to Rousseau, so would we really just be better off without reason or knowledge?

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