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Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius (2005)
- To say that Rousseau's contemporaries were aware of the paradoxes in his writing would be putting it mildly. It was the constant theme of reviewers, from his first publications in the early 1750s to his posthumous works, which came out in the 1780s. The usual line was that his compelling prose style veiled the hollowness of his paradoxes and that other writers, notably Voltaire, were much deeper thinkers. Rousseau himself was well aware of these criticisms, but the impulse behind all of his work was a determination to confront the contradictions that seem inseparable from our experience. It is easy to think up theories that get rid of contradictions, but not so easy to get rid of the contradictions themselves. Since his time, two centuries of further reflection have of course brought new ways of answering his questions. As Jean Starobinski has said, "It took Kant to think Rousseau's thoughts, and Freud to think Rousseau's feelings." But the questions remain as important as ever, and Freud himself stands directly in the line that leads from Rousseau. As for Voltaire, it seems obvious today that he was a witty and prolific popularizer whose ideas were largely derivative. It was Rousseau who was the most original genius of his age—so original that most people at the time could not begin to appreciate how powerful his thinking was.
- The heart of Rousseau's thinking, as Arthur Melzer and others have shown, is to honor modern individualism but at the same time to subject it to a devastating critique.
- Ch. 18 : Rousseau the Controversialist: Émile and The Social Contract.