International Research School in Conceptual History and Political Thought

Ville Lähde, from the department of philosophy in Tampere University, will defend his doctoral thesis, Rousseau’s Rhetoric of ’Nature’ A study on Discourse on Inequality, on 27.9.2008 at 12:00 hours: University of Tampere, Pinni B, lecture room B1100.

Press release:


‘Nature’ is one of the most complex and problematic words in our culture. The meanings of ‘nature’ shift and move in the tension between the familiar meaning of nature as the environment, various technical meanings in sciences, arts and politics, and a host of elder meanings which we have inherited. On the one hand there is remarkable convergence of meaning, a dominant meaning of ‘nature’, on the other hand meanings diverge radically even in everyday use.

Many philosophers and historians of ideas have explicated different meanings of ‘nature’, but typologies of meanings cannot grasp sufficiently how the use of central cultural words involves rhetorical power. The divergence of meanings and the central status of the word itself afford opportunities to take advantage of transitions of meaning. The problem of ‘nature’ is inevitably linked to questions of values, norms and use of power. The main object of this study is to develop and test tools for understanding both the divergent meanings of ‘nature’ and their practical applications.

I have drafted these tools on the basis of the recurrent problems in various contemporary debates over issues like genetic engineering, natural disasters and climate change. I propose that we can understand these changes by differentiating concepts and conceptions of nature. The object is not to create a categorization of meanings but to identify degrees of difference and similitude of meaning. This can however only be done in the relevant context of use.

Thus concepts of nature are not in this study supposedly stable units of meaning but rather heuristic constructions of somewhat similar instantiations of ‘nature’ in a certain context. They refer approximately to the same realm of phenomena (e.g. nature as the environment). But despite this similitude there may be differences regarding the moral status or the internal dynamics of those phenomena, that is, different conceptions of nature (e.g. nature as the educator, the nemesis, the fragile card-house). Yet again sometimes differences of conceptions of nature may turn out to be more radical conceptual differences (e.g. does nature include humans, or what is the status of certain artifacts?).

These contemporary discussions are however so familiar that it is hard to notice these transitions of meaning. Thus I have chosen to test the viability of these heuristic tools with a historical example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous work Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality Among Men (Discours sur l’Origine et les Fondements de l’Inégalité parmi les Hommes, 1755), or Discourse on Inequality. This choice is based first of all on the fact that ‘nature’ is the most important term in that work, and second that its meaning has been debated endlessly in the research literature.

Interpretations of Discourse on Inequality contrast sharply, especially regarding the status of the term ‘state of nature’. In this study I show that these deadlocked disagreements derive from the assumption of a single philosophical motive behind the book, and the corollary assumption of a dominant meaning of ‘nature’. I offer a new strategy of interpretation, which approaches Discourse on Inequality from the viewpoint of four distinct philosophical motives, each with its own key questions and conceptual frameworks. Accordingly, the meanings of ‘nature’ must be explored within each of these contexts. These philosophical motives are philosophical critique, critique of contemporary societies, philosophical anthropology and political philosophy.

Discourse on Inequality is divided into two main parts. The first part is the depiction of pure state of nature, an extremely primitive state of human existence. The latter part describes the development of humanity towards urbanizing political societies. There is fairly strong consensus in the literature that the meaning of ‘state of nature’ differs between them, and the debate has focused especially on the philosophical function of pure state of nature. I show however that the meanings and the philosophical functions of ‘state of nature’ differ also radically within these two parts, and that the key to understanding that is in the diversity of philosophical motives.

In my analysis I show how in the first part of Discourse on Inequality Rousseau uses a somewhat unified concept of pure state of nature, an extremely primitive humanity detached from the possibilities of historical development. But the details of this description vary significantly according to the current philosophical motive. When he criticizes other philosophers, he tends to emphasize the ignorance of humanity in the pure state of nature. But when he employs the pure state of nature as a vessel of social critique, he emphasizes the wit, skill and ingenuity of the humans of that state. Also in his critique of other philosophers Rousseau uses conceptual transition ingeniously in order to attack their concepts of state of nature.

Although this shows how the historical narrative of the latter part of Discourse on Inequality is radically detached from the previous depiction of the pure state of nature, I point out that Rousseau introduces a different concept of pure state of nature, one which is not detached from historical development. This apparent contradiction can be understood by the change of dominant philosophical motive, his focus on philosophical anthropology in the latter part. Further, I reconstruct several distinct concepts of state of nature within Rousseau’s historical narrative.

This study has relevance both for Rousseau-research and for understanding contemporary debates over ‘nature’. First, this reading offers a way out of enduring conflicts of interpretation over Discourse on Inequality, and more generally the debate on Rousseau’s coherence or incoherence. Instead of trying to read the book as a unified philosophical statement we should see that it is a literary device which allowed Rousseau to address several important issues at once, and above all, to challenge reified philosophical discussions on human nature, natural law and the legitimation of societies. Conceptual transitions allowed him to open up new space to address these issues.

Second, this study offers resources for disentangling contemporary problems with the meaning of ‘nature’. Identifying radical changes of meaning, leaps from one concept of nature to another, helps us to pinpoint situations where discussions lead to dead-ends, or when the very subject of discussion is imperceptibly altered. This can help to clarify discussions and intercept deadlocks.  Rousseau’s example illustrates however that conceptual and terminological clarity is not always the most fruitful way forward. Challenging conceptual unity can also clear the way for novel ideas.