Jean-Jacques Rousseau (French philosopher)

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Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712-1778)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland, and grew up motherless. He received no systematic education; instead his father provided him with various kinds of lectures. Sent to an engraver to learn a profession, Rousseau ran away in 1728 to Turin and later France. In France he pursued his self-education, supported by a noblewoman. Rousseau was a man of many professions and many failures. He acquired his first public recognition as a musicologist and composer. In his Discours sur les sciences et les arts (Discourse on the sciences and the arts [1750/1751]) he criticized the conviction of the Enlightenment that knowledge and science would bring progress to mankind. In 1755 he published his Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (Discourse on the origin and the foundations of inequality among men). Because of his wayward opinions, difficult character, and a supposed persecution complex, Rousseau more and more came into conflict with other intellectuals, among them his friend Denis Diderot, his lifelong enemy Voltaire, his later defender David Hume, and even French musicians. In 1761 Rousseau's novel Julie, ou laNouvelle Héloïse (Julie, or the New Heloise) was a best-seller in Paris and made him popular all over Europe. A year later Du contrat social (The Social Contract) was published, and a year later Émile, ou Traité de l'éducation (Émile, or A Treatise on Education) appeared. Both works were banned and burned in public, both in Catholic France and in Calvinist Geneva. To make things worse, Voltaire accused Rousseau of severe neglect of his wife and children in the pamphlet Sentiments de citoyen (Sentiments of a citizen [1764]). Rousseau wrote several apologies, including Lettres écrites de lamontagne (Letters written from the mountain [1764]). Condemnation of Rousseau's publications, especially of Émile, forced him to flee to Switzerland in 1762 and to England in 1766, where Hume gave him shelter. Rousseau returned to France the following year under a false nameJean-Joseph Renou. In the last years of his life he wrote his Les Confessions and two other autobiographical works: Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques. Dialogues (Rousseau, judge of Jean-Jacques. Dialogues [1775]) and Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (The reveries of a solitary walker [1776]). He died July 2, 1778 in Erenonville, France.


Today Rousseau is considered one of the pivotal figures in the history of education and of childhood. More specifically, he is credited with the discovery of the distinctive character of the unique viewpoint of the child; the modern practice of educating in accordance with nature; the recognition of the child as a valuable person; and the cult of emotionthat is, that emotion is central in life and for learningand the importance of the child's internal motivation. This image of the romantic Rousseau led to the conviction that Rousseau is one of the founding fathers of anti-authoritarian education. This interpretation is supported by the first three books of Émile. Here, indeed, the child grows up as an isolated individual with an uncorrupted nature and without any intervention by the educator. The educator safeguards the child from social influences (negative education), for nature is good and perfect, whereas society can only bear evil. Rousseau describes the developmental stages of the child's inner nature and the way the child learns from the external nature (natural education, or education "by things").

However, this picture is incomplete and presents a rather superficial comprehension of Rousseau's work. The central problem of Rousseau is that man is not only an individual, but that he is also condemned to live in society. Man's original and benevolent nature (natural state) is an intellectual experiment, a theoretical construction, not a reality. Central to Rousseau's philosophy is how man can cope with the break between nature and society, between individuality and sociality, between humankind and citizenship, and remain happy. Émile has to learn to function in society. This is the theme of the two last books of Émile, which deal mainly with the problem of Émile's relationship with another character, Sophie. Through negative education, the educator earns the confidence of the child; this trust is used to urge the child toward the goal of virtuousness.

In accordance with this social education are Rousseau's proposals for the organization of public education in Corsica and Poland. According to Rousseau, the gap between individual and public education is bridged by moral education: the education of virtue. The key feature of this education is self-limitation: if man wants to approach the (imaginary) happiness of the natural order, then he has to limit his desires (vouloir ) to his power and ability (pouvoir ). However, virtuousness is always threatened by the social condition of man. It is not surprising that Rousseau planned to write another novel in which the fate of Sophie and Émile would be described as a continuous and vain battle for virtuousness. The struggle for virtue is also the main theme of Rousseau's other educational novelJulie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse. Contrary to Émile, the protagonist here is a girl and the educational setting is the family.


The impact of Rousseau on educational theory cannot be underestimated. Rousseau romanticized the idea of childhood. Indeed, according to Rousseau, the main educational question should not be how to bring the child as fast as possible to adulthood, but rather how to do justice to the specificity of childhood. The characteristics of childhood, according to Rousseau, are the features of "natural man." Just like man in the original condition, the child is not yet corrupted by society. As such, childhood is linked with the promise of a perfect world and the possibility to make mankind better. Rousseau therefore argued that the child be kept away from society as long as possible, so that the child can develop according to his or her own needs and in accordance with nature.

This image of the child as inherently good has inspired a number of romantic educational theories. For example, Friedrich Froebel's founding of the kindergarten system is a practical translation of Rousseau's idea of education. Kindergarten is an isolated and safe place where children, as young as possible, can develop without being disturbed by adults. In this natural condition the educator is only stimulating the child by things, which in turn stimulate the child's innate possibilities. Rousseau inspired also the English romantic poet William Wordsworth and the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who refers explicitly to Rousseau in his educational writings, established a school (Yasnaya Polyana School) for peasant children on his estate between 1859 and 1862.

At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, Rousseau's idea of childhood was revisited through many educational experiments labeled as éducation nouvelle in France and reformpedagogik in Germany. The Swedish social reformer Ellen Key, whose Barnetsarhundrade (1900; Century of the child, 1909) is about the natural rights of the child, forever linked Rousseau with the art of education. In the second half of the twentieth century the anti-authoritarian movement and its pedagogy claimed to be the real inheritors of the ideas of Rousseau by stressing the idea of the original goodness of the child, as exemplified by A. S. Neill's Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing (1960).

This reception, however, is mostly one-sided and historically problematic. In the first place, contrary to the romantics (e.g., Froebel, Wordsworth), Rousseau was very much opposed to imagination as a key feature of childhood and education. According to Rousseau, imagination is a social dynamic that causes unhappiness and as such is not an element of the natural state of man and childhood. In the second place, there are a number of individuals who have put forth educational theoriesincluding the German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Johann Friedrich Herbart and the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzithat do not cultivate a romantic image of the child even though these individuals claim to be inheritors of Rousseau's ideas. Instead of cultivating the idea of the original goodness of the child, they are inspired by Rousseau's insight that children have to become adults and have to function in a society, and that the educator has to make use of the child's naïveté to impose moral principles and social skills.

Currently in educational historiography, Rousseau is recognized for exploring and rejecting several educational ideas. What is more, there is a growing awareness that in Rousseau's philosophy several contradictory traditions of educational thought come together. Given that Rousseau used the ideas of Plato, Quintilian, FranÇois de Salignac de La Mothe-FÉnelon, John Locke, and many others, his own contradictions are understandable.

See also: Education, Europe; Theories of Childhood; Tolstoy's Childhood in Russia.


Cassirer, Ernst. 1954. The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Trans. and ed. Peter Gay. New York: Columbia University.

L'Aminot, Tanguy. 1992. Images de Jean-Jacques Rousseau de 1912 à 1978. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1969. Oeuvres complêtes. Paris: Gallimard.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1979 [1762]. Emile: or, On Education. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books.

Starobinski, Jean. 1988. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. Trans. Robert J. Morrissey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

van Crombrugge, Hans. 1995. "Rousseau on Family and Education." Paedagogica Historica 31: 445-480.

Hans van Crombrugge

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Born: June 28, 1712
Geneva, Switzerland
Died: July 2, 1778
Ermenonville, France

French philosopher, author, and composer

The Swiss-born philosopher (seeker of wisdom), author, political theorist (one who forms an explanation or theory on a subject based on careful study), and composer (writer of music) Jean-Jacques Rousseau ranks as one of the greatest figures of the French Enlightenment, a period of great artistic awakening in France.

Early years

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born to Suzanne Bernard and Isaac Rousseau on June 28, 1712, in Geneva, Switzerland. Nine days later his mother died. At the age of three, he was reading French novels with his father, and Jean-Jacques acquired his passion for music from his aunt. His father fled Geneva to avoid imprisonment when Jean-Jacques was ten. By the time he was thirteen, his formal education had ended and he was sent to work for a notary public (someone legally empowered to certify documents), but he was soon dismissed as fit only for watchmaking. Afterwards Rousseau spent three miserable years serving as a watchmaker, which he abandoned when he found himself unexpectedly locked out of the city by its closed gates. He faced the world with no money or belongings and no obvious talents.

Rousseau found himself on Palm Sunday, 1728, in Annecy, France, at the house of Louise Eleonore, Baronne de Warens. Rousseau lived under her roof off and on for thirteen years and was dominated by her influence. Charming and clever, a natural businesswoman, Madame de Warens was a woman who lived by her wits. She supported him and found him jobs, most of which he disliked. A friend, after examining the lad, informed her that he might aspire to become a village curé (priest) but nothing more. Still Rousseau read, studied, and thought. He pursued music and gave lessons, and for a time he worked as a tutor.

First publications and operas

Rousseau's scheme for musical notation, published in 1743 as Dissertation sur la musique moderne, brought him neither fame nor fortuneonly a fond letter from the Académie des Sciences. But his interest in music spurred him to write two operasLes Muses galantes (1742) and Le Devin du village (1752)and permitted him to write articles on music for Denis Diderot's (17131784) Encyclopédie; the Lettre sur la musique française (1753) and the Dictionnaire de musique, published in 1767.

From September 1743 until August 1744 Rousseau served as secretary to the French ambassador to Venice, Italy. He experienced at firsthand the stupidity and corruption (dishonesty and deception) involved in these offices. Rousseau spent the remaining years before his success with his first Discours in Paris, where he lived the poor lifestyle of a struggling intellectual.

In March 1745 Rousseau began an affair with Thérèse Le Vasseur. She was twenty-four years old, a maid at Rousseau's lodgings. She remained with him for the rest of his lifeas mistress, housekeeper, mother of his children, and finally, in 1768, as his wife. They had five childrenthough some biographers have questioned whether any of them were Rousseau's. Apparently he regarded them as his own even though he assigned them to a hospital for abandoned children. Rousseau had no means to educate them, and he reasoned that they would be better raised as workers and peasants by the state.

By 1749 Rousseau had befriended the French philosopher Diderot. The publication of Diderot's Lettre sur les aveugles had resulted in his imprisonment at Vincennes, France. While walking to Vincennes to visit Diderot, Rousseau read an announcement of a prize being offered by the Dijon Academy for the best essay on the question, "Has progress of the arts and sciences contributed more to the corruption or to the purification of morals?" Rousseau won the prize of the Dijon Academy with his Discours sur les sciences et les arts. His famous "attack" on civilization called for sixty-eight articles defending the arts and sciences. Though he himself regarded this essay as "the weakest in argument and the poorest in harmony and proportion" of all his works, he nonetheless believed that it sounded one of his essential themes: the arts and sciences, instead of freeing men and increasing their happiness, had for the most part imprisoned men further.

Major works

Rousseau's novel La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) attempted to portray in fiction the sufferings and tragedy that foolish education and restrictive social customs had among sensitive creatures. Rousseau's two other major writingsL'émile ou de l'éducation (1762) and Du contrat social (1762)undertook the more difficult task of constructing an education and a social order that would enable men to be natural and free; that is, to enable men to recognize no bondage except the bondage of natural necessity. To be free in this sense, said Rousseau, was to be happy.

La Nouvelle Héloïse appeared in Paris in January 1761. Originally entitled Lettres de deux amants, habitants d'une petite ville au pied des Alpes, the work was structurally a novel in letters, after the fashion of the English author Samuel Richardson (16891761). The originality of the novel won it harsh reviews, but its sexual nature made it immensely popular with the public. It remained a best seller until the French Revolution in 1789, a massive uprising calling for political and social change throughout France.

The reputation of La Nouvelle Héloïse was nothing compared to the storm produced by L'émile and Du contrat social. Even today the ideas set forth in these works are revolutionary. Their expression, especially in L'émile, in a style both readable and alluring made them dangerous. L'émile was condemned (officially dissaproved of) by the Paris Parliament (the governing body) and heavily criticized by the archbishop of Paris. Both of the books were burned by the authorities in Geneva, Switzerland.

Exile and death

Forced to flee from France, Rousseau sought refuge at Yverdon in the territory of Bern. There he was kicked out by the Bernese authorities and would spend the next few years seeking a safe place to live. Finally, British philosopher David Hume (17111776) helped Rousseau settle in Wotton, Derbyshire, England, in 1766. Hume managed to obtain from George III (17381820) a yearly pension (sum of money) for Rousseau. But Rousseau, falsely believing Hume to be in league with his Parisian and Genevan enemies, not only refused the pension but also openly broke with the philosopher.

Rousseau returned to France in June 1767 under the protection of the Prince de Conti. Wandering from place to place, he at last settled in 1770 in Paris. There he made a living, as he often had in the past, by copying music. By December 1770 the Confessions, upon which he had been working since 1766, was completed, and he gave readings from this work at various private homes. His last work, Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, begun in 1776 and unfinished at his death, records how Rousseau, an outcast from society, recaptured "serenity, tranquility, peace, even happiness."

In May 1778 Rousseau accepted Marquis de Giradin's hospitality at Ermenonville near Paris. There, with Thérèse at his bedside, he died on July 2, 1778, probably from uremia, a severe kidney disease. Rousseau was buried on the Île des Peupliers at Ermenonville. In October 1794 his remains were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris. Thérèse, surviving him by twenty-two years, died in 1801 at the age of eighty.

For More Information

Cranston, Maurice. Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 17121754. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983.

Cranston, Maurice. The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 17541762. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Cranston, Maurice. The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Crocker, Lester G. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Strathern, Paul. Rousseau in 90 Minutes. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Genevan by birth, was a major contributor to modern political and educational theory and practice; he also set in motion what is known as the romantic movement in art, music, and literature. Shortly after Rousseau's birth on June 28, 1712, his mother died, leaving the child-rearing duties to the father, who shared his enthusiasm for books with his son but who otherwise provided little support. At the age of ten Rousseau was apprenticed to an engraver, but before the terms of the contract were fulfilled, he fled. At sixteen, abandoned by his father, he found himself in the home of the twenty-nine-year-old Madame de Warens, ostensibly to receive religious instruction. They became intimate friends and lovers. In 1745 Rousseau met Thérése Levasseur, an uneducated washerwoman, who became his mistress and eventually his wife, but not before giving birth to five children, each of which was placed in a foundling home.

Rousseau was variously employed as tutor, secretary, and music copyist, but he valued his independence too much to be harnessed to a conventional career. In 1750 Rousseau found his true calling as a writer with his prize-winning essay, "A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences." His opera, The Village Soothsayer (1752), added to his reputation. There followed a series of original works for which Rousseau is best known today:A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755); Julie, or the New Eloise (1761); Émile, or On Education and The Social Contract (1762); and Confessions (1771). His last work, Reveries of a Solitary Walker, was completed shortly before his death on July 2, 1778.

Three key ideas are central to Rousseau's view of children and their development. First, to an age known as the Age of Reason, which put its faith in science and technology, Rousseau preached instead the primacy of feeling and sensation and the centrality of matters of the heart. Second, against the prevailing doctrine of original sin, Rousseau proclaimed the basic goodness of human nature and the innocence of childhood. Third, Rousseau took issue with the notion that children were but imperfect adults. In Rousseau's view, depicted in Émile, childhood is a distinct and precious period of life, functioning according to its own laws and developmental stages. The persuasiveness of Rousseau's ideas has significantly influenced contemporary approaches to children and their development.


Cranston, Maurice. Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1754. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Cranston, Maurice. The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754-1762. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Cranston, Maurice. The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Dent, N. J. H. Rousseau: An Introduction to his Psychological, Social, and Political Theory. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Wokler, Robert. Rousseau. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Publications by Rousseau Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile, or On Education, translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic, 1979.


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Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712–78) A controversial social philosopher and educationalist of the French Enlightenment, whose writings centred around the development of social contract theory, a theory of human nature as essentially open but subsequently enchained, and a democratic theory of government. Rousseau's status as an early social theorist depends upon the reader's attitude to the many contradictions in his work. In different places he argued both that scientific inquiry should be shunned, since it corrupted public virtue, yet himself offered systematic studies of social inequality; and insisted that nature and society were in irreconcilable contradiction, yet offered a theory of the state which presupposes the ability of individuals to reconcile their own interests with those of others, and to identify with the general will as expressed in the sovereign body. His major text is probably The Social Contract (1762)—although the conception of a legitimate polity proffered therein has been much more influential in political philosophy than sociology.