Joshua Cohen

in Rousseau

Published in print February 2010 | ISBN: 9780199581498
Published online May 2010 | e-ISBN: 9780191722875 | DOI:

Series: Founders of Modern Political and Social Thought


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  • History of Western Philosophy
  • Social and Political Philosophy


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This chapter responds to the second part of the realism objection, the problem of institutional possibility. To set the foundation, it outlines Rousseau's views about institutions: rule of law, majority rule, direct democracy, executive power, government accountability to citizens, rights of association, and limited material inequality. One account of Rousseau's view (suggested by Habermas) is that he conflates the contractual/consensual theory of legitimacy, or the idea of the general will, with a defense of direct democracy. The chapter responds that direct democracy is not an a priori commitment, but is founded on several strands of argument about the institutions needed in the society of the general will. The chapter concludes by asking whether real power in the society of the general will lies in the hands of elite officials and, correspondingly, whether popular assemblies are largely for show. Rejecting this conception of Rousseauean democracy as a mask for elite dominance, it argues that Rousseau's institutional requirements aim to prepare citizens for the self-rule of which we are capable.

Keywords: democracy; direct democracy; consent; institutions; inequality; rule of law; rational choice; values; Rousseau; Habermas

Chapter.  17263 words. 

Subjects: History of Western Philosophy ; Social and Political Philosophy

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