"The Eyes of Others": Rousseau and Adam Smith on Judgment and Autonomy

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The ideal of autonomy remains one of the Enlightenment’s most controversial legacies to the modern world. For critics, including communitarians, care feminists, and postmodernists, autonomy implies a commitment to atomistic and sovereign conceptions of subjectivity, and engenders an at best illusory and at worst imperialistic elision of difference. This paper seeks to reengage the modern concept of moral self-direction by placing it in historical perspective and comparing two Enlightenment contributions to it, as embodied in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith. Crucial figures in the histories at once of liberalism and sentimentalism, Rousseau and Smith stand opposed, in important respects, to the rationalism characterizing the writings of the Enlightenment’s most influential theorist of autonomy, Immanuel Kant. Yet they also elaborate a crucial split, within early liberalism, on the meaning of moral judgment and hence of moral freedom, a split with underelaborated implications for current debates about autonomy and Enlightenment modernity. For Smith, judgment requires cultivating an impartiality that is possible only in a relational and intersubjective context. Impartiality, Smith explains in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759, 1790), requires that “we remove ourselves, as it were, from our own natural station, and endeavour to view [our actions and sentiments] as at a certain distance from us. But we can do this in no other way than by endeavouring to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them.” By contrast, the “eyes of others” have a highly negative connotation for Rousseau, a fierce critic not only of conventional society but also of the relative passions—the amour-propre or self-love that is activated in intercourse with others. In his major work on the education of the autonomous man, Emile (1762), Rousseau contends, “As soon as one must see with the eyes of others, one must will with their wills.” Rousseau’s imaginary pupil, Emile, cultivates judgment by interacting predominantly with “things” rather than “wills”—that is, in relation to nature and natural necessity rather than by engaging other people’s standpoints. I argue that Rousseauvian autonomy denotes a radical self-sufficiency that ultimately militates against the attempt to connect judgment with the passions and the imagination while Smith institutes an anti-positivist perspectivism by complicating the binary opposition of autonomy and sociability that Rousseau, and following him, Kant, institute. As such, Smith’s writings on judgment are productively engaged by critical thinkers today who want to reclaim autonomy as a key liberal value worth fighting for.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationJudgment and Action
Subtitle of host publicationFragments Towards a History
EditorsVivasvan Soni, Thomas Pfau
Place of PublicationChicago
PublisherNorthwestern University Press
ISBN (Electronic)978-0-8101-3633-5
ISBN (Print)978-0-8101-3632-8, 978-0-8101-3631-1
StatePublished - 2018


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