Rousseau: from theory to practice



Preface to the newly edited book by Luiz Roberto Salinas Fortes

“Writing about Politics is also located in an intermediate space between a do and a shut up. Or again: a space that is limited by two distinct figures of speech. Either we are silent because we do – the word is then superfluous – or we are silent because we can no longer do anything – the word is then useless. Between the territory of effective action and that of the impossibility of action, the domain of writing. Between the figure of the successful Prince or Legislator – Moses, Lycurgus – and the figure of the impotent politician, the space of the political writer is constituted.” (LR Salinas Fortes, Rousseau: from theory to practice).

From tacit to express: the place of the political writer

The reader of this book will be impelled to an adventure that will always leave him in abeyance, as the author does not back down or concede in the face of the risks of the undertaking he has undertaken: polemicizing with the canonical way of reading Rousseau's work as an incoherent work and, for that very reason, , inconsequential. At each step, an unsuspected difficulty highlighted finds a solution that, right after, is transfigured into a new and greater difficulty that needs to be understood and resolved. Waging a real battle with Rousseau and his most illustrious commentators, Salinas points to the place of origin of the issues that tread his path: the thought of politics.

Attacking Rousseau's alleged inconsistency head-on – inconsistency between the philosopher's writings and life, inconsistency between the writings themselves – Salinas begins by examining and discarding the various solutions that interpreters have found for this difficulty. A first solution consists of drawing the figure of a Rousseau-Proteus, born from the tearing apart of the individual victim of civilization, leading him to the ambiguous resources of dissimulation and even to pure contradiction with himself. And this would result in the impossibility of homogeneously totaling the work of the philosopher. Another offered solution appears in the figure of a Mutilated Rousseau.

Now we seek to recover the coherence of life with the work and of this with itself, thanks to a selective selection of texts compatible among themselves and which are grouped together by excluding those considered incompatible. Coherence is obtained thanks to a patient separation of the wheat and the chaff. Finally, (as it could not fail to happen) the issue of inconsistency is resolved by equitably sharing what belongs to the Young Rousseau and what is under the responsibility of the Old Rousseau. The split is operated by the recognition that there is in the philosopher a passage from radicalizing passion to reformist prudence. Refusing the various solutions presented, Salinas claims that it is not a question of investigating the individual drama of man torn apart by civilization, nor of selecting compatible parts of his work, nor, much less, of thinking about a kind of evolution from revolutionary ardor to reformist conformism.

Salinas operates, then, a displacement of the question to apprehend the genesis of Rousseau's supposed inconsistency. Based on the distinction made by the philosopher between the to be and the opinion, which marks the advent of culture, Salinas indicates how this dissociation is related to a more original split, of which the first would be an effect. It is the split between act e speak. And if this is the fundamental split, what would be the privileged place of its manifestation? The political speech.

“Isn’t political discourse, therefore, the most strategic place – or, at least, the most didactic one – from which it will be possible to begin to understand the paradoxes of this 'man with paradoxes' and understand the conception of writing that is proper to it, as well as the use manifold he makes her?”

But this direction hides new difficulties, as the inconsistency seems to reappear when texts such as the social contract and Thoughts on the Government of Poland or Mountain Cards, because now the theory (The Social Contract) seems to be denied by conjunctural discourses. And the feeling of dissimulation becomes inevitable in the reader. The passage from the general to the particular, from theory to history, seems not to be fulfilled and leads to contradiction.

Resolving this difficulty – moving from theory to practice – is the task Salinas undertakes. And to carry it out, Chapter I should be responsible for understanding the status of theoretical discourse, an understanding that leads the author to a detailed analysis of the Essay on the Origin of Languages, where the issue of language as a successive fracture of gesture and speech, of speech and writing, of persuasive writing and convincing writing rediscovers the fracture, posed in the Introduction, between speaking and acting. In this way, the theory of language recovers its original ground, which is a political ground. Indeed, what does it mean to seek the help of speech? Rousseau himself raises the paradox: how can the critic of sciences and arts be a writer? How can the book critic fulfill his critical task by writing books as well? The radical critique of the evils of culture (and therefore of writing), to be coherent, shouldn't it be the choice of silence?

One of the greatest interests of Chapter I lies in the criticism that Salinas addresses to Derrida, concerned with unraveling the metaphysical roots of Rousseau's criticism of writing as a dangerous supplement to speech and vision, much closer to Being, a proximity that writing abolishes by establishing a irreparable distance between man and nature. The first criticism addressed to Derrida consists in showing that the interpreter does not extract from his own Rehearsal the principles that would allow the reading of Rousseau's other texts, so that, after all, the theory of language thus found inevitably appears as a simple supplement to the immediate relationship with nature and with the truth. Salinas will take a path exactly opposite to this one, as he seeks in Rousseau's theory of language the principles to read Rousseau. The second criticism points to a certain blindness of the French commentator who never tries to see if the distance established between what Rousseau declares, on the one hand, and what he describes, on the other, is not a distance required by the internal logic of Rousseau's discourse. . What Salinas demonstrates to be effectively the case. Finally, a third critique reveals that the premises used by Derrida to read the Rehearsal are already given by the Rehearsal, so that the interpreter would be a victim of the power of the discourse he tries to criticize.

These three observations prepare the real criticism. Just as previously it was not about saving Rousseau by going from passion to prudence, now it is not about condemning him for an ambiguity in the critique of metaphysics to which he would still be trapped. The split between talking and acting reveals that the place of discussion is another. That is: that of a political reading of the Rehearsal that will be able to clarify it and clarify its necessary articulation with the other works of Rousseau. This will be the route taken by Salinas. Therefore, it is a question of unveiling the relationship between Logos and Power.

“The history after this fracture, (vision-speech, gesture-speech, speech-writing), our history – that the Speech describes the genesis – it will be a story of new fractures provoked by the delayed echoes of the first explosion and which are added to the first crack, ending up, little by little, consummating, with the cult of the book, the definitive disconnection of the two universes (nature and culture ; sensitive and intelligible). More than that. Leading to a complete reversal of the initial situation, as the book ends up replacing the real, turns out to be more real than the real. Thus, in a tyrannical way and in favor of the intelligible, the uniqueness of the gaze and the unity of the visual field are reconstituted”.

Persuasion and conviction are forms of political discourse. To convince is to dominate the spirit, the will, the feeling of the other – it is to tyrannize him. And the book is a tyrannical form. It is, therefore, in an eminently political context that the issue of writing must be examined. It is the context of human practice at the stage in which Reason captures nature's messages (previously captured by sensitivity) that should illuminate the question of passage through writing and the meaning of theoretical discourse.

But the difficulty does not wait. If reason, theory and writing are defined by the present needs of human activity, they nevertheless represent a fall from the original state of man in the heart of nature. If the book is tyrannical and if the culture that gives birth to it is tyrannical, how can Rousseau use the object of criticism itself as a critic's instrument? New inconsistency? No. The answer to this question emerges when one circumscribes the field in which writing and theory offer themselves, at least, as a remedy for an aging and decayed humanity. Discourse is medicine when it is political discourse.

“Writing about Politics – says Salinas – is also situated in an intermediate space between a do and a shut up. Or again: a space that is limited by two distinct figures of speaking. Either we are silent because we do – the word is then superfluous – or we are silent because we can no longer do anything – the word is then useless. Between the territory of effective action and the impossibility of action, the domain of writing extends. Between the figure of the successful Prince or Legislator – Moses, Lycurgus – and the figure of the impotent politician, the space of the political writer is constituted. If Rousseau, before entering the matter, considers it important to justify himself, he does so not only with the purpose of reassuring eventual readers, but rather with the intention of rigorously circumscribing the space of his discourse. This pedagogical concern is not accidental; is an expression, on the political level, of Rousseau's constant attitude towards science in general or towards science. philosophy".

Between the silence of successful action and the silence of social and political impotence, a discourse is installed that aims to achieve the first and eliminate the second: the discourse of political theory, which is born when all objective conditions seem to annihilate its meaning. The political book is the one written when everything seems to demand silence. But, because it was written when language, and writing in particular, became useless or a servant of the ruling power, the book takes on a new meaning that it is only possible to unravel thanks to the critique of the culture that gave rise to it. Thus, in place of Rousseau's supposed inconsistency, a discourse is placed that is a reflection on its own origin and on its social and historical destination.

Circumscribed between two silences, the act of writing points within itself to the question that raises it: the passage from theory to practice, once the passage from the tacit to the expressed is accomplished: “The point of view theoretical, constitutive of the discourse of science of man, presents itself, then, only as a necessary moment within an eminently practical. Time necessary because our present condition demands it, essentially discursive. but moment subordinate, as long as this science is only justified on the horizon of a practice. […] Just as the principle of utility serves as a criterion for establishing Emilio’s teaching program, usefulness for practice appears as a principle of delimitation of the field of knowledge: beyond the territory comprised by knowledge Useful to practice, lies the dangerous domain in which the delusions of reason take place reasoning".

three different records

Salinas examines the constitution of theoretical discourse and its landscape for practice in three different registers.

The first examination of this constitution and this passage is made in light of the difference in the persuasive effectiveness of the discourses. Theoretical discourse seeks to impose itself on the interlocutor's reason; its value: accuracy; his task: the explanation of relations that constitute the object he speaks of; its presupposition: the existence of an objective rational order where the interlocutors face each other; its organizing principle: the principle of the best. The theoretical discourse immediately focused on a specific practice, however, aims at another type of persuasion whose assumption is not the rationality of reality and the interlocutor, but the convenience or adequacy of the proposal to the interlocutor who requests it. Salinas, examining the difference between the The Social Contract and texts like Thoughts on the Government of Poland e Mountain Cards, locates the distinction of discourses in a difference of audiences. It is from the listener, therefore, that Rousseau's political speeches will find their coherence.

The political theory developed in the Contract addresses the “transcendental listener”. It is a policy developed in terms of universality and the conditions for the creation of the political body as such. His interlocutor: the Legislator. Political theory responds to the question of the origin of the body politic (non-empirical origin, evidently) by answering the question: what is the right to legislate? In turn, conjunctural texts are inserted in the context of an already existing political body whose needs are immediately practical and are inscribed in the avatars of the empirical world. Its addressee: the “empirical listener”, concrete rulers and ruled, members of a particular State whose historical, geographical and moral peculiarities must be considered by the writer.

Now the discourse answers the question: how and when is it possible to legislate? The passage from theory to practice is thus offered within a difference of audiences thanks to which theory passes into effective and opportune action, the transcendental comes to be invested in the region of the empirical and the universal penetrates into the particular through the passage of a abstract time (that of Contract) to the Kairós of present policies. There is, therefore, no inconsistency in the political writer Rousseau, but, on the contrary, there is in him an extreme attention to the usefulness, interest and effectiveness of the action of his particular listener, leading him to return in an always differentiated way to the universals placed on the plane. of the abstract purity required by theory as transcendental politics. At every step, Rousseau is attentive to the audience that requests his speech, and this only finds effectiveness if it knows how to welcome the particularity of those who hear it, a welcome that requires a kind of good use or timely use of what was addressed to the transcendental listener.

Perhaps what leads one to think of Rousseau's inconsistency, when his attention by audiences is not taken into account, is the fact that interpreters do not perceive that the philosopher obliquely breaks with the classical ideal of politics. The classical ideal starts from the assumption that there is a good society itself and that existing societies realize this ideal model well or badly, tending generally to corrupt it. Now, the themes of good society and corruption are also found in Rousseau, but displaced from the classical context. The good society, the young society, is the society where the Legislator is not just a transcendental ideal, but a concrete figure who establishes the legitimate political body. The bad society, the old and corrupt society, is not the one that distorted the ideal model of the good society, but the one that cannot find someone who embodies the figure of the Legislator. There is no chronology of corruption, but a kind of essential goodness or essential evil of political forms that are either originally good or originally bad. The latter need remedy. And the medicine is only effective if it knows exactly what ailment it is supposed to cure. Only the attention given to the “empirical listener” can tell the political writer how to remedy this malady.

The second moment of the examination of the passage from theory to practice is made thanks to a shift operated by Salinas in the criteria traditionally used by commentators on Rousseau. These assume, in general, that the political body is born of the pact and that politics is thought by the philosopher in legal terms. Salinas shifts the issue by asking: what is the terrain of the possibility of politics, not from the pact, but from the collective conscience. The foundation of politics is neither juridical (the pact) nor empirical (the concord of all wills), but the collective conscience that is expressed as the “general will”.

This displacement will make the passage from theory to practice more difficult than before, but it will, on the other hand, allow Rousseau's supposed inconsistency to be undone once more. Indeed, it is customary to point out as inconsistency the fact that, since the pact is the foundation of the body politic, how can the philosopher speak of “death of the body politic” where the pact still persists? Salinas shows us that, precisely because the pact is not the basis of the political, but the General Will, the body politic will be dead whenever the General Will has died, despite the certain inertia of the pact in its empirical permanence. Salinas therefore indicates the true place of politics: the symbolic field of the Law embodied in the General Will and whose effect is a pact between men.

Politics is not the field of pure violence and naked forces – when these manifest themselves, politics is already dead. Nor is politics the terrain where everyone's will is reconciled in a perpetual peace that annuls and mystifies the antagonistic movements of the social body. Politics is established with the establishment of the region of Law, power that is the power of the General Will, emblem of the social and its internal and necessary articulations. In this way, Salinas was able to dispel a new inconsistency imputed to Rousseau. If the pact is the foundation of the body politic, it is customary to ask how, then, Rousseau discusses the problem of political legitimacy and why does he give the Legislator a useless role, since he would be in charge of establishing what already exists? Now, as Salinas shows, the pact is not the foundation of the political body, but its point of arrival as General Will. The role of the Legislator is the role of the political founder, as his action establishes the General Will as Law.

As the author says, the Legislator constitutes himself as a political vanguard, creating the conditions for the effective exercise of politics. The passage from theory to practice is made explicit, then, in the analysis of the actions of the one who should found the political. In the logic of the Political Subject's action, the discourse finds the principle of its own knowledge and the limits of this knowledge, limits imposed on it by the practice of the political agent. “[…] neither the sensibility nor the undeveloped reason of the members of the association can constitute guides for the conservation of the body politic. Left to themselves, the members of the association would be incapable of successfully carrying out the undertaking they have in view by associating. For the common good to become the guiding pole of their behavior, it must be guaranteed and fixed, since no one can act in accordance with the common good if they do not know it and since neither insufficient enlightenment nor particular sensitivity allow members of the association a spontaneous access to the common good. […] If positive laws are necessary, it is not only because we must guard against the vice of the will, but also against the error of understanding of individuals. The body politic must take the form of a juridical order and the general will must be made explicit through laws, because man, at this stage, is naturally inclined to error and vice. […] A invention of the artificial machinery of the State is the work of the Legislator. […] Why, however, resort to this providential character? Does not the very appearance on the scene of this paternalistic figure contradict the sovereignty of the people previously asserted? […] The right to make laws belongs to the people. We have already said goodbye, however, to the plane of law. In fact, the people do not have the effective power to carry out this task, given their limitations. There is no contradiction, but a change of plan: the people part not the same as the people ideal who participates in the original pact. Between one another, between the people and blind crowd, there is a chasm to be bridged by the intervention of an exceptional individual”.

The Legislator, reason incarnate, is outside society while it is configured as a blind crowd. It is the vehicle through which reason can penetrate human history. He is the occupant of the place that belongs to the people he himself must create. Thus, the Legislator is not confused with the empirical figures of the powerful and the oppressed, mixed in the conflicts of the blind multitude. Its place is symbolic: it is the place of Power, power that belongs to the people as a political body, that is, bound by the common good to which the blind multitude must bow in obedience to the Law. The Lawgiver is not the Lawgiver. He is the Political Subject par excellence: founder and conservator of the body politic.

From these first two positions, we find the third record of the examination of the passage from theory to practice. Salinas focuses, initially, on the distinction between two great moments of the constitution of the theoretical discourse: the first moment is the analysis of the constitution of the social, and the issue of the political only appears at the next moment with the figure of the Legislator, destined to constitute the political body by the installation of the General Will. The distinction between these two moments will bring into play something that has been implicitly supporting Salinas' journey, and which is now made explicit: history. It is not the social (as a pact), but the political (as a collective conscience expressed in the General Will) that sets History in motion. Now the problem focuses on the mode of articulation between the social contract and the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, that is, between a theory of good political form and the genealogy of evil, or, if you like, between the good society and the reverse theodicy.

For the Contract not be read as an abstract elaboration of Laws, Salinas considers it essential to read it bearing in mind the second Speech. And so that one does not see inconsistency between the logical text (transcendental politics) and the genealogical text (the history of the perversion of human nature), it is necessary to shed light on the articulation between politics and history, that is, between politics and economics ( the advent of private property, the accumulation of wealth, the inequalities that are expressed as the domination of the weak by the strong, of the poor by the rich, the vice of self-love and social old age, politics heading towards despotism). “The story of the progress of inequality […] is the story of the continuing breakdown of political bodies defects constituted by human vice. […] Beside this, there is another possible story, which needs the collaboration of the Legislator in order to take effect. This action leads, therefore, to adopt the opposite path to that which the second Speech".

Earlier, we were commenting on Rousseau's way of getting rid of the classic politics of the good society and the story of its downfall. Now that statement becomes clearer. If the story narrated by the second Speech it is the story of the downfall and the perverse denaturation because in it the body politic is born addicted, it is born from the speech of the rich, from the proposal of a union of forces against a supposed enemy that must be fought so that there is justice. Now, if the weak and the poor are susceptible of being persuaded by such speech, it is because they are corrupted as much as the strong and the rich. Genealogy is the genealogy of evil because evil is at the heart of this perverse history.

Well, if there is, as Salinas says, another possible story, this new history is political history. Although already steeped in the denaturation of man, politics is a good denaturation to the extent that, as proposed by the Contract, the action of the political agent aims to find a political principle opposite to that manifested in the second Speech. Or rather, it aims to find the place of the politician itself. Thus, instead of a contradiction between the Contract And the second Speech, we find a radical transformation of the problem, as their records are not identical. In the genealogy of evil, men corrupted want to have power and exercise it through violence. In political history, there are no men – there is the People and the Law, the place of Power and the action of the Legislator.

How to articulate the two works, now that they appear as inverted discourses, but written in different dimensions? Through the mediation of the Legislator who acts on the General Will and through the intensification of social and economic relations, the practical field of politics and history is circumscribed, a circumscription that finds its theory in the social contract. The practical field of politics reveals itself as a field of forces in struggle and whose greatest risk is to degenerate into violence and despotism, that is, into total domination by one (or a few) over all. If, in this struggle, victory falls to the General Will, political practice becomes possible and another story can find the way to its effectiveness. If, on the contrary, victory belongs to the individual will, politics will be impossible, despotism inevitable, and the second Speech, the only truth about men.

This articulation of Rousseau's two great speeches will allow Salinas to unveil the subsoil of Rousseau's political theory. This is not just a typology of forms of government, as is often imagined, but rather a typology of forms of political action. Theory will pass into practice as soon as its true object is perceived: the logic of the Political Subject's action.

“At the initial term, when the institution of a body politic almost perfect is still possible, corresponds to the action of the Lawgiver itself, of Lycurgus, Moses, Numa. The Pedagogue's action corresponds to the final term, when nothing else can be done. The action becomes depoliticized, it no longer targets the city, but an isolated individual. Between these two extremes, two other types could be distinguished. On the one hand, we have the figure of the Counselor Legislator, technical adviser to the rulers. It would be the case of Rousseau himself, facing Poland or Corsica. On the other, the publicist or political writer. It is no longer the rulers that he addresses, but the people in general or the public of large corrupt societies”.

It is, then, a matter of knowing how and why these political figures come into existence, as each of these actions will correspond to a form of organization, that is, a system of different laws. Thus, the typology of political actions and the typology of forms of government draw an entirely new articulation between the Contract And the second Speech. In the case of the Legislator, the issue revolves around the possibility of realizing a political order where the General Will is sovereign, based on the establishment of four fundamental variables: two temporal variables – the age of a people and the moment in which they are able to to be legislated – and two spatial variables – the dimensions of the city and relations with the outside world. That said, it is necessary to ask, examining the concrete life of peoples, how these variables are offered historically, so that they can be picked up in a timely manner.

Nesse ponto, or Contract must be illuminated by the second Speech, because everything will depend on the relationship established, at each moment, between the laws and the vices of men. The legislation requires that vices have a force minimum, are almost at their zero degree. The pedagogy is installed precisely when they reached the maximum degree of intensity, which corresponds, in the second Speech to the triumph of despotism and the ultimate degree of inequalities – the body politic, old, is at death's door. The political difference between old age and youth is a moral difference: the young people are the people of self-love and benevolence, attentive to the voice of conscience, that is, to the presence of oneself to the other; the old people are those who have become deaf to the voice of conscience, because in them self-love has become self-love.

The conflict between the force of laws and the force of vices decides on the youth and the old age of the body politic, but the origin of this conflict must be sought in the region where morality and politics are possible or impossible, that is, in the within social relations. And again, here, the second Speech offers the path to understanding this movement of gradual loss of morals and politics. Now, what is fundamental in Salinas' interpretation is the location of the moment when politics is possible. Between the installation of property, but before wealth has become a dominant value for the whole people, the political field is born. What does this birth mean? What truth do you carry? Before property, politics is superfluous; after wealth, politics is impossible.

This means that the political field can only emerge when the social field is torn apart by an internal division that can become a relentless struggle for domination. It is the division of the social engendered by property, which requires the advent of laws and government, for the social order can only prevail if the despotic movement of self-love is contained and thwarted. Politics is born, therefore, from inequality as a social producer, but it is only political if it goes against the grain with respect to the movement immanent to inequality that would lead to the end of politics. In short: between isolation prior to ownership and collective domination, between initial individualism and final despotism, another history is possible, if politics is possible, that is, if the state of war of nascent society can be channeled to the establishment of the General Will. And, in each particular case, the political field generically defined in this way will have to find a particular form and a particular practice. But, in all possible cases, effective political action is defined by the ability to assess the maximum degree of force of laws and the minimum degree of force of vices. At this point, the Contract And the second Speech they follow exactly opposite paths, but their meaning is the same from a political point of view.

From being to seeming, from speaking to acting, from law to fact, from transcendental to empirical, the dichotomies that should suggest the inconsistencies of Rousseau's thought, on the contrary, designate the meaning of his philosophical work as a circumscription of the political field and discourse of politics. After this journey, in the Conclusion, Salinas will return to the question posed by the Introduction: is there or is there not inconsistency between Rousseau's political speeches? Immediately the answer will be negative, warranted by understanding the policy principles examined throughout the book. However, there is a second answer, also negative, but obtained in a new context, and which completes the meaning of the first, since it is rooted in the problematic that the book thematizes, that is, the passage from theory to practice.

Salinas now interprets the Thoughts on the Government of Poland. Examining the text of the Counselor Legislator, verifying its points of contact and its distance from the Contract, therefore, to the discourse of the political writer, Salinas points out the paradoxes and inconsistencies that seem to run through the totality of the Considerations, reinforcing the traditional interpretation of Rousseau as a charlatan and opportunist. However, suddenly, the reader is led to reread the Considerations to finally understand that he is not facing simple inconsistencies, but true contradictions. However, and this is the essential point, Salinas makes us discover that such contradictions are not in Rousseau's speech, but in Poland, object of the speech.

It is, therefore, the political object that is contradictory and not the discourse that reveals it. It becomes clear, then, why since the beginning of the book Salinas refuses the notion of incoherence, since this is not a political category and cannot shed the slightest light on Rousseau's writings, man with paradoxes, that is, a thinker who reaches the universe of politics as a universe governed by a logic paradoxical – a logic of contradiction. If it is possible to think of the passage from theory to practice in Rousseau, it is because his theory is able to embrace political reality in what makes it enigmatic and demanding of praxis, that is, in its contradictions. This is why in Considerations the question of the form of government is almost secondary to another fundamental question: that of the political action that forms or transforms the body politic.

*Marilena Chaui is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. She is the author, among other books, of against voluntary servitude (Authentic).


Luiz Roberto Salinas Fortes. Rousseau: from theory to practice. São Paulo, Editorial Discourse, 2021, 200 pages.

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