His first major philosophical work, A Discourse on the Sciences and Arts… Rousseau argues that the progression of the sciences and arts has caused the corruption of virtue and morality. The Academy of Dijon posed the question, “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?” Rousseau’s answer to this question is an emphatic “no.” The First Discourse won the academy’s prize as the best essay. The work is perhaps the greatest example of Rousseau as a “counter-Enlightenment” thinker. For the Enlightenment project was based on the idea that progress in fields like the arts and sciences do indeed contribute to the purification of morals on individual, social, and political levels.
Rousseau paraphrases Socrates’ famous speech in the Apology. In his address to the court, Socrates says that the artists and philosophers of his day claim to have knowledge of piety, goodness, and virtue, yet they do not really understand anything.
Philosophical and scientific knowledge of subjects such as the relationship of the mind to the body, the orbit of the planets, and physical laws that govern particles fail to genuinely provide any guidance for making people more virtuous citizens. Rather, Rousseau argues that they create a false sense of need for luxury, so that science becomes simply a means for making our lives easier and more pleasurable, but not morally better.
Artists, Rousseau says, wish first and foremost to be applauded. Their work comes from a sense of wanting to be praised as superior to others. Society begins to emphasize specialized talents rather than virtues such as courage, generosity, and temperance. The great majority of people ought to focus their energies on improving their characters, rather than advancing the ideals of the Enlightenment in the arts and sciences.
The central claim of his second, longer work, The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality is that human beings are basically good by nature, but were corrupted by the complex historical events that resulted in present day civil society. If the First Discourse is indicative of Rousseau as a “counter-Enlightenment” thinker, the Second Discourse, by contrast, can rightly be considered to be representative of Enlightenment thought. This is primarily because Rousseau, like Hobbes, attacks the classical notion of human beings as naturally social. In terms of its influence, the Second Discourse is now much more widely read, and is more representative of Rousseau’s general philosophical outlook. In the Confessions, Rousseau writes that he himself sees the Second Discourse as far superior to the first.
The scope of Rousseau’s project is not significantly different from that of Hobbes in the Leviathan or Locke in the Second Treatise on Government. Like them, Rousseau understands society to be an invention, and he attempts to explain the nature of human beings by stripping them of all of the accidental qualities brought about by socialization. This is in stark contrast to the classical view, most notably that of Aristotle, which claims that the state of civil society is the natural human state.
his later works include his comprehensive work on the philosophy of education, the Emile, and his major work on political philosophy, The Social Contract: both published in 1762.
Rousseau greatly influenced Immanuel Kant’s work on ethics. His novel Julie or the New Heloiseimpacted the late eighteenth century’s Romantic Naturalism movement, and his political ideals were championed by leaders of the French Revolution.
Human beings in the state of nature are amoral creatures, neither virtuous nor vicious. After humans leave the state of nature, they can enjoy a higher form of goodness, moral goodness, which Rousseau articulates most explicitly in the Social Contract.
there is dispute as to whether Rousseau’s thought is best characterized as “Enlightenment” or “counter-Enlightenment.” The major goal of Enlightenment thinkers was to give a foundation to philosophy that was independent of any particular tradition, culture, or religion: one that any rational person would accept. In the realm of science, this project has its roots in the birth of modern philosophy, in large part with the seventeenth century philosopher, René Descartes.
Descartes was very skeptical about the possibility of discovering final causes, or purposes, in nature. Yet this teleological understanding of the world was the very cornerstone of Aristotelian metaphysics, which was the established philosophy of the time. And so Descartes’ method was to doubt these ideas, which he claims can only be understood in a confused way, in favor of ideas that he could conceive clearly and distinctly.
The scope of modern philosophy was not limited only to issues concerning science and metaphysics. Philosophers of this period also attempted to apply the same type of reasoning to ethics and politics.