Original Inequality III: Men of Substance and Matter, Research Time, 03/03/2017

Continued from last post . . . You read Rousseau and he truly is a deeply materialist thinker. One quite unlike any other thinker of his time. He describes human nature entirely in material terms, as the functions and actions of physical creatures. That includes our thoughts and feelings.

Yet we are still free.

He even gives a materialist account of depression in The Origin of Inequality. Not anywhere near the completeness of what you’d find today in the DSM of anything like that.

Until the dominant images of how we popularly understood scientific
principles changed, we couldn't really understand how a material body
could be free. The strong determinism of clockwork imagery could
even feed back from the popular to the professional who should know
that things are much more complicated. Or should he?
Consider the roots of depression and anxiety in your social and physical environment. Your life becomes complicated, filled with obligations, forcing you to keep so many plates spinning all the time. As these social, economic, and other needs and obligations proliferate, the stress of it all overwhelms you.

That’s Rousseau’s analysis of how an individual’s mental breakdown and depression happens. Even in 1755, people had nervous breakdowns.

He lays out this example in an argument about how appropriate our overstuffed societies are to the best-quality lives for humanity. All these are moral and political questions, questions about the happiness of our minds and the freedom of our souls.

Each time he offers an answer, it’s rooted in material existence. The craziness of life in contemporary society – the proper balance of healthy food and everyday exercise – biological and ecological interplays of forces.

From these networks of forces and colliding processes, human freedom emerges. And Rousseau is writing this in 1755.

The stress on your body and your brain from massive overstimulation
on a near-daily basis eventually cause breakdowns. It happens to
plenty of professors in the academic world, especially now that even
protected tenure-track researchers have become overworked by
administrative demands as well as their research and teaching.
Some remarkably successful public intellectuals have left the
academic career they may have been taught to dream for, simply
because of this Kafkaesque bind.
See, at the time, Western thinking was stuck on the problem of freedom and determinism for centuries. In the Enlightenment era people typically thought of nature as a mechanism just like clockwork. Physical movement was fully determined lockstep, as precise as the gears of a clock.

But humanity was the exception. We were free from mechanism, and figuring out how this exemption from causality actually worked was a major problem of philosophy from about the beginning of the Renaissance until the mid-20th century.

The problem always bugged me, and when I learned enough about ecological science and the physics of intensity, I was finally able to put it away. Because there is no contradiction between determinism and freedom – causality is always multiple and conditional.

Rousseau’s vision of a humanity that’s both entirely material and essentially free isn’t nearly so nuanced as I could get from studying scientific and mathematical concepts in 21st-century physics. But it’s in an entirely different headspace from the entire Western intellectual scene of his own time.

I think if I had come to Rousseau at this point in my life, but was an academic, I’d write one of those short monographs that puts an unintuitive twist on it. Like this interpretation of Rousseau as a materialist of freedom.

But I’m pretty sure by now that it’s the branded interpretation of some Rousseau scholar toiling away entirely behind academic paywalls. And I’m just not in the financial position to spend the labour I’d need to write such a book that would only appeal to academic publishers.

I’d rather deal with these ideas in a more mass-market venue where accessible prices and tones of writing can connect with more people. Ultimately, I’d make more of a public impact and make more money from my own writing.

If engaging the public is part of the mission of any humanities field, that question of accessibility has to be at the front of your mind. It’s how your work can do its best work in the world, and how your work will best build a heritage. . . . To be continued

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