Between Humanity and Human Passions
: The Problem of Cosmopolitanism in J.-J. Rousseau’s Political Thought

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis offers a comprehensive reconstruction of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's cosmopolitan thought in his moral and political philosophy. Rousseau’s views on cosmopolitanism have been subject to much scholarly debate. Interpreters alternately describe him as a republican patriot, a pessimistic realist, and an optimistic liberal. This thesis argues that the complex development of Rousseau’s cosmopolitan thought can be seen as a retreat: Rousseau initially aimed to instantiate cosmopolitan values in the political realm, but he eventually came to see that such a project contradicts the very nature of politics, as he understood it, and thereby retreated to formulating cosmopolitan values in the moral realm. To advance this interpretation, this thesis seeks 1) to identify the normative foundation of Rousseau’s cosmopolitan thought; 2) to explain why his political writings could not solve the problem of theorising stable cosmopolitan institutions; 3) to illustrate, how, by retreating to the moral realm, Rousseau attempts to shape a rare cosmopolitan soul through education. This thesis first identifies the normative foundation of the cosmopolitan ideal in Rousseau’s conception of nature. In the Second Discourse, Rousseau depicts the state of nature as an asocial harmony of the human race, where essential goods including bodily preservation, freedom, and psychological unity are realised at a universal level. This universality serves as a normative benchmark for Rousseau’s moral and political project. Influenced by Diderot, Rousseau first discussed the idea of a cosmopolitan polity – along with the concept of the universal will – in Political Economy (1755). Yet he rejected this idea in the Geneva Manuscript, while criticising Diderot’s general society of mankind, and in Of the Social Contract (1762) he avoided all discussion of a cosmopolitan polity. To explain why Rousseau failed to theorise a stable cosmopolitan institution, this thesis turns to his writings on international politics from 1755 to 1761. In his writings on Saint-Pierre and the fragmented draft Principles of the Right of War, Rousseau argued that the unity of the body politic relies on patriotic love – a collective form of amour-propre, which inevitably excludes foreigners. A cosmopolitan institution would require removing this aggressive passion yet would then be unable to sustain its internal unity. A cosmopolitan ideal is thus incompatible with the nature of politics. The failure to solve the problem of cosmopolitanism in the political realm led Rousseau to retreat to addressing it in the moral realm. In Emile (1762), Rousseau explained how the cosmopolitan ideal could be cultivated in a rare individual through education. Emile becomes a cosmopolitan by nourishing his amour de soi, pity, and conscience. In addition, his amour-propre is tamed through his romantic love with Sophie, which distinguishes Emile from citizens whose amour-propre is transformed into patriotic love. This interpretation challenges the prevailing “man-citizen” reading of Emile proposed by Frederick Neuhouser and implicit in many liberal interpretations of Rousseau’s cosmopolitanism. Emile maintains a low public profile and instead dedicates himself to the local community, since his cosmopolitan identity is incompatible with the demands of an active civic life in society. More generally, by reconstructing the development of Rousseau’s cosmopolitan thought as a retreat, this thesis aims to shed new light on the relationship between nature, politics, and morality in Rousseau’s philosophy.
Date of Award1 Feb 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorRobin Douglass (Supervisor) & Paul Sagar (Supervisor)

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