Skip to main content

History of communion (Discourse on Inequality) (pt. 1)

In a recent post here I mentioned that I need to read Rousseau's Discourse upon the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind (1755[1761]) sooner rather than later. Since I've been handing out lately with a young lady who studied French at some point, I took this up sooner than I anticipated. I regularly abstain from reading translations but consider this one's age and availability (particularly during the 19th Century) a personal justification.

The thing is, I'm not sure if I can make reading it a jeesusjalutasallveelaeval post since my recent readings have taken a looser form. I've become somewhat disillusioned with my habitual style of blogging. Blockquotes and comments don't do my memory and comprehension as many favours as I would like them to. Presently, I see little point in lining up quotes by themselves. Instead, I'd go over some verbiage from the book here, essentially listing the stuff I've found interesting or usable.

In essence, you (arided) recently (in our Phatische Briefe) recommended History of the Present as a possible Journal for publishing consideration. I think a paper on the Spencer-Malinowski connection could do with some elaboration, if not in that journal, then at least oriented towards its themes. Including Rousseau (and possibly some others from the period predating Malinowski) looks like the only reasonable way to go about it.

Communion, the aim of Society


Rousseau meditates on the Manner in which Wisdom leads to Happiness and best answers "the Ends of Society" and "the Maintenance of public Order and the Security of private Happiness" (1761: iv-v). - In Herbert Spencer's comparative psychology, maintenance serves the Social State, here given as public order. It would be an innovation (in a limited sense) to connect these concerns with Malinowski's phatic communion in order to demonstrate the maintenance of the social matrix of communication (the integration between groups within a society).

In Rousseau's ideal state "all the Subjects could be so well known to each other" and embody love of country in "a Love for its Inhabitants" (1761: v-vi). While grand and utopian, the core of it touches upon Malinowski's phatic communion in a miniscule manner: casual conversation is a way to overcome the strangeness felt towards a non-acquaintance. Making chit-chat with a fellow countryman for no particular purpose is a way to foster a sense of community within the nation? The analogy is a bit drawn-out but this acquaintance is definitely a factor needful of elaboration.

While dreaming of "A free city" (Geneva as a utopia), he notes that it should be "situated among Nations" in a non-aggressive manner, and "might reasonably depend upon [the] Assistance [of its Neighbours] in case of Necessity" (1761: xiii). One curious aspect of sympathy between Spencer and Malinowski, and the former's contemporaries, is forming an association or founding a brotherhood for sake of self-preservation or accumulating the resources for self-preservation. Social support is a thread piercing many studies operating with Malinowski's phatic communion.


Rousseau dreams of "living peaceably in a sweet Society with my Fellow Citizens, and exercising towards them, and after their Example, the Duties of Humanity, Friendship, and every other Virtue, so as to leave behind me the Character of an honest Man and a worthy Patriot" (1761: xx-xxi). Interrelated associations:

    • "living peaceably in a sweet Society with my Fellow Citizens"
    • "Obviously the degree of the desire for the presence of fellow-men, affect greatly the formation of social groups, and consequently underlies social progress." (Spencer 1876: 18)
    • "The breaking of silence, the communion of words is the first act to establish links of fellowship, which is consummated only be the breaking of bread and the communion of food." (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 314) [PC 4.3]
    • "exercising towards them, and after their Example, the Duties of Humanity, Friendship, and every other Virtue"
    • "What respective shares in checking impulsiveness are taken by the feelings which the social state fosters - such as the fear of surrounding individuals, the instinct of sociality, the desire to accumulate property, the sympathetic feelings, the sentiment of justice?" (Spencer 1876: 12) - Presumably, the social state fosters friendly relations tending towards the homogeneity and integration of the community.
    • "To the primitive mind, whether among savages or our own uneducated classes, taciturnity means not only unfriendliness but directly a bad character. This no doubt varies greatly with the national character but remains true as a general rule." (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 314) [PC 4.3-4] - Malinowski is putting a linguistic twist on it by way of gregariousness.
    • "to leave behind me the Character of an honest Man and a worthy Patriot"
    • "What connection is there between this trait and the social state? Clearly a very explosive nature - such as that of the Bushman - is unfit for social; and, commonly, social union, when by any means established, checks impulsiveness." (Spencer 1876: 12) - Some of his contemporaries connect the question of impusliveness (instincts, emotions) with charactere (here given as "nature"). Between Spencer and Malinowski there appears a clash between natural character vs. national character.

Anthropo-philosophical strands


When dreaming of his perfect city, he wrote that "the Legislative Power was common to all its Inhabitants" (1761: xiv) but specified that "in order to put a stop to interested and ill-digested Projects, and dangerous Innovations [...] no private Citizen had a Right to propose any Laws that came into his Head, but that this Privilege belonged solely to the Magistrates" (1761: xv). Effectively, "the People approved the Laws proposed by their Magistrates with so much Reserve" that "every Member of the Community might have sufficient Time to be convinced" (1761: xvii).

I liked this dream of near-direct democracy, although I personally imagine future Magistrates to be somewhat like moderators who filter, improve, and promulgate anything that came into someone's head and got enough community support and consideration for realization. I also liked that the Rousseau needs those who govern the state to be "the most knowing, sensible, and honest Men" elected anually from different departments, who must have integrity to do justice to the wisdom of the people (1761: xviii-xix). The latter bit I see tinted in sweet irony in Bill Maher's Religiolous, for example, where a career politician in an interview admits that there are no serious requirements for politicians (that you don't need to be the most knowing, sensible and honest person to become one).



  1. This goes some ways to addressing the question I was getting at in another comment today: what is the social / society ?

    I'm reminded by the Rousseau quotes of Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense" where he talks about the difference and tensions between consensus social views and individual innovations. Nietzsche uses a primarily linguistic "register" whereas Rousseau is using a primilarly political one, but I'd imagine that these are related.

    The polis vs the nation state has been in current discussions to, e.g., Sadiq Kahn (Mayor of London) writing in a special issue of The Economist:

    "As mayor of one of just a handful of truly global cities, I’ve seen first-hand that big cities are assuming an even greater role in our globalised world."

    Anti-democratic theorists are getting some play recently too, in connection with an analysis of Steve Bannon.

    "[Neoreaction] espouses an explicitly authoritarian idea, a rejection of the post-Enlightenment vision of a world that is continually improving as it becomes more democratic."

  2. I'm slowly reading up on the philosophical foundations of Trumpism (insofar as they exist...). Here's a relevant quote:

    It is a structural inevitability that the libertarian voice is drowned out in democracy, and according to Lind it should be. Ever more libertarians are likely to agree. ‘Voice’ is democracy itself, in its historically dominant, Rousseauistic strain. [...] Even more than Equality-vs-Liberty, Voice-vs-Exit is the rising alternative, and libertarians are opting for voiceless flight. --


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

the social role of humor - Jason P. Steed apropos of Donald J. Trump

See Storify Here's the info about the PhD thesis he was referring to. Title: Joke-making Jews/jokes making Jews: Essays on humor and identity in American Jewish fiction.
Creator: Jason Paul. Steed
Contributor: Joseph McCullough; University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Subjects: American literature -- 20th century;
Anecdotes; Comedy; Comedians -- United States; Sociology; United States -- Study and teaching; Thesis (PhD)
Is Part Of: 65-08A.
Description: Beginning from the premise that humor plays a prominent role in the construction of group and individual identities, as a social phenomenon and a simultaneously alienating and assimilating force, these essays explore and examine humor and its construction of American Jewish identity within the context of various works of American Jewish fiction. Though organized as "chapters," the essays do not build upon one another progressively, nor do they center on a uni…

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal

The typical conception of a resource like "Arxiv" or "Wikipedia" is summed up in the name: it is an archive or an encyclopedia that anyone can edit.  "Stack Exchange" is somewhat less self-descriptive -- but nevertheless, the emphasis on "exchange" is apt, since this site is not quite a gift economy in Eric S. Raymond's sense, but rather a place where questions are exchanged for answers, and both are exchanged for reputation in the form of points and badges.

Nevertheless, in broad brushstrokes all three resources have something much more essential as a common basis: they all grow in the course of use.  That said, they do not typically transform radically along the way.  Arxiv remains an archive; Wikipedia remains a wiki and encyclopedia; Stack Exchange is and always will be a Q&A site focused on questions with specific, usually technical, answers.

But what if we get "outside" of these systems, stop thinking about them as objec…