Rousseau’s lawgiver as teacher of peoples: Investigating the educational preconditions of the social contract

Educational Philosophy and Theory (2024)
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This paper argues that Rousseau’s lawgiver is best thought of as a fictional teacher of peoples. It is fictional as it reflects an idea that is entertained despite its contradictory nature, and it is contradictory in the sense that it describes ‘an undertaking beyond human strength and, to execute it, an authority that amounts to nothing’ (II.7; 192). Rousseau conceives of the social contract as a necessary device for enabling the transferal of individual power to the body politic, for subsuming individual wills under the general will, and for aligning the good of the individual with the common good. For the social contract to be valid, however, it needs to be preceded by a desire to belong to a moral community that can induce people to join willingly, and that will grant legitimacy to the laws established. If the social contract is the machinery that makes the body politic function, the lawgiver is ‘the mechanic who invents the machine’ (II.7; 191). In this paper we will look closer at the pedagogical functions of Rousseau’s mythical lawgiver by first examining the relationship between the social contract, the general will and the lawgiver. Then, we aim to flesh out a pedagogical understanding of the figure of the lawgiver by way of the two educational dimensions of accommodation and transformation. Finally, we will argue for the importance of understanding Rousseau’s lawgiver as a fictional device allowing for the fundamental and enduring educational task of balancing between the preservation and renewal of society

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Johan Dahlbeck
Malmö University


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