Monday, April 07, 2008

Rousseau and Kant on learning

At first glance, Kant’s Answer to the question: what is enlightenment appears opposite to Rousseau's views as stated in the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. Kant states:
"Have the courage to use you own understanding!" – that is the motto of the enlightenment.

Rousseau, certainly by the time of Reveries of a solitary walker, was of the opinion that civilisation could best be served by reverie, by solitary meditation, studying for studying's sake. In studying botany, for example, he eschewed any medicinal purpose. He did not want:
the colour of the meadows, the brilliance of the flowers... soured by the idea of human ailments… fevers, stones, gout and epilepsy. [1]

Both Kant and Rousseau think it is in man's nature to choose to be led. Kant says:
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance..., nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians.

Rousseau agreed that men will submit to a higher authority. Indeed, in his views on education, he was of the opinion that they must.
Kant says:
Rules and formulas, those mechanical aids to the rational use, or rather misuse, of his natural gifts, are the shackles of a permanent immaturity.

Campbell and Scott note of Rousseau's philosophy:
[Rousseau's] remark that such individuals [those who should be allowed to study the sciences] must "feel the strength to walk alone" suggests that it is less their genius than their independence from popular trends and opinions that enables them to pursue sciences without corruption. [2]

Rousseau himself says, of Bacon, Descartes and Newton, they:
had themselves no teachers. What guide indeed could have taken them so far as their sublime genius directed them? [3]

This is perhaps where Rousseau and Kant part, however. Kant is saying that all men should aspire to such freedom to learn and he believed it possible, albeit only slowly. Rousseau, however, felt such study should be reserved for those of genius. For the rest, he thought:
As for us, ordinary men, on whom Heaven has not been pleased to bestow such great talents; as we are not destined to reap such glory, let us remain in our obscurity... Why should we build our happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts. [4]

Ultimately, although there are similarities in the outlook of the two men, Kant's view of education was essentially positive, and Rousseau's negative. Kant concludes What is enlightenment by saying:
I have focused on religious matters in setting out my main point concerning enlightenment, i.e., man's emergence from self-imposed immaturity, first because our rulers have no interest in assuming the role of their subjects' guardians with respect to the arts and sciences, and secondly because that form of immaturity is both the most pernicious and disgraceful of all.

Rousseau, on the other hand, asks rhetorical questions which implicitly blame the arts and sciences for the corruption of man and the seekers of knowledge for their impertinence in trespassing on forbidden territory:
But if the progress of the arts and sciences had added nothing to our real happiness; if it has corrupted our morals, and if that corruption has vitiated our taste, what are we to think of the herd of text-book authors, who have removed those impediments which nature purposely laid in the way to the Temple of the Muses, in order to guard its approach and try the powers of those who might be tempted to seek knowledge? [5]


[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Reveries of a solitary walker, 7, p107-8
[2] Sally Howard Campbell and John T. Scott. Rousseau’s politic argument in the Discourses on the Sciences and Arts. American Journal of Political Science, vol 49, No 4, (Oct 2005), p 824
[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Discourse on the arts and sciences, p 141
[4] Ibid, p 142
[5] Ibid, p 140

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