In his Discourse on Inequality (1753), Rousseau describes a history of the degeneration of humanity via increasingly corrupting social forms. Instead of providing a means of improvement and emancipation, society emasculates our natural capacities and leaves us in thrall to unjust laws and despotic regimes. Paradoxically, Rousseau argues, this gradual shift from the state of nature to destructive social artifice occurs precisely via means of our species’ most vaulted attributes: conscious reflection, reason and free will. Humanity changes and evolves at an historical level, rather than remaining stuck within the frame of instinct. Instead of blindly repeating unconscious predetermined patterns, we have the capacity to learn and consciously modify our modes of existence. Language, property, the rule of law all emerge as systems of artifice, separating us from nature and leading us further and further away from happiness and any genuinely equitable relation between people.
While we can certainly distinguish between learning and instinct and while we can certainly recognise the tremendous acceleration of human capacity and influence on the planet, this need not necessarily entail that nature is entirely left behind. On the contrary, if we regard nature as a complex play of permutations then human reflection, reason and free will are simply adaptive, evolutionary features. If we invent it is because nature has provided us with the capacity to invent. Our reflective capacities are in a sense our instinct. And just like instinct they embody a dimension of blindness. We can think, but does that always mean that we can think for the best? Does it mean that we can solve all the problems that confront ourselves and the wider environmental system? The tragedy of reason is that it cannot shake off its relation to the profoundly unreasonable. Reason is an epiphenomenon and an hallucination. It does not represent any absolute break with nature.
Society and Aesthetics:
From at least Schiller (The Aesthetic Education of Man, 1794) onwards we can recognise a faith in the capacity of aesthetics to serve as a moral ground for society. Through beauty people come to recognise the good and the true – to experience it intimately. So this fragile space of experience pushed to the margins of ordinary affairs comes to prove vital and formative. It can only do this in its separateness – in its resistance to function and end.
Plato has such a different view. An iconoclast, he regards poetry and the arts as inimical to truth. They are far from the ideal. They are copies of copies. He does not speak of the aesthetic as such, because the notion does not exist in his time. Sensible experience was positioned differently – not as a basis for truth (empiricism), not in relation to dumb, extensive matter (Descartes) or the unknowable thing in itself (Kant).