Teaching autonomy: lessons from Rousseau in the face of our networked world


In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau publishes the Emile or On Education , the Treaty on the “art of training men” who will meet popular not yet undeniable success. However, his educational proposals, adjusted to the conception he has of man through his different ages, are far from easy to adopt.

Instead of addressing the child as the man he will become, instead of training him for a profession or a position, instead of imposing on him a knowledge that will make him feel better. would make “a learned monkey” even before having developed his mind, he replaces it in the place of childhood, attentive to its development and to the times of life.

Descartes was sorry that one was a child before being a man, Rousseau takes note of this, and pays all his attention to those who do not yet use their reason. But to do this, he advocates in the first place a negative education. What consists for the governor to withdraw rather than to teach positive knowledge. He must intervene as little as possible, if not to place the child in a “natural” framework to his measure, so that it is the things that instruct him, and not society.

The governor’s non-action or his indirect action, which the child does not perceive, allows the latter not to directly confront the will of another, which may always appear arbitrary. By surveying this world reduced to his size by the governor’s care, by experiencing it from the point of view of his own body, and by developing his reflexivity there, the child learns to know himself , both as a being. finished – nature is necessity – but also as power and will.

The space is the framework of the education that the governor must lead, while remaining vigilant that this framework is always adapted – so that the desires do not exceed the needs – as is the case of any capricious child whose requests are immediately met. This is the key to the development of autonomy. However, this autonomy is developing according to two conditions which are the opposite of the world in which children and adolescents live today.

A current dependence on tools

The first condition posed by Rousseau is that the child constructs the instrument as an extension of his own body, only if it is necessary, and according to the experience which makes it necessary: ​​an instrument therefore born of a need, and that the child must build relative to this need. It is the use that decides the technique, and it must be discovered, “invented”, by those who experience its usefulness, explains the philosopher:
“I want us to do all of our machines ourselves, and I don’t want to start by making the instrument before the experiment; but I want, after having glimpsed the experience as if by chance, that we gradually invent the instrument which must verify it. “
We can deplore the lack of autonomy we have today, even our total dependence on machines – and this on two levels:

  • addiction because algorithms make us addicted like the chemical additives in cigarettes made us addicted to tobacco;
  • dependence because we no longer know how to construct the instruments without which, however, we would be lost to orient ourselves in social life, and undoubtedly even in nature.

Our relationship with space has been totally transformed by new technologies. Shutterstock

Of course, it would be illusory to want to return to the tool as it existed outside the framework of the division of labor and the progress of nanotechnologies. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the distance between current instruments and the individual capacity to manufacture them is abysmal, and this only poses a problem insofar as the instrument gradually supplements our individual capacities. That is to say to our relation to space, to our physical power which Rousseau – in agreement with the empiricists – considers that it is at the origin of the formation of reason, and more generally to our relation in the world.

GPS, calculating machines, social networks, weather app, etc. are available in a single instrument that identifies us at the same time as we use it. The instrument therefore becomes a necessary mediation for the most elementary tasks of life, replacing the proper body, the very one that the governor of Émile has for mission to develop in his pupil.

Permanent judgments

However, as Johanna Lenne-Cornuez recalls , who has just published Being in his place, the formation of the subject in Rousseau’s moral philosophy , the “danger of mediation is that it offers no guarantee of not being a screen which interposes itself between the child and the world and produces an illusion of knowledge. This is why the child must build his own instrument – the only way to keep the instrument in its role of simple mediation.

As we know today, mediations tend to fade, to be forgotten. This is the paradox of the tool and even more of the connected tool: it gives the world by taking it back. It fades away in favor of the content, but in doing so, produces the illusion of an experience. Metaverse will be the generalization of this paradox, consecrating the disappearance of the clean body.

For Rousseau, the fact that the child constructs his instrument contributes to making him autonomous: not only because he is agile, but above all because he knows that it is an instrument, which only makes increase the power of the clean body without replacing it. Thus, and thanks to the vigilance of the governor, “he becomes a philosopher and believes he is only a worker”. This learning of autonomy, which Émileis the manual is a challenge since autonomy is not supposed to be taught, unless it goes through a moment of heteronomy and obedience. A phase that Rousseau seeks to overcome by re-registering the child in his age (time) and in the natural order (space), without rushing things, attentive to the genesis of his faculties in proportion to the growth of his will, and in removing it from the harmful effects of society.

And that is precisely what autonomy is: depending on things, and not on the gaze of others. This is the second Rousseauist lesson to ponder in the age of social networks structurally built on approval or criticism, permanent judgment, in other words, the gaze of the other – which other is moreover reduced to his “gaze”. .

A “regulatory idea”

If the child’s knowledge is relative in that it depends on the use of its own body, the deployment of its forces, the discovery of pleasure, and all relate to what Rousseau theorizes under the expression d ‘Self-love’ which must be opposed to ‘self-love’, if therefore they are relative to it insofar as it occupies the center of its world before being able to objectify it by abstaining from it, they are on the other hand, absolute insofar as they do not depend on others.

Even the governor steps aside in favor of the negative pedagogy that he puts in place, so as to let the child discover for himself his limits and his capacities.

Thus “the autonomy of the child depends on a space staged by the governor”, as Johanna Lenne-Cornuez says . By this stratagem, the child learns things and not others. The challenge is for him to become a man – aware of his place, not in society but in the world.

Third consequence of Rousseau’s pedagogy, and developed by Johanna Lenne-Cornuez in the work cited: it seeks to show what it can mean to be in its place at a time when the castes of the Ancien Régime no longer rule the world social, and where the “place” must no longer precisely determine the identity of the individual.

Yet being in its place continues to make sense, provided it is not assigned or final. To forget in that it is in the first place nature which teaches the child through its own experiments, its use, and the knowledge of oneself which follows, what to be in its place means, it is give back to society that power.

But today, a return to the natural order in that it reminds us of our limits would be well advised to counter the assignment of places by a society whose network structure seems to have become the model – and we know that a network distributes interchangeable places at will, which both occupy by seeking at all costs to remain there, renouncing the very idea of ​​autonomy, this revolution of the Enlightenment.

If Rousseauist education seems impossible to achieve, its reminder can nonetheless serve as a “regulatory idea” to warn and develop critical thinking about the conditions in which children evolve.

Author Bio: Mazarine Pingeot is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Sciences Po Bordeaux