Commentary by Daniel Bitton on David Graeber and David Wengrow’s book, “The Dawn of Everything”

I have read and watched a few reviews and commentaries of the book, and the best of these so far is the following:

7. The Origins of Male Dominance and Hierarchy; what David Graeber and Jordan Peterson get wrong

10. David Graeber & David Wengrow “The Dawn of Everything” critique: The Wisdom of Kandiaronk

10.1 David Graeber & David Wengrow’s “The Dawn of Everything”: What is an “Egalitarian Society”?



Comment: Daniel Bitton, in his video, claimed that David Graeber either ignored or was ignorant of “immediate return societies.” This is not true. [His comments may only apply to material he has read in Graeber before the present book.] On page 128 of their book, we find the following opening sentence: “The greatest modern authority on hunter-gatherer egalitarianism is by general consent, the British anthropologist James Woodburn.” And they go on to talk about the distinction between “immediate return” and “delayed return” economies. And they go on to conclude: “This might sound like the basis of something hopeful or optimistic. Actually, it’s anything but. What it suggests is, again, that any equality worth the name is essentially impossible for all but the very simplest foragers.” [129] Given this judgment, the question is whether an “equality worth the name” is possible or impossible for a complex(?) or larger (?) society. I suggest that to anwer this question we should take note of the various socialistic experiments which were done in the 19th century in the United States (e.g. Shakers, Rappites, etc.), the anarchistic experiments of Nestor Makhno in Ukraine, the Spanish anarchists (1936-9), and the Zapatistas and Rojava today.

10.2 The Dawn of Everything: How Graeber & Wengrow’s book makes us bad at politics


Comment: Daniel Bitton is too optimistic as to what the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 could have done, as well as to what the Occupy Movement in 2011 could have done. In the former, they made demands which were returned with rhetorical promises; in the latter, if demands were made, they would have been answered with something like: “we will take your demands into consideration.” In both cases, the uprisings were either crushed or disbanded. And if the so-called “colored revolutions” were the inspiration, all they managed to do is to replace one individual with another. Perhaps the right word for this is “coups,” but I would not call them “revolutions.”

After listening to Daniel Bitton’s criticism of David Graeber, which is to the point and very sensible, I listened to some of his other podcasts on “What is politics?” as well as the following two interviews in which he offers his criticisms of Graeber and his own anthropological views.


#155 Anthropology and Materialism Part 1 w/ Daniel Bitton

Comment: Daniel Bitton mentions a video of an interview with Chris Knight. Here is the video:

Chris Knight – The Anthropology of David Graeber

#156 Anthropology and Materialism Part 2 w/ Daniel Bitton

My sixth commentary on the book: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

On page 426, they write: “Over the course of this book we have had occasion to refer to the three primordial principles of freedom, those which for most of human history were simply assumed: the freedom to move, the freedom to disobey and the freedom to create or transform social relationships.”

Commentary: I have no objection to these freedoms. But I do have an objection to calling them “primordial.” A better approach is provided by Joel Feinberg in the book Social Philosophy, 1973. In the first chapter, “The Concept of Freedom,” he analyzes the concept of freedom as the absence of constraints, and then he distinguished internal from external constrains, on the one hand, and positive from negative constrains, on the other. Thus giving us a fourfold classification with examples:

Positive ConstraintNegative Constraint
Internal Constraintheadache,
obsessive thought,
compulsive desires
ignorance,
weakness,
defieciencies in talent or skill
External Constraintbarred windows,
locked doors,
pointed bayonets
lack of money,
lack of transportation,
lack of weapons

If there is to be a primordial principle, it surely should be the freedom to strive to survive. This means the freedom to be a hunter, gatherer, farmer, and pastoralist. And all these freedoms can be summed up as the freedom to use subsistence land.

An internal negative constraint is beautifully illustrated in the film “Walkabout,” in which a young boy and girl are stranded in the Australian outback, and without the fortunate encounter with an Aborigine youth, they would have died. He has the knowledge and the skills to get food and water which are necessary for survival. Below is a trailer:

My fifth commentary on the book: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Graeber and Wengrow wrote: “The first thing to emphasize is that the ‘the origin of social inequality’ is not a problem which would have made sense to anyone in the Middle Ages.” p. 14

I find this to be a self-serving claim. If it were true, then the claim that contact with American indigenous people was an eye opener — as the authors claim — becomes credible.

But is it true?

Before the discovery of the New World, there were various peasant disturbances. [See: Popular revolts in late-medieval Europe] What were peasants grumbling about? Since most peasants were illiterate, we have to go by what they did and by reports of what they said they did. But we can do better by following the sequence of events following the Black Death (1346-1353), in which about a third of the European population died.

From an economic perspective of supply and demand, the demand for peasants increased while the supply of peasants decreased. The result was a wage inflation for peasants.

Consequently in England King Edward III in 1349 passed the Ordinance of Labourers, and Parliament in 1351 passed the Statue of Labourers. These laws made work compulsory, and set controls on wages and the price of goods.

In 1381, the discontent with the prevailing state of affairs burst forth as the English Peasants’ Revolt.

We may take the sermon of the priest John Ball (preaching at Blackheath in 1381) as expressing the sentiments of the peasants.

“When Adam delved and Eve span,[a] Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty[b] men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, He would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.” [a. Delved meaning dug the fields, and span meaning spun fabric (or flax). b. “Naughty” then having a stronger sense of “evil, malicious”.]

And here we have an expression of a grievance against inequality, which contradicts the claim of Graeber and Wengrow that no one in the Middle Ages would or could make sense of the problem of inequality.

My fourth commentary on the book: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

In my second commentary I had faulted the book for ignoring the work of Herman Nieboer’s Slavery as an Industrial System (2d ed. 1910). Graeber and Wengrow tell us where they find the existence of slavery, but they do not bother to explain why it exists. Here I would like to mention the conclusions of Nieboer.

Nieboer starts out by defining slavery, and then through a systematic examination of the available ethnographic reports of the life of indigenous people he looked for any correlations between the holding of slaves and ways of securing subsistence.

I am not going to exposit or explain his conclusions, except to provide you with the following chart which he made of his conclusions.

General recapitulation.

Furthering the growth of slavery.Hindering the growth of slavery.
I. Internal causes.
A. General: 1. Open resources and subsistence easy to acquire.1. Closed resources.
2. Subsistence difficult to acquire.
B. Secondary, economic:1. A high position of women.
2. Commerce.
3. Preserving of food.
1. Female labour serving as a substitute for slave labour.
2. Subjection of tribes as such.
C. Secondary, non-economic:1. Militarism (where slaves are employed in warfare).
2. Slaves kept as a luxury.
1. Militarism (especially where foreigners are adopted).
II. External causes:
1. Fixed habitations.
2. Living in large groups.
3. Preserving of food.
4. The slave-trade.
5. The neighbourhood of inferior races.

“The most important result of our investigation seems to us the division, not only of all savage tribes, but of all peoples of the earth, into peoples with open, and with closed resources.” [p. 418] [Comment: I keep talking about this in terms of a free access to subsistence land.]

In the following paragraphs, he provides some support for Oppenheimer’s theory of State formation.

“In North-East Africa, however, there is one more cause at work, making slavery superfluous. This is the existence of a kind of substitute for slavery, viz. subjection of tribes as such. Pastoral tribes often levy tributes on agricultural tribes, to which they are superior in military strength; the latter cannot easily leave the lands they cultivate and seek a new country; if not too heavily oppressed, they will prefer paying a tribute. And to pastoral nomads the levying of a tax on agricultural tribes brings far more profit than the enslaving of individuals belonging to such tribes, whom they would have to employ either in pastoral labour, which they do not want, or in tilling the soil, which work the nomads would be unable to supervise. There are also pastoral tribes subjected by other pastoral nomads, the latter forming the nobility and the military part of society. Finally we find subjected tribes of hunters, smiths, [277] etc.; here we have sometimes rather to deal with a voluntary division of labour.”

“We see that the difference between the slave-keeping and the other pastoral tribes consists in external circumstances. Pastoral tribes have no strong motives for making slaves, for the use of slave labour is small. On the other hand, there are no causes absolutely preventing them from keeping slaves. These tribes are, so to speak, in a state of equilibrium; a small additional cause on either side turns the balance. One such additional cause is the slave-trade; another is the neighbourhood of inferior races. There may be other small additional causes, peculiar to single tribes. We shall not inquire whether there are, but content ourselves with the foregoing conclusions, of which the principal are these, that the taming of animals does not naturally lead to the taming of men, and that the relation between capital and labour among pastoral tribes renders the economic use of slavery very small. [ 290]

Recapitulating, we may remark that our general theory, that there is no great use for slave labour where subsistence depends on capital, is fully verified by our investigation of economic life among pastoral tribes.

Two secondary internal causes found in the second chapter have been also met with among pastoral tribes: slaves are sometimes employed in warfare, and sometimes for domestic labour to relieve the women of their task. Two new secondary factors have been found in this chapter: slaves are kept as a luxury; and sometimes the subjection of tribes as such, serving as a substitute for slavery, makes slavery proper superfluous.

With regard to the external causes it has been shown that the coercive power of pastoral tribes is not very strong, as they are nomadic and live in rather small groups; but this want is sometimes compensated for by the slave-trade and the neighbourhood of inferior races. The two latter circumstances may therefore rank as new external causes, the slave-trade taking the place of the existence of a homogeneous group. On the Pacific Coast of N. America it is the trade between tribes of the same culture, among pastoral nomads it is the trade with Arabia, etc. ; but in either case it is the slave-trade that furthers the growth of slavery.”

My third commentary on the book: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Here I would like to answer their question: Why are we stuck?

This is an elliptical question which when expanded is: Why are we stuck with capitalism and a representative democracy?

It is analogous to asking a slave: Why are you stuck in slavery?

My answer is that this state of affairs is the result of conquest, a position which was expounded by two sociologists: Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838-1909) and Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943).

According to Franz Oppenheimer in his book, The State (1914), nomadic pastoralists can, and do, form hierarchies of dependence because animals can be lost to predators or disease, or some natural disaster. This causes those in distress to depend on the more fortunate and industrious. Herders, in addition, having to maneuver and protect their animals develop athletic skills so that they are indistiguishable from warriors. And as soon as there is any property which can be acquired — either of another herder or a sedentary farmer, this is an incentive to take it by force. And then he lists 6 stages of forcible appropriation. Using the analogy of obtaining honey, he divides these into the method of the bear — whereby the honey is obtained through the destruction of the hive, and the other 5 methods are those of the bee-keeper: taking only the surplus.

“The six stages Oppenheimer describes may be conveniently epitomized as follows: (1) extermination; (2) appropriation of surplus; (3) tribute-giving; (4) occupation; (5) regulation; and (6) amalgamation.” [Chapter XIX: Struggle over “The Struggle for Existence”: Social Darwinism, Pros and Cons, in Howard Becker and Harry Elmer Barnes, Social Thought from Lore to Science, Vol. 2 (1938), p. 726.]

Analogous to land nomads there are also sea nomads, such as pirates and the Vikings.

Oppenheimer stipulates that obtaining the necessities of life by work or free exchange is to be called “the economic means”; whereas anything taken by force is to be called “the political means.”

But really, the anthropological or sociological question of how States originated in prehistory is superfluous, since in historical times it is war, conquest, colonization, and extermination which have propelled us to our present worldwide condition.


I am aware that there are other theories of state formation. These can be classified as coercive and voluntaristic theories. Whatever happened in pre-history, it is clear to me that the historical record is of a coercive type of state formation.

Below are some relevant documents — readily available on the Internet:

Franz Oppenheimer, The State, 1914.
William MacLeod, The Origin of the State, 1924.
Robert H. Lowie, The Origin of the State, 1927.
R. L. Carneiro, “A Theory of the Origin of the State”, Science. vol. 169, 1970: pp. 733–738
Elman Service, Origin of the State and Civilization, 1975.
R. L. Carneiro, “The Circumscription Theory: A Clarification, Amplification, and Reformulation”, Social Evolution & History, 11(2), (2012), 5–30.

My second commentary on the book: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

In my first commentary I posted some videos which can be used to accompany some of the archeological sites discussed in their text. And in their book there are many insightful discussions of various topics. The most important, I think, which the authors emphasize, is that Neolithic humans were just as intelligent and resourceful as we are. And I would add that they — as do present hunter-gatherers — had the kind of working knowledge of resources, fabrications skills, and foraging skills which we city-dwellers can only read and dream about in reference materials.

The other thing which caught my attention was their focus on a concept attributed to Gregory Bateson: “schismogenesis.” This is the tendency of groups to differentiate themselves from other groups. This explains the persistence of groups to identify themselves in their cuisine, clothes, music, traditions, history, and such. And this may be done with a sacrifice in efficiency or what we may call progress.

And I could go on finding all sorts of things to praise in the book. But I, first, want to unburden myself of the criticisms which are festering in my mind.

The first criticism has to do with the origin of the State. This is discussed in Chapter 10: Why the State Has No Origin. Although the authors recognize the definition of a State as “the institution that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercive force within a given territory . . .” p.359 and they recognize that our planet is divided into States; yet, they are waffling about origins. And they are waffling because they did not come to terms with Franz Oppenheimer’s book, The State (1914) — a book which is absent in their bibliography, as is also the book of ethnographical material on which it is based, The History of Mankind (1898) by Friedrich Ratzel. Oppenheimer has a six-stage scenario for the development of our States; whereas our authors speak at best only about tribal chiefs and kings — though they do acknowledge that Aztec and Inca Empires were States.

See also my blogs:

Origins of the State — by Conquest

Origins of the State, Land and Population

Karl Popper on the Origin of the State

The authors should be talking about forms of coercion, instead they talk about forms of (their word) “dominance.” I would not use this misleading word. I would instead talk about forms of deference because of some talent or trait which some individuals possess; such as leadership in hunting or warfare, esoteric knowledge of the supernatural, or some charismatic trait or wisdom which is honored by consultation and some set of privileges.

The second criticism has to do with slavery which they discuss in Chapter 5: Many Seasons Ago. Again they are waffling about this because they did not come to terms with Herman Nieboer’s Slavery as an Industrial System (1910). They mention him and the book in footnote 54, p. 558, but make no use of his extensive study of slavery among “primitive” people around the world.

The third criticism has to do with Rousseau. They focus on Rousseau’s essay: “A discourse on the origin of inequality,” as if that was Rousseau’s main concern. It was not. The essay was written for a competition for a prize inaugerated by the Academy of Dijon on a topic of inequality — chosen by the society. Rousseau’s own question was formulated by him in the Social Contract as:

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.”
Three comments.

(1) He is expressing a concern with freedom; not equality. Whereas the authors start and end their book with the elliptical issue of equality. It is elliptical because equality has to be followed by a specification of some respect.

(2) In view of “political correctness” which if violated in France was a punishable crime, Rousseau meekly pleaded ignorance about the source of unfreedom. Whereas Hume in England had flatly answered that the State came about by conquest. Are we to believe Rousseau that he did not know this? But even though he tried to tip-toe around censorship, he still had to flee from Geneva and France for having published his restrained work. (Remember Galileo? He too tried to tiptoe around the Inquisition by publishing a supposedly imagined dialogue, but they got him and forced him to recant, gagged him, and put him under — what we would today call — house arrest.)

(3) Rousseau’s answer about legitimacy does not seem to concern the authors because it is of the nature of a theory and proposal.

See also my blogs:

The Social Contract Refurbished

Land and Liberty

One last thing about Rousseau. The authors approach Rousseau indirectly by focusing on the work of the Frenchman Lahontas in whose work there is a dialogue with the Wendat (Huron) chief, Kandiaronk, who criticized European society. It is presumed by the authors that Rousseau knew this work, which he may not have. But there is no need to be so specific. There were all sorts of reports and travelogues about the New World, and Rousseau does mention the work of Francois Coreal (1648-1708) [Voyages de Francois Coreal aux Indes Occidentales contenant ce qu’il y a vû de plus remarquable pendant son séjour depuis 1666 jusqu’en 1697…..avec une relation de la Guiane de Walter Raleigh & le voyage de Narborough a la mer du Sud par le Detroit de Magellan, &c. Paris: Andres Cailieau, 1722. (2 vols.)] .

But aside from these criticisms, there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained from The Dawn of Everything.

The Social Contract Refurbished

What is it to refurbish some item? Using my computer as an example of refurbishment, I did the following with my computer. The computer’s power supply failed; I replaced it with a 500w Termaltake. I had 2GB of memory; I upgrade to 8GB. My operating system was on a Hard Disk; I switched to an 240 GB Solid State Drive (SSD). In other words, to refurbish is to replace failed parts and to enhance or upgrade other parts.

Instead of starting with some imagined state of nature, I want to start with evolutionary theory and anthropology. From evolutionary theory humans have evolved from some common ancestor with chimps. And since chimps are social so were our ancestors. Moreover, human languages are social products and reflect — to use Wittgenstein’S phrase — a form of life.

Reflecting on anthropological findings, it is reasonable to generalize that humans are tribal animals. As such, they have always lived in a rule-guided manner, which are called customs and mores. And from an external perspective tribal life can be characterized by conformity. If we wish, we can characterize this conformity as tacit or implicit consent. Karl Popper called this state of affairs “tribalism” in a disparaging manner because this form of life, he thought, did not allow for pluralism and criticism. This may very well be true about particular matters, such as religion. But I am sure that there must have been some disagreements about where to go foraging or modes of hunting and with which tools or weapons, and which person was worthy of consultation, or even about which plants to avoid as poisonous or unhealthy.

John Locke, as everyone else, agrees that the primary concern of a normal human being is self-preservation. And self-preservation is better secured within a group. And what preserves life is air, water, food, temperature, and shelter. And as Rousseau put it, whoever wills an end; wills the means. And the means to satisfy the above needs is access to subsistence territory. So, if we wish to use such language, there is a tacit agreement that everyone in the tribe is allowed (is permitted, has a right) to access this subsistence territory. John Locke also stresses the rule that everyone is permitted to take from nature whatever one needs as long as there is as much left for everyone else. But, appealing to anthropological finding, not only is this permitted (a right), but there also prevail customs of gift giving and sharing (or, as Kropotkin put it: “mutual aid.”)

As to interpersonal conduct or morals, intratribal conduct can be summarized by the Christian rule: do unto others as you would them do unto you. Tribes live not merely by a negative rule: No person x is allowed to harm another person y (except for self-defense or the defense of others), but also by a positive rule to be of help to others.

What I have said above captures the meaning of what Rousseau means by a General Will. If the people of a tribe were asked to vote whether all the above is acceptable, they would agree. And such a vote would be the Will of All. The General Will is the set of necessary conditions for the preservation of human life in a social context. But this necessity is a factual matter; not a matter of choice and voting.

In summary, in a previous blog, I described primitive tribes by three characteristics: Anarchism, Socialism, and Communism.

The historical purpose of an appeal to a Social Contract is to justify or legitimize a State. Here the matter was muddled by an ambiguous use of the word “government.” In the sense of appealing to authorities for guidance and decision making, tribes resort to different procedures and persons. So, in this sense they are governed.

But States have a different form of government which is historically, for the most part, centralized in a single individual — though Rome and Sparta vested power in two individuals. So, historically, the Social Contract was a juridical fiction for justifying monarchy.

So, we can view a social contract theory in the following manner. If a State of any sort is to be justified then it would have to arise from the common consent of all the members.

But, in fact, all States are illegitimate because none of them arose by a Social Contract, as David Hume pointed out. States arose by conquest, by force; not by free consent. This is the sociological theory of the State as argued for by Franz Oppenheimer in his book, The State.

A Challenge for Political Philosophers

In a previous blog, Bertrand Russell’s bullshit interpretation of Jean Jacques Rousseau, I expressed puzzlement how it is possible to claim that Hitler is the outcome of Rousseau.

Here I want to introduce a different puzzle.

Consider the following passages, and footnotes in D. G. Ritchie, “Chapter 7. Contributions to the History of the Social Contract Theory,” in Darwin and Hegel with Other Philosophical Studies (1893), (pp. 196-226); p. 206:

As we have seen, Locke quotes King James I. about the “paction” between king and people; but the original compact on which he basis civil government is, just as with Hobbes and with Rousseau, a compact between individual and individual, not between king (or whatever else may be the government) and people.

“Whosoever [he says] out of a state of nature unite into a community must be understood to give up all the power necessary to the ends for which they unite into society, to the majority of the community, unless they expressly agreed in any number greater than the majority. And this is done by barely agreeing to unite into one political society, which is all the compact that is, or needs be, between the individuals that enter into or make up a commonwealth.”2[2 Treatise of Civil Government, II., § 99. In a footnote in the English translation of Bluntschli’s Theory of the State (Oxford, 1885), p. 276 — a footnote for which I am responsible — I followed the usual fashion of contrasting Locke and Rousseau. Further study of Locke has convinced me that there is no essential difference between them in this matter. The error has been avoided in the second edition (1892); see p. 294.”

Later, pp. 215-216, Ritchie writes:

Milton’s own theory is expounded earlier in his treatise :

“ No man who knows aught can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free, being the image and resemblance of God Himself, and were, by privilege above all creatures, born to command and not to obey; and that they lived so, till from the root of Adam’s transgression falling among themselves to do. wrong and violence, and foreseeing that such courses must needs tend to the destruction of them all, they agreed by common league to bind each other from mutual injury and jointly to defend themselves against any that gave disturbance or opposition to such agreement. . . . The power of kings and magistrates is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the people to the common good of them all, to whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be taken from them without a violation of their natural birthright.”1 [1 For the term “birthright” in this connection, cf. Clarke Papers, pp. lc, lxi., 322-325.]

This is precisely Locke’s theory; expressed in Milton’s impassioned language, it reveals its identity with the theory of Rousseau. Milton, like Locke, gives the theory a setting of Biblical history. Remove this setting, and we have the theory as it appears in Rousseau.

Ok, you may ask “What’s your point?”

My point is that according to Ritchie, the positions of Locke and Rousseau (as concerns the main points) are the same. But Russell wrote: “Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau; Roosevelt and Churchill of Locke.”

So, evidently Russell must be in disagreement with Ritchie that the positions of Locke and Rousseau (as concerns the main points) are the same. Who is right?

If Ritchie is right, then Russell’s position becomes that Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill are the outcome of Locke/Rousseau.

My own position is that it is not clear to me what it means to say that x is the outcome of y; i.e., understood as x’s views are the outcome of y’s views.

Bertrand Russell’s bullshit interpretation of Jean Jacques Rousseau

I write this piece with regret because I admire most of Russell’s writings, and I do recommend his History of Western Philosophy (1945) as an introduction to philosophy, as I also recommend reading Wikipedia articles as a starting point for most inquiries. But starting points should not be taken as terminating points. Because everything is subject to critical review.

Chapter 19 of his History is about Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who is known primarily for his essays, as collected in , The Social Contract and Discourses, translated with an introduction by G.D.H. Cole, 1913. [(In my American edition of 1950, there is an 1931 entry in the Bibliography. ]

Some regard Rousseau as the greatest political philosopher. Here are two such opinions;

“. . . Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the greatest political philosopher who has ever lived. His claim to immortality rests upon one short book, Of the Social Contract . . .” Robert Paul Wolff, About Philosophy 9th ed. (2006), p. 318.

G. D. H, Cole (1889-1959), in his clear and insightful introduction to Rousseau’s essays, writes: “. . . the Social Contract itself is by far the best of all textbooks of political philosophy.” (p. l)

Bertrand Russell, on the other hand, describes Rousseau in the most disparaging ways. Let me cite the most outrageous of his claims:

1. “. . . the inventor of the political philosophy of pseudo-democratic dictatorship as opposed to traditional absolute monarchies.”

2. “Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau; Roosevelt and Churchill of Locke.”

3. “Rousseau forgets his romanticism and speaks like a sophistical policeman. Hegel, who owed much to Rousseau, adopted his misuse of the word “freedom,” and defined it as the right to obey the police, or something not very different.”

4. “Its doctrines, though they pay lip-service to democracy, tend to the justification of the totalitarian State.”

5. The final paragraph of Russell’s chapter on Rousseau is this:

“The Social Contract became the Bible of most of the leaders in the French Revolution, but no doubt, as is the fate of Bibles, it was not carefully read and was still less understood by many of its disciples. It introduced the habit of metaphysical abstractions among the theorists of democracy, and by its doctrine of the general will it made possible the mystic identification of a leader with its people, which has no need of confirmation by so mundane an application as the ballot-box, Much of its philosophy could be appropriated by Hegel. [Hegel selects for special praise the distinction between the general will and the will of all. He says: “Rousseau would have made a sounder contribution towards a theory of the State, if he had always kept the distinction in mind.” (Logic, Sec. 163).] in his defense of the Prussian autocracy. Its first-fruit in practice was the reign of Robespierre, the dictatorship of Russia and Germany (especially the latter) are in part an outcome of Rousseau’s teaching. What further triumphs the future has to offer to his ghost I do not venture to predict.”

I find all these claims bizarre — a complete misunderstanding of Rousseau.

As an immediate antidote to this misreading, I recommend the introduction to the essays by G.D.H. Cole, and an essay which Cole recommended as a historical summary of the social contract tradition by D.G. Ritchie, “Chapter 7. Contributions to the History of the Social Contract Theory,” (pp. 196-226) in Darwin and Hegel with Other Philosophical Studies (1893)

Although in my opinion Russell totally misunderstood Rousseau’s Social Contract, for the sake of what I am about to say, let us assume (pretend) that Russell’s interpretation of Rousseau is correct. Let us assume (pretend) that Rousseau was espousing a dictatorship of a leader. How does such an alleged espousal lead to, cause, influence, or inspire Hitler?

To make such a claim at least plausible would require, I think, the following presuppositions:
1. Intellectuals have an influence on the general public, or
2. Intellectuals have an influence on politicians, or
3. Hitler was influenced by Rousseau.

My general view is that intellectuals are taken notice of by mostly other intellectuals, and hardly at all by the general public or by politicians. This is to say that intellectuals have almost no effect on politics.

The exceptions are — to speak sarcastically — philosopher kings, i.e., politicians who happen to be intellectuals. I am thinking of such figures as Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson (in the United States); Thomas Masaryk in Czechoslovakia; Lenin and Trotsky in Russia; and such.

Was Hitler an intellectual? And if he read Rousseau, what did he get from him? How in the world does one support the thesis that Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau?


Looking on the Internet whether anyone else commented on Russell’s view of Rousseau, I came across the following interesting piece: Thomas Riggins, “Russell, Rousseau, And Rationality: A Marxist Critique,” Countercurrents.org, June 30, 2007.

Philosophy as Hermeneutics

As Curt Ducasse pointed out in Philosophy as a Science (1941), there are many conceptions of the nature of philosophy. And there is one which I would like to focus on: philosophy as hermeneutics.

The conception of hermeneutics which I want to focus on is the techniques for the interpretation of the Christian Bible. It is taken for granted (assumed) that the Bible is the word of God, revealed to some individuals. As such, because God is conceived as not a liar, everything in the Bible is taken to be true. However, there are passages which seem to say falsehoods and seem to be contradictory. So, techniques of interpretation are introduced in such a manner as to make the Bible speak only the truth. Look at the Wikipedia articles: hermeneutics and Biblical hermeneutics.

When I read philosophical writings, many of them seem to be written in the same reverential manner as the writings of theologians. They want or assume that the author wrote in a sensible manner and wrote the truth, and they do hermeneutical acrobatics to make it so.

The curious fact is that the authors chosen for such hermeneutical exercises are authors who are on the face of it totally esoterically obscure. And the authors who are clear are ignored. See my discussion at: C. D. Broad: The Default Philosopher of the Century.