CONFIDENTIAL: Referee Report for Monsieur J.J. Rousseau, ‘Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes’

Dear Sirs,

I am afraid I cannot recommend for publication the MS Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes, (“Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Amongst Men”). Although compellingly written (indeed frequently bordering on the polemical), my objection to this competently composed study is two-fold: a lack of originality, and a lack of familiarity with relevant recent material and progress in the discipline.

The author takes as his starting point Hobbes’s proposition that man is not by nature sociable, but seeks to explore by a different route how he might nonetheless have come to attain society. This is done via a conjectural history which claims that man in his brute state was indigent and solitary, but over time became competitive and aggressive only after psychological change (Hobbes’s proposition about man’s natural condition drew the right conclusion for the wrong reasons; the analysis of modern society the right reasons with the wrong conclusions). This would be an impressive and original contribution – if it had not already been tried. Dr Mandeville’s 1728 The Fable of the Bees, Volume 2 explored precisely this attempt to get beyond Hobbes whilst starting from Hobbesian assumptions, but is widely considered to have been a failure. I see no evidence that the present MS gets beyond Mandeville.

Secondly, the MS indicates no familiarity with recent developments in the study of the passions, which identify the capacity for ‘sympathy’, ‘fellow-feeling’ or ‘contagio’ as crucial in explaining the progress of the moral sentiments and man’s capacity to form society out of natural materials. This research has been much advanced over the past two decades – in particular by Dr Hutcheson, Bishop Butler and Mr Hume – and any engagement with the issue of sociability demands that it be brought into consideration. The present MS makes some use of the notion of ‘pity’, but this is rudimentary and only a minor development of Hobbes, and hence is simply inadequate to the task.

More generally: is this a book, or an essay? The format is confusing: why is it divided into two sections? What is the connection between them? The unusual length of this MS is frustrating, as is the unclarity with which the author frequently leaves us: the progress ‘out of Africa’ following a postulated natural disaster appears incoherent, and the economic considerations regarding the division of labour and the advent of luxury are simply rushed. Items of such central importance need proper development, and should not be tacked on to the end, where generations of future scholars would simply overlook them.

Sadly, this work is simply too far behind the curve of contemporary scholarship, and too confusing in its composition as it stands, to be considered a sufficiently worthwhile contribution. I can therefore only recommend rejection.

A. Smith, Glasgow.


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