Rousseau on Bildung and Morality
When the idea of Bildung is attached to Rousseau’s educational thinking, it is, of course, an anachronism. The idea of Bildung emerged in relation to the emergence of classical German idealism and is profoundly intertwined with its fundamental philosophical motives. When speaking about German idealism, we do not refer to a monolithic idea but to the thematically rich and complex philosophical discourse that often includes contradictory views on the fundamental philosophical concepts. If there is a common denominator that characterizes all the philosophies of German idealism, it is that they are all theories of freedom and this fundamental motivation is definitely Rousseauian in spirit. It was Rousseau who “discovered” the peculiar concept of autonomy that inherits from (and advanced) Kant to become a shared aspect of German idealism. It is this concept of autonomy on which the modern tradition of Bildung is based. It should be possible, then, to reconstruct the idea of Bildung from Rousseau’s writings and, consequently, to point out the profound influence on Rousseau’s pedagogical thought on the emergence of the tradition of modern educational thought. The task of this entry is to do this – briefly and selectively – mainly in the light of Rousseau’s principal writings, The Discourse on Sciences and Arts (Discours sur les sciences et les arts, 1750) and The Discourse on Inequality (Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité, 1755) and Émile (Émile ou De l’éducation, 1762). According to Rousseau, these writings are “inseparable and together form the same whole” (Rousseau 1995, p. 575). In addition, Rousseau defines their fundamental and unifying motivation to defend, with their full force, the principle of natural goodness. The Bildung-theoretical significance of the principle of natural goodness becomes, also, evident when it is related to the concept of autonomy.
On Bildung and Morality
It is he who knows how to conquer his affections; for then he follows his reason and his conscience; he does his duty; he keeps himself in order, and nothing can make him deviate from it. Up to now you were only apparently free. You had only the precarious freedom of a slave to whom nothing has been commanded. Learn to become your own master. Command your heart, Emile, and you will be virtuous. (Rousseau 1979, V, pp. 444–445.)
This passage (see also Rousseau 1997b I, pp. 8, 54) from the end of Émile summarizes how the idea of Bildung can be connected to, or reconstructed from, Rousseau’s educational philosophy. As the passage makes clear, freedom as autonomy is distinct from the “apparent” and “precarious” freedom that the pupil has enjoyed “up to now.” So, freedom as autonomy characterizes the end rather than the beginning (cf. Lockean concept of autonomy) of the process of Bildung and is, for Rousseau, the highest affirmation of human nature. Obviously, or at least according to Rousseau, we cannot attain (the idea of) freedom unless we are assumed to be not free from the beginning. Thus, the first anthropological category that demarcates man from animal is defined by Rousseau as a “property of being a free agent” (Rousseau 1986a, p. 148) (i.e., freedom of the will), and it is, specifically, consciousness or sentiment of this freedom (of power of willing and choosing) that constitutes the inalienable core of humanity. Instead of defining freedom, as just a necessary condition for the possibility for the obedience to the “dictations” of nature (passions), for Rousseau freedom, when referring to self-imposed laws, constitutes the very essence of the human being (see Henrich 2003, pp. 46–61). Submitting one’s freedom – whether the dictations of nature, of divinity, or of opinion of others – is therefore giving up the very essence of humanity and the moral dignity constitutive to it (see, e.g., Rousseau 1997b I, pp. 4, 45; I, 2, 42). The “property of being a free agent” makes it possible to conceive of man as a self-determining source of his actions; from this follows that the process of Bildung can be understood as a transformative process where man, in the medium of self-activity, cultivates the original sentiment of freedom into freedom as autonomy. The metaphor of perfection adequately describes Rousseau’s idea of Bildung, as follows. In order to explain how the transformative process of Bildung is possible, Rousseau introduces, as the other anthropological category which differentiates man from animal, the faculty of perfecting oneself (perfectibilité) (Rousseau 1986a, p. 149). Perfectibility (cf. Bildsamkeit) refers to the plasticity of human nature, not only defined superficially as the human’s potential to learn and develop all his natural faculties in the medium of self-action and in relation to the things and men (or in relation to the physical and moral worlds) but more fundamentally, referring to the idea that is not natural for man to stay in his original condition but instead, to strive beyond his condition and devise for himself “a new form of existence that is his own” (Cassirer 1989, p. 105). The concept of perfectibility has, therefore, not only an adaptive meaning but a crucially normative and critical one: There is, indeed, an idea of transcending what is “now” to the new form of existence. In this sense, the “world of Bildung” presumes, as its necessary other the prevailing order of things that is not accepted as a final and definite. In the case of Rousseau, this is the “world of alienation.”
When this “new existence” is defined in terms of freedom as autonomy, it follows that Bildung is, for Rousseau, always moral Bildung. In the passage above, the concepts of duty, virtue, and order refers to the moral nature of the idea of Bildung. More precisely, the concept of autonomy includes the idea that true freedom is more than just negative in nature but is, so to speak, “more freedom” to guarantee also the freedom of others. Thus, this “new existence” presumes a moral character that is enabled to judge her aims and the ends of life not only from the point of view of the private good and well-being but from a generalized point of view, in relation to the well-being of others and, ultimately, in relation to the overarching human good. That is, the concept of autonomy includes the idea of a reciprocal recognition of persons, i.e., it explicitly excludes treating others as a means to an ends, which would be an instrumental-strategic rationality (see Dent 1992, pp. 120–121). To put it briefly, when anchoring his theory of the Bildung to the concept of autonomy, the necessary consequence is that the idea of going beyond oneself to the “new existence” means accepting moral responsibilities toward others, society, and humanity in general. With this in mind, it is now also possible to explain what Rousseau means by saying that man is naturally good. After anchoring his theory of Bildung to the concept of freedom as a self-legislative autonomy, it is evident that by “the principle of natural goodness” Rousseau does not mean the moral goodness of natural instincts (pitié) or passions, but rather, to rephrase Cassirer’s (1989, pp. 104–105) formulation, the fundamental orientation and destiny of the human free will. Man is, consequently, “by nature good” if he/she lifts himself/herself spontaneously and without external help to the idea of freedom and surrenders voluntarily to the ethical law that safeguards not only his own person but that of others too.
Moreover, the idea of autonomy as a self-legislative rationality presumes, naturally, that there is an active self who is able to define for himself the commitments that he is willing to follow. When these commitments are characterized as laws, it means that they are general and, thus, products of reason (raison). The concepts of self and of reason and the link between these can be clarified as follows. Human rational faculties refer, in general, to the active faculties of the human mind or consciousness, the basic activity of which is comparison. Reason (raison) must be demarcated from the more limited form of human rationality, namely, understanding (entendement). Understanding refers, of course, to the synthetic activity of the self, i.e., the force of mind that brings together and compares the sensations, i.e., impressions made by the objects (so to say “not-self”). Understanding is, thus, the basic activity of the self that, still, cannot function if nothing is given to it through sensibility (passivity). In fact, according to Rousseau, the self can be known and distinguished from the objects (or “not-self”) only because of its activity (see Rousseau 1979, IV, pp. 270–271). This is the form of rationality Rousseau attaches to primordial human nature and, to a certain extent, also to the animals (Rousseau 1986a, p. 148). A crucial feature of understanding is that because it is dependent on sensation, it represents the minimum combination, restricted to the immediate future or immediate past, or the “what is happening now” (see Henrich 2003, p. 49). One of Rousseau’s famous examples from the Discourse on Inequality illustrates the limits of understanding: “Such is still nowadays the extent of the Carib’s foresight: he sells his Cotton bed in the morning and comes weeping to buy it back in the evening, having failed to foresee that he would need it for the coming night” (Rousseau 1986a, p. 151).
What Rousseau calls reason (raison) is the distinctive human rational faculty that strives toward totality in cognition, a productive capacity to formulate general, intellectual ideas (i.e., the ideas that exceed the boundaries of the sensation, e.g., the idea of unconditioned duty). It is only with the help of discursive reason that the idea of the world as a totality of things can be formulated. Moreover, Rousseau defines reason as “two dimensional” (i.e., not as alternatives). This means that reason can have “two objects” that differ qualitatively and must be seen simultaneously (see Rousseau 2001, p. 40). This distinction is made in Émile, with the concepts of sensual and intellectual reason (see Rousseau 1979, II, p. 125) or alternatively childish-sensual and intellectual-human reason. Whereas the objects of sensual reason are sensible and material, measurable objects of intellectual reason (like moral beauty) are not, but discovered only by estimation. Thus, as it is easy to see, the distinction between these rationalities corresponds to the distinction between the definitions of prudential or instrumental-strategic reason and moral reason. As the Carib example above illustrates, understanding alone does not offer sufficient rational resources for human life, and for this reason Rousseau, as the paragraph above expresses, attaches freedom to reason, not to understanding. Obviously, it is moral reason that has the capacity to give the ultimate ends for human life and, thus, has also a critical function when evaluating the utility of the ends arising from prudential reason.
There is some moral order whenever there is sentiment and intelligence. The difference is that the good man orders himself in relation to the whole, and the wicked one orders whole in relation to himself. The latter makes himself the center of all things; the former measures his radius and keeps to the circumference. (Rousseau 1979, IV, p. 455)
Rousseau introduces here two different, contradictory concepts of moral orders. The difference between these is defined according to the general moral perspective of their subject. The difference between a good and wicked man is that the latter promotes solely his private good but the latter has adopted a more generalized moral point of view and, as consequently, strives to contribute not merely his private good, but the general good or well-being of humanity. This distinction has a crucial importance in Rousseau’s thinking in general because the core problem of modern subjectivity – what Rousseau designates bourgeois – and consequently the core of the evil, is egocentricity. Thus, the moral psychology characterizing bourgeois subjectivity stresses the self-interest connected with the definition of reason as instrumental to the limitless ends of passions. As Rousseau’s principal writings attempt to prove, this bourgeois characteristic or “ethos of the modernity” that defines man’s place as dominant within the whole has a great tendency in the end to destroy ideas of common good, fatherland, and citizen, for example. It follows, then, that for Rousseau virtue is overcoming an egocentric perspective of life. For this reason Rousseau defines virtue, in its most general sense, as a love of order that can be known, as it is clear, only in relation to the factual moral order. In other words, virtue as the highest affirmation of human nature is possible only within society. This is the reason why, for Rousseau, society is not a resignation of human freedom (Hobbes) but its fulfillment, and this is the credit that ensues from the societal bond (Rousseau 1997b I, pp. 8, 54). So in the end these clashing moral orders refer to the inner conflict of modern subjectivity, and this, of course, also underlines Rousseau’s modernity. It is clear that the idea of moral order does not refer, for Rousseau, to any concrete historical or societal conditions (e.g., primitive idea of Golden Age) but, rather, when anchored to the freedom (i.e., of course, indeterminate from historical and societal conditions), representing an abstract idea that is, in a way, realized and constituted in every virtuous action, i.e., in every time when a subject overcomes the egocentric order. This is how the concept of autonomy attempts to answer to the core problem of modernity: It does not define man’s place as dominant within the whole, but instead, “relativizes” it in a sense that “s/he orders himself in relation to the whole and not vice versa.”
The function of the concept of general moral order is, clearly, to offer a solution to the teleological problem of modernity, i.e., to demonstrate that reason is “at home” in the universe in spite of all the contradictory evidence and apparent human suffering. What is equally clear is that this solution differs from other early modern solutions to this very same question based on anthropological empiricism (the tradition of modern natural law, modern individualism, or liberalism), which – still after rejecting the premodern teleology – is based on the idea that (1) reason can discern a natural order if the primordial nature is recovered by philosophical inquiry and (2) the observance of the consequent revealed natural order can overcome the human sufferings (see Velkley 1995, pp. 186–187). Rousseau rejected categorically all the variations of modern individualism (e.g., Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, moral sense theory) for a very simply reason: According to Rousseau the “cure for the disease” must be discovered from the disease itself, and the fallacy of modern individualism is that the individual searches for the cure for moral sufferings from the wrong source, i.e., from the nature, and as a consequence any resulting solution is ineffective. By defining freedom as at the core of core of humanity. Rousseau shifts the Archimedean point of philosophy from nature to freedom and establishes from this point of view the justification of reason by introducing an idea of the general moral order where observance can overcome human suffering. In other words, the idea of general moral order is not a projection of nature, nor does it have a model in nature, but is instead a projection of freedom whose critical function is to offer a normative orientation for human life in modernity, exactly what the main philosophical doctrines of British and French Enlightenment did not, according to Rousseau, manage to do.
There is another interest, which is entirely unrelated to social advantages, which is relative only to ourselves, to the good of our soul, to our absolute well-being, which therefore I call spiritual or moral interest [– –] an interest which, in spite of having no sensible, material objects, is no less true, no less great, no less solid, and, in a word, the only interest which tends toward our genuine happiness, since it is intimately related to our nature, This, Sir, is the interest which virtue pursues and ought to pursue, and which in no way deprives the actions it inspires of merit, purity and moral goodness. (Rousseau 1997a, p. 262)
The words, “another interest” (or another principle of love of self (see, Rousseau 2001, p. 28)) refers to the fact that conscience offers a motivational basis for human action that is not the same than an interest of passions, i.e., the demands of self-preservation (in physical and moral sense of the word, i.e., amour de soi and amour propre). Whereas passions are, according to Rousseau, the principal instruments of freedom, serving the well-being of the sensitive being (in physical (amour de soi) and moral (amour propre) sense), conscience serves the well-being of the intellectual being (see Rousseau 2001, p. 28). What is passion for the body, conscience is for the soul. Conscience as a love of order is precisely the innate, i.e., transcendental (also named as a voice of God), principle of justice that requires a certain kind of an order – where happiness and moral merits are distributed according to the principle of justice – that the factual order of things constantly violates and cannot be accepted as a definite order of things (see Rousseau 1979, I, p. 66). Moreover, although conscience is, according to Rousseau, independent of reason, it cannot be developed without reason: “To know the good is not to love it; man does not have innate knowledge of it, but as soon as his reason makes him know it, his conscience leads him to love it. It is this sentiment which is innate” (Rousseau 1979, IV, p. 290). Thus, the development of conscience is related to the moral comparisons (i.e., the activity of moral self) and the development of moral reason. In this way the concept of conscience offers, in Rousseau’s theory of Bildung, the critical Bildung-interest. Thus, the process of Bildung and the development of the moral perspective of life require, then, the cultivation of the rational faculties of mind together with the development of consciousness. Thus, the idea of moral order given to us by reason and conscience – a moral order that directs us to love it – develops together with the development of the moral perspective of life, affording a simultaneous and unitary whole (see Henrich 1992, pp. 13–14).
What, then, is the relation between moral needs (amour propre) and conscience? Rousseau uses the concept of amour propre in a double sense. In its natural and constructive form, it represents the necessary and healthy human need to enter into the moral world and to be acknowledged as a morallyworthy being (person). In short, amour propre refers to the very basic human need: the need for recognition from others. Also, in its natural form this recognition is reciprocal. This becomes apparent in the fourth book of Émile, where Rousseau describes the birth of the first moral sentiments in relation to the “birth” of moral reason. Namely, the moral comparisons (moral reason) awaken the first moral sentiments: “This choosing, which is held to be the opposite of reason, comes to us from it […] Far from arising from nature, love is the rule and the bridle of nature’s inclinations. It is due to love that except for the beloved object, one sex ceases to be anything for the other” (Rousseau 1979, IV, p. 214). So, it is reason that introduces to the sensible being the first forms of moral attachments by distinguishing the object of love from other objects. This identification presumes moral comparisons where certain objects are compared favorably to other objects. So, if this is how amour propre is born, its morally constructive role becomes evident when its reciprocal nature is taken into account: “To be loved, one has to make oneself more lovable than another. To be preferred, one has to make oneself more lovable than another, more lovable than every other, at least in the eyes of the beloved object” (ibid.). So, amour propre is, in this form, an important avenue to virtue because it directs us to seek recognition from others and, thus, because of the reciprocal nature of the love, it grants to the other the same recognition that it demands (see Dent 1992, pp. 33–36).
On the other hand, Rousseau refers to amour propre in a very different and, with respect to the preceding discussion, directly opposite, destructive sense. This is closely related to the moral psychology of bourgeois subjectivity and to the theme of alienation. More precisely, if the former definition of amour propre can be designated natural, it can, however, attain the inflamed form that manifests the desire for domination, prestige, and will to power at the expense of others (as Rousseau defines vanity – that is one of most typical sentiments related to the inflamed amour propre – as an attitude that demands everything without giving anything instead), and in order to satisfy the demands of inflamed amour propre, the subject must adopt – to use the Habermasian terminology – instrumental-strategic modes of action. Clearly, this description closely resembles Hobbes’ definition of natural man and, as its consequence, a bourgeois society at war against all. However, Rousseau’s idea is that this form of amour propre is unnatural in the sense that it is against the principle of natural goodness and, thus, against the true well-being of humanity. Indeed, as we see from the description of the history of civilization in The Second Discourse, it is clearly Rousseau’s idea that inflamed amour propre steers humanity to its tragic end. Why this form of amour propre does not achieve dominance in Émile has to do with the pedagogical conditions found in the account.
On the other hand, conscience, as the passage above illustrates, demands a kind of moral action that does not seek primarily satisfaction from the opinion of others. It requires unconditional fulfillment of moral duties, and that is the reason why Rousseau writes that the satisfaction of this interest is “entirely unrelated to social advantages” and is “relative to our absolute well-being.” Thus, the relation between the demands of conscience and amour propre is that the justification of the demands of amour propre should be considered in light of the conscience and not vice versa. As Dent (1988, p. 236) writes: “It is conscience that can check us in yielding to the importunate press of sensual desire and pleasure, to resist the urges of inflamed passion, and it can direct us to choosing to do what is right and just instead.” In this sense, it is exactly the principle of conscience that, in the end, constitutes us as a truly social being (see Henrich 1992, pp. 11–12).
In light of the concepts defined above, it is possible to give a brief interpretation of the relation of Rousseau’s principal writings. Discourses (second in much mature form) concentrate mainly, first, as an introduction to the genealogy of the pathologies of the modern bourgeois society and its subject and, second, to anticipate the course of the history of humanity as a perfection of bourgeois corruption to its tragic end. These writings introduce the first influential modern theory of alienation according to which the problem of modern bourgeois subjectivity is that the subject’s self-definition or the sentiment de l’existence is based solely on the opinion of others and, thus, not on the consciousness of one’s freedom. Thus, instead of thinking autonomously, the life of modern bourgeois subjectivity is a constant anticipation of the thoughts and opinions of others (i.e., living outside oneself and, thus, “losing the self”). It is easy to see how the theme of alienation is in contrast to the principle of natural goodness. Alienation refers, precisely, to the form of existence that is not one’s own and from the subject’s consciousness of this, according to Rousseau, originates all moral sufferings. The theme of alienation is related to the theme of egocentricity so that, in the end, the satisfaction of the limitless ends of passions, especially those that are related to the moral needs (amour propre), can be satisfied only by the affirmation of other people’s opinion. Émile may be defined, then, as an anthropological complementary to the Discourses. Because these contradictory moral orders are defined as direct opposites, it follows that the genealogy of the pathologies should be understood as directly in opposition to the idea of Bildung. If man had in the primordial state of nature a sentiment of his original freedom (sentiment of the power of willing and choosing), then the history of civilization is not a cultivation of this but, instead, its suffocation. Thus, Rousseau’s critique of civilization is a description of the bourgeois moral order with egocentricity as its core. Émile, of course, introduces an alternative history of sorts to Discourses. From this follows, also, that the basic concepts of Rousseau’s anthropology are introduced mainly in a dramatically different light in Discourses and Émile. In The Second Discourses’ history of civilization, for example, pitié, i.e., “natural repugnance at seeing any sentient Being, and especially any being like ourselves, perish or suffer” (Rousseau 1986a, p. 132), turns into the weakness and the primordial amour de soi, i.e., the intense interest in well-being and self-preservation (ibid), reaching violent or inflamed modifications (inflamed amour propre, e.g., vanity). Reason is introduced in its one-dimensional prudential or instrumental sense and, thus, impotent to introduce morally sustainable ends for humanity. Conscience (i.e., the love of order) is not even mentioned. In Émile all these concepts are, instead, introduced in a constructive sense, as necessary resources when building a moral perspective of life, and in this sense it does not describe the genealogy of alienation but can be considered as a Bildungsroman.
Although the idea of Bildung – or the principle of natural goodness – includes the idea of an individual elevating himself/herself spontaneously and without external help to the idea of freedom, Rousseau asserts that the individual cannot do this without external and intentional pedagogical help. The fundamental pedagogical problem Émile attempts to solve is how to transform the natural, amoral being into a morally competent being who is able to define his place in the society (see Benner and English 2004). Clearly, for Rousseau, education is the bridge between these two anthropological images of man. Thus, the cardinal idea of Émile’s natural education is – as can be assumed on the basis of Rousseau’s concept of Bildung – to prove to the pupil that he is, although always partly socially determined, also free to resist its corruptive power and choose virtue rather than vice, i.e., to submit his will rather to the commands of his conscience and reason rather than surrender uncritically to the power of passions. Émile can therefore be considered as a “study” of how education can promote the actualization of freedom or, in other words, help determine those pedagogical necessities needed to support the cultivation of freedom.
It is perhaps easy to see why education – when committing to this task – is designated natural. It is not natural in the sense that, e.g., the moral development of the pupil takes place or is targeted outside bourgeois society or “just happens” without an educator’s intentional pedagogical efforts (Erziehung) or, for that matter, that the learning processes are supposed to “happen easily” without sometimes even “painful” efforts from the pupil himself. It is natural because it is related to the genuine well-being of the pupil and the actualization of his/her proper character. In fact, Émile’s natural education is highly artificial, and this makes it possible to construct “the curriculum” of natural education in a way that it is not determined by prevailing bourgeois ideology. Thus, the concept of natural education is crucially a critical concept. Namely, if Discourses and Émile are seen as defining an alternative point of references for the future of humanity, then it is also clear that there are alternative concepts of education promoting the different courses of history. In this sense Émile introduces a fictional pedagogical reform that is a direct critique of the contemporary (mainly French) materialistically orientated bourgeois education. Because of this, natural education is an almost absolute negation of contemporary bourgeois education, i.e., the rationale of natural education is not even attempted to adopt from the prevailing pedagogical praxis. As Rousseau constantly emphasizes, bourgeois education is nothing but an instrument of the bourgeois moral corruption, i.e., does not cultivate freedom but its opposite (see, e.g., Rousseau 1986b, pp. 20–21; Rousseau 1986a, p. 210; Rousseau 1979, I, pp. 43–46; Rousseau 1979, II, pp. 84–85; Rousseau 2001, p. 35).
The idea of Bildung, when anchored on the concept of freedom-as-autonomy, has a revolutionary significance from the point of view of educational theory (in a sense of Erziehung). Indeed, it can be claimed that Rousseau’s educational thinking represents the first influential modern attempt to define the concept of education on the basis of the principle of autonomous subjectivity. Thus, Rousseau’s educational philosophy can be understood as a critique that is targeted, first, against premodern attempts to define the concept of education on cosmological grounds and, second, against the previous modern attempts to define the concept of education on the basis of the anthropological empiricism typical to the tradition of modern individualism or liberalism. The “discovery” of autonomy, as should be apparent, alters radically the fundamental argumentation models and motivations of modern educational thought because when humanity is defined in terms of freedom, the fundamental questions of educational theory as well as the interest of educational science are, consequently, attached to the concept of freedom. Thus, the questions are: how can education promote the actualization of freedom and, thus, the actualization of humanity? How can educational science offer us “reflective tools” in this endeavor? This is, of course, the educational philosophical application of Rousseau’s critical idea that all the philosophy has to be oriented toward a concept of freedom for this is the only way to restore the rights of humanity. It is well known that Kant adopts this Rousseauian idea as the “keystone” not only of his critical philosophy but also of his pedagogical writings (i.e., the idea of pedagogical paradox) (see Henrich 1992, 2003; Velkley 1995).
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