chapter  3
12 Pages

The Romantic view of learning: Rousseau’s Émile

This chapter examines Rousseau’s theory of learning and assesses its strengths and weaknesses. The theory is an integral part of the account of education developed in Émile.1 Not only is Émile a work of sustained literary brilliance but it is rigorously worked out from its own premises.2 It also prefigures some of the insights in epistemology and the philosophy of mind that are attributed to Wittgenstein. Any attempt to deal with the theory of learning that it sets out needs to engage closely with the fundamental ideas of the book and how they hang together, before criticism can be effective. Rousseau’s positive contribution to philosophical and psychological thinking about learning can be described as follows. Human beings are not disembodied intelligences but embodied creatures who are part of the natural world. The thrust of Rousseau’s educational programme and, by implication, of his epistemology, is to take individuals as whole, organic beings, part of the natural order of things and to develop them in more than narrowly intellectual ways.3 This remains the case despite the empiricist character of his description of the genesis of ideas and of their use.4