Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Origins of Autonomy

Inquiry 54 (5):478 - 493 (2011)
Abstract
Abstract Modern reflection on the ideal of personal autonomy has its Western origin in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, where autonomy, or self-legislation, involves citizens joining together to make laws for themselves that reflect their collective understanding of the common good. Four features of this conception of autonomy continue to be relevant today. First, autonomy, a type of freedom, is introduced into modern philosophy in order to make up for a perceived deficiency, or incompleteness, in merely ?negative? freedom (the right to do as one pleases, unimpeded by others). Second, autonomy is taken to be not merely a complement of negative freedom but a higher, more valuable species of freedom. Third, at its origin personal autonomy is not conceived individualistically; rather, on Rousseau's account, autonomy is achievable only if citizens surrender part of their status as individuals and think of their social membership as essential, not merely accidental, to who they are. Finally, Rousseau's conception of autonomy is distinct from the contemporary ideal of autonomy defined as judging or deciding for oneself (according to one's own reason). Nevertheless, there is an important sense in which autonomy as Rousseau conceives it also requires the developed capacity for independent, self-determined judgment
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