Rousseau's Theodicy of Self-Love: Evil, Rationality, and the Drive for Recognition. By Frederick Neuhouser


Pp. xii, 279 , New York , Oxford University Press , 2008 , $70.00.

This work does an admirable job of clarifying the central notion of Rousseau's philosophy, amour-propre, by placing it within the context of a theodicy. It is arguably the first comprehensive treatment of Rousseau's theory of amour-propre, or, the desire for recognition in the eyes of other human beings. By relating the theory to theodicy specifically, Neuhouser is able to highlight the uniqueness of Rousseau's theory of evil in two ways: Rousseau locates moral evil in the actions that follow from maligned manifestations of the human drive for recognition rather than in the designs of nature; and, Rousseau locates the possibility for redemption in human institutions geared towards reshaping those motivations such that proper relations amongst human beings can be established through the cultivation of the standpoint of reason from the positive resources offered by amour-propre.

Neuhouser follows thinkers like N.J.H. Dent and Timothy O'Hagan who challenge the orthodox readings of Rousseau's theory of amour-propre by maintaining that it has a dual nature over and above the primary distinction of Rousseau's philosophy, i.e., amour-propre and amour-de-soi. Inflamed amour-propre issues forth in complex relations of dominance and superiority, while in its healthy form, it is a neutral drive for esteem in relation to others of equal standing and does not necessarily lead to dangerous senses of recognition and the evil actions that they inspire. Neuhouser argues that Rousseau holds that amour-propre not only presents the motivation for evil but that it also presents remedies for that very evil. When cultivated in relation to pity and self-love, it can play a useful role in forming human beings into rational subjects, an insight that stays true to Rousseau's suggestion that it is both a dangerous and useful phenomenon. Rousseau's theodicy then locates both the capacity for moral evil and its redemption in amour-propre, which is to say that redemption stems from the same origin as the cause.

The organization of the book follows from the main argument. The first part presents Rousseau's theory of human nature and locates the rise of amour-propre within the context of the narrative provided in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality and various passages of Emile. A nuanced discussion follows, which broadens the concept's meaning beyond the orthodox reading in order to pave the way for unearthing its positive potentialities. The second part focuses on inflamed amour-propre specifically in terms of a diagnosis, the remedies for which follow in the last two parts. The third part deals with Rousseau's social and political remedies for its inflamed incarnation and the role of domestic education in shaping individuals as rational subjects. The fourth part deals with the potential for amour-propre to provide the resources for rational subjectivity.

It follows from Neuhouser's interpretation that the remedies offered by Rousseau for inflamed amour-propre in part three and four are less radical than sometimes proposed. Social, political, and educational institutions cannot be aimed at simply eradicating the evils that follow from amour-propre in their entirety, as a less nuanced reading of Rousseau might suggest. Instead, they have to be understood to limit them by striking a balance between the potential for the good and evil consequences of amour-propre.

In the fourth part of the book then, Neuhouser explores the positive potential of Rousseau's account of amour-propre. His claim is that it provides human subjects with the resources necessary for rationality, morality, and freedom, all of which are necessary for subjectivity. Understanding oneself through relations to others makes it possible to compare, empathize, and determine one's ends within the context of the human world. In other words, to be a self capable of reasoning, acting morally, and acting freely requires that one situate oneself in relation to others, no less so than relations of dominance, superiority, or, alienation. The former perspective entails situating oneself in such a way that the rational standpoint contextualizes the self, while the latter entails that the self puts itself outside of community with others. In this way, what Neuhouser calls ‘the standpoint of reason,’ entails a healthy form of amour-propre held in check through the counterweight of the rightful demands of human community that shape subjectivity.

In the conclusion, Neuhouser focuses on a limitation of Rousseau's account. As a description of the source of human evil, it is overly simplistic. It is not Rousseau's justification for the original innocence of human nature in the face of evil, but his designation of the locus of a complex phenomenon like evil in one source that Neuhouser ultimately finds tenuous.

While Neuhouser's book may appeal to philosophers of religion, political theorists, thinkers interested in psychology, and interpersonal communications, it should appeal to Rousseau scholars especially. It is one of the most nuanced and comprehensive studies of Rousseau's theory of amour-propre available today. His treatment of the theory is persuasive, and he stays true to Rousseau's thought. Neuhouser's treatment offers a unified analysis of Rousseau's work in the tradition of thinkers like Ernst Cassirer and Jean Starobinski who attempt to offer comprehensive accounts of Rousseau's system. Rousseau scholars will also find much that will inspire lively dispute here, especially those who are apt to understand amour-propre as exclusively negative.

While Neuhouser's scholarship is remarkably solid, situating the concept of amour-propre historically would be beneficial, since it would allow the reader to see what is unique in Rousseau's appropriation of it. Of course, in general, the treatment of Rousseau's work in relation to religious concepts like theodicy is a start in the direction of understanding his thought in relation to the religious concepts that he tended to appropriate to secular ends. However, much can be gained by comparing his work with his predecessors like Pascal who discusses amour-propre extensively. In fairness, this is not Neuhouser's primary intention, since he returns to Rousseau in order to shed light on the problems of recognition, domination, and violence, which continue to appear in nineteenth and twentieth century continental philosophy.