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Rousseau, Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding
Photo of Robert Zaretsky by Edith G. Dugas
Photo of John T. Scott by Cynthia Simmons

BLUE interviews Robert Zaretsky and John T. Scott

ROBERT ZARETSKY and JOHN T. SCOTT answer questions about the little row between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume.

[Note: John T. Scott is referred to below as JTS, Robert Zaretsky as RZ. The page numbers quoted refer to the English language hardcover version of The Philosophers' Quarrel]

The Philosophers' Quarrel BLUE: What, in a few words, is your book, The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding, about? [p1-7]

JTS and RZ: The Philosophers' Quarrel examines the lives and brief friendship of the two most important thinkers of the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume, and explores the limits of their philosophical examinations of human understanding in light of their failure to understand one another.

BLUE: Where does your interest in this period of social history come from and is such study relevant today? [p3-7]

JTS: Our interest in this period arises from the fact that the intellectual, social, and political changes taking place in the 18th century shaped the world in which we live today. Our hope is that the continuing interest in the period, and in our book, is due to the fact that the same questions and issues that arose in the Enlightenment are alive and well today.

RZ: We also approach this period from different angles: John is a political theorist, while I am an historian.

BLUE: How did you decide to collaborate?

JTS: We have collaborated for a decade now on several projects. We used to team teach in the Honors College at the University of Houston, and we first decided to collaborate on this book after we taught, back-to-back, Rousseau and Hume. At first, we decided to write a screenplay based on the events of the brief friendship of Rousseau and Hume, which we worked on for a couple of years, but then decided to turn to a book.

RZ: John knew Rousseau far better than I knew Hume, not to mention Rousseau. But we were equally struck by the quarrel between the two men. Not only was it astonishingly dramatic, but an ideal occasion to plumb the temper of the times.

BLUE: Can you sum up the set of circumstances in Rousseau’s life that made him the man he became, in his own time and since?

JTS: Rousseau himself traced the sources of his thought to his unusual life. He was always an outsider, a runaway from Geneva who was largely self-educated and who had experience at all levels of society, from serving as a lackey to being close friends with royalty and nobles. He suggested that this unusual experience allowed him to see through the conventions of his time and to realize the extent of variability of human nature and forms of society, which he explored in his thought.

BLUE: In your opinion was Rousseau: - a) Unique? b) Vainglorious? c) Malicious? [p182, 188] d) Genius?

JTS: Rousseau was probably all of the above. He was certainly a genius, as his carefully written and argued works suggest. He was perhaps unique, or at least he thought that he was and others, including Hume, were also struck by his singularity. Whether he was vainglorious depends in part on how you define it; he did not think himself vain, though others did, but he also wrote that the ‘wise man does not despise glory,’ and he was extremely ambitious. Malicious? Hume thought so, but most people, and ultimately Hume, too, found him less malicious than suspicious.

RZ: I agree with John, but suspect that the quality of genius in some sense encompasses the other traits you mentioned.

BLUE: Was Rousseau misunderstood then, and now? [p2-5, 11-12]

JTS: Rousseau was misunderstood in his own time, and is today. As for his own time, he himself said that he was bound to be misunderstood because he challenged the conventions of his time. As for today, part of the misunderstanding has less to do with Rousseau than the events that came after him and that he arguably influenced, principally the French Revolution and Romanticism. People today tend to read–or misread–him through those prisms rather than take his thought on its own terms and in the context of his own time.

RZ: It is remarkable how, to this very day, Rousseau remains a stalking horse for a certain strain of conserv-ative thought. Some reviewers of our book have used the occasion to echo the old charge ‘La faute, c’est à Rousseau’ for the various real and perceived ills of modernity.

BLUE: In your book you reveal the intimate details of Rousseau’s life in the period 1764-67, above all describing the effect he had on people. This fascination today would be fanatical, yet in an age when, it appeared, news did not travel as fast as it does now, what, do you think, was this magnetism down to?

JTS: The interest in Rousseau’s life during his own time stems largely from two sources. First, he made himself part of his thought, especially in his autobiographical works, which were not published until after his death, but also elsewhere. He argued that he had unique insight into things, and made his own uniqueness a theme of his work and thus invited questions about his life. Foremost in this regard, like Hume in his own way, Rousseau argued that philosophy should be a way of life, not just a system of thought, and so interest in the philosophy meant interest in its author. Second, Rousseau was able to connect with his readers through his powerful writing and to make them feel a connection with him, above all in his novel Julie, which created an unprecedentedly large audience and personal following.

BLUE: Today, most celebrities don’t have much between their ears and intellectuals are largely ignored, so why 250 years ago were intellectuals effusively celebrated, and why was Rousseau more celebrated than the rest? [p108]

JTS: I am not sure that there are fewer intelligent people writing today, but due to popular media there are far more people expressing their opinions and clamoring for attention, so that the large number of celebrities and others hawking their opinions tends to dwarf the small number of intellectuals and other thoughtful people. Rousseau was perhaps celebrated more than most in his own time because he created a mass audience, which was a new phenomenon in his time. Hume, too, was part of this creation of a mass reading public.

RZ: John makes an important point about the changes in the popular media. In the mid-18th century, the reach of the philosophes–intellectual is misleading, in part because the term, and perhaps the phenomenon, was coined in France more than a century later during the Dreyfus Affair–extended no further than the ‘Republic of Letters’. This was the term then given to the small number of Europeans and North Americans who read the journals, essays, histories in which serious philosophical debates were cast in accessible terms, and would debate these issues at salons, cafés, clubs and in their correspondence. Today, the internet has blotted out these earlier and important distinctions.

BLUE: Do you believe that Rousseau was a genius, possibly slightly mad with a hint of schizophrenia about him? [p165-166, 172, 182, 186, 196, 208]

JTS: Rousseau was undoubtedly a genius, as serious reading of his works reveals. Undoubtedly, especially toward the end of his life, he tended to be paranoid and even verged on madness. That said, as the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Rousseau had real enemies, including Voltaire, who spread malicious gossip about him and caused real problems for him. Rousseau had good reason to be paranoid, but sometimes the object of his paranoia, especially in the case of Hume, was misguided. Hume himself recognized both Rousseau’s genius and his paranoia.

BLUE: Rousseau said humanity should cultivate the sentiments of the solitary existence and strive for honesty and integrity. ‘To exist is to sense; our sensibility is incontestably anterior to our intelligence, and we had sentiments before ideas,’ he wrote in Émile, his novel on education. Is this statement more relevant today in a general sense than it was in Rousseau’s time in the context in which he put it? [p169]

JTS: Rousseau did not argue that we should cultivate the sentiments of a solitary existence, patterned on the solitary natural men he depicted in the Discourse on Inequality or on his own solitary existence, such as he described it in the Reveries, for example. He did not think that developed humans could return to solitude, and he viewed his own solitude with great regret. What Rousseau did argue is that society tends to shape us in ways that distort or corrupt us, for example making us live in the eyes of others rather than draw our sense of existence and sense of self from ourselves. In this sense, then, he argued for striving for honesty and integrity.

RZ: Yes, but as Rousseau’s own life reminds us, striving does not guarantee arriving at these goals. Perhaps more so than John, I am taken by the tragic strain in Rousseau’s thought.

BLUE: Rousseau, it could be argued in hindsight, was a man out of time when he lived and it could be argued that today he is still ahead of the general thinking in society. It is said that he has been a large influence on the social and eco-social movements of the late 20th century, yet it is probable that he would not agree with the way his name and his works are used. In that context what exactly do you think his legacy is to the world, particularly now, when the sentiments he lived for are so easily dismissed or ignored, especially among the argumentative and contrary Left?

JTS: Rousseau’s legacy is complex, and it is difficult to evaluate a thinker in hindsight without distorting his or her thought and intentions. Rousseau has been appropriated by revolutionaries in the French Revolution, as a kind of romantic anarchist by Romantics and others, as a proto-environmentalist, etc. All of these appropriations perhaps touch on something in Rousseau’s thoughts, but tend to reduce it to one facet and misunderstand him more generally. Such is the fate of any interesting thinker or writer.

BLUE: Rousseau got a hard time from the Christians for Émile and The Social Contract and he got a hard time from his fellow intellectuals for his attitude, yet both books had a lasting impact on society. Was Rousseau ganged up on by the Christians who feared the impact of his writings, and by his fellow intellectuals because they believed he was a conspiracy theorist at heart and paradoxical to the hilt, and to an extent is that still true today of him, that his arguments are still difficult to fathom? [p1, 26, 29-30, 82, 90-98, 111, 113, 153, 157-159, 163, 165, 178]

JTS: Rousseau saw himself as trying to mediate between the devout (the ‘Christians’) and the ‘intellectuals’ or philosophes, and as a consequence he managed to draw the ire of both. He saw the devout as tending toward fanaticism and intolerance, and in this sense was in agreement with Voltaire, among others. On the other hand, however, he saw the philosophes as a kind of philosophic party or even sect that was every bit as intolerant as their opponents. He did not think that reason alone was sufficient for morality or human happiness, and so argued against the more radical philosophes for that reason, but on the other hand he thought that the religion of the devout, including especially the doctrine of original sin, was false and dispiriting. Never try to break up a fight between two dogs.

RZ: Yes, and in this regard, he also had much in common with Hume. One of the points we try to make in our book is that Hume, though far more worldly than Rousseau, was unsettled by the unwavering certainty of certain philosophes, like the Baron d’Holbach, on issues like atheism. Hume was a consistent skeptic and found the positions of militant unbelievers to be no less distasteful than those of militant believers.

BLUE: Why is Rousseau fêted today?

JTS: I am not sure that Rousseau is fêted today. He remains almost as controversial today as he was in his own time. As some of the reviews of our book demonstrate, people today are still eager to take sides in the Rousseau-Hume quarrel, often against Rousseau, whom they see as not merely wrongheaded or mad but as dangerous. To paraphrase Nietzsche, the greatest compliment one can show to a philosopher is to find him dangerous.

RZ: If there is a fête, I want to know why we weren’t invited! There is very little in Paris, for example, that commemorates Rousseau’s life and work. He is, admittedly, entombed in the Panthéon, but is placed directly across from the tomb of his great nemesis, Voltaire.

BLUE: In brief, what does Rousseau bring to modern philosophy, politics and society?

JTS: Rousseau is a transitional figure in philosophy and political thought. His thought is the first important critique of modern philosophy and political thought from within modern thought itself. For example, his critique of the deleterious effects of the advancement of the sciences and arts on morals is made on the basis of a scientific study of the effects of science, as opposed for example to a more traditional critique based upon religious or civic republican norms. Rousseau’s critique of modern thought had the paradoxical effect of radicalizing modern thought, leading to a host of intellectual traditions–Romanticism, historicism, etc.–that revolted against modern thought and politics while at the same time further radicalizing them.

RZ: Rousseau in essence brings modernity itself. Perhaps more so than anyone than or since, he not only critiqued modernity in a manner that is simultaneously subtle and visceral, but also embodied the many contradictions of his (and our) age.

BLUE: Various people warned David Hume about Rousseau. Why do you believe Hume did not heed the warnings? [p111, 113]

JTS: Hume was warned about Rousseau’s mercurial personality, but he seems not to have heeded those warnings in part because he was overconfident in his view that he understood Rousseau. Hume thought he had the measure of his man, recognizing his extreme sensibility but thinking that he could manage it. Hume may also have underestimated his own self-understanding, and in particular his own sensitivity to Rousseau’s attack on his reputation for honesty once the quarrel began, and Hume may therefore have overreacted in his own way out of piqued pride.

RZ: There was another element at work, perhaps. By the time Hume met Rousseau–or, more accurately, was called upon by a mutual friend, Comtesse de Boufflers, to come to Rousseau’s aid–Hume had reached a turning point in his own life. He had written all his major works and, as he told friends, had no intention to having the bulk of books he penned equal the bulk of his body. What to do next? In a way, Rousseau’s arrival in his life could not have been more timely for an aging philosopher who had nothing more to write.

BLUE: Was it because Hume did not understand Rousseau’s sensitivities [p2-3, 157, 165, 169, 187] and the Genevan’s rejection of much of intellectual society, especially in Enlightenment France? [p27-28]

JTS: Hume would appear to have been well aware both of Rousseau’s sensitivities–but perhaps not his budding paranoia –and also aware of his attack on the intellectual society of his day. As for the latter, a few of Hume’s own essays on the benefits of the arts and sciences and commerce appear to have been written with direct knowledge of Rousseau’s position on those issues, although he never directly refers to Rousseau there. He must also have been well informed about Rousseau’s rejection of the fashionable world of Parisian salons that Hume himself so enjoyed, since many of those intellectuals who lived in this world were Rousseau’s former friends.

BLUE: How much of the quarrel between Hume and Rousseau was drama, subconsciously initiated by Rousseau, to be staged in public, ultimately allowing the Genevan to strike back at ‘the league’ against him by playing the game of the Republic of Letters? If so, did it backfire on Rousseau and did he care what the outcome would be? [p3, 5, 150-169, 178-181, 183, 187-188]

JTS: Many people accused Rousseau of consciously or sub-consciously trying to draw attention to himself, including in the quarrel with Hume. Rousseau does not seem consciously to have done so in this case, however. What his subconscious motives may have been is impossible to say.

BLUE: So did Rousseau play to the stage of life while pretending that he was not affected by it?

JTS: See previous answer.

BLUE: Was Hume innocent of the charges of heartlessness leveled at him by Rousseau? [p167-168]

JTS: Hume appears to have been almost entirely innocent of the charges leveled at him by Rousseau. Almost. One of the more embarrassing aspects of Hume’s response, however, was his effectual admission that one of the charges was true, even if Rousseau misunderstood Hume’s motives. Namely, Rousseau accused Hume of intercepting and opening his mail. This was true, but Hume did so because Rousseau impetuously decided not to accept any more mail (partly for financial reasons, as the recipient paid a charge) and Hume perhaps reasonably, but in any case without Rousseau’s permission, took it upon himself to cull important letters to forward to Rousseau. Hume was not heartless to Rousseau, but one other aspect of his actions give a certain surface plausibility to Rousseau’s charges. That is, Hume really did pride himself upon coming to Rousseau’s rescue, and Rousseau’s charge that Hume was concerned with his own reputation hit a raw nerve.

BLUE: In the closing chapters of your book, you successfully manage to present without subjective judgment and with precise objectivity both Hume’s and Rousseau’s perspectives on the quarrel, while describing their philosophies and the reactions to them then and since. Would it be fair to say that you both believe this was an unfortunate episode, albeit interesting enough to write a book about it?

JTS: Thank you for the compliment. Yes, I would generally say that we believe that the quarrel was an ‘unfortunate episode’ as you phrase it. However, we believe that this misfortune is revealing about the limitations of human understanding on Rousseau’s and Hume’s part, and by philosophy in general. It is hard to live up to the philosophical principles one espouses.

RZ: Yes, thank you. It certainly was a misfortune for Hume–one need only to read his letters in the immediate aftermath of the falling out. His pain and confusion are deep and moving. Of course, such ‘unfortunate episodes’ are the stuff of good fortune for historians, but I hope we managed to be fair to all the participants, including Voltaire.

BLUE: Did it, ultimately, harm anyone? [p3]

JTS: The quarrel did damage both Hume’s and Rousseau’s reputations to some extent, although largely among those who already had their doubts about them. For example, Rousseau’s behavior confirmed the philosophes’ view of his paranoia, but that is hardly surprising. We were surprised in the reception of our book, however, how eager readers today are to take one side or other of their quarrel, so I suppose the question of their reputation and the effect of their thought and lives continues to be of interest today.

BLUE: Why is there so much interest today in the Enlightenment period of history? [p3-6]

JTS: There has been renewed interest recently in the Enlightenment period, and I believe that the reason is that it was during this period that the world in which we live, intellectually and otherwise, was forged during that time. The issues that still concern us today, for example the effects of science or technology, were first debated as live issues in the Enlightenment period. The questions that began to matter then continue to matter today.

RZ: Let me add that we are also discovering the complexity of the period also mirrors our own. For example, notwithstanding popular depictions of the Enlightenment, attitudes toward the power and reach of reason were as nuanced and critical then as they are now.

BLUE: How much influence on society did these two men have, in your opinion, with their philosophies on the generations that came immediately after them and, in turn, how much did these events shape future society?

JTS: The questions of a philosopher’s effect on the ‘real world’ are always difficult to answer. Hume’s immediate effect appears to have been entirely intellectual. For example, Kant’s thought was decisively influenced by Hume’s (and by Rousseau’s), and so Hume ultimately came to have an enormous influence on the course of Western philosophy, and therefore perhaps on society more generally. Rousseau’s thought was also highly influential on future intellectual and artistic movements, and it has also been yoked to the French Revolution, whose leaders claimed the inspiration and authority of Rousseau’s thought – whether properly understood or not being a different question. However, it seems rather a large claim to say that Rousseau, or any other thinker, ‘caused’ historical events in any simple way. Their thought struck a nerve.

RZ: A number of cultural historians–I think of Robert Darnton, for example–claim that Rousseau’s influence went far beyond the relatively narrow confines of intellectual or ideological movements. Darnton argues persuasively that Rousseau’s novels Julie and Émile were guides for bourgeois society. His readers consciously modeled themselves according to the dramatic and didactic elements in the novels. Rousseau’s spirit, in this interpretation, hovers over matters ranging from the education of children to the ways in which we fall in love.

BLUE: Finally, what are philosophers afraid of?

JTS: A flippant answer would be that philosophers are afraid of the truth. A more serious answer might be that it is their anxiety about something that provides the spur to their thought. They are trying to answer their own questions through their thought. This does not mean that philosophy is personal or subjective, necessarily, but that it begins at its best with questions and questioning.

RZ: I like John’s first answer. Another way of phrasing it, bad philosophers are afraid of questions and too eager for answers. Good philosophers are afraid of answers and are happy, or at least reconciled, to living with questions. But in the end, philosophers are probably most afraid of untrained interlopers, like political theorists and historians, poking about in their affairs.


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