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Foucault and Rousseau.


Sixth writing assignment

Michel Foucault stencil [Lyon, France]

Michel Foucault stencil [Lyon, France] (Photo credit: biphop)

The prompts for this assignment were :-

“What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts.” — Horkheimer and Adorno

Discuss how the idea of domination plays a role in two of the authors we have read this semester (you may write on Horkheimer and Adorno [as one thinker]).


Horkheimer and Adorno and Foucault see progress as a kind of trap in which we ensnare ourselves. Discuss one of them in relation to another thinker in our course who also saw progress as a trap.

Here is my essay – Assessments and comments are bellow.

Progress as a trap – Foucault and Rousseau.

Foucault and Rousseau writing nearly two centuries apart both saw progress as a kind of trap in which we ensnare ourselves. They both found people who lived in society become more and more selfish. Society doesn’t wish to see suffering or madness and shuns these differences, by passing them or imprisoning them in institutions.

Rousseau in his discourse [1] spoke of the way we increase layers of conformity when we live in a society. In a state of nature, he said, man is happy and has few needs. In a society we are heading “towards the decay of the species”.  He felt that we brought his upon ourselves as living in society was not natural.”Most of our ills are of our own making and [..] we might have avoided them all by adhering to the [..] life prescribed to us by Nature” he said. Because we began to live in a society “Everyone began to look at everyone else and to wish to be looked at himself, and public esteem acquired a value.” In obeying social norms we begin to lose something of ourselves and try to act in certain ways that we feel will please those that regard us.

Foucault saw confirming to social norms in a more pronounced and even sinister way. In his book [2] he theorised that once there were no more lepers another group needed to be excluded, to be the target  and so the burden fell on the insane and prisoners who were then institutionalised. “In the Renaissance, madness was present everywhere and mingled with every experience by its images or its dangers. During the classical period, madness was shown but on the other side of bars.

Rousseau talked about man’s natural desire for freedom but saw that by living in a society we have to pay the price of the social contract and give up some of that freedom. He was sceptical about how good society really is and thought that the price of the contract was too high. He felt that we were all slaves to society and talks of “entirely naked savages” who scorn all that we have in the modern world and risk everything including death to “preserve only their independence’’  Finally concluding that “I feel it does not behove slaves to reason about freedom”. If you don’t agree to something in a democracy then others in that democracy will force you into obeying, we are all slaves.

For Foucault also, modern man has to conform to another person’s model of what it is to be free. He believed that we are in a cage of our own making and that maintaining the status quo was more important than discovering something new. In his essay [3] he talks of Baudelaire and how he tried to invent himself. “This modernity does not ‘liberate man in his own being’; it compels man to face the task of producing himself.” Foucault sought those new forms of exploration, new possibilities.

Rousseau didn’t like the selfishness and altruism that came from modern living. He didn’t actually want us to go back to walking on all fours as Voltaire had mocked, but he felt we had moved too far from our natural state. Although people cooperated to live together they were also more interested, indeed greedy, to own property. “The first man who, having fenced a piece of land and said ‘this is mine’ […] was the founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders […] have saved mankind by pulling up the stakes […] the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” [1].

Rousseau saw man a slave to his own greed. “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”[4] Foucault also thought that man was imposing more and more controls upon himself to conform and on others in order that the conformity felt comfortable. “The Enlightenment which discovered the liberties also invented the disciplines.” (Discipline and Punish). Each of these great thinkers saw man moving from a state of relative freedom to one of discipline or chains. In these societies where conformity became more and more the norm those that didn’t conform were shunned or moved to the edges of society. Rousseau said that there was “an innate abhorrence to see beings suffer that resemble him.”[1] In Foucault’s time they were not only shunned but confined to institutions.  “In its most general form, confinement is explained, or at least justified, by the desire to avoid scandal.”(Foucault [2]). In society we can’t bear to see things that make us uncomfortable or embarrassed.

Both Foucault and Rousseau found that we paid a high cost in terms of depreciated liberties and a strong obligation to conform in order to live and be accepted in society.

[1] Discourse on the origins of Inequality (1754)

[2] Madness and Civilisation (1964)

[3] What is Enlightenment? (1984)

[4] The Social Contract (1762)

peer 1 → Nicely done.
peer 2 → This essay goes astray in the first paragraph by introducing “suffering and madness” after introducing progress. Then we go from Rousseau did this to Foucault did that and the two are tied together at the end on the basis that they both spoke of suffering. This doesn’t seem like a clear argument to me.
peer 3 → Essay presents a clear argument and uses relevant materials to support the argument.
peer 2 → This writer used plenty of quotes. However I thought that much of the argument was constructed around the available quote rather than the quote underlining a summary of argument.
peer 3 → Quotations from the readings were used appropriately.
Exposition Feedback: Evaluate the quality of the writing. Look for clarity of thought and an organized essay structure.  The writing should be understandable, but do not deduct for errors of grammar or spelling that do not impede the reader’s understanding.  Keep in mind that English is a second or third language for many students, and take this into account when grading.
peer 2 → As I said, this piece doesn’t begin well, the format is “he said/he said” and the idea at the end that Rousseau and Foucault are tied together in their view of suffering is open to question.
peer 3 → There are a few grammatical errors and misspelled words or typos, but overall clear and concise.


  1. […] Foucault and Rousseau. (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

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