Jean-Jacques Rousseau on nature, wholeness and education

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau on nature, wholeness and education. His novel Émile was the most significant book on education after Plato’s Republic, and his other work had a profound impact on political theory and practice, romanticism and the development of the novel. We explore Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s life and contribution.

contents: introduction · life · nature, wholeness and romanticism · social contract and the general will · on education · on the development of the person · conclusion · further reading and references · links · how to cite this article

Why should those concerned with education study Rousseau? He had an unusual childhood with no formal education. He was a poor teacher. Apparently unable to bring up his own children, he committed them to orphanages soon after birth. At times he found living among people difficult, preferring the solitary life. What can such a man offer educators? The answer is that his work offers great insight. Drawing from a broad spectrum of traditions including botany, music and philosophy, his thinking has influenced subsequent generations of educational thinkers – and permeates the practice of informal educators. His book Émile was the most significant book on education after Plato’s Republic, and his other work had a profound impact on political theory and practice, romanticism and the development of the novel (Wokler 1995: 1).


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was born in Geneva (June 28) but became famous as a ‘French’ political philosopher and educationalist. Rousseau was brought up first by his father (Issac) and an aunt (his mother died a few days after his birth), and later and by an uncle. He had happy memories of his childhood – although it had some odd features such as not being allowed to play with children his own age. His father taught him to read and helped him to appreciate the countryside. He increasingly turned to the latter for solace.

At the age of 13 he was apprenticed to an engraver. However, at 16 (in 1728) he left this trade to travel, but quickly become secretary and companion to Madame Louise de Warens. This relationship was unusual. Twelve years his senior she was in turns a mother figure, a friend and a lover. Under her patronage he developed a taste for music. He set himself up as a music teacher in Chambéry (1732) and began a period of intense self education. In 1740 he worked as a tutor to the two sons of M. de Mably in Lyon. It was not a very successful experience (nor were his other episodes of tutoring). In 1742 he moved to Paris. There he became a close friend of David Diderot, who was to commission him to write articles on music for the French Encyclopédie. Through the sponsorship of a number of society women he became the personal secretary to the French ambassador to Venice – a position from which he was quickly fired for not having the ability to put up with a boss whom he viewed as stupid and arrogant.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau returned to Paris in 1745 and earned a living as a music teacher and copyist. In the hotel where he was living (near the Sorbonne) he met Thérèse Lavasseur who worked as a seamstress. She was also, by a number of accounts, an odd figure. She was made fun of by many of those around here, and it was Rousseau’s defence of her that led to friendship. He believed she had a ‘pure and innocent heart’. They were soon living together (and they were to stay together, never officially married, until he died). She couldn’t read well, nor write, or add up – and Rousseau tried unsuccessfully over the years to teach her. According to his Confessions, Thérèse bore five children – all of whom were given to foundling homes (the first in 1746) (1996: 333). Voltaire later scurrilously claimed that Rousseau had dumped them on the doorstep of the orphanage. In fact the picture was rather more complex. Rousseau had argued the children would get a better upbringing in such an institution than he could offer. They would not have to put up with the deviousness of ‘high society’. Furthermore, he claimed he lacked the money to bring them up properly. There was also the question of his and Thérèse’s capacity to cope with child-rearing. Last, there is also some question as to whether all or any of the children were his (for example, Thérèse had an affair with James Boswell whilst he stayed with Rousseau). What we do know is that in later life Rousseau sought to justify his actions concerning the children (see, for example 1996: 345-346); declaring his sorrow about the way he had acted.

Diderot encouraged Rousseau to write and in 1750 he won first prize in an essay competition organized by the Académie de Dijon – Discours sur les sciences et les arts. ‘Why should we build our own happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts?’ (1750: 29). In this essay we see a familiar theme: that humans are by nature good – and it is society’s institutions that corrupt them (Smith and Smith 1994: 184). The essay earned him considerable fame and he reacted against it. He seems to have fallen out with a number of his friends and the (high-society) people with whom he was expected to mix. This was a period of reappraisal. On a visit to Geneva Jean-Jacques Rousseau reconverted to Calvinism (and gained Genevan citizenship). There was also a fairly public infatuation with Mme d’Houderot that with his other erratic behaviour, led some of his friends to consider him insane.

Rousseau’s mental health was a matter of some concern for the rest of his life. There were significant periods when he found it difficult to be in the company of others, when he believed himself to be the focus of hostility and duplicity (a feeling probably compounded by the fact that there was some truth in this). He frequently acted ‘oddly’ with sudden changes of mood. These ‘oscillations’ led to situations where he falsely accused others and behaved with scant respect for their humanity. There was something about what, and the way, he wrote and how he acted with others that contributed to his being on the receiving end of strong, and sometimes malicious, attacks by people like Voltaire. The ‘oscillations’ could also open up ‘another universe’ in which he could see the world in a different, and illuminating, way (see Grimsley 1969).

At around the time of the publication of his famous very influential discourses on inequality and political economy in Encyclopedie (1755), Rousseau also began to fall out with Diderot and the Encyclopedists. The Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg offered him (and Thérèse) a house on their estate at Montmorency (to the north of Paris).

During the next four years in the relative seclusion of Montmorency, Rousseau produced three major works: The New Heloise (1761), probably the most widely read novel of his day); The Social Contract (April 1762), one of the most influential books on political theory; and Émile (May 1762), a classic statement of education. The ‘heretical’ discussion of religion in Émile caused Rousseau problems with the Church in France. The book was burned in a number of places. Within a month Rousseau had to leave France for Switzerland – but was unable to go to Geneva after his citizenship was revoked as a result of the furore over the book. He ended up in Berne. In 1766 Jean-Jacques Rousseau went to England (first to Chiswick then Wootton Hall near Ashbourne in Derbyshire, and later to Hume’s house in Buckingham Street, London) at the invitation of David Hume. True to form he fell out with Hume, accusing him of disloyalty (not fairly!) and displaying all the symptoms of paranoia. In 1767 he returned to France under a false name (Renou), although he had to wait until to 1770 to return officially. A condition of his return was his agreement not to publish his work. He continued writing, completing his Confessions and beginning private readings of it in 1770. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was banned from doing this by the police in 1771 following complaints by former friends such as Diderot and Madame d’Epinay – who featured in the work. The book was eventually published after his death in 1782.

Rousseau returned to copying music to make a living, working in the morning and walking and ‘botanizing’ in the afternoon. He continued to have mental health problems. His next major work was Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, Dialogues, completed in 1776. In the next two years, before his death in 1778, Rousseau wrote the ten, classic, meditations of Reveries of the Solitary Walker. The book opens: ‘So now I am alone in the world, with no brother, neighbour or friend, nor any company left me but my own. The most sociable and loving of men has with unanimous accord been cast out by all the rest’ (1979: 27). He appears to have come upon a period of some calm and serenity (France 1979: 9). At this time ‘he found respite only in solitude, the study of botany, and a romantically lyrical communion with nature’ (Wokler 1995: 15).

In 1778 he was in Ermenonville, just north of Paris, staying with the Marquis de Giradin. On July 2, following his usual early morning walk Jean-Jacques Rousseau died of apoplexy (a haemorrhage – some of his former friends claimed he committed suicide). He was buried on the estate (on a small picturesque island – Ile des Peupliers). Later, in 1794, his remains were moved to the Panthéon in Paris (formerly the Church of Sainte Geneviève. The Pantheon was used to house the bodies of key figures of the French Revolution.) His remains were placed close by those of Voltaire, who had died in the same year as him.

Nature, wholeness and romanticism

Rousseau argued that we are inherently good, but we become corrupted by the evils of society. We are born good – and that is our natural state. In later life he wished to live a simple life, to be close to nature and to enjoy what it gives us – a concern said to have been fostered by his father. Through attending to nature we are more likely to live a life of virtue. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was interested in people being natural.

We are born capable of sensation and from birth are affected in diverse ways by the objects around us. As soon as we become conscious of our sensations we are inclined to seek or to avoid the objects which produce them: at first, because they are agreeable or disagreeable to us, later because we discover that they suit or do not suit us, and ultimately because of the judgements we pass on them by reference to the idea of happiness of perfection we get from reason. These inclinations extend and strengthen with the growth of sensibility and intelligence, but under the pressure of habit they are changed to some extent with our opinions. The inclinations before this change are what I call our nature. In my view everything ought to be in conformity with these original inclinations. (Émile, Book 1 – translation by Boyd 1956: 13; see also, 1911 edition p. 7).

As Ronald Grimsley has written, ‘From the outset Rousseau had drawn inspiration from his own heart and found philosophical truth in the depth of his own being’ (1973: 135). His later writings, especially Reveries of the Solitary Walker, show both his isolation and alienation, and some paths into happiness. ‘Everything is in constant flux on this earth, he writes (1979: 88):

But if there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul. Such is the state which I often experienced on the Island Of Saint-Pierre in my solitary reveries, whether I lay in a boat and drifted where the water carried me, or sat by the shores of the stormy lake, or elsewhere, on the banks of a lovely river or a stream murmuring over the stones. (Rousseau 1979: 88 – 89)

Rousseau’s is sometimes described as a romantic vision. ‘Romanticism’ is not an easy term to define – it is best approached as an overlapping set of ideas and values.

The ‘Romantic’ is said to favour the concrete over the abstract, variety over uniformity, the infinite over the finite,; nature over culture, convention and artifice; the organic over the mechanical; freedom over constraint, rules and limitations. In human terms it prefers the unique individual to the average person, the free creative genius to the prudent person of good sense, the particular community or nation to humanity at large. Mentally, the Romantics prefer feeling to thought, more specifically emotion to calculation; imagination to literal common sense, intuition to intellect. (Quinton 1996: 778)

In many respects Rousseau’s vision could be labelled as ‘green’. But with this comes a classic tension between the individual and society, solitude and association – and this is central to his work.

Social contract and the general will

Chapter 1 of his classic work on political theory The Social Contract (published in 1762) begins famously, ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains’. It is an expression of his belief that we corrupted by society. The social contract he explores in the book involves people recognizing a collective ‘general will’. This general will is supposed to represent the common good or public interest – and it is something that each individual has a hand in making. All citizens should participate – and should be committed to the general good – even if it means acting against their private or personal interests. For example, we might support a political party that proposes to tax us heavily (as we have a large income) because we can see the benefit that this taxation can bring to all. To this extend, Rousseau believed that the good individual, or citizen, should not put their private ambitions first.

This way of living, he argued, can promote liberty and equality – and it arises out of, and fosters, a spirit of fraternity. The cry of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ is familiar to us today through the French Revolution (1789 – 1799) – and the impact of the thinking and experiences of that time have had on political movements in many different parts of the world since. Just how the ‘general will’ comes about is unclear – and this has profound implications. If we are to put the general will over the individual or ‘particular’ will then there needs to be safeguards against the exploitation of individuals and minorities. Rousseau’s belief in liberty, equality and fraternity, and his emphasis on education (see below) may go some way in counteracting the dangers of the general will, but others have hijacked the notion so that the majority rules the minority – or indeed a minority a majority – it just depends who has the power to define or interpret the general will.

On education

The focus of Émile is upon the individual tuition of a boy/young man in line with the principles of ‘natural education’. This focus tends to be what is taken up by later commentators, yet Rousseau’s concern with the individual is balanced in some of his other writing with the need for public or national education. In A Discourse on Political Economy and Considerations for the Government of Poland we get a picture of public education undertaken in the interests of the community as a whole.

From the first moment of life, men ought to begin learning to deserve to live; and, as at the instant of birth we partake of the rights of citizenship, that instant ought to be the beginning of the exercise of our duty. If there are laws for the age of maturity, there ought to be laws for infancy, teaching obedience to others: and as the reason of each man is not left to be the sole arbiter of his duties, government ought the less indiscriminately to abandon to the intelligence and prejudices of fathers the education of their children, as that education is of still greater importance to the State than to the fathers: for, according to the course of nature, the death of the father often deprives him of the final fruits of education; but his country sooner or later perceives its effects. Families dissolve but the State remains. (Rousseau 1755: 148-9)

‘Make the citizen good by training’, Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes, ‘and everything else will follow’.

In Émile Rousseau drew on thinkers that had preceded him – for example, John Locke on teaching – but he was able to pull together strands into a coherent and comprehensive system – and by using the medium of the novel he was able to dramatize his ideas and reach a very wide audience. He made, it can be argued, the first comprehensive attempt to describe a system of education according to what he saw as ‘nature’ (Stewart and McCann 1967:28). It certainly stresses wholeness and harmony, and a concern for the person of the learner. Central to this was the idea that it was possible to preserve the ‘original perfect nature’ of the child, ‘by means of the careful control of his education and environment, based on an analysis of the different physical and psychological stages through which he passed from birth to maturity’ (ibid.). This was a fundamental point. Rousseau argued that the momentum for learning was provided by the growth of the person (nature) – and that what the educator needed to do was to facilitate opportunities for learning.

Exhibit 1: Jean-Jacques Rousseau on education

Now each of these factors in education is wholly beyond our control, things are only partly in our power; the education of men is the only one controlled by us; and even here our power is largely illusory, for who can hope to direct every word and deed of all with whom the child has to do.

Viewed as an art, the success of education is almost impossible since the essential conditions of success are beyond our control. Our efforts may bring us within sight of the goal, but fortune must favour us if we are to reach it.

What is this goal? As we have just shown, it is the goal of nature. Since all three modes of education must work together, the two that we can control must follow the lead of that which is beyond our control.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) Émile (1911 edn.), London: Dent, pp.6.

The focus on the environment, on the need to develop opportunities for new experiences and reflection, and on the dynamic provided by each person’s development remain very powerful ideas.

We’ll quickly list some of the key elements that we still see in his writing:

  • a view of children as very different to adults – as innocent, vulnerable, slow to mature – and entitled to freedom and happiness (Darling 1994: 6). In other words, children are naturally good.
  • the idea that people develop through various stages – and that different forms of education may be appropriate to each.
  • a guiding principle that what is to be learned should be determined by an understanding of the person’s nature at each stage of their development.
  • an appreciation that individuals vary within stages – and that education must as a result be individualized. ‘Every mind has its own form’
  • each and every child has some fundamental impulse to activity. Restlessness in time being replaced by curiosity; mental activity being a direct development of bodily activity.
  • the power of the environment in determining the success of educational encounters. It was crucial – as Dewey also recognized – that educators attend to the environment. The more they were able to control it – the more effective would be the education.
  • the controlling function of the educator – The child, Rousseau argues, should remain in complete ignorance of those ideas which are beyond his/her grasp. (This he sees as a fundamental principle).
  • the importance of developing ideas for ourselves, to make sense of the world in our own way. People must be encouraged to reason their way through to their own conclusions – they should not rely on the authority of the teacher. Thus, instead of being taught other people’s ideas, Émile is encouraged to draw his own conclusions from his own experience. What we know today as ‘discovery learning’ One example, Rousseau gives is of Émile breaking a window – only to find he gets cold because it is left unrepaired.
  • a concern for both public and individual education.

We could go on – all we want to do is to establish what a far reaching gift Rousseau gave. We may well disagree with various aspects of his scheme – but there can be no denying his impact then – and now. It may well be, as Darling (1994: 17) has argued, that the history of child-centred educational theory is a series of footnotes to Rousseau.

On the development of the person

Rousseau believed it was possible to preserve the original nature of the child by careful control of his education and environment based on an analysis of the different physical and psychological stages through which he passed from birth to maturity (Stewart and McCann 1967). As we have seen he thought that momentum for learning was provided by growth of the person (nature).

In Émile, Rousseau divides development into five stages (a book is devoted to each). Education in the first two stages seeks to the senses: only when Émile is about 12 does the tutor begin to work to develop his mind. Later, in Book 5, Rousseau examines the education of Sophie (whom Émile is to marry). Here he sets out what he sees as the essential differences that flow from sex. ‘The man should be strong and active; the woman should be weak and passive’ (Everyman edn: 322). From this difference comes a contrasting education. They are not to be brought up in ignorance and kept to housework: Nature means them to think, to will, to love to cultivate their minds as well as their persons; she puts these weapons in their hands to make up for their lack of strength and to enable them to direct the strength of men. They should learn many things, but only such things as suitable’ (Everyman edn.: 327). The stages below are those associated with males.

Stage 1: Infancy (birth to two years). The first stage is infancy, from birth to about two years. (Book I). Infancy finishes with the weaning of the child. He sets a number of maxims, the spirit of which is to give children ‘more real liberty and less power, to let them do more for themselves and demand less of others; so that by teaching them from the first to confine their wishes within the limits of their powers they will scarcely feel the want of whatever is not in their power’ (Everyman edn: 35).

The only habit the child should be allowed to acquire is to contract none… Prepare in good time form the reign of freedom and the exercise of his powers, by allowing his body its natural habits and accustoming him always to be his own master and follow the dictates of his will as soon as he has a will of his own. (Émile, Book 1 – translation by Boyd 1956: 23; Everyman edn: 30)

Stage 2: ‘The age of Nature’ (two to 12). The second stage, from two to ten or twelve, is ‘the age of Nature’. During this time, the child receives only a ‘negative education’: no moral instruction, no verbal learning. He sets out the most important rule of education: ‘Do not save time, but lose it… The mind should be left undisturbed till its faculties have developed’ (Everyman edn.: 57; Boyd: 41). The purpose of education at this stage is to develop physical qualities and particularly senses, but not minds. In the latter part of Book II, Rousseau describes the cultivation of each of Émile’s five senses in turn.

Stage 3: Pre-adolescence (12-15). Émile in Stage 3 is like the ‘noble savage’ Rousseau describes in The Social Contract. ‘About twelve or thirteen the child’s strength increases far more rapidly than his needs’ (Everyman edn.: 128). The urge for activity now takes a mental form; there is greater capacity for sustained attention (Boyd 1956: 69). The educator has to respond accordingly.

Our real teachers are experience and emotion, and man will never learn what befits a man except under its own conditions. A child knows he must become a man; all the ideas he may have as to man’s estate are so many opportunities for his instruction, but he should remain in complete ignorance of those ideas which are beyond his grasp. My whole book is one continued argument in support of this fundamental principle of education. (Everyman edn: 141; Boyd: 81)

The only book Émile is allowed is Robinson Crusoe – an expression of the solitary, self-sufficient man that Rousseau seeks to form (Boyd 1956: 69).

Stage 4: Puberty (15-20). Rousseau believes that by the time Émile is fifteen, his reason will be well developed, and he will then be able to deal with he sees as the dangerous emotions of adolescence, and with moral issues and religion. The second paragraph of the book contains the famous lines: ‘We are born, so to speak, twice over; born into existence, and born into life; born a human being, and born a man’ (Everyman edn: 172). As before, he is still wanting to hold back societal pressures and influences so that the ‘natural inclinations’ of the person may emerge without undue corruption. There is to be a gradual entry into community life (Boyd 1956: 95). Most of Book IV deals with Émile’s moral development. (It also contains the the statement of Rousseau’s’ his own religious principles, written as ‘The creed of a Savoyard priest’, which caused him so much trouble with the religious authorities of the day).

Stage 5: Adulthood (20-25). In Book V, the adult Émile is introduced to his ideal partner, Sophie. He learns about love, and is ready to return to society, proof, Rousseau hopes, after such a lengthy preparation, against its corrupting influences. The final task of the tutor is to ‘instruct the the young couple in their marital rights and duties’ (Boyd 1956: 130).

Sophie. This last book includes a substantial section concerning the education of woman. Rousseau subscribes to a view that sex differences go deep (and are complementary) – and that education must take account of this. ‘The man should be strong and active; the woman should be weak and passive; he one must have both the power and the will; it is enough that the other should offer little resistance’ (Everyman edn: 322). Sophie’s training for womanhood upto the age of ten involves physical training for grace; the dressing of dolls leading to drawing, writing, counting and reading; and the prevention of idleness and indocility. After the age of ten there is a concern with adornment and the arts of pleasing; religion; and the training of reason. ‘She has been trained careful rather than strictly, and her taste has been followed rather than thwarted’ (Everyman edn: 356). Rousseau then goes on to sum her qualities as a result of this schooling (356-362).


Rousseau’s gift to later generations is extraordinarily rich – and problematic. Émile was the most influential work on education after Plato’s Republic, The Confessions were the most important work of autobiography since that of St Augustine (Wokler 1995: 1); The Reveries played a significant role in the development of romantic naturalism; and The Social Contract has provided radicals and revolutionaries with key themes since it was published. Yet Rousseau can be presented at the same time as deeply individualist, and as controlling and pandering to popularist totalitarianism. In psychology he looked to stage theory and essentialist notions concerning the sexes (both of which continue to plague us) yet did bring out the significance of difference and of the impact of the environment. In life he was difficult he was difficult to be around, and had problems relating to others, yet he gave glimpses of a rare connectedness.

Further reading and references

Books by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Here we have listed the main texts:

Rousseau, J-J. (1750) A Discourse: Has the restoration of the arts and sciences had a purifying effect upon morals? Available in a single volume with The Social Contract, London: Dent Everyman. The essay that first established Rousseau.

Rousseau, J-J (1755) A Discourse on Inequality. Translated with an introduction by M. Cranston (1984 edn.), London: Penguin. Also available as an Everyman Book in a single volume with The Social Contract. Said to be one of the most revolutionary documents to have come out of eighteenth-century Europe. Seeks to show how the growth of civilization corrupts man’s natural happiness and freedom by creating artificial inequalities of wealth, power and social privilege. Rousseau contends that primitive man is equal to his fellows because he can be independent of them, but as societies become more sophisticated, the strongest and most intelligent members of the community gain an unnatural advantage over their weaker brethren, and the constitutions set up to rectify these imbalances through peace and justice in fact do nothing but perpetuate them.

Rousseau, J-J (1755) A Discourse on Political Economy. Available as part of The Social Contract and Discourses, London: Everyman/Dent.

Rousseau, J-J. (1761) La Nouvelle Heloise (The New Heloise: Julie, or the New Eloise : Letters of Two Lovers, Inhabitants of a Small Town at the Foot of the Alps), Pennsylvania University Press. Story based on the relationship between Abelard and Heloise.

Rousseau, J-J. (1762) Émile, London: Dent (1911 edn.) Also available in edition translated and annotated by Allan Bloom (1991 edn.), London: Penguin. Rousseau’s exploration of education took the form of a novel concerning the tutoring of a young boy.

Rousseau, J-J (1762) The Social Contract, London: Penguin. (1953 edn.) Translated and introduced by Maurice Cranston. Also first published in 1762. (also published by Dent Everyman along with the Discourses).

Rousseau, J-J. (1782) Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, Dialogues (Rousseau, judge of Jean-Jacques, dialogues / edited by Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly ; tran slated by Judith R. Bush, Christopher Kelly, and Roger D. Masters) (1990 edn), Hanover : Published for Dartmouth College by University Press of New England. Conversation between a seeker of truth about Jean-Jacques (Rousseau) and the ‘Frenchman’ – someone who had been a victim of the various ‘slanders’ made about J-J.

Rousseau, J-J (1782) The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1953 edn.), London: Penguin. Extraordinary reading. ‘By writing his Confessions Rousseau not only wanted to know himself and alleviate his guilt, he sought also to recapture the happiness of the past, to saviour again those brief but precious occasions when he felt that he had been truly himself and had lived as nature had wanted’ (Grimsley 1973: 137)

Rousseau, J-J (1782) Reveries of the Solitary Walker. Translated with an introduction by P. France, London: Penguin. Unfinished series of reflections combining argument with anecdote and description. ‘As he wanders around Paris, gazing at plants and day-dreaming, Rousseau looks back over his life in order to justify his actions and to elaborate on his view of a well-structured society fit for the noble and solitary natural man’ This edition includes an introduction, notes and a brief chronology.

Many of these are available as e-texts (see below).

Books on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There is a large number of books to choose from (especially you are fluent in French!) Listed here you will find those books we have found most useful in putting together this page:

Boyd, W. (1956) Émile for Today. The Émile of Jean Jaques Rousseau selected, translated and interpreted by William Boyd, London: Heinemann. Boyd does a good job in cutting down the book to its central elements for educators – and provides a very helpful epilogue on natural education and national education.

Cranston, M. (1983) Jean-Jacques, (1991) The Noble Savage, (1997) The Solitary Self. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in exile and adversity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (also Allan Lane). The standard English language treatment of Rousseau in three volumes. Wonderful stuff.

Grimsley, R. (1969) Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A study in self-awareness, 2e, Cardiff: University of Wales Press. Provides some good insights into Rousseau’s character and psychology.

Grimsley, R. (1973) The Philosophy of Rousseau, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Useful summary and overview of Rousseau’s thinking. Chapters on society; nature; the psychological and moral development of the individual; religion; political theory; aesthetic ideas; and the problem of personal existence.

Mason, J. H. (1979) The Indispensable Rousseau, London: .Good overview of Rousseau plus a good selection of extracts from his work.

Masters, R. D. (1968) The Political Philosophy of Rousseau, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. Detailed study of Rousseau’s political and educational thinking as they form a systematic doctrine.

Wokler, R. (1996) Rousseau, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Published in the ‘Past Masters’ series, this book provides an good overview of Rousseau’s work and contribution.

See, also, P. D. Jimack’s helpful introduction to The Social Contract and Discourses, London: Everyman.

For a brief introduction to his life see:

Smith, L. . and Smith, J. K. (1994) Lives in Education. A narrative of people and ideas 2e, New York: St Martins Press.

See also:

Hampson, N. (1990) The Enlightenment, London: Penguin. Good overview of key themes and contexts – and how these informed romanticism and later revolutionary crises.

Other references

Barry, B. (1967) “The Public Interest”, in Quinton, A. (ed.) Political Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Bloom, A. (1991) ‘Introduction’ to Rousseau, J-J. (1762) Émile, London: Penguin.

Darling, J. (1994) Child-Centred Education and its Critics, London: Paul Chapman.

Dent, N.J.H. (1988) Rousseau: An Introduction to his Psychological, Social and Political Theory, Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Melzer, A.M. (1990) The Natural Goodness of Man: On the Sytem of Rousseau’s Thought, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Miller, J. (1984) Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy, London: Yale University Press

Quinton, A. (1996) ‘Philosophical romanticism’ in T. Honderich (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Soëtard, , M. (1995) ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau’ in Z. Morsy (ed.) Thinkers on Education Volume 4, Paris: UNESCO.

Stewart, W. A. C. and McCann, W. P. (1967) The Educational Innovators. Volume 1 1750–1880, London: Macmillan.


Why not visit:

Rousseau Association – has useful articles plus a range of links. Includes page devote to Rousseau and education.

The Jean-Jacques Rousseau Museum

Project Gutenberg – download Jean-Jacques Rouseau’s Confessions.. and Emile

EpistemeLinks – full listing of full electronic texts

Acknowledgement: The picture of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is, we believe, in the public domain @ wikipedia commons

How to cite this article: Michele Erina Doyle and Mark K. Smith (2007-2013) ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau on education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, Last update: January 07, 2013

© Michele Erina Doyle and Mark K. Smith 1997, 2002, 2007, 2013