Reading Rousseau’s First Discourse through the Polemics

Sanfilippo, C. S.
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This report analyzes Rousseau’s Discourse on the Sciences and Arts and the polemics Rousseau wrote in defense of that work, paying special attention to his rhetoric. In supplementing an interpretation of the First Discourse with Rousseau’s polemics, several of the paradoxes of the work are resolved. I argue that the central paradox of the work, whether Rousseau is for or against science, can be resolved: Rousseau is ultimately in favor of science but highly critical of popularized science. Since virtue is the only sound basis of civil society, and science corrupts virtue, Rousseau speaks out against science. But the life dedicated science is the source of the highest flourishing for those who are capable of it. Hence, he concludes the discourse by praising a certain kind of science that is compatible with virtue. His complex position reveals a keen awareness of the distinction between the few and the many—a distinction of the utmost importance for politics, according to Rousseau. Moreover, I analyze Rousseau’s distinct understanding of civic health and corruption and the causes of corruption. Rousseau does not argue that the sciences and arts are the original or sole causes of corruption; they can only come into being in an already corrupt society. However, they do tend to reinforce corruption and make the return to virtue all but impossible. I conclude with an analysis of what can be done in practice according to Rousseau given his bleak analysis of contemporary politics.