2 minute read

General Will

The General Will After Rousseau

A quarter century after the publication of Rousseau's political treatise, the French Revolution began, and the fortunes of the general will and the philosopher who gave the concept currency have been forever tied to the epochal event. Revolutionaries such as Maximilien de Robespierre (1758–1794) and the Abbé Sièyes (1748–1836) pressed the general will into service to legitimate their rule in the name of the nation. On the philosophic front, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Johann Fichte (1762–1814), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) appropriated and analyzed the concept itself as well as its seeming political instantiation. Kant's categorical imperative, although explicitly universal in scope, exhibits the direct influence of Rousseau's general will as self-legislation in the form of a generalizable law. Hegel associated the general will with the Terror and criticized what he saw as its one-sided subjectivity and arbitrary or absolute freedom. Later thinkers attempted to adapt the general will in less radical form. Grappling directly with the revolutionary inheritance, Benjamin Constant (1767–1830) criticized Rousseau's affinity for the liberty of the ancients, but still began his own Principes de politique (1815; Principles of politics) by stating: "Our present constitution formally recognizes the principle of the sovereignty of the people, that is, the supremacy of the general will over every particular will" (p. 310). The tension between the individual and the community that Rousseau tried to reconcile in his own way through the general will continues to dominate contemporary debates in political theory and practice.



Constant, Benjamin. Principes de politique. In Écrits politiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

Diderot, Denis. "Droit Naturel." In Oeuvres complètes, vol. 7. Paris: Hermann, 1976. Originally published in vol. 5 of the Encyclopédie.

Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de. De l'esprit des lois. In Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1. Paris: Gallimard, 1949–1951.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Collected Writings of Rousseau. Edited by Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1990–. 10 vols. to date. The standard edition of Rousseau's works in English translation.

——. Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Gallimard, 1959–1995. 5 vols. The standard critical edition of Rousseau's works. Du contrat social and Économie politique are included in vol. 3.


Keohane, Nannerl O. Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Melzer, Arthur M. The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseau's Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Riley, Patrick. The General Will before Rousseau: The Transformation of the Divine into the Civic. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

John T. Scott

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGeneral Will - The General Will Before Rousseau, Jean-jacques Rousseau, Rousseau's General Will, The General Will After Rousseau