Skip to main content
Select Source:

General Will

General Will


The concept of the general will involves the moral values and the political aspirations that are shared by the members of a community and to which the policies of its government must broadly conform if that government is to be considered legitimate. The term was used in this minimal sense by Jean Jacques Rousseau, its originator, who also used it, more importantly, to describe the will to justice that would characterize his ideal democracy and achieve its authoritative expression in legislative decisions [seeRousseau].

Since Rousseau, different and precise meanings, depending upon the political theory in which they are embedded, have been attached to the term; these have had as their primary and common aim its adaptation to the analysis of politics and national character. Typically, some theory of the general will has been used to explain, to justify, and to prescribe for the institutions of constitutional and liberal democracy, especially by thinkers within or influenced by the British idealist school of political thought. Often, existence of a general will is made the cardinal criterion of community and is seen as the essential prerequisite to political stability and self-government.

For Rousseau, the “general will” was the concept by means of which he summarized his theory of political obligation and displayed its logical de pendence upon the psychological, ethical, and in stitutional components of his political philosophy. In Rousseau’s ideal society, as presented in The Social Contract, the natural right to moral freedom, to live in accordance with the dictates of one’s own conscience and sense of morality, is psychologically and institutionally reconciled with the social necessity for political authority, because there law is the reflection of the individual’s desire for jus tice. Laws that express the general will are accept able both to reason and to conscience and thus are held not so much to restrict freedom as to enlarge and to sustain it.

Rousseau’s general will implies that neither a society that lacks a general will nor a government that disregards it can have rightful authority over the individual. Failure to establish the institutions essential to the creation of the general will inevi tably means moral distortion of human personality and frustration of man’s capacity for natural good ness. According to Rousseau’s view of human dynamics and moral development, only in a small and equalitarian society can man become an ethi cal being for whom the realization of justice and its integration with the claim to moral freedom are paramount and compelling objectives—and then only if men participate directly and steadily in the making of the laws to which they will owe obedience.

The social and institutional requisites of the general will as conceived of by Rousseau would appear to preclude its use for the purpose of legiti mating constitutional democracy on the scale of the national state. The fundamentally moral and synthetic nature of the concept, however, opens the way for its modification, inspired by the hope of adapting it to the justification of representative government. This process of reinterpretation began with Kant, who derived from Rousseau’s general will his conception of the categorical imperative, which served for him as the supreme criterion of both morality and legality. In contrast to Kant’s primarily ethical elucidation of the concept, Hegel’s political interpretation of it takes the form of his metaphysical and historical conception of reason. The Hegelian conception of rationality as cumulative may be regarded as a historicizing of the general will. The result is that the reconciliation of the right to moral freedom with the demands of social justice is obtained not in acts of legislation but, rather, in reflective acceptance of and willing ad herence to the social and political arrangements that have emerged historically in the shape of the national and constitutional state.

The British idealist T. H. Green spoke of a general will with reference to the hopes and aspirations of a people, on which government depends and to which it should be both responsive and facilitative (1882). The most elaborate effort to employ the idea of a general will in the rationale of liberal constitutionalism was made by Bernard Bosanquet (1899). He conceived of the state as a concrete universal, a dynamic and rationally ar ticulated totality, the fulfillment of whose require ments may be understood in terms of “will,” which is the moving system of interlocking attitudes and functions that constitutes a politically organized and sovereign society. Here the general will be comes more an attribute of the polity than a moral characteristic of individuality and, as such, gives both direction and significance to the activities of individuals, who are self-governing insofar as they sense and respond appropriately to the intimations of their society [seeBosanquetandGreen].

Less like Hegel and more like Rousseau in tone is the theory of the “neighborhood group” advocated by Mary Parker FoUett (1918). She saw the neighborhood as the necessary source of what Rousseau would have recognized as the general will, and she urged the recasting of democratic institutions so as to make this social unit an in tegrating force of moral and political importance. Her ideas have found effective application in ad ministration and urban planning [seeFollett].

Still other interpretations of the general will seek to locate it in the nature of man in society, in the psychological and social foundations of political authority, rather than directly in political agreement and legislative performance. These in clude W. Ernest Hocking’s “will to power” (1926), which requires the state as its vehicle, and Robert Maclver’s redesignation of the general will as the “will for the state” (1926), which derives social unity and political authority from a common root in individual and group freedoms. In the field of jurisprudence, Hugo Krabbe’s assertion of the “sense of right” of a community as the criterion of the validity of law (1915) is an attempt to con vert the general will into a dynamic type of natural law.

More complex reformulations of the general will, which are more directly in the spirit if not the letter of Rousseau’s political theory, are presented in the works of Lindsay (1943) and Barker (1951). Both regard discussion as the process distinctive to democratic society and government by which, fittingly differentiated and articulated, the general will may be generated and expressed. In this perspective, the general will is the formative conception in the theory of the deliberative state as set forth in Frederick Watkins’ analysis of liber alism (1948) and in J. Roland Pennock’s exposition of the principles of liberal democracy (1950). In a deliberative state, political participation not only is essential to social unity but should also be active and substantive, without excessive dependence upon either leadership or disciplined and programmatic parties. Deliberative democracy is the type of democracy most closely in accord with Rousseau’s ideal.

Viewed in the light of its origin and development, the general will does not have any single meaning or accepted role in political theory. There is, however, an agreed core of meaning and implication. (1) As a legitimating idea the concept directs attention to the criterion of popular consent, expressed through the methods of representative and responsible government; to the desirability of a diversity of forms of participation and access; and to justice and freedom as the proper ends of the state. (2) As an analytic concept the general will suggests consideration of those conditions of social unity and common purpose sufficiently strong to permit the establishment, acceptance, and control of political authority. (3) From a diagnostic standpoint the concept indicates that a society lacking in moral and political unity is unlikely to be capable of self-government and is liable, therefore, to an imposition of coherence and direction by authoritarian techniques and ideolo gies. (4) Prescriptively, the general will continues to influence the construction of democratic theory in a liberal, as opposed to a majoritarian, mode and to guide the design of political, urban, and administrative democratic institutions in ways consistent with the meaning Rousseau gave it.

Owing to its fundamentally moral nature, the concept continues to inspire investigation and explication of the ethical purposes of political society and political activity. But in keeping with its composite nature, future research may be conducted in a number of directions: historical investigation of the development of political culture; psychological investigation of the formation of moral and political attitudes, especially those basic to personal independence and resilience; specification and interpretation of the principles of justice; and explanation of the social and political processes integral to liberal constitutionalism in both more mature and less mature industrializing societies. Above all, the concept of the general will invites attention to the interdependence of psychological processes, moral character, and political insti tutions.

John W. Chapman

[See alsoAuthority; Democracy; Legitimacy; Liberalism; Public Interest; Representation; Social contract; State.]


Barker, Ernest 1951 Principles of Social and Political Theory. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Bosanquet, Bernard (1899) 1951 The Philosophical Theory of the State. 4th ed. London: Macmillan. → The 1951 publication is a reprint of the fourth edition, which was first published in 1923.

Chapman, John W. 1956 Rousseau: Totalitarian or Liberal? New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Chapman, John W. 1960 Metropolitan Citizenship: Promises and Limitations. In Carl J. Friedrich (editor), Responsibility. Nomos 3. New York: Liberal Arts.

Chapman, John W. 1963 Justice and Fairness. In Carl J. Friedrich and John W. Chapman (editors), Justice. Nomos 6. New York: Atherton.

Derathe, Robert 1948 he rationalisme de J.-J. Rous seau. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Follett, Mary P. 1918 The New State: Group Organization, the Solution of Popular Government. New York: Longmans.

Green, Thomas Hill (1882) 1960 Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation. London: Longmans. → Reprinted from Volume 2 of the three-volume col lected Works of Thomas Hill Green, edited by R. L. Nettleship and published posthumously in 1885–1888. First published as a separate book in 1895.

Hegel, Geokg W. F. (1821) 1942 Philosophy of Right. Oxford: Clarendon. → First published in German.

Hocking, William Ernest 1926 Man and the State. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Journees D Etude sur le “contrat social,” Dijon, 1962 1964 Etudes sur le Contrat social de Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Actes des journees d’etude organisees a Dijon pour la commemoration du 200’ anniversaire du Contrat social. Dijon, Universite, Publications, New Series, No. 30. Paris: Belles Lettres. → See especially pages 143-164, “Le sens de l’egalite et de l’inegalite chez J.-J. Rousseau,” by Raymond Polin.

Krabbe, Hugo (1915) 1927 The Modern Idea of the State. New York and London: Appleton. → Translated from the Dutch.

Lindsay, A. D. (1943) 1947 The Modern Democratic State. Published under the auspices of the Royal In stitute of International Affairs. Oxford Univ. Press.

Maciver, Robert M. 1926 The Modern State. Oxford Univ. Press.

Pennock, J. Roland 1950 Liberal Democracy: Its Merits and Prospects. New York: Rinehart.

Pennock, J. Roland 1952 Responsiveness, Responsibility, and Majority Rule. American Political Science Review 46:790–807.

Plamenatz, John P. 1963 Man and Society: Political and Social Theory. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rousseau et la philosophic politique. Annales de philosophic politique, No. 5. 1965 Paris: Presses Univer-sitaires de France.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau et son oeuvre: Probiemes et re-cherches. 1964 Paris: Klincksieck. → See especially pages 231-247, “La fonction du legislateur chez J.-J. Rousseau,” by Raymond Polin.

Sabine, George H. 1952 The Two Democratic Traditions. Philosophical Review 61:451–474.

Watkins, Frederick 1948 The Political Tradition of the West: A Study in the Development of Modern Liberalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"General Will." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 16 Aug. 2017 <>.

"General Will." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (August 16, 2017).

"General Will." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from

General Will


General will (volonté générale ) is inextricably associated with the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778). While Rousseau appropriated the general will from the theological debates of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, he made the concept his own with the political formulation he gave it in his Du contrat social (1762; On the social contract). Interpretations of the general will since Rousseau have largely been colored by views of the French Revolution (17891799) and of the role both thinker and concept played in the ideological justification of the Revolution and assessments of its inheritance.

The General Will before Rousseau

The term general will originated in the debates over divine grace and providence nearly a century before Rousseau. The French philosopher Nicolas de Malebranche (16381715) first used the term in these debates to explain the divine governance of the realms of nature and grace through general laws as opposed to the notion that God operates through a continuous series of "particular wills." While the general will had little direct political bearing in these theological debates, the concept in its original usage did refer to the proper source and form of law.

The French political philosopher Montesquieu (16891755) was the first to give the general will a specifically political usage, doing so in one of the most important passages of his De l'esprit des lois (1748; On the spirit of the laws). In his discussion of the separation of powers, Montesquieu states that the "general will of the state" is located in the legislature but argues that the execution of the law must be placed in separate executive and judicial bodies. Uniting the legislative and executive functions in a single body would lead to tyranny since that body "can plunder the state through its general wills" in making law and then, in executing it, "destroy each citizen through its particular wills" (Montesquieu, I.6).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), was born a "Citizen of Geneva," a title he used on many of his important works to suggest the challenge his thought posed to the regimes of his day. He ran away from his native city at sixteen, and led an unsettled life for the next dozen years, teaching himself a variety of subjects. He arrived in Paris in the early 1740s, hoping to make a name for himself as a composer and the inventor of a new system of musical notation. While his musical enterprises mostly failed, he became intimate with the circle of intellectuals who were soon involved in the Encyclopédie. He was commissioned to write the articles on music for the great compendium of enlightenment, but gained international celebrity with the publication of the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1751), in which he argued that the advancement of the sciences and arts had corrupted morals. He followed up the success of this first work with a series of increasingly provocative works published over the next decade: a well-received opera, Le Devin du Village (1752), a philosophical treatment of the historical development of human nature; the Discourse on Inequality (1755); a best-selling novel, Julie (1761); a pedagogical work, Emile (1762); and his political treatise, the Social Contract (1762). When the Social Contract and Emile were banned and burned both in Paris and his native Geneva, Rousseau fled Paris and lived essentially in exile for the rest of his life. During this time, apart from defenses of his works, he published his Dictionary of Music (1768), the first such lexicon, and wrote several autobiographical works published only posthumously, including the Confessions, usually considered the first modern autobiography, Dialogues, and Reveries of the Solitary Walker.

If Montesquieu put the general will on the political map, the most important influence on Rousseau's own development of the concept was the encyclopedist Denis Diderot (17131784). In the article "Droit naturel" (Natural right) for the Encyclopédie (1755), Diderot described the general will of all humanity as the source and rule for justice and morality. The right to decide the nature of the just and unjust must come from all humankind "because the good of all is the only passion it has. Particular wills are suspect but the general will is always good" (p. 27). Using their reason and consulting the principles of right of all civilized nations, individuals should address the general will of humankind to consult their duties. Rousseau first responded to his then-friend's argument in his own article for the Encyclopédie, "Économie politique" (Political economy, 1755), conceived as a companion piece to Diderot's article. Rousseau rejected the conception of the general will as the will of all humanity, instead finding it in the legislative will of a free people in the state. "The first and most important maxim of legitimate or popular governmentthat is, one that has the good of the people as its objectis therefore to follow the general will in all matters" ("Économie politique," pp. 247248). He would develop these ideas in Du contrat social.

Rousseau's General Will

Rousseau's Du contrat social was epoch-making in its argument that law legitimately comes only from the sovereign people legislating for itself: from the general will. Rousseau followed in the social contract tradition of Thomas Hobbes (15881679), John Locke (16321704), and others, but sought to find a form of political association in which naturally free individuals can join with others and yet remain as free as before. His solution was direct democratic self-legislation in which each citizen, as a member of the sovereign, makes laws that apply equally to all. "Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole" (Contrat social, I.6). Rousseau pressed a radically voluntarist principle into service as the binding force of the political community. Although he recognized a "universal justice emanating from reason alone," he argued that this justice is ineffective for want of a natural sanction (Contrat social, II.6). Rousseau's general will was confined to the limits of the state.

"The general will is always right," claimed Rousseau. His statement has often been taken to imply a kind of mystical popular will in whose name the force of the state can be exercised. The general will is not something that transcends the state, but is the will of the citizens qua citizens in their capacity as members of the sovereign. Immediately after claiming that the general will is always right, Rousseau pointed to what he saw as the central problem of the state: "But it does not follow that the people's deliberations will always have the same rectitude" (Contrat social, II.3). The people may err in their deliberations for several reasons, but the rectitude of the general will is distorted most importantly by the natural tendency of individuals to consult the particular will they have qua individuals. "Indeed, each individual can, as a man, have a private will contrary to or differing from the general will he has as a citizen. His private interest can speak to him quite differently from the common interest." Such a person, Rousseau infamously concluded, "will be forced to be free." While this paradoxical statement has been interpreted as an authoritarian element in Rousseau's thought, less noticed is the continuation of the passage: "For this is the condition that, by giving each citizen to the fatherland, guarantees him against all personal dependence" (Contrat social, I.7). The mutual obligations of the political association ensure that the citizens are dependent only on the law of their own making, and not on the will of another individual (see Melzer). The law must come from everyone and apply equally to all. The general will is always directed toward the common justice and utility by virtue of its very generality: "the general will, to be truly such, should be general in its object as well as in its essence; that it should come from all to apply to all" (Contrat social, II.4). Proper civic education and favorably egalitarian conditions are necessary for the deliberations of the citizens to have the rectitude they require to make the general will triumph over particular interests. Self-legislation as part of the sovereign makes possible a new kind of freedom, a civil and moral freedom that transcends the natural freedom we have as individuals. Rousseau's general will inspired his followers with what they saw as a promise of revolutionary moral and political transformation.

The General Will after Rousseau

A quarter century after the publication of Rousseau's political treatise, the French Revolution began, and the fortunes of the general will and the philosopher who gave the concept currency have been forever tied to the epochal event. Revolutionaries such as Maximilien de Robespierre (17581794) and the Abbé Sièyes (17481836) pressed the general will into service to legitimate their rule in the name of the nation. On the philosophic front, Immanuel Kant (17241804), Johann Fichte (17621814), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) appropriated and analyzed the concept itself as well as its seeming political instantiation. Kant's categorical imperative, although explicitly universal in scope, exhibits the direct influence of Rousseau's general will as self-legislation in the form of a generalizable law. Hegel associated the general will with the Terror and criticized what he saw as its one-sided subjectivity and arbitrary or absolute freedom. Later thinkers attempted to adapt the general will in less radical form. Grappling directly with the revolutionary inheritance, Benjamin Constant (17671830) criticized Rousseau's affinity for the liberty of the ancients, but still began his own Principes de politique (1815; Principles of politics) by stating: "Our present constitution formally recognizes the principle of the sovereignty of the people, that is, the supremacy of the general will over every particular will" (p. 310). The tension between the individual and the community that Rousseau tried to reconcile in his own way through the general will continues to dominate contemporary debates in political theory and practice.

See also Authority ; Enlightenment ; Liberalism ; Social Contract ; State of Nature ; State of Nature ; Terror .



Constant, Benjamin. Principes de politique. In Écrits politiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

Diderot, Denis. "Droit Naturel." In Oeuvres complètes, vol. 7. Paris: Hermann, 1976. Originally published in vol. 5 of the Encyclopédie.

Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de. De l'esprit des lois. In Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1. Paris: Gallimard, 19491951.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Collected Writings of Rousseau. Edited by Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1990. 10 vols. to date. The standard edition of Rousseau's works in English translation.

. Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Gallimard, 19591995. 5 vols. The standard critical edition of Rousseau's works. Du contrat social and Économie politique are included in vol. 3.


Keohane, Nannerl O. Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Melzer, Arthur M. The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseau's Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Riley, Patrick. The General Will before Rousseau: The Transformation of the Divine into the Civic. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

John T. Scott

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"General Will." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 16 Aug. 2017 <>.

"General Will." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (August 16, 2017).

"General Will." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from