Popular Science Monthly/Volume 81/October 1912/Rousseau's Contributions to Psychology, Philosophy and Education

Popular Science Monthly Volume 81 October 1912 (1912)
Rousseau's Contributions to Psychology, Philosophy and Education by Walter Bowers Pillsbury
1579584Popular Science Monthly Volume 81 October 1912 — Rousseau's Contributions to Psychology, Philosophy and Education1912Walter Bowers Pillsbury


By Professor W. B. PILLSBURY


AS is often the case with a great man viewed two centuries after his time, one is tempted to wonder what the source of Rousseau's repute may have been. Few men have so greatly influenced the course of thought in many different directions as Rousseau and few great men have been as little worthy of influence, judged by their characters or their attainments. It seems incredible that a vagabond, a psychopath, a man without serious training, should produce a system of philosophy, a system of education, a political philosophy, that was to modify the political systems as well as the course of thought of civilized nations for generations. To repeat a few cant phrases, Rousseau offers a paradox in each of his capacities between his theories and his actions. He preached social cooperation and the acceptance of social responsibilities, but was himself a hermit and recognized a duty only to avoid it; he praised social equality and the advantages of limiting one's desires rather than seeking means of satisfying them, but he spent his life fawning upon the great and the wealthy, and was always a parasite upon some one more fortunate than himself; in his system of education he gives much space to arguing the advantages of personal parental care for children, while he sent his own five children as soon as born to a foundling asylum, and with so little care that no one was able to trace them. Apparently the father was never sufficiently interested in their fate to make the attempt. The list might be expanded indefinitely, but this will amply suffice to show the inconsistencies of the man.

The key to his inconsistencies as to much of his power as a writer is to be found in his mental abnormalities. He was undoubtedly a psychasthenic all his life, and in his last years this probably passed over into insanity. The symptoms of psychasthenia are clear throughout his confessions. He was tortured always by the delirium of doubt, he was often aboulic, the sexual life that he portrays so fully gives much evidence of a Freudian neurasthenia; in his later life he was never without delusions of persecution. Nothing is lacking to complete the clinical picture. As one result of his mental disease he was never in complete control of either thought or action. He never could definitely and sharply pass upon the truth or falsity of his ideas. He lived all his life in a half-dream state, incapable of saying whether any one of the trains of ideas that presented itself was quite real, or was consistent with any other. To change the metaphor, his was a play life, throughout. Each book and each, chapter, even, of a book was a separate game with little relation to any other book or chapter or to the world of reality. It was consistent with that part, but had little or no relation to any thing beyond. He never grew up. In consequence he was never burdened by the adult necessity for consistency. Any act or any thought was true for the moment, and that was as far as he was capable of judging. The extent to which writing was a game for him is well illustrated, if we may believe Diderot, by the way he decided to take the most important stand of his life, that against art and science and all departures from nature. Diderot asserts that when Rousseau saw the topic that had been announced by the academy of Dijon in competition for a prize "Whether the progress of science and the arts had contributed to corrupt or improve morals," he was on the point of taking sides in favor of the arts and sciences. When, however, Diderot pointed out the advantages of taking the more striking position, he at once accepted it, and the "Discourse upon Science and Arts" was the result. This of course was the key to all of his later writings. It is fair to say that his whole system took its rise in a chance remark, and was the outcome of a desire to attract attention rather than of any high moral purpose.

As a writer and thinker this mental defect had its points of advantage to him. Any thought that occurred to him was given full expression. He need feel no restraint from facts. A half truth was as good as a whole truth, provided only it be picturesque. He could work out a line of thought as in a dream and publish it without feeling the paralysis of the demand for consistency. When the next thought presented itself he need not reject it because it was incompatible with his last publication. As a psychasthenic he was probably incapable of passing upon the truth or consistency of his ideas. He could believe each in turn with all the fervor of his nature, and work it out to its full logical conclusion with no regard for anything else.

Rousseau is one of the best instances in support of the theory that genius is allied to insanity. He illustrates at once the strength and the weakness of the insane type of genius. He was full of new and original ideas that found room to germinate uncontrolled and unchecked by any rational considerations of mutual compatibility and truth. Friend and foe find in these characteristics the basis of adoration and criticism. In the riot of opinion each reader can find what appeals to him. He suits all, as does the phrenologist with his patter. Each can select what seems true to him and overlook or forget the rest. Thus Kant could find in his writings the seeds of his categorical imperative, as truly as the leaders of the Reign of Terror could find support for their excesses. Pestalozzi drew from him justification for discarding all that was in books, while the literary leaders of the enlightenment were inspired to return to classical models. While the man who goes to him in a sympathetic spirit finds in him a seer with inspiration for every different mood, the critic who looks to see what his teaching really is finds that there is on every point not one opinion, but several, that there is nowhere consistency, and when comparison is made between precept and act he finds every reason to suspect insincerity. The opposing theories are reconciled, however, when we recognize that we are dealing with an unstable nervous system, that Rousseau was not competent to coordinate and test his theories, nor to exert full control over his acts. His theories are dreams, his acts are the acts of a somnambulist. They should not be judged by the ordinary standards.

Enough of the psychology of Rousseau: our real question is, what did Rousseau contribute to psychology? This is somewhat difficult to answer. His specific contributions are practically nil. The psychology that he uses in his writings is varied. Passages in the Emile are evidently taken almost verbatim from Condillac, other passages he evidently owes to Descartes, while still others show the influence of Locke. In no place does he develop any important views of his own or even harmonize those that he borrowed. He had no followers in psychology. One can point to no one who was distinctively a psychologist that owes much to Rousseau. His strongest influence has been very recent and very indirect. Through his educational teachings that instruction should be based upon a knowledge of the child, he has perhaps had some small part in stimulating the studies of childhood that have been made in the past few decades.

Rousseau's greatest contribution to psychology is probably the raw material that he provided in his Confessions. No one else has attempted to lav bare the innermost secrets of his life in the same degree. Were it to be worked over carefully there is undoubtedly much of great value. Even this however suffers from two drawbacks. It is written for the most part so long after the events that it is probably inaccurate. It is rather Rousseau's theory of what his life should have been when viewed from near its close than a real account of the life itself. The second difficulty is the pathological character of the material. It has furnished much material or at least many illustrations to the psycho-pathologist, but the student of the normal mind must take all the statements with caution.

If Rousseau's influence upon psychology was negligible, his influence upon philosophy was of great importance. His greatest contribution to that discipline was through his effect upon Kant. Little as there seems to be in common between the stern German rationalist and the unbalanced French enthusiast, there is much to indicate that Rousseau affected Kant's general ideas in no inconsiderable degree. Of common knowledge is the story that Kant gave up his daily walk to read the Emile, and thereby caused perturbation in the minds of the burghers accustomed to set their watches by the habits of the philosopher. Kant himself bears witness to the fact that Rousseau and Hume were the two thinkers who had most profoundly influenced him, and Rousseau's portrait was the one ornament of his study. The personal admiration of Kant for Rousseau was undoubtedly profound.

When we turn to discover specific evidence of the presence of Rousseau's theories in Kant's writings, the task is not so simple. Kant was in no sense a disciple of Rousseau. Authorities differ widely as to how much and what shall be assigned to Rousseau, from the general plan of the three critiques to a few specific elements in the ethics. There seems to be good evidence that Kant became interested in the problems of man soon after he read Rousseau, or, as another puts it, that he took from Rousseau his tendency to a democratic as opposed to an aristocratic basis for morals. Wenley suggests that much of Kant's theology may be found in "The Confessions of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar" and the corresponding fourth book of Émile. Dieterich puts the emphasis upon the similarities in the ethical systems, and would trace the categorical imperative to Rousseau's doctrine of conscience and his general tendency to find the seat of authority in man's own nature. Superficially regarded, there seems little similarity between anything in Rousseau and the categorical imperative, but careful historical examination makes a fair case for their kinship. Thus we find several points at which the half-mad and altogether irresponsible Frenchman supplied grist for the mill of the most staid of modern German philosophers.

The influence of Rousseau upon Fichte and Schelling, both directly and indirectly through Kant, was also considerable. We can not go into details in the time at our disposal, but it is not too much to say that it is possible to trace the influence of Rousseau's spirit and some of his specific theories through a large part of modern philosophy.

It is in education, however, that Rousseau's theories have been most important. In later educational writers, we can find not merely possible traces of his way of thinking, but we can find his theories restated over and over, often without credit, and always thinly veiled. Most of the current educational theories can be matched in Rousseau. The doctrine of interest, that a child should learn only as he becomes interested, is Rousseau's. We find fully developed in him the culture-epoch theory and the doctrine of discipline by natural consequences usually credited to Spencer. The reaction from mere book knowledge was also made much of. Émile, it will be recalled, was not to know how to read at twelve and then was to acquire knowledge at first hand as much as possible. It is to Rousseau that we owe our vocational units. Rousseau's doctrines contributed largely to the development of later systems. Pestalozzi and Froebel drew inspiration directly from him, and Herbart owes much to him. Herbert Spencer also shows his influence indirectly, although he had not read Émile when he wrote his essay on education. For good or for ill, then, the popular educational doctrines of the day can be traced to Rousseau.

In brief, Rousseau had an important place in both philosophy and education. It would be interesting to ask how many of Rousseau's doctrines were his own and how many were merely borrowed and worked over. Many of his theories can be traced to earlier men, to Montaigne, to Rabelais, to Montesquieu. His educational theories were largely modified from Locke and Condillac, and the influence of the classics was great in all departments. Much more was common thought and common talk among his associates—what might be called the spirit of the age. What there is left that is original is difficult to say. Certainly, nowhere else among the writers of the age have these ideas been brought together and put with such emotional fervor and literary skill. Whoever may have originated the ideas, Rousseau gets credit for them because of his skill in exposition. Certainly no one better than he represents all the contradictory tendencies of his age.

Still another question presents itself in connection with a man like Rousseau. Does he deserve any credit for his ideas? They present themselves in striking profusion in a highly unstable nervous system, ideas, good, bad and indifferent, queerly assembled and altogether out of relation to each other and to the acts of the man himself. It may even be questioned whether Rousseau was able to distinguish between the true and false, the worthy and the unworthy. Each was given expression with no reference to anything else or to its value. There was apparently no definite purpose in their utterance, aside from pleasing the reader or satisfying the artistic sense of the writer, there was even no responsibility for them. It might be asked in retort how far any one deserves credit for his ideas, and how many men have been able accurately to guage the value of their contributions. Rousseau furnishes an enigma in this respect, but all questions of credit in this fundamental sense are enigmatical. Certain it is that an occasional unstable nervous system of this sort is likely to be a spot where ideas of value germinate and makes for progress in the world of thought. Whether Rousseau is to be regarded as a credit or debit on the world's books depends upon the point of view. The relatives of the victims of the Reign of Terror would give one answer; you would get another if you asked the men of all ages who have enjoyed the brilliant literary work of Rousseau or the increasing democracy that followed the French Revolution, assuming, which is an open question, that Rousseau was really responsible for the economic change.