Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rousseau on Language and Writing

The following is the Forward that was very kindly commissioned of me by my friend John for his latest book, Rousseau on Language and Writing.  It has been available for purchase for some months (you can find it on Amazon here) so this notice is more than a little late but, better late than never as they say.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau has always been a richly divisive thinker, the contradictions of his life almost displaying a split-personality. It is therefore fitting that this duality is mirrored by the essays gathered in this volume upon one of Rousseau’s lesser known works, the Essay on the Origin of Languages . Here Rousseau sought to argue, making wild and brilliant philological and sociological speculation along the way, that originally language developed in warm southern climes where it held a musical and emotional character that, with its migration to the north, would become more coldly rational and utilitarian. If we agree with this hypothesis, it may go a long way in explaining the decline of poetry from its period of greatest flowering in the antiquity of Greece, to its diminishment to the humble lyric of today. For Rousseau , ours is an age for the cold businessman’s prose of the account books not for the singing of epics.

It would be no stretch to claim that all of Rousseau’s work is one sustained attack upon inauthenticity in human relations. In this, the Essay on the Origin of Languages is just one small continuation of that project. We all wear masks, and language is just one more mask we wear to hide our true selves from one another. In the “linguistic turn” of twentieth century philosophy and the rise of the Analytic/ Continental divide , Rousseau was thus in a way prescient in reminding us that too often language can be as much a shield of self-protection as it is a means of conveying ideas. In a manner similar to C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”, it becomes merely a tool of defense, where both parties talk past one another instead of genuinely engaging, as the recent commotion between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek might suggest. In this, Professors Barry Stocker and John Bolender have rendered a service in helping to spur just such a dialogue. Bolender, writing from the Analytic perspective, and Stocker from the Continental, have produced essays from their respective domains, each in turn then has contributed a separate essay upon these two original interpretations.

Barry Stocker gives us an absorbing study pairing Rousseau with Jacques Derrida, exploring a deconstructed investigation of the Essay. With a subtle and nuanced analysis Stocker explains that, due to the indeterminacy of language that a flawless definition of concepts such a liberty and community can never be achieved but that political language must remain in constant discussion with its self . John Bolender asks how does emotion in language create solidarity in a community and, further, challenges the Chomskian view against oratory as a positive and perhaps necessary force for political cohesion, speculative insights that present an excellent example of philosophy’s ability to offer new lines of scientific research and inquiry.

The book as a whole is a wonderful demonstration of the limitless possibilities that a great philosopher can elicit even two-hundred years after his death, and the still greater possibilities for cross fertilization and experimentation across the, perhaps, artificial gap of the so called Analytic/ Continental divide. Regardless, if this volume does not achieve its hoped for aim and ignite similar attempts at such dialogue, it remains a unique and stimulating exchange upon a much under-appreciated work by one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment.