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The Education of Amour-Propre

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image of Journal of Moral Philosophy

In the First Discourse, Rousseau complains that modern morals encourage us to think of ourselves in an impersonal and hygienic manner, and to present ourselves in public space as dimensionless members of society. Submission to modern morals encourages conformism, Rousseau argues, and conformism precludes us from having selves of the sort upon which moral freedom depends. In this paper, I argue that Rousseau’s vision of the redemptive promise of amour-propre should be understood in light of his concern to reverse the existential catastrophe of conformism and to precipitate a social climate more hospitable to self-creation. This concern informs the moral purpose of Rousseau’s austerely republican societies, and it determines the role of amour-propre in animating the best citizens. Recent interpretive trends give too little scope to the indicated concern. In consequence, they obscure one of the richest dimensions of Rousseau’s social theory.

Affiliations: 1: Institute for Advanced Study in Culture, University of Virginia,


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