Rousseau’s State of Pure Nature

“Rousseau’s State of Pure Nature” is part of “Marginal Thinking: A Forum on Louis Althusser,” featuring articles from Louis Althusser, Jason Barker, Dariush M. Doust, Nina Power, Richard Seymour, Greg Sharzer, and Caroline Williams. Click here for the entire forum. 

ALTHUSSER DELIVERED a lecture course on Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the spring of 1972 at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) Paris. Its audio recording was originally made, with Althusser’s permission, by Yves Vargas, one of his students at the time. Neglected for many years, the material was eventually transcribed and published in book form in 2012. 

Cours sur Rousseau contains three untitled lectures. The course was intended for students of the agrégation, a nationwide competitive examination that qualifies successful candidates to work in the French teaching profession. “Rousseau’s State of Pure Nature,”[i] an extract taken from Althusser’s second lecture of March 3, 1972, appears here in English translation for the first time, and in advance of Verso’s planned publication of the book in 2017.

Readers may be aware of the attention previously paid to Rousseau in Althusser’s Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx. The latter collection contains “Rousseau: The Social Contract (The Discrepancies),” an essay based on Althusser’s 1966 lecture course at the ENS. However, by 1972 Althusser’s reading of Rousseau had changed significantly. Whereas in 1966 Althusser’s focus had been on Rousseau as a kind of failed first draft of Marx — a thinker whose theoretical “failures” anticipated Marx’s mature philosophy — in the 1972 course he shifts his attention away from Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) and its focus on economic issues, toward the earlier Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), Rousseau’s so-called Second Discourse.

By 1972 all reference to history as a dialectical development of opposing classes, to the rich and poor Rousseau considers in The Social Contract, had disappeared. Instead, Althusser uses the term “history” to mean something far more catastrophic and far more “historical”; namely, the unforeseen events that Rousseau mentions in his Second Discourse: “Lightning, a volcano, or some happy accident”[ii] that, we assume, catapulted human beings from their “state of pure nature” into a state of mutual recognition — the state Thomas Hobbes describes famously as a state of civil war, and Marx as “class struggle” — before eventually becoming reconciled in the truce of the social contract, represented by our modern liberal democratic constitutions.

But the key word in all of this — “accident” — signals the explicit preoccupation of Althusser’s later writings with the contingent, though necessary, dimension of history; in other words, with the accidental and the fortuitous combined. There is no “linear genesis” leading “primitive” peoples out of the wilderness and into the safe confines of “civil society” with its social contract. In fact, there is no genesis at all. The “origin” of society, Althusser says, is “trapped in a circle”; in Rousseau’s text we witness “the total incapacity of the state of pure nature to develop.”

Although Althusser’s take on Rousseau’s Second Discourse departs radically from orthodox readings,[iii] on closer inspection it doesn’t depart so radically from Althusser’s own work of the same period. Additionally, in passing, there is more than a faint echo of Jacques Derrida’s 1966 ENS lectures on Lévi-Strauss and Rousseau[iv] in Althusser’s course of 1972. Althusser’s “indebtedness” to the Rousseau essay that would appear, already in 1967, in Derrida’s Of Grammatology is debatable; although in his defense G. M. Goshgarian has argued[v] that Althusser’s attention to history’s “supplementarity,” as Derrida calls it, can be traced back to the research into contingency and chance that Althusser had been doing since the early 1960s. In any case, and all “originality” aside, Althusser’s 1972 course seems fairly consistent with his text “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” first published two years earlier in 1970. Recall that in the imaginary “states” governed by the ISAs, we subjects are “trapped” in ideology by way of being condemned to the modern liberal “freedom” of passive indifference and narcissistic misrecognition. This is ideology, Althusser famously declares, without a history — and so without a future. He would spend the remaining years of his life and the intellectual resources available to him trying to think outside such an imaginary state.[vi]

“Rousseau’s State of Pure Nature,” along with the entire Cours sur Rousseau, is not some Althusserian collector’s item. Instead it relates to the most crucial questions of contemporary political philosophy — questions about the ends and origins of “man” and his increasingly perilous relationship with the natural world. For if, as Althusser asserts, the origins and ends of man are superfluous to the (scientific) study of history as a process, then what sort of “human” society are we left with? What sort of future lays in store for “us,” as a society, to say nothing of our ongoing survival as a species? Can we find a way out of our present “primitive” state given that ideology, the vehicle for our cherished liberal freedoms, has no history and, in all likelihood, no future either? Or might we imagine the future differently?

Read today, Althusser’s reading of Rousseau takes us, somewhat unexpectedly and fortuitously, to the very heart of such questions on the management of our natural world and its “common wealth” in the age of the so-called Anthropocene.

Readers should be advised that the translation deliberately reflects the fact that the text is a transcript, taken from an audio recording, of a lecture course delivered over three days in February and March 1972. Unlike Althusser’s course of 1966 on Rousseau, the material was not intended by its author for publication.

          — Jason Barker, editor, “Marginal Thinking”


TO BEGIN WITH, Rousseau attributes several qualities to the man of the state of pure nature: four qualities, three of them positive, and another that is the quality of these qualities. The first three are self-love [amour de soi], freedom, and pity. The last, the quality of these qualities, is perfectibility. What is important in these four qualities is the pair self-love/pity, for this pair will come to represent the virtual nucleus of the natural right, natural law, and morality of the future. By invoking the pair self-love/pity, which is a purely animal pair, since Rousseau says it is characteristic of animals as well as human beings, Rousseau rejects the classic thesis that identifies natural right and natural law with reason. He wishes to provide natural right with a foundation prior to reason that results from the development of human history, since reason itself results from the development of human history.

Rousseau accordingly posits, in the origin, the complete opposite of the bad origin. That is, he includes in it the animal movements that he won’t dis­cover again at the end, and includes in it, in particular, the heart in the form of animal existence, namely pity. I don’t subscribe to everything that is said about these subjects in the second Discourse, but it is interesting to see how Rousseau tries to come to terms with what he takes it upon himself to explain — with these two contradictory demands.

We have to go further.

Characteristic of pity is the fact that it’s the only relation to exist in the state of nature. Compassion for one’s fellows is a purely negative relation; it doesn’t unite men. Pity doesn’t unite men, who, moreover, don’t encounter one another. It simply prevents them from hurting each other if they should happen to meet. Pity is, I insist, a negative relation; thus it isn’t sociability, social need, the need for others — absolutely not; it is simply compassion, not doing harm to others, not making a being of one’s own species suffer. It is therefore purely ne­gative; this is how things would be played out if men should happen to meet. I say “if they should happen to meet,” for, in the state of nature, they practically never do; that’s the most surprising paradox in Rousseau. The originary quali­ties that he assigns to men in the state of nature have practically no existence, no use, and no meaning. The freedom with which he endows men, along with the metaphysical qualities, has absolutely no existence in the state of nature; one doesn’t at all see what role it could play there. It is simply there, in waiting [en attente], but serves no purpose. Pity, in its turn, also has practically no ex­istence: practically, because men practically never meet, and, in any event, nev­er meet twice. Pity, too, is in waiting. As for perfectibility, it has no occasion to come into play, since what is characteristic of the state of nature in which per­fectible men live is to be repeated, thus ruling out all progress. Hence we can say that Rousseau resolves the paradox involved in having to think an origin separate from any result by attributing qualities to men that are, first, not social and, in particular, animal; and that are, second, theoretically and practically vir­tual, including the virtuality of these virtualities known as perfectibility — which is expressly said to be of no use in the state of pure nature, although it’s attri­buted to men. In the state of pure nature, men have qualities that aren’t of any use, but are simply there, waiting to be reclaimed in the world of the social contract.

There we have the first solution. The second solution, however, is much more impressive. It is the one in which Rousseau poses the origin and cuts it off from all genetic continuity with its result: it is the total incapacity of the state of pure nature to develop. The origin is trapped in a circle that I’ve illustrated. It’s the perfect adequation of man with nature; nature is good, etc.; men are very well off there; everything goes round and round without end, and nothing makes it possible to escape it. The origin can’t escape itself by the logic of its inner essence. The inner essence of the state of pure nature is to be unable to develop by itself. The inner essence of the origin is therefore to be incapable of producing any result. It is in this way that Rousseau does the most to protect himself from the origin of the result, from this little “of the.” He cuts. No devel­opment, no sequel, a state without a sequel. At the limit, the origin is the origin of nothing. At the limit, it is posed in the very form of negation. Listen to what Rousseau says: “After showing that perfectibility, the social virtues, and other faculties that natural man received as potentialities could never have developed on their own, that to do so they needed the fortuitous convergence of several external causes that might never have arisen and without which man would forever have remained in his primitive condition […]” [vii]

I now come to the next step. We who read Rousseau and discuss him know that this origin, which is “the origin of nothing,” is nevertheless the origin of present-day human society; we know, therefore, that a result has taken place. And it is the confrontation between this origin, whose conditions of existence constitute its negation, and the result of this origin that is powerless to produce anything — it is this confrontation which will give meaning to the powerless­ness of the origin and to this having-taken-place, to this result that has taken place. The powerlessness of the origin is therefore, it seems to me, a rejection of linear genesis, that is, a rejection of the analysis of essence; but, for this reason, it is the inscription, in the structure of the origin, the inscription in its radical separation from any result, of another thought: the thought of separation, that is — now we’ve made a little progress — the thought of events foreign to the essence of the originary state, the thought of the having-taken-place: “to do so they needed the fortuitous convergence of several external causes that might never have arisen and without which man would forever have remained in his primitive condition.” It is the thought, not just of events, but of the contingency of events, in other words, the thought of advening, of taking-place, and the thought, as well, of the necessity produced by these events. In short, it is a thought that inevitably revolves, that revolves around, and inevitably tends toward, something like history.


Louis Althusser was born in Algeria in 1918 and died in France in 1990. He taught philosophy for many years at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and was a leading intellectual in the French Communist Party. His books include For Marx; Reading Capital (with Étienne Balibar); Essays on Ideology; Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx; Machiavelli and Us; The Spectre of Hegel; and Philosophy for Non-Philosophers.


Translated by G. M. Goshgarian.

Cours sur Rousseau is due to be published in English by Verso Books in 2017.



[i] The title is my own. This is an extract from Louis Althusser, “Deuxième Exposé, 3 mars 1972” in: Cours sur Rousseau, with a preface by Yves Vargas, Montreuil: Les Temps des cerises 2015, pp. 117—21. – JB.

[ii] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, ed. Patrick Coleman, transl. Franklin Philip, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford World’s Classics 1994, rpt. 2009, p. 56. – JB.

[iii] See e.g. Arthur O. Lovejoy, “The Supposed Primitivism of Rousseau’s ‘Discourse on Inequality’,” in: Modern Philology 21.2, 1923, pp. 165—86. – JB.

[iv] Derrida would first publish the lecture material as “Nature, Culture, Écriture. La violence de la lettre de Lévi-Strauss à Rousseau,” in: Cahiers pour l’analyse, 4, 1966, pp. 5—50. The conceptual vocabulary of Derrida’s article—consider the “Fatal accident which is nothing other than history itself,” p. 45—is often strikingly similar to Althusser’s 1972 course. – JB.

[v] G. M. Goshgarian, “Introductory Note, ‘Sur la genèse’,” in: Décalages, 1.2, 2014. – JB.

[vi] Whether “outside thinking” should be a question for philosophy or science is particularly interesting in relation to Althusser’s own work. For my part I have tried to speculate as to whether such thinking might be pursued through the formalization that characterizes computer science. See Jason Barker, “Are We (Still) Living in a Computer Simulation? Althusser and Turing,” in: Jason Barker and G. M. Goshgarian, eds. Other Althussers: diacritics 43.2, 2015, pp. 93—121. – JB.

[vii] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, ed. Patrick Coleman, transl. Franklin Philip, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Oxford World’s Classics 1994, rpt. 2009, p. 53.