Thoughts on David James’ “Rousseau on needs, language and pity”

In his excellent article “Rousseau on needs, language and pity: The limits of ‘public reason’,” published in the European Journal of Political Theory (July 2011 vol. 10 no. 3 372-393), David James (Cambridge) looks to defend Rousseau’s account of public reason from writers, such as Frederick Neuhouser (Columbia), who would interpret Rousseau as committed to excluding affective language from public deliberation and, consequently, as sharing something crucially in common with Kantian or Rawlsian models of moral and political reasoning.

James turns to Rousseau’s account of the origins of language and his account of pity and moral development in Emile, putting forth the argument that language plays an essential, and also essentially democratic, role in the public communication of human needs.

Rousseau’s recognition of the way in which spoken language forms an essential element in democratic politics, and of how such language may have its source in human need, implies that we can think of language that is anchored in human need and which may, in certain cases, take on accents of pain and of anger, as representing a potentially legitimate contribution to modern democratic politics, even when it does not, in terms of its form, in any obvious sense conform to the demands associated with the idea of public reason. (382)

James writes that for Rousseau, the emotion of pity represents a requirement rather than an impediment to recognizing one’s duty to others:

Pity thus turns out to be a sentiment that constitutes a condition of the formation of a genuine general will, in the sense that it allows human beings to recognize the fundamental needs of others. (382)

Furthermore, language fulfills an important function in eliciting pity:

Experiencing this sentiment may often depend on being confronted with the kind of expressive language … with the power of spoken language manifesting itself in its capacity to  arouse sentiment rather than in its capacity to address itself to the understanding alone. (382-3)

For Rousseau, our inducement to pity others works according to the logic of analogy, that is, pity is possible because of our capacity to imaginatively represent our own experiences of pain and anguish in others:

[W]hile pity is said to be ‘natural to man’s heart’, Rousseau at the same time claims that it would have remained ‘eternally inactive without imagination to set it in motion’, and that it requires some degree of reflection, by which he specifically means the act of comparing. As we have seen, this type of act for Rousseau amounts to an act of judgement and thus of reasoning. (386)

This capacity for analogy is a form of judgment:

Pity is not a mere impulse, however, since it involves the use of judgement in the form of the act of comparing ourselves with others… (386)

This, in turn, serves as the basis of further judgements about the needs and suffering of others:

[M]oral reasoning and judgement in turn presuppose the capacity to experience the sentiment of pity, since this affective element is needed to turn attention away from ourselves and our own needs and interests towards other human beings who have their own needs and interests. (387)

It is for these reasons that James believes Rousseau’s vision of public reasoning and democratic politics is firmly rooted in affective modes of linguistic communication:

Practical reasoning, insofar as it concerns the moral relations between human beings, needs instead to remain embedded in this form of life, which, after all, represents an integral aspect of human existence. (387-8)

James concludes with a what I think is a vital but nevertheless neglected point about the privileging of reasoned deliberation. He writes that the denigration of certain affective modes of communication excludes and subjugates citizens who are unwilling or unable to formulate their needs in terms amenable to a Kantian or Rawlsian ideal of reasoned argument:

[T]o claim that it is only when they have been given the form of carefully considered opinions that people’s grievances can be introduced as legitimate contributions to modern democratic politics threatens to deprive sections of society of a voice should they be unable to reformulate their grievances, because of lack of education or because they cannot find someone to do it for them. In certain circumstances, a more primitive and harsher mode of expression may, in fact, be regarded as the most natural and appropriate one, in virtue of its being the only form of language which is expressive enough to draw attention to the plight of certain people, with the speaker’s emotionally charged complaints being the only really effective means of arousing in others the sentiment of pity. On these grounds, it could be asked whether the Kantian idea of public reason really provides a suitable model for political deliberation in the case of societies which are poor and in which there is only limited access to education, for example, or in which considerable material inequalities exist. In such societies, the possibility of genuine democratic politics and the formation of an authentic general will may instead be thought to depend on making room for the type of spoken language just mentioned. (388)

Finally, James writes that with the help of Rousseau our conception of the democratic politics may begin to acknowledge that it is not the inclusion but the exclusion of sentiments that threaten the formation of the general will:

The sentiment of pity should not, therefore, be treated as a mere impulse that is to be regarded with suspicion when it comes to determining the content of the general will because it appears to conflict with the idea of public reason. Rather, it is the emphasis that this idea places on the form in which something is expressed that may threaten the formation of a genuine general will. (389)

James’ article is a welcome addition to the exploration of the affective dimensions of political discourse as developed throughout the history of western political thought. I would like to draw attention here to a prejudice of political thinking that persists in Rousseau’s work and which has received much less attention. James’ touches on it in his initial discussion of Rousseau’s history of the origins of language, specifically Rousseau’s idea humans can communicate through gesture or through voice. Needs are communicated through gesture, but it was the necessity of communicating passions that gave rise to the development of language. Indeed, because human beings were wandering around fulfilling their needs in isolation, according to Rousseau’s depiction of the state of nature, language could not have emerged to communicate needs. The development of language requires humans to come together in some coordinative or cooperative venture which can serve as its basis.

Now, Rousseau asserts a variety of peculiar reasons why we humans finally began working collectively (e.g., natural disaster). In any event, the passions developed shortly thereafter and so, too, did language emerge to communicate those passions. But Rousseau is also inconsistent (or ‘nuanced’, if you please), as James points out, in that (in typical 18th century fashion) he also differentiates the origins of language among peoples in the temperate South from its origins among those in the hostile conditions of the North. In the harsh North, people used language to communicate needs in unsentimental ways for the strict purposes of understanding. The rest, as you might guess, is history.

The point I wish to make here is that as with the vast majority of western political thinkers, Rousseau’s preoccupation with language allows for a range of leaps and non sequiturs in conceiving both the form and content of communication appropriate to democratic politics. If I may take James’ astute interpretations one step further, we can observe how Rousseau permits us to understand that affective language is essential to democratic politics insofar as it communicates needs that might otherwise go unrepresented and reflects the very capacity to think from the standpoint of the other that ‘reasoned’ approaches privilege. However, it is far from clear that gesture is incapable of communicating passions, and it remains a question whether language is superior to gesture in the communication of either needs or passions.

One reason for skepticism is that this account of language which sees it as emerging for the sake of the cooperative and coordinative activities that feature passions presumes precisely what it purports to explain. In uncritically asserting the primacy of language we overlook entirely that language is itself a coordinative and cooperative activity and, as Wittgenstein observed, that the emergence of language actually presupposes mutual understanding and judgement. Put another way, language is itself an example or instantiation of the sort of collective reasoning that political thinkers have always assumed comes about as a result of language.

Related to this is the issue of imaginative, analogical understandings of the other. For once again this account simply presupposes rather than explains that the other is an intelligible being whose behaviours are the appropriate object of analogy. In short, the imaginative and linguistic bridge described by thinkers to account for the connection between human beings spans an epistemological abyss that never really existed. Communication through mediation and representation (imaginative or linguistic or gestural) is essential for some things, but not for mutual understanding, coordination, and even the establishment and contestation of norms of behaviour. These must already be in place. One might ask how we knew to build a bridge in the first place.

We can of course highlight how language allows for abstract forms of conceptual, theoretical, or philosophical reasoning. But we must also acknowledge that this Platonic deployment of language and reasoning has failed to account for the concrete forms of practical or political reasoning essential to democratic politics. Language may be essential to philosophy, but it is not yet clear what role it can and should plays in politics. That role is obscured by our present and persistent identification of politics with language and representation.

And so I suggest that we take up James’ challenge to identify the danger to democracy entailed in our dismissal or denigration of the languaging of needs, whatever form that languaging may take. But I also suggest that we move past the privileging of language found even in Rousseau, to expand such consideration and to privilege the unmediated interactions and practical reasoning which serve as the existential grounds for all forms of imagining, languaging, and gesturing.