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«Chapter 1 � � The diffusion of Rousseau’s influence over the past two centuries has been so wide and so substantial that hardly a subject or ...»

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Chapter 1

The diffusion of Rousseau’s influence over the past two centuries has

been so wide and so substantial that hardly a subject or movement appears to have escaped his clutches. According to the old litany, he was

responsible only for nationalism, romanticism, collectivism and the

French Revolution; now a good many of his admirers, and some of his

critics too, inform us that psychiatry and structuralism are also derived

largely from his writings; and in the past generation we have witnessed yet another monumental proclamation on his behalf—to the effect that he founded the science of anthropology. In his ‘extraordinarily modern view of the passage from nature to culture’,2 Rousseau posed the central problem of that discipline, writes one of its most distinguished practitioners today, Claude Lévi-Strauss. By focusing upon both his own psychic state and character, on the one hand, and the behaviour of savage peoples, on the other, he sought to define the inward and outward limits of mankind, not for the sake of ascertaining our origins but in order to establish the essence of humanity itself within these boundaries. He perceived the polarities between our animal and moral attributes, between our sentimental and rational traits and in general between our natural and cultural patterns of behaviour, along lines which have marked the development of the human sciences ever since and which, moreover, distinguish the perspective of the anthropologist, according to LéviStrauss, from the approaches of the moralist and the historian in their investigations of the affairs of men. Of course these general claims about the field will not command universal assent from their author’s colleagues, and they may admit of several possible interpretations anyway; but at least there can be little doubt that the writings of Rousseau have exercised a profound influence upon the anthropology of LéviStrauss himself. For he has expounded this view of Rousseau’s contribution not only in an article devoted specifically to the subject3 and in the passage from Le Totémisme aujourd’hui which is cited here, but similarly at points throughout his major writings from Tristes tropiques to L’origine des manières de table, where—in the last case—splendid Copyrighted Material 2 CHAPTER 1 citations from Emile are employed to introduce the theme of nearly every chapter.

Thus is introduced a whole new world in which the spread of Rousseauism has still to be traced, and the task confronting historians of ideas would already be sufficiently daunting, therefore, were it not for the fact that almostprecisely the opposite interpretation of the significance of Rousseau’s account of man has been even more recently propounded by Robert Ardrey—that arch-enemy of cultural anthropology in general. Ardrey dedicates one of his latest works, appropriately entitled The Social Contract, to the memory of Rousseau and praises the real modernity and ‘visionary’ character of his thought because of its focus upon our roots in nature rather than our passage to culture. Rousseau ‘pondered over the way of the animal as of significance to the way of man’4 and hence two centuries before the coming of ethology glimpsed a truth which is today wilfully ignored by so-called social scientists—the truth that genetically established forms of behaviour are manifest in human societal systems as well as in the societies of all other organisms.5 What ought to be studied, according to Ardrey, are the relations between individuals that stem from the innate and universal attributes of animal life, whereas cultural anthropologists who detect a fundamental discontinuity between mankind and other zoological species are just impervious to the revolutionary ideas of Darwinism which have reverberated throughout all the life sciences apart from their own.

Now the gulf that separates Lévi-Strauss and Ardrey is in certain respects less wide than I have so far suggested, and my remarks require at least some qualification. For one thing, Lévi-Strauss has deliberately, if only slightly, modified his views about the distinction between nature and culture which he first exposited in detail in Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté in 1949, and in his more recent writings he has been as much concerned to stress the inseparability of culture from the nature of humanity in one sense as to point to the hiatus between them in another.

Ardrey, for his part, has clearly altered his own views on Rousseau in the course of his career, for in his ethological writings both before and after The Social Contract he describes Rousseau’s conception of man’s original goodness (or the idea of the noble savage, on his account) as actually underlying what he takes to be the centrally false perspective of cultural anthropology,6 and even in The Social Contract itself he seems to admire Rousseau’s approach to the study of human nature only grudgingly and credits him more for the questions he posed than the solutions he provided.7 So far as I know, Lévi-Strauss and Ardrey have never really addressed themselves directly to each other’s views, either about anthropology in general or Rousseau in particular,8 and it would in any case be a Copyrighted Material


mistake to regard their respective claims as expressing a consensus of opinion that divides anthropologists and ethologists as a whole, since both figures (especially Ardrey, who has come to his subject as an amateur and popularizer relatively late in life) have their critics within their own disciplines as well as across them.

The chief principles that distinguish the work of the two men in their analyses of human nature remain, nevertheless, fundamental and decisive.

If only in a general way, they even express the most striking dichotomies

between the interests of cultural anthropologists and ethologists in turn:

that is, myths, rituals, kinship systems, languages and social institutions of savage peoples, on the one hand, and the feeding and sexual behaviour, patterns of dominance and submission, territorial control and, arguably, aggression, perceived across a wide spectrum of animal species—often including man (the naked ape)—on the other. And while these discrepancies may, as a rule, be based more on differences of subject matter in each case than on divergences of methodology, I think it is at least clear that Lévi-Strauss and Ardrey hold essentially conflicting views of what has proved valuable in the contribution made by Rousseau to the study of human nature and behaviour.

Perhaps some historians of Rousseau’s influence would regard such antithetical praise as evidence of the immensely broad sweep and complex texture of his philosophy as a whole—as if, like Zimri in Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, he was ‘A man so various that he seemed to be / Not one, but all mankind’s epitome’. In my view, however, such a rich profusion of ideas would imply more inconsistency than breadth or profundity; if the interpretations of Lévi-Strauss and Ardrey were both accurate, then Rousseau’s reflections, by admitting so much and rejecting too little, ought to be less worthy of serious acclaim. In fact, his conception of human nature is profound and subtle, I believe, not because it anticipates the views of Lévi-Strauss and Ardrey together, but largely because it excludes the bias of each; the two men, in their different ways, overlook a crucial element of his account of our nature and origins, while focusing upon—and indeed misinterpreting—only one aspect of his thought as if it were the most vital. For Rousseau perceived a historical connection between the animal and cultural features of humanity, and between our physical evolution and social development, which led him to construct a comprehensive anthropological theory remarkably original in his own day, and, in my judgement, still worthy of critical investigation now. My aim here will be to sketch what I take to be the leading features of that theory in the intellectual context which at once most clearly establishes their meaning and, I think, elucidates their significance as well.

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It is sometimes suggested that our differing assessments of the natural and cultural determinants of human behaviour have their foundation in ancient philosophy. Such distinctions as were drawn between nature and custom by Plato, for instance, or between nature and art by Aristotle, are said to underlie the fundamental assumptions that still mark off the natural from the social sciences, while claims about the animal origins of human conduct, or about the instinctual roots of social life, can also be traced to the ancient doctrine of an unbroken scala naturae which was supposed to join together all living creatures through a succession of anatomical approximations linked to behavioural similarities as well. It is today much less widely appreciated, however, that one of the main points at issue in the Enlightenment controversies about human nature and culture was the character of the relation between mankind and the great apes.

In the 1670s Sir William Petty was still able to argue that the second place in Nature’s ladder was actually filled by elephants rather than apes, since, apart from their shape, elephants displayed greater signs of humanity.9 Yet by the 1680s and 1690s few commentators on the subject still doubted that apes resembled men more closely than did any other creatures, and anthropological interest over the next century came to be directed largely to the question of how we might be connected with, or distinguished from, those animals most immediately adjacent to us in the natural world.

The great majority of scientific figures of the period—including Tyson, Buffon, Bonnet, Herder and Blumenbach—followed Claude Perrault10 in contending that our exercise of reason and command of language proved our superiority over the apes, since despite the anatomical similarities between these animals and men they lacked the mental capacity to think or speak which was peculiar to our species. A number of scientists and philosophers, however, such as Linnaeus, La Mettrie, Monboddo and Camper, challenged this perspective of a decisive intellectual gulf between man and beast, sometimes maintaining that infant apes could in principle be trained to speak, sometimes contending, on the contrary, that they could never be so trained, but only because of anatomical or physiological factors rather than any spiritual deficiencies.

The history of these eighteenth-century controversies has been sadly ignored by most anthropologists, no doubt because they regard, or would regard, them as preceding the emergence of their subject around the distinctive questions and problems which have since established its coherence. But the Enlightenment debates about apes, men and language did not only antedate the anthropological researches of the next period; they very substantially gave rise to the subject in its present forms. For as Copyrighted Material


speculative philosophies regarding our place in Nature came in the late eighteenth century to be superseded by comparative anatomy, by firsthand observations of the behaviour of apes and by more extensive investigations into the cultures of primitive peoples, the attention of scientists came gradually to be drawn away from the apparently gross distinctions between apes and men and at the same time towards the seemingly finer variations which mark off one type of man from another. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, that is, with the exhaustion of the Enlightenment discussions of the primate limits of humanity, anthropology came instead to be focused upon the boundaries and distinctions within our species, upon the study of races, in effect, rather than the study of apes and language. And the controversies about human origins and savage societies that have raged since then in both physical and cultural anthropology, while often of immense significance in themselves, have seemed collectively to be at least internal to the discipline and, in their avowedly empirical character, distinct from the approaches to the study of man’s nature that had prevailed before.

Yet for at least two reasons it seems to me regrettable that contemporary investigations of primitive cultures and hominid fossils should generally take such little stock of their own historical roots in Enlightenment philosophies of man: first, because, in attempting to establish the zoological frontiers of humanity, eighteenth-century thinkers were characteristically more concerned with defining the scope of their subject than many social anthropologists are today; and, second, because their definitions were more clearly addressed to the idea of language conceived as a cultural barrier or bridge between animals and men than is often the case now in the writings of physical anthropologists and ethologists alike.

Enlightenment commentators, that is, directed their attention more to the conceptual boundaries of humanity than to the geographical outposts of civilization, and they did not take it for granted that a study of man’s nature should consist basically of the examination of societies in the remote peripheries of the modern world. By addressing themselves to language as the most central manifestation of our capacity for culture, moreover, they were careful to avoid comparisons between men and apes which dealt exclusively with anatomical structures or with similarities of non-verbal behaviour. Enlightenment anthropologists, in short, perceived their subject plainly in terms of the relation between the biological and social characteristics of man, without supposing that human nature was either an assemblage of instincts or a product of culture.11 It is this conjunction of approaches that forms the most striking feature of eighteenthcentury speculation about mankind, as I see it—nowhere more conspicuously, or with greater profundity, than in the writings of Rousseau. What is fundamentally missing from the panegyric of Lévi-Strauss is a proper Copyrighted Material


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