According to Kant, is Rousseau a figure of the Enlightenment?

Francesca – Year 11 Student

Editor’s Note: Talented student Francesca, now in Year 12, writes here about two prominent 18th century philosophers, namely Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778). Whilst both men were influential thinkers during the Age of Enlightenment, the ‘intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries’, their philosophical ideas were often contradictory. This is Francesca’s first publication in The GSAL Journal. CPD

Featured image: Reading of Voltaire’s tragedy of the Orphan of China in the salon of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin, by Lemonnier. (Creative Commons)

Kant’s enlightenment is possibly best known for its motto: ‘Sapere Aude’ (dare to know). He championed intellectual autonomy and encouraged humanity to be courageous in their abandonment of the status quo. The definition of Kant’s enlightenment can be most simply encapsulated in the first two lines of his essay on the subject: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.’ Rousseau is similar to Kant in many respects and influenced his work greatly. However in my opinion, he is not a figure of enlightenment by Kant’s definition.

Firstly, it is clear that Rousseau is not an enlightenment figure according to Kant, because Kant states that man will have an ‘emergence from his self-imposed nonage’. I think that the idea of an ‘emergence’ clearly shows Kant’s faith in mankind’s progress. He understands enlightenment to be as the word itself describes: a forthcoming period of realisation. His view is that humanity will develop out of blind obedience so long as reason prevails. Therefore, intellectual autonomy is the route into the enlightenment period. This leads Kant to view the future as a home for enlightened mankind, provided we make the right choices.

It is clear that when Rousseau says that man was initially free and enlightened in his ‘primitive state’ it contradicts Kant. Rousseau wrote in his Discourse on Inequality: ‘There is, I sense, an age at which the individual human being would want to stop’. He believed fervently in our beautiful, natural state. The future does not hold enlightenment for Rousseau. There will be no awakening ‘emergence’ in a Rousseauian future. In his opinion, the best days are behind us. He assumed that mankind could not return to a natural state of enlightenment and therefore the most we can hope for in days to come is an improvement in our society. This is very clearly contradictory to Kant’s optimistic message of seizing enlightenment with our own volition. A figure of his enlightenment must be someone who heralds this concept of progression towards freedom. Rousseau is not that philosopher.

Secondly, Rousseau is not a Kantian enlightenment figure because he disagrees with the importance of reason. ‘Sapere Aude’ is Kant’s maxim and he supposes that it is only by daring to know that mankind can achieve insight. In the essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’, he states ‘This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom–and the most innocent of all that may be called “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters’. He stressed the importance of being able to question societal rules using reason. He thought that mankind relied too much on leaders such as the clergy to think for them. Kant urged people to value their reason and to exercise intellectual autonomy. Intellectual autonomy being the ability to follow your own logic as opposed to the ideas of others.

Contrastingly, Rousseau famously said ‘the man who meditates is a depraved animal’. This statement is clearly contradictory to Kant’s faith in reason. Rousseau was advocating the opposite of reason. He decreed that the Age of Reason had failed. Man was now more depraved as a result of acquiring knowledge. Therefore, he was driven to argue that an age of feeling was a better substitute than Kant’s enlightening reason. The true meaning of peace for Rousseau is not a state of reflection on your own thoughts, but rather existence in ‘man’s true nature’. Man’s true nature is based on two principles that existed before reason: the desire of self-preservation and repugnance at seeing another animal’s suffering. Rousseau saw these two instinctive principles as being dirtied by reason and progress. His writings on reflection and reason are the antithesis of Kant’s. This is yet another reason for Rousseau not being a figure of Kant’s enlightenment.

Lastly, Rousseau is not an Enlightenment figure according to Kant because their imagined ‘enlightened’ societies are so contrasting. Kant’s vision of an enlightened society was one that saw every individual as an ‘end’.  This is the idea that one should view other humans as you do yourself, and so should be treated as you would like to be treated. He coined this theory the categorical imperative. This led him to the view that because every human is an ‘end’, we all have different concepts of what it means to be happy. Therefore, ensuring happiness should not be the focus of an enlightened society. Instead, Kant was driven to advocate that ensuring freedom was the purpose of government. He thought an enlightened society would be one that permitted its citizens total freedom to seek their individual happiness, as opposed to a communal idea of happiness.

Rousseau vastly contrasts this concept. He believed that the most enlightened form of society we could construct was one with a ‘general will’. He describes the general will as being the will of the society as a whole. A Rousseauian society is dictated by a group of men who have the necessary attributes to govern using the general will. These men have unlimited power over every member of society. Because, once you enter into this social order, you fully submit yourself until even your life is conditional to the whims of the ‘general will’. The concept of a ‘general will’ and Rousseau’s totalitarian version of utopia is almost the exact opposite of Kant’s views.    

We have just seen how Rousseau is not a figure of Kant’s Enlightenment. I will now present an opposition to this statement.

The key to Kant’s enlightenment is the rejection of other people’s ideas in favour of following your own beliefs. Some people would argue that Rousseau was one of the most passionate supporters of valuing your own ideas. He openly discouraged people to blindly follow the opinions and beliefs of others and was famous for his views on the Arts and Sciences disguising oppression. Rousseau said that the Arts and Sciences created a new dependency for the common man. He thought we compare ourselves and strive to merely follow the great works of past philosophers, writers etc. He thought that striving to become someone you are not is a form of dishonesty. This led Rousseau to encourage mankind to focus on themselves as individuals and not to rely on or strive towards the work and ideas of other people. This would be a strong argument in support of Rousseau as a figure of Kant’s enlightenment as he is complying with Kant’s rejection of authority.

However, this response fails because it does not consider the clear differences between how these two philosophers attempt to remedy the situation. Kant believed that it was through tuning yourself to your reason that you could truly ‘dare to know’. This is very different to Rousseau’s theory of rejecting reason and meditation in favour of returning to our simpler two principles (self-preservation and pity). Both philosophers may diagnose similar issues with the current society, however, if they find different remedies for those issues, they are not aiming for the same enlightenment.  

Therefore, despite both philosophers largely agreeing on the ills of their modern society, it is clear that Rousseau has vastly different views to Kant regarding how to remedy the situation and is therefore not a figure of Kant’s version of Enlightenment.


Critique of Pure Reason, translated and edited by P. Guyer and A. Wood, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

What is Enlightenment?, translated and edited by Mary J. Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, Victor Gourevitch (ed. and trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, Victor Gourevitch (ed. and trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Francesca 856659

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