General Will, The

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The idea of the general will (volonté générale ) forms the core of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's political philosophy. Others had introduced the term before him, and his use influenced many others, including Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, but the general will is most closely associated with Rousseau's Social Contract (1762/1997). In that work, Rousseau argued that "the general will alone can direct the forces of the State according to the common good" (II.1.1, p. 57) and that political rule is only legitimate when based on a social contract that establishes the general will as sovereign. This led Rousseau to hold that laws must be authorized by the people as a whole, since "only the general will obligates particulars, and there can never be any assurance that a particular will conforms to the general will until it has been submitted to the free suffrage of the people" (II.7.7, p. 70). The general will, as Rousseau understood it, is impartial in that it "must issue from all in order to apply to all" (II.4.5, p. 62).

Prior to Rousseau, the term "general will" was introduced into seventeenth-century theological disputes by Antoine Arnauld and then discussed by Blaise Pascal and Nicolas Malebranche, among others. The issue was whether God has a general will to grant all people salvation, and if so, how it is possible and just for particular individuals to be condemned to hell. In the early eighteenth century, authors such as Pierre Bayle and the Baron de Montesquieu began to use the term in a secular context. In defending the separation of governmental powers, Montesquieu associated the legislative function with the general will and judicial power with a particular will. When Denis Diderot published an entry on "natural law" in his Encyclopédie in 1755, the general will held a central place. He wrote that only humanity, and not any individual, can "determine the nature of justice and injustice. Private wills are suspect; they may be either good or bad. But the general will is always good" (1755/1992, pp. 1920). He continued, "The general will is in each person a pure expression of the understanding, which in the silence of the passions calculates what every individual may demand from his fellow-man, and what his fellow-man has a right to demand of him" (pp. 2021).

While clearly influenced by Diderot, Rousseau rejected his colleague's cosmopolitanism and focused instead on the general will of a society. Rousseau held that "each individual may, as a man, have a particular will contrary to or different from the general will he has as a Citizen" (I.7.7, p. 52). A person's private will directs him toward his own particular interests, while the general will aims at the common good of society. In addition, Rousseau introduced the crucial contrast between the general will and the will of all: "From the preceding it follows that the general will is always upright and always tends to the public utility: but it does not follow from it that the people's deliberations are always equally upright. There is often a considerable difference between the will of all and the general will" (II.3.12, pp. 5960). A simple aggregation of private wills may generate the will of all, but the general will requires a mutual adjustment of interests in light of what individuals can reasonably demand of one another.

There is no infallible procedure by which to determine the general will. Rousseau argued that the general will can only act when all the people are gathered together in the "people's assembly" to vote on whether a proposed law "does or does not conform to the general will, which is theirs" (IV.2.8, p. 124). However, when their private wills distort their assessment of the common good, individuals may be mistaken about the content of the general will. It is even possible for the majority to be mistaken, and Rousseau was especially concerned about two sources of corruption, not to the general will itself, but to a society's ability to identify it. The first was the existence of factions, which Rousseau believed would lead individuals to elevate their shared private interests above the general will. The second was large inequalities in wealth, which could allow the wealthy to replace the judgment of the poor with their own: "No citizen [should] be so very rich that he can buy another, and none so poor that he is compelled to sell himself" (II.11.2, p. 78).

Rousseau held that outside of society, individuals have "natural freedom," since they need not limit their ability to act on their private wills. However, because private wills may conflict, individuals may still be dependent on the private wills of others and therefore lack freedom. It is only when a society is guided by the general will that individuals are freed from their dependence on private wills and are able to achieve "civic freedom." Their natural freedom is then limited, since they may no longer act on their private wills when these conflict with the general will. However, since others are similarly constrained, no one is dependent on anyone's private will.

For example, it is only under the general will that mere possession is transformed into property, with the result that no one may take what is not theirs. Furthermore, in a passage that strongly prefigured the work of Kant, Rousseau wrote that being freed from the dictates of one's own private will also represents a kind of moral freedom, "which alone makes man truly the master of himself; for the impulsion of mere appetite is slavery, and obedience to the law one has prescribed to oneself is freedom" (I.8.3, p. 54). Understanding that freedom involves independence from arbitrary private wills and that such dependency can only be avoided by the general will helps to explain Rousseau's comment "Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body: which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free" (I.7.8, p. 53). For Rousseau, this merely meant that individuals should be constrained in their unconditional pursuit of self-interest by principles of justice, which make them independent of anyone's private will.

Beginning with Hegel, but especially in the twentieth century, many critics saw in Rousseau the origins of the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution or an endorsement of unconstrained majority rule. For example, in 1945 Bertrand Russell wrote that Rousseau was "the inventor of the political philosophy of pseudo-democratic dictatorships" and that "Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau" (pp. 684, 685). Such interpretations, because they neglect the contrast between the general will and the will of all, typically reveal more about the ideological fears and commitments of the commentators than about Rousseau. In contrast, the final decades of the twentieth century brought a revitalization of liberal political philosophy, much of it under the influence of John Rawls, and with it came a renewed interest in the general will. Rawls's project can be understood as an attempt to reconcile the two elements that Rousseau identified as the central commitments of the general will: "If one inquires into precisely what the greatest good of all consists in, which ought to be the end of every system of legislation, one will find that it comes down to these two principal objects, freedom and equality " (II.11.1, p. 78).

See also Freedom; Justice; Liberty; Political Philosophy, History of; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.


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Jon Mandle (2005)

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General Will, The

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