This thesis reconsiders some of the major works and themes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the
light of recent debates centering on forms of subjectivity in liberal modernity. Rousseau is not
a liberal thinker in the sense that he invests full political agency in the individual. However,
he shares common ground with the liberal tradition in his promotion of the self to the
exclusion of the social in a number of works. On the other hand, Rousseau's strictly political
framework is communitarian in its recognition of the purely public nature of legitimacy - the
General Will which all individual citizens are expected to express and conform to.
It is argued that the dichotomy identified in Rousseau's work between the positions of subject
and citizen fail to fully realise the potential for a reconstructive view of subjectivity. This
reconstructive view is based on the potential for reconciling individuation and socialisation.
This reconciliation has two branches. In the first place, the subject loses any idealist or
transcendental status, consciousness, cognition, knowledge and other vital parameters of selfdefinition
are decentered. Secondly, subjectivity is reconstructed along relational lines as
intersubjectivity. In the process truth is demoted from the plane certainty to a more humble
life in the transactional milieu of the social sphere organising and coordinating daily actions,
forms and practices.
Rousseau's works do not expressly recognise the intersubjective reorganisation of
subjectivity. They do however traverse the field of tensions in the process of attempting to
define the subject or social life in terms either of the idealist category of selfhood, or the
practical category of community. The reference points of authenticity and autonomy are
juxtaposed to suggest that those reconstructive theories guiding some current thinking can be
useful in reconsidering Rousseau's notion of subjectivity in a more complete sense. This
greater completeness adds a dimension of inconclusiveness since it is achieved by bringing
Rousseau's narrative and autobiographical works and his systematic and philosophical works
into direct confrontation.
The Confessions is reconsidered as a work in which the attempt to describe authenticity is
immediately frustrated by the position of the real in language. However, the real cannot
appear otherwise than in language. For Rousseau self-identity has the wholeness of substance
and is grasped immediately. This immediacy is what language obscures, but it is not
recoverable through the reconstruction of the self's presence to self. Rather, the subject must
acknowledge its indebtedness to its recognition by the other for its sense of identity. This
indebtedness must further be expressed as a recognition of the other, which recognition is
identifiable at the core of language and inseparable from intentional consciousness, including
The Dialogues is the product of a crisis of the subject held to ransom and objectified by its
complete entrapment in the webs of a conspiracy. The subject makes a virtue of its unique
status as the sole object of this universal representational system. It is the reality which the
conspiracy regards but can never fully capture. The constructive power of the conspiracy can
nevertheless not dissolve the authentic self which attempts to define itself non-derivatively as
the truth misrepresented by lies. The text promises to deliver the subject as presence - as truth
- but fails. This failure is productive insofar as it advances a model of understanding more
finely tuned both to its own experience of the conspired against subject unable to ultimately
identify either the conspirators or the subject which that discourse has constructed. The
subject's attempts to test the conspiracy and to present themselves as the only fully examined
subject can never be exhausted. What follows is endless examination, revelation and
interpretation, the relocation of truth away from ontology, and the decentering of the subject
from presence to time, or multiple temporal frameworks.
For Rousseau autonomy under the law means the freedom to bind oneself to the norms of the
social formation by participating in the formation of those norms. What is not considered in
this idealism of the freely negotiated contract and the novel social agreement is the sense in
which subjects clash with the given nature of norms, their existence as conditions which one
enters involuntarily. At best, simple reconciliation with those norms represents the acceptance
of the social role as the authentic self. However, this neglects the fact that the cause is not
objective in the sense that it exists prior to discourse but only in the sense in which it assumes
priority in discourse. Clearly, under the law, oedipal narratives structure self-understanding
and the range and nature of lawful positions available to the self. However, autobiography,
insofar as it is a narrative of the representation of guiding imperatives, or a confession of
pathos laden distortions of authenticity offers the opportunity to produce self-interpretations
which actively reinscribe the cause with agency of some type.
Emile broaches but contains the framework for intersubjective selfhood. The ecuation is
driven by a model of autonomy which view relatedness in terms of compromise and sacrifice.
The form of selfhood is modelled on the real as object world, on the assumption that a
scientific understanding of nature is disenchanted and referential rather than semantic and
merely another, competing fable amongst others. However, the education resolves the
tensions it itself produces by disguising the subject's relation to forms of otherness as the
potential crisis against which its own theory guided genesis of the individual guards.