In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Biographies
  • Intellectual and Historical Context
  • The Unity of Rousseau’s Thought
  • State of Nature
  • Ethics, Moral Psychology, and the Self
  • Education
  • Religion
  • Views on Women
  • Rousseau’s Autobiographical Works

Philosophy Jean-Jacques Rousseau
James Delaney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0256


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (b. 1712–d. 1778) is one of the most influential figures of the 18th century and French Enlightenment period, As a philosopher (though he himself claimed he did not embrace that label for himself), his works broach topics in ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical anthropology, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of education. He is probably most famous for his social and political philosophy. Rousseau’s work was not limited to philosophy however. His first love, he claimed, was not philosophy but music. He wrote a successful opera, and designed a new system of musical notation. He also wrote a successful novel, Julie or the New Héloïse. It is difficult to categorize Rousseau’s philosophical thought. He is often characterized as an Enlightenment thinker, and he does express some core Enlightenment ideals such as the rejection of certain established dogma. However, his work is also counter-Enlightenment in important ways. In his first successful work, the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, he argues that morality and virtue can actually be corrupted by progress. Additionally, Rousseau understands the creation of civil society itself as the source of the worst of human vices. The theme of nature, and specifically human nature, as inherently good is one of the most important in his writings. Against the criticism that his works are inconsistent with one another, he claims that this is the central idea underlying the system of his thought. In one of his principal writings, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, he explains how the primitive “savage man” gradually moves from the pure state of nature to the state of civilized society through a long and complex historical process. Current society, however, is united under a specious social contract put in place by those in power to keep their advantage. It is nearly impossible to achieve virtue in such a society. Two later important works, the Emile and the Social Contract, are Rousseau’s attempt to show how this difficulty can be overcome. The former focuses on the moral education of an individual in a corrupt society. The latter is Rousseau’s vision of an ideal political regime that can preserve equality and freedom for its citizens. This article focuses primarily on these and related philosophical themes, showing how others of Rousseau’s works have been shown to have influence on them.

General Overviews

There are many general overviews written on Rousseau. What are common to nearly all such overviews are their expository accounts of Rousseau’s criticism of society as given in the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, his account of human beings in the state of nature in the Discourse on Inequality, his political philosophy in the Social Contract, and his discussion of education in the Emile. The sources listed here provide a sampling of some of the more influential of these works and provide sources aimed at various different audiences. For those coming to Rousseau for the first time, Delaney 2009 and Simpson 2007 give very accessible and basic introductions. Dent 1988, Dent 2005, and O’Hagan 1999 provide the most comprehensive overviews that include substantial references to the large amount of secondary literature on the topic. Wokler 2001 is another important resource for scholars, which is relatively short. Broome 1963 and Grimsley 1973 are useful for showing how some of the more core philosophical ideas in Rousseau’s work relate to other less discussed philosophical themes.

  • Broome, Jack H. Rousseau: A Study of His Thought. London: Edward Arnold, 1963.

    Geared toward students as well as general readers, this overview attempts to give a comprehensive analysis of Rousseau’s works, and to show that these works must be read in conjunction with one another in order to achieve an accurate understanding of Rousseau’s thought as a whole.

  • Delaney, James. Starting with Rousseau. London: Continuum, 2009.

    Written as an introduction for those with little or no background knowledge. Can be used as supplementary material in an undergraduate-level course. Chapters cover the Enlightenment period, the state of nature, political philosophy, education, and Rousseau’s autobiographical works.

  • Dent, Nicholas. Rousseau: An Introduction to His Psychological, Social and Political Theory. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

    A general discussion of the most fundamental aspects of Rousseau’s philosophical thought. Chapters are divided thematically rather than by individual works of Rousseau. They focus on Rousseau’s notions of self-love, the problem of the self in isolation, the state, and religion.

  • Dent, Nicholas. Rousseau. New York: Routledge, 2005.

    A comprehensive overview of Rousseau’s thought. It is useful for those with little background, but is also an important source for more advanced students and scholars. Chapters cover all of Rousseau’s major works as well as discussion of Rousseau’s historical influence and legacy.

  • Grimsley, Ronald. The Philosophy of Rousseau. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

    A relatively short yet thorough overview of Rousseau’s philosophy. Chapters are divided topically and discuss major works in the context of their relevant topic. In addition to standard topics about the state of nature and politics, there are chapters devoted to religion and aesthetic ideas.

  • O’Hagan, Timothy. Rousseau. London: Routledge, 1999.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203354407

    One of the most thorough and complete recent overviews of Rousseau. Gives a systematic analysis and interpretation of Rousseau’s works and a comprehensive account of the major themes of his philosophy. Provides a chapter on Rousseau and the origin of language. An important resource for those pursuing advanced research.

  • Simpson, Matthew. Rousseau: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum, 2007.

    Written for those with limited background knowledge. It attempts to explain the more difficult and inaccessible aspects of Rousseau’s thought. Chapters cover Rousseau’s life and works, the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, the Discourse on Inequality, the Social Contract, and the Emile.

  • Wokler, Robert. Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192801982.001.0001

    A compact work that is a helpful resource for both beginning and advanced students. Chapters cover Rousseau’s theory of nature and political philosophy and also include discussions of music, religion, education, and sexuality.

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