Rousseau's General Will: Freedom of a Particular Kind



Had Rousseau not been centrally concerned with freedom, some of the structural features of his political thought would be unaccountable. Above all, the notion of general will would not have become the core of his political philosophy. Rousseau's reasons for using ‘general will’ as his central political concept were essentially philosophical. The two terms of general will - ‘will’ and ‘generality’ - represent two main strands in his thought. ‘Generality’ stands for the rule of law, for civic education that draws us out of ourselves and towards the general (or common) good. ‘Will’ stands for Rousseau's conviction that civil association is ‘the most voluntary act in the world’, that ‘to deprive your will of all freedom is to deprive your actions of all morality’. And if one could ‘generalize’ the will, so that it ‘elects’ only law, citizenship, and the common good, and avoids ‘willful’ self-love, then one would have a general will in Rousseau's particular sense. The distinctiveness of Rousseau's general will is further brought out through a comparison with Kant's ‘good will’ about which Rousseau would have felt severe doubts.