The quest for the good life in Rousseau's Emile: an assessment

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3 Scopus citations


Rousseau's Emile has attracted an avalanche of critical responses. His theme of negative education, or as he defines it, "well-regulated freedom", has been denounced as outright manipulation in disguise, which instead of respecting the child's autonomy and dignity, places him at the whim of the teacher's machinations and stratagems. His recommendation that the child's imagination be curtailed (that he may not acquire desires which cannot be satisfied) is widely held to militate against one of the most cherished goals of education: the fostering of the natural curiosity of the child. Rousseau is also accused of professing an "ideology of childhood" which ignores the real needs of children. In the sterilized environment which Rousseau proposes for the growing child, affection, praise and approval, are some of the sacrifices made to this ideology. Furthermore, his views on women are considered degrading, outrageous and blatantly sexist. Yet despite the myriad criticisms leveled against his work, Rousseau's Emile highlights one of the most exacting challenges for education - how to educate the child without alienating him. Rousseau connects this issue with the larger problem of alienation: namely, that experienced by man within the modern social order. Rousseau's views anticipate the contemporary debate between virtue-based and deontological ethics. The purpose of this paper is (i) to describe Rousseau's diagnosis of the problem of alienation as it arises in the various spheres of human life, paying special attention to the moral domain, and (ii) to assess the solutions he offers to the problem of alienation. These solutions are based on a conception of the good life which, I argue, is unacceptable. I also argue that this conception dissipates one form of alienation only at the expense of creating another. The paper begins by tracing the changes which the concept of alienation has undergone, and consequently I draw a distinction between two kinds of alienation - conscious and unconscious. I demonstrate that even if Rousseau is successful in offering a remedy for conscious alienation, this very remedy itself gives rise to unconscious alienation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)229-243
Number of pages15
JournalStudies in Philosophy and Education
Issue number2-4
StatePublished - 1 Jun 1993
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Philosophy


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