Composition 8 (1923) by Vasily Kandinsky at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York


By Gary M.  Kelly


The Montréal Review, July 2024


Psychology urges that we are never  so authentic as when we encounter the self; philosophy counsels that we are never so modern as when we ponder the self.

Might one then speak of a perspective that sees the self as both authentic and modern? These two disciplines seem to speak with two distinct voices. And the insistence of early twenty-first century society on specialization seems to encourage the segregation of one from the other. Indeed, we live in a culture that accords status only to the specialist as knowing, from medically coded ailments devised by behemoth insurance companies to relief pitchers summoned to dispatch one - and only one - batter in a game of baseball. The specialist or, better, the subspecialist, controls destiny.

However, there was a time in early modernity when the authentic self could be thought modern, thereby linking the impetus of philosophy and psychology. The linkage appeared under a variety of guises: child psychology presenting such a self through a Bildungsroman, political theory featuring a “short treatise” reforming the then new social idea of the social contract through the alienation of self to community, an idea so audacious as to appropriate the term “social contract” in its title; cultural anthropology through an exchange of letters among impassioned selves in a closed, imagined community; and the epitome of self-help through neither the extremes of Zen-like immobile meditation, nor the anesthetic of propulsion in running but rather through ordinary walking.

Enter not the composite of an age, but the singular self of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose work on a selfhood that he proclaims is both authentic and modern lies at the core of this essay. It is not with ease that one pairs the authentic and the modern. Immanuel Kant, whose turn from nature to the subject might be thought to have inaugurated philosophic modernity, considers the child psychology of Rousseau’s Emile of stature equal to the French Revolution for ushering in a new age.1 Yet, Kant’s stalwart subject might be thought a project purely of philosophy, unburdened by aspects of self, of personhood. It is up to the ubiquitous Hegel, Kant’s heir to the German idealistic tradition, to reintroduce an element of psychology by revealing that the mystery of tension between subject and object lies in understanding that the opposite number to self is most precisely not an object, but an other. This swap of object for other leads to the reconsideration of everything before and following Rousseau from the perspective of selfhood, thus humanizing the modern, thinking subject.

Moving from Kant’s subject to Rousseau’s self is less moving backward than taking several steps sideways, simultaneously. Rousseau joins the modern and the authentic through a self capable of the greatest intimacy, that of reflection inward and malleability outward. Rousseau is ancient enough to consider philosophy architectonic for its study of Rousseau’s self, modern enough for maintaining that this self is philosophically expressed through all the guises above listed, and post-modern enough for severely questioning the presence of such guises as institutional disciplines.

And to hold the self dynamic within post-modernity is something with which we are familiar. The post-modern self resides with us at so many turns: the initiative of self-service in the marketplace whose origin lies in a self longing for goods and services, self-help in coping with the vicissitudes of an ever-challenging external environment, and perhaps above all, self-satisfaction. This third especially recalls that the self is a work in progress, that being and making go hand in hand, that contentment and achievement are inextricably linked.

Movement from subject to self seemingly places philosophy in the territory of a zero-sum game. What is true for one is so for all, effacing the fascination with the subjective for this universality. This means that to turn toward the modern subject is to turn away from something else. And that something else is consequential. If, as Kant intimates, Rousseau’s Emile is truly revolutionary in presenting a self that is a prelude to the Kantian subject, Rousseau is equally revolutionary in succinctly setting forth the relation of self to an other, not so much an object as that with which the self must intimately deal: an other. Emile says it is making a self that is a “savage,” “made to inhabit cities.” Emile’s fashioning of this urbane savage consistently demands a “return” to self, away from the trappings of externality that are the subject’s objects – the barricades, dungeons, and conventions. Rousseau’s self, modern and authentic, philosophical and psychological, substitutes these objects of modernity with an authentic self whose modernity lies in intimacy.

And nothing is more intimate than the senses. This essay will maintain that this “return” entails knocking the self off the self’s feet and senseless, devoid of corporeal sense that enables one to navigate in the physical world, only to return to ground fully sensual and upright. That is, if there is a ground to which to return. If metaphor searches for a seismic event, perhaps it preceded the Revolution by the better part of three decades and occurred during Toussaint in 1755 with the Lisbon earthquake. The new ground to which a self that is authentic and modern returns is sensual, but more precisely audial. This essay will argue  that if Emile prompts a search for a seismic shift in the move from subject to self, the sideways shift that is truly tectonic on the part of the multifaceted Rousseau is most apparent in his corpus on music, yielding a self that is authentic yet modern for being audial. It is thus no accident that the period bracketed by the razing of buildings in Lisbon on one end and the liberation from a singular one, the Bastille, on the other was from the standpoint of Rousseau’s intellectual biography that spanning his corpus on the musical, and the audial. Foremost among those works on the audial is Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, on which this essay is largely based. True to maneuvering carefully sideways for having been knocked senseless and returned, as prompted perhaps by his Emile, Rousseau terms his Essay foremost among his minor works.2 This suggests that Rousseau means to say something profound, maneuvering from a perhaps unexpected place.

But if Rousseau insists upon an audial self, what then of the perilous ground on which Lisbon shook that taught the Rousseau of the senses to be so distrustful? And why in returning are we on surer footing through self and other rather than subject and object?


Rousseau’s Essay notes of his contemporaries: “The great flaw of the Europeans is always to philosophize about the origin of things according to what happens around them.” In short, one cannot be modern without demonstrating a concern for the authentic through understanding origins. He shortly adds: “[In] order to study man, one has to cast one’s eyes far off … to observe the differences in order to discover…properties.” One cannot understand the authentic without being modern, without some distancing from those origins.

But Rousseau’s modern Enlightenment European contemporaries have created their own Lisbon-like moment of reckoning. Specifically, they have placed authenticity and modernity at loggerheads. And this is the ground on which modern thought is knocked senseless. Emile states at a critical juncture that paradox and prejudice are two distinct products of thought; the Essay’s critique of Enlightenment Europeans links the two. The Essay ties prejudice in European thought to the paradox of the sensually visual and spatial. The more one attempts to grasp the authenticity in origin, the further one is from knowing it due to Enlightenment attachments to preexisting orders and institutions, and their prejudices. Modern prejudices cut short the influence of the senses on the self, at the price of the true and authentic.

Our thirst for proximity to the visible and tactile is well documented in our recent cultural anthropology by vocalist Madonna, whose Reagan era anthem “Material Girl” has as its preface that we are living in a material world. The final chapter of the Essay depicts a society in which we are senseless for being insatiable, all is “such is my pleasure,” and the only command worth giving among humans is “give money.” As was Marilyn three decades earlier, Madonna’s material girl is physically elevated, and psychically levitated, by male admirers who are inevitably of passing interest as she pursues only boys with “cold hard cash.” Marilyn’s diamonds are just the beginning; Madonna wants it all. The insatiability renders one groundless, senseless. Accordingly, not unlike Madonna’s hapless admirers, the humans occupying what Rousseau’s Essay terms societies “in their final form” not only do not speak, hear, or particularly understand,  they are not particularly seen.

If in Madonna’s world of insatiability, proximity = possession, the philosophical underpinnings of this insatiability lie in seizing hold of ideas that determine origins through proximity, “according to what happens around them.” This is the path to not only the paradox of the visual, spatial, and, yes, Madonna, the material, but to prejudice, as philosophy justifies the insatiable. Foremost among the Europeans Rousseau’s Essay critiques for intellectual myopia are English liberals. Here, Rousseau is almost literally sizing things up. He determines that a liberal bourgeois society does not measure up to size. And he uses space to critique a spatially oriented society. As if to escort his readers to the distorting mirror of a fun house, his work associates Hobbes with viewing man as a big child, while he views Locke as depicting the child as a small man.3 In either event, his plane for measurement is the single human being within society, and how society sees the single individual. Viewed spatially, liberal politics either inflates the capacity of the individual for unreasoning, juvenile violence in a savagely competitive society or celebrates a calculating reason in service of acquisition from cradle to grave. The two slightly different visions actually go hand in hand. One recalls the Washington saw that in business, it is dog eats dog, whereas in politics it is the reverse. One ready example of reconciliation of the cornucopia of over the rainbow and endless horizons versus the snake pit of 9 to 5 existence and endless competition is easily available credit. Easy Money has cast its charming spell over modern liberal societies such that the wounded are thrown back into the front lines of Hobbesian combat, while the Locke in all of us is ensured that, the brilliant Fitzgerald to the contrary, there are second acts in the life of the American, and indeed more generally the modern liberal, self.

Were Rousseau present at, say, the height of the Financial Crisis and the Great Recession in 2009, he would only respond wryly and knowingly to the conventional wisdom of financial advisors, “they do not want your house; do a deal, refinance.” In the world of acquiring spatial objects, finance, that lubricant of acquisition, borrows on Lockean cornucopia to keep us in perpetual Hobbesian competition. In short, space has a marvelous way of perpetuating itself at great cost to the authentic self. Against the backdrop of an ever-larger stage, Madonna, as always seeking possession for being proximate, is a sly and seductive but comparatively innocent bystander for being levitated by those in competition, hands always stretched out for the spoils of cornucopia, Hobbes and Locke in full display.

Whether in the center of intense competition, or considering seemingly limitless horizons, all join Madonna in shadows that give rise to paradox and prejudice in the realm of the visual and spatial. Seemingly less interested spectators than she, society’s intellectuals become players as well. The prejudice for proximity and insatiability means that we cannot be distant enough to see the advantages of distancing, with perspective and proportion in equal measure. Modernity’s intellectuals are at the forefront of the visually proximate self-serving, prejudiced order. Rousseau will castigate modern branches of knowledge as promoting duplicity, egocentrism, and the hypocrisy that comes with camouflaging self-interest and aggrandizement in the cloak of intellectual pursuit. He will do so in calling out disciplines conspicuously known for determining measurement in space, such as geometry, astronomy, and physics and linking them to moral philosophy for advancing self-congratulatory pride,4 understood in the Essay as the prejudice of Rousseau’s Europeans. Reminiscent of Lisbon’s structurally deficient edifices, these disciplines are groundless for being proudly removed, self-celebratory, and senseless, devoid of proportion and perspective.

As we will see, Rousseau offers an audial self as a solution that makes more sense – literally. To find true terra firma and the sense in the human, an audial self that is authentic and modern, we must recall the nature of the Essay’s inquiry. When Rousseau enjoins us that “[I]n order to study man, one has to cast one’s eyes far off … to observe the differences in order to discover … properties,” he is not referring to the study of men, but rather of man. While we might attribute to Madonna’s understanding of men an exuberant insatiability for the proximate, Rousseau’s Essay will not so easily excuse Europe’s myopic intellectuals. They, he repeatedly states in his writings, seek man and instead find men. Emile insists “Man is the last study of the wise, and you claim to make it a child’s first!” (E, 187). Linking this to the paradox of Europe’s myopic intellectuals in the Essay, in probing the profound question of man, Europe’s intellectuals instead found the more proximate object of study as men, as society.5 Recalling that the Essay brackets both Lisbon and the French Revolution, it is also true that, appropriate to man being a last study as the repository of the authentic and the modern, the Essay as treating man in the form of the audial self was Rousseau’s final project. Appropriate to this perspective, Rousseau did not regard the Essay as completed6 and hinted that he treated the large issue of man in a minor, not to say unexpected, place, as an exception within an exception, a work on the audial experience in general within his corpus on music.

All of the above generally suggests that while Rousseau with relish engaged his European contemporaries in the challenge of finding the human in a natural state, there is another way of dealing with the issue of human nature: finding the nature in the human. Accordingly, the Essay’s first paragraph removes man from the animal kingdom; its second provides an intriguing glimpse of man as “a sentient, thinking Being,” a self as determined by an other through an experience that is communicative, audial. So Rousseau sidesteps Kant’s subject in favor of man as a self and substitutes for objects – both those material to Madonna and those so metaphysical to Hegel – an other. We are warming to Rousseau’s understanding of the human self as audial, without yet finding nature, to say little of a nature in the self that is authentic and modern. The explanation immediately following will hold that this means finding a self that is thinking for being sentient and sentient for being thinking.

Leave the shadows conferred by the visually proximate, Rousseau beckons, and find man in echoes conferred by the distancing of the audial.


From Plato’s cave to the fireplace of Descartes, philosophy has always held out the possibility of unreason, the delusional and the psychedelic.7 To be senseless is not to be free of sense but rather to be sensing absent self-direction. Descartes, Rousseau reminds, brings a rough subject, one in need of integration. The risk is especially grave when the self finds a counterpart not so much in an object as in an other, whose pull threatens to engender so much prejudice as to engulf the self. This all devouring and devoured self is Rousseau’s ornament to the tree of modernity: the bourgeois. As one careful student of Rousseau put it, the self of Rousseau’s bourgeois in thinking of himself cannot help but thinking of others, and in thinking of others cannot help but think of himself.8 Phrased spatially, this describes a self who, drawn inward, nonetheless becomes preoccupied with the appearances of the outward, and when drawn outward toward others, cannot help but move inward.

Recalling the commencement of this essay, Rousseau has as many foils for the bourgeois as he has guises: Emile’s savage made to inhabit cities, that steadfast study of absorption into the universal of the city, the citizen of Spartan Lycurgus in On the Social Contract, the itinerant solitary walker of the Reveries. Each seems self-assured. But how can all withstand the test of distancing to find that elusive man promised in the Essay?

Rousseau’s answer, detailed only in the Essay, is through a self that is fully integrated as audial, authentic and modern. This means above all a self whose audial sense is directed by reason. As will be elaborated below, the Essay’s reason is the direction of sense to the end of integration of self audially. This means casting the self in a philosophic plane. Rousseau at a critical juncture in the Essay elaborates on this, stating: “The field of music is time, that of painting is space.” Rousseau here is setting the firm ground for the audial self in two senses very broadly understood. First, the audial must always be juxtaposed against the visual. He makes the statement toward the Essay’s conclusion after having castigated modernity’s practice of encroachment on the audial experience by the visual, the practice of “singing to the eyes,” a danger to which he alludes as early as the Essay’s first chapter, and which, as the Essay proceeds, becomes an irrepressible phenomenon in the human condition, from the formation of alphabets to Gutenberg’s press to modern harmonic music. As the immediately following section will illustrate, the Essay strenuously argues for “painting to the ears” as the superior appeal, in terms of sense and reason, to “singing to the eyes.”

Secondly, to find that man is essentially an audial self, to move from the intellectual rubble of a Lisbon occasioned by visually myopic European intellectuals, and to make way for the Revolution in sense to come, reason demands a self that is audial properly integrated and so distanced.

Thus, time and music must be assigned the broadest meanings. Otherwise, Rousseau cannot travel the route of the audial in finding nature in man and would fall back into arguing with myopic European liberals trying to place man in a nature that is really the product of contemporary prejudice, at the mercy of the visual paradox. Appropriate to the experience of finding nature in man, time is neither a specific point measured, nor a duration. And within the Rousseauean self, it is surely not something irreducible as to a Kantian subject. Rather, time is the manifestation of nature in the Rousseauean self through the relation of natural capabilities to desires. Above all, and as such, time as a manifestation of nature within the self is human experience. Emile’s greatest rule in making a savage self made to inhabit cities, made to encounter the other, is to lose time rather than to gain it. Put aside earphones and headsets, demands the Essay. They are but mechanical accomplices aiding the ambulatory with busy feet, covering visual distance yet not approaching the truly needed philosophical distancing, placing each user in the cocoon of proximity occupied by myopic Europeans caught up in the paradox of the visual. Instead, the Essay’s celebration especially of song in music9 would most fully connect with Emile’s time rule and with Otis Redding and his “wastin’ time” on the dock of the bay. Rousseau is at one with Otis in the view that song will enable one to find one’s own dock, one’s own bay and one’s own self, earphones and headsets aside, thank you.

Rousseau casts music in similarly broad terms to match time, yet terms that must involve the self, and only the self’s truest aspect. This audial self leaves the Kantian subject behind, merely blinking visually, much like Madonna’s eye candy beaux. In contrast, Rousseau offers a self that is fully sensory for being reacting and reactive. The history of music will understand Rousseau’s fabled quarrel with Jean-Phillippe Rameau, considered by the Enlightenment’s luminaries the greatest theorist of music of Rousseau’s time, to be a contest between Rameau’s harmonic music and the melodic music advocated by Rousseau. But history is about men, time for Rousseau is about man, the self. To say that the Essay’s self is fully integrated as audial, authentic, and modern is to present the sensory side of Emile’s savage made to inhabit cities, a self that is original, yet modern so as to allow for an other, who does not compromise the self but rather ratifies it. The phenomenon of seeking an other “similar” to the self and recognition for being so means a self truly recognized, authenticated. But the authentication is through the modern philosophic phenomenon of recognition by an other. Only the audial can confer such recognition. As balanced, this audial self needs to be thinking and sentient, as Rousseau signals at the Essay’s outset. But as fully integrated, authentic and modern, this audial self needs to be thinking for being sentient and sentient for being thinking, as Rousseau will elaborate as the Essay proceeds. Rousseau’s reason integrates thought and sense.

Hence, the audial phenomenon for Rousseau is the simultaneous integration of thought and feeling. The Essay attributes to audial phenomena originality. Each sound, like a fingerprint or a snowflake, is its unique experience. This contrasts with the sensual profile of the visual and spatial, which for its captivating quality of the panoramic and insatiable horizon, is indiscriminate, as indiscriminate and insatiable and as when Madonna pilfers a wallet from an admirer’s pocket with an audacity that would be the envy of a Dickensian artful dodger. Sound, in contrast, is as ephemeral as it is original. This is so much so that, in fulfilling Emile’s tactic of losing time, one may slip into time’s absence, into timelessness. Thus, the words and whistle of Otis on the dock  disappear into the whistle of timelessness.

To elaborate, the Essay leans on the medieval and a bit on the ancient to maintain that the soul, not the mind, is arbiter and initiator of the thinking and sentient audial self. The soul is compartmentalized, as much ancient tradition would have it, and is surely the vessel to the timeless recognizable to the medieval. Yet Rousseau suggests the post-modern for maintaining that the soul operates to merge the reasoning and sentient. This appeal attests to complexity in the human being and the original nature of sound. In meeting the challenge of sense and sound, Rousseau introduces an aspect of soul that would be beneath and beyond ancient and medieval, but with which Otis, and indeed Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, and John Cage might well be in sympathy. We only get to the sounds of silence through a reasoned soulful self-reflection. The way to face original sound is to admit to its simultaneous effects on the operation of the self.

These effects of the simultaneous and the reflective and integrating are hallmarks of Rousseau’s audial reason. True reason, soulful reason, lies only in imitation and imitation within the confines of the audial. This is because only audial reason provides the possibility of imitation. As the reasoning exercise of the audial, imitation simultaneously addresses a self drawn outward in articulation through the imitation of accent, and a self drawn inward for that very articulation reflecting movements of the soul. Within a breath of Rousseau’s proclamation that the audial self is temporal, he takes care to say that it defines audial relation, and thus audial reason. It is the reason of sound as truly unique, audial snowflakes and fingerprints, the never before heard, and just passed in an instant. One recalls the observation of opera diva Beverly Sills that, despite several near impeccable performances at her home base at the Met in New York, her ultimate delivery of sound occurred on tour in Richmond, Virginia, quite unannounced and never since replicated. Each sound being unique, she truly did not know what lay within her self on that occasion, nor did those paying potential others as audience in front of her. Every stage conferred upon her was Rousseau’s prototypical original state with but two characters: a would-be self and a would-be other, both in waiting. This is true to the Essay’s initial depiction as sound is about to be born, a realm by which “one might act and the other feel.” But the Essay’s understanding of that audial self and those audial others is that, in audial communication, they will alternate roles at different turns.

The compensation in the Essay’s reason through audial imitation amidst continuously falling, whirling audial snowflakes is a peculiar kind of moderation in the soul that comes with the economy imposed by simultaneous experience. It is only the visual self, implies Rousseau, who fears a stage with children and animals for fear that one does not know what either will do. As Emile states, the more one sees, the less one imagines (E, 231); the Essay elaborates that in seeing one becomes myopic and prejudiced, robbed of that temporal gift of the imagination, anticipation. The anticipation of connection to an other who is “similar” is Rousseau’s lubricant to communication. In the come-what-may of “one might act and the other feel,” the sentient self in the soul comes to the fore in movement outward in articulation, evidencing the action of speech; the thinking self in the soul is pronounced in movement inward through  the self-reflection needed to locate the “similar” soul of another evidencing feeling. Outward and inward movements are simultaneous, consistent with the Essay’s insistence on economy, and  time as reasonable, reason being the path to an integrated self.

These joint outward and inward efforts find their basis in the soul. They are in the interests of using the audial experience that is communication in finding a “Being” who is “similar” for being “thinking and sentient,” as manifest in the Essay’s opening lines. The thinking act of speech gives way to the anticipation of receiving the same from a similar other. Inwardly, articulation prompts thought in the form of self-reflection. But the self is simultaneously driven outwardly by a feeling of need for “recognition,” a response from an other. This simultaneous nature in a two-track process is one in which Rousseau finds feeling in thinking, thinking in feeling. Self and other are ratified through this reciprocity.

In contrast, space, the visual, loses both self and other for an absence of reciprocity. In the visual, inward and outward movements yield not self and other, but a hedonistic self, eliminating the other and vice versa. One finds opposites rather than similars at every turn. It is a social order alternately consumed with “keeping up with the Joneses” and the “over the rainbow” of a Garland song, of the unending and the endless. This order celebrates winners, yet finds fascination in the locker rooms of the defeated, and has a voracious appetite for the tell-all books of runners-up and also-rans. The discrimination between self and other in audial reason is not present. The visual celebrates wrecked selves and wrecked others.

In contrast, a moderation resides in audial reason through the reciprocity inherent in the audial experience that is authentic and modern, leaving the self and the other for their connection. Both are very much in the backdrop in the celebrated debate between Rousseau’s melody and Rameau’s harmony. This is less a debate among musicians than a duel between Enlightenment figures as to the nature of the human and how to access it. Rousseau will claim that Rameau stands for a soulless sense of self and indeed that self and the audial experience can be segregated, the latter capable of reduction to a visual science.10 In contrast, for Rousseau melody as imitation is an exercise on behalf of reclaiming the thinking, sentient self suggested at the Essay’s outset. Reasoned imitation is temporal for capturing of sound as unique through the simultaneity of imitation. Accent as sound provokes the inward movement of soul in self-reflection; while the outward movement of articulation with accent has “a hundred times more energy than speech itself,” approaching the other. Strong, thoughtful, and   articulated action in speech demands equally strong feeling. Self and other are thus in moderation, at equipoise.

This reclamation continues, attesting to the issue of whether authenticity can cohabit with, and in fact revise, spatially oriented modernity, as Rousseau insists. Were one considering an analogue in modern music, one might focus on discussions between The Beatles. Lennon plays Rameau to McCartney’s Rousseau as the former considers technical quality in music, ridiculing “silly love songs,” while the latter, invoking melody, queries “what’s wrong with that?” As intimation, melody as song11 links heart to soul. McCartney’s rejoinder that he needs to know what is wrong suggests, literally, that he, like Rousseau, is concerned with the epistemology of sound, how it informs and advances human reason. Nothing less than the connection between reason and the audial is at stake. In a prescient preview of modern jargon, Rousseau puts himself squarely on the side of melodic soulful sound and a full understanding of the self receiving it; all else is just “noise” compared with the wisdom of the echoes of imitation and melody in song.


As maintained above, the Essay presents the paradox of the visual, Rousseau’s myopic Europeans exemplifying the prejudice that comes with proximity rather than the promise of panorama. Yet, in Rousseau’s Emile, the book’s famously anonymous narrator aligns himself with paradox. This section will view the audial self as authentic and modern as showing the positive side of paradox. Specifically, it will demonstrate how the paradox of the audial, in turning attention to self, and indeed soul within the self, bests the visual in its claim to panorama for this seeming miniaturization. Or in the parlance of the Essay, it will demonstrate how the elimination of to “sing to the eyes” and the corruption of the audial by the visual finds a replacement in that enhancement of the audial, to “paint to the ears.” Access to the visual only results in modernity’s paradox.

Rousseau’s project in putting soul front and center is perfectly compatible with temporality, and therefore authenticity and modernity. Visual paradox only engages the prejudices of the mind.  In contrast, through melodic music and imitation we hear, and are heard by, the soul. Emile’s review seriatim of the sense organs may be anatomically, which is to say visually, correct. But it is only so “singing to the eyes.” The audial self is authentic for the engine of soulful self-reflection sustained by the temporality of anticipation of sound from an other self, an other soul. The Essay has it that the mind is only implicated in this authenticity through instruction of the soul, as the mind through the soul’s operation of melodic imitation expects the other “beforehand” in the Essay’s terminology and as such is an instrument of anticipation.

Yet, Rousseau in the Essay wants to elevate “to paint to the ears” thereby not only to demonstrate the authenticity of the soulful audial self, but to demonstrate that such a self is more genuinely modern. Emile shows that the visual analysis of pairing a sense organ with sense is the province of Rousseau’s tongue-in-cheek “wise Locke.” The Essay follows up by showing how it is that the audial bests the visual even as to panorama. This occurs in going beyond Emile’s mere losing of time within the self, for that loss confines the temporal to a period or a duration, still capable of visual apportionment. Instead, Rousseau’s new modern self moves beyond mere loss within a self into a state of the self’s timelessness, of absence. The moving active soul in reasoned imitation interprets absence as audial stillness and incorporates it into sound. Caught between self-reflection and anticipation, the soul is in a state of suspension. The silence in sound noted by Cage and Garfunkel is only possible through this active, yet suspended and timeless, soul.

The panorama of the visual yields only the last plank on Otis’ dock, a dock that keeps receding in the face of the visual’s promised panorama of boundless horizons. But the audial panorama is superior, as the panorama of the audial timeless brings something to an end, the simultaneity and economy within the self as inward movement for reflecting, outward movement for anticipating. Audial panorama as stillness is the wholeness of nothingness. There is an authenticity in this modernity. Rousseau’s “wise Locke” is, for fixation with visible sense organs, just the most recent version of philosophy’s concern for the essence of somethings, the mind’s playground of somethings; Rousseau’s truly fresh, authentic audial modernity means that the ultimate in the reasoned operation of imitation is to encounter nothing in something. To repeat: “The field of music is time, that of painting is space.” Audial stillness for its nothingness is the ultimate something of the soul, which, when suspended, brings darkness as an old friend. This is why we coax philosophy from a Cage or a Garfunkel, while we merely try to ascertain a philosophy from a Pollack canvass. We leave Otis’ dock for the bay, suspended, a soul floating in a bay that suggests a soul’s modest drift to a rivulet, but that despite itself is adrift in a placid, waveless ocean of the nothing.

In beckoning us to abandon the visual’s paradox of proximity and the prejudices of myopic Europeans, Rousseau understands what philosophy will become without the Essay’s further instruction. He knows that philosophy without the Essay will leave us at once intellectually suspended as both the last medievalists for emphasis on the soul and the first anthropocentric atheists for delight in creation of something from and for nothingness. But at least the audial self of his Essay can explain the truth of the predicament.

Meantime, we understand true soulful intervention and its benefits, while still having to negotiate the realm of objects, sense organs, Locke, and indeed Madonna. Remember, the simultaneity of the audial experience yields a reasoned, integrated self through the inward-outward movements of the soul in melodic integration. This contrasts with the purely sensual self without soul of Locke and most certainly Madonna, a grasping, extended self.

The reader will now brace for a detour into a discussion of the merits and drawbacks of that bugaboo of a modernity Rousseau seeks to replace. This is the modernity bringing information technology. The transition from Gates to Jobs has led to the ubiquitous iPhone, the age of “mirror, mirror on the wall” and the selfie, the celebration of self through indiscriminate exposure of the self. STREAM ME, SEE ME as screamed by that mirror epitomizes the mistakes of the Essay’s myopic Europeans confusing proximity for intimacy and authenticity, a prejudice of the self-centered. To see is not to know, especially when it promotes the extension of the self in space to the end of being seen, for the only world in which such being seen is prized is the truly and exclusively material, spatial one. The ultimate self-deception is self-extension in the material world. One does not know by the “singing to the eyes” prompted by a multimedia, compact and handheld black box. This renders for Rousseau “information technology” and its seductive accomplice “social media” true oxymorons, visual paradoxes truly not worth exploring.

But the threat introduced by Jobs arguably far exceeds that introduced by Gutenberg, as Gutenberg merely played to distribution of the visual in space; Jobs threatens the Essay’s pivot toward the positive paradox of the audial self, yielding the positive paradox of authenticity and modernity within the integrated economical audial self. Effectively, the iPhone reduces and democratizes fame, compressing it from the 15 minutes of Warhol’s self to maybe 15 seconds. This does impinge on the modernity and economy of Rousseau’s audial self by staging an unrelenting attack on the authenticity of integration offered by the audial. Phrased differently, if we are continually tempted to being seen, we may forgo the truth of, and in, speaking and listening, of self-reflection and anticipation. This temptation, playing to the audial’s advantage of the simultaneous and the economic, undermines the uniqueness of the audial.

When Rousseau proposes to replace “singing to the eyes” with “paint to the ears,” he has in mind, or rather in soul, the idea that the ears of the truly audial self will understand not so much painting, as the application of color to surface, and surface to color. When Rousseau argues that to paint to the ears is superior and, as we will see, more encompassing than “singing to the eyes,” he is making an even broader claim than that the audial is superior to the visual. He is saying that “paint,” in contrast to painting, is an activity, a movement, and soulful stuff inward and outward for being so. In contrast, the “painting” in the Essay’s statement is that the “field” of the visual is “painting” equated to “space,” that which very much tempts but does not move. Reminiscent of the self-deceiving myopic Europeans of the Essay, Rousseau’s First Discourse castigates the arrogant fixedness of bodies of knowledge,12 ranging from cerebral physics to celestial astronomy, all focused on the visual, from the merely apparently  and  readily,  to the  clearly  not so readily,  observable. It is indeed with prescience that Rousseau foresees the damage of the Jobs selfie, at once the mirror, mirror on the wall featuring the supposedly intimate, focused self, yet one all reaching aggrandizing, proselytizing – what else but the self projected in the selfie to others? One recalls the late twentieth century recounting of Rousseau’s sociological profile of the bourgeois: one in thinking of himself cannot help but think of others, and in thinking of others cannot help but think of himself. 13 Well as he knew his products, Jobs knew better his products’ users.

In response to these visual, spatial contortions, the integrated soulful self of audial movement enables us to take hold of the visual in the better way of a “paint” to the ear.

Lights, camera, action. From the cinematic age giving rise to a kind of animated painting, nothing summons lights and the camera as much as splashes of color, Louis B. Mayer’s and John Ford’s being masters of the space of the silver screen. It was thus that, in the late Summer of 2022, the closing days of the exhibition “Henri Matisse: The Red Studio” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) brought forth elbow-to-elbow crowds and a craning of necks associated with carpeted arrivals of movie stars at film debuts in the 1930s. The lush red of Matisse’s The Red Studio dominates the canvas, which painting reserves for spatial aggrandizement. Even those impudent and marginal tinges of yellow Matisse introduces on the canvas seem to accentuate the vastness and universality of the red, as does the display on the vast red of a collection of imitations of Matisse’s own painting, the red vastness signaling that this varied collection either is suspended by, or intruding upon, the carpet of red. Matisse on Matisse in a celebration of the visual self, all animated by color. Matisse has brought his own mirror in the form of The Red Studio, in response to which MOMA and onlookers carry their own mirrors, black boxes in hand, through the selfie.

L'Atelier Rouge (1911) by Henri Matisse at MOMA

Action, lights, camera. Rousseau’s audial self alters the order of Hollywood. This self’s understanding of Matisse renders expansive space a bit of a trompe l’oeil, making all onlookers and those who serve them, the Fords and the Mayers, objects of the ridicule of P.T. Barnum. Action yielding lights and camera is that of the soul, in motion for internal reflection followed by and following anticipation of the external, the action of “paint” (rather than the discipline of painting) in Rousseau’s to “paint to the ears.”

When we consider a menu in a restaurant, it is common to remark that a given item “looks good,” meaning exceptionally appealing to taste and smell. In short, we collapse two senses into the visual, as if to reduce all sensual experience to one expansive plane. In doing so, we discount for appearances. Rousseau is making a similar highly negative critique when he takes aim at the monotony of modern music based on harmony. In contrast, sound as ephemeral has no follow-on, has no appearance. We take “that sounds good” as a general indication of something appealing, but we also signal that a human experience goes behind that which appears on the surface. This suggests a more complicated determination, one suggesting the wholistic, with a simultaneous consideration of many characteristics of that heard, but considerations rendered inward within the soul, showing reflection and anticipation. This reasoned audial, as unique and ephemeral, nonetheless reverberates, as when, for example, Rousseau indicates that the mind, as the soul’s agent, knows “beforehand” of the audial experience to come.

Thus, representation belongs to space, but re-presentation to time and time’s operation on the subtleties of soul. The crudest example of mere representation of panorama occurs in the selfie’s ancestor two generations removed. This near contemporary example of social conduct attesting to this attraction is the itinerant tourist in a museum engaged in a prolonged pan shot of all work in a grand room of paintings. In the 1950s and 1960s, its antecedent was the dreaded Saturday night invite from a neighbor for a meal and -ugh!!- sitting through home movies of a family summer vacation in Europe. There is just less than meets the eye, mobile device or none. The reach of the device in theory bespeaks a recording for posterity. However, in human practice, the representation rendered is quite limited. In fact, that which is recorded is often rarely replayed and, when replayed, has a considerably diluted effect. Modern society for Rousseau is in fact the visual claiming the best of us, rather than we the best of the visual.

But how to reclaim the best of the visual through the audial? And how does Rousseau’s ear hear the activity to “paint”? Rousseau’s answer in a single word: color. The Essay links color to the audial as follows: “Colors and sounds are capable of a great deal as representations or signs, of little as objects of the senses.” Again, the audial self does not detach ear from soul, therefore the sign given by color may speak to the receptive as a sign to an ear that is soulful, capable of reflection and anticipation. Painting as a medium is mere representation devoid of color, suggesting only vastness; the activity to “paint” to the ear entails re-presentation, alternating reflection and anticipation. Color as activity interrupts the visual’s stagnant vastness and replaces it with the action before lights and camera. Color, as activity, lands on the ear in alternating re-presentation, through the black of silence inviting reflection, to the white of variety provoking anticipation and bringing a panorama unimaginable in the visual for embracing absence as well as presence. Color’s variety also underlines those qualities of sound that are simultaneous, unique, transient. Color is audial, not visual.

Now to return as we must to The Red Studio. Seemingly the all of spatial expansiveness that is Matisse’s red reduces all to a single expansive field. Rousseau might like to speak here – but will let the subtle yellow lines of Matisse’s color speak for themselves in appealing to the ear and temporality. The subtle yellow lines of Matisse’s color speak powerfully, as would the pinstripes of a Chicago gangster of a century ago: beware and aware. Yellow signals what space deceivingly and disarmingly lacks: dimensionality. It is less true that dimensionality suggests than that dimensionality is a conversation of seeming spaces among each other, brokered by the energy of color.

It seems intuitively implausible that one may paint to the ears – until one realizes that, for Rousseau’s soul, and perhaps that of Matisse, only alternating contemplation and movement can reconcile the simultaneity of the unique to the variation of the temporal. That, Rousseau will argue, renders to “paint   to the ears” through music both human and temporal, if by music we understand a sensual and rational process reflecting awareness of the unique, ephemeral, and temporal, which is reason’s proper understanding of relationality. As subject to mutation and gradation, the red hues of Matisse are not so much an extension of space as an invitation to the contemplating subject, and particularly that subject’s soul, to consider and participate in such changes. The combination of contemplation and the awareness of the ephemeral provokes the reason in mind, through the soul, to anticipate, and thus be aware of temporality. This enables the reason of the subject to resolve what would otherwise be a paradox of the audial, that which holds the simultaneous and uniqueness of sound on one hand and the soul’s response of movement in response thereto on the other.

The quality of the truly limited in duration in the audial allows reason the broadest possible latitude. Because sound is fleeting, the analysis of the components of sound demands that reason must be accorded the broadest possible latitude for sound’s uniqueness as to relation. This includes special attention to sound’s absence in shaping the relations that compose sound. Time here is the tease of space. The boundlessness of space emphasizes not grandeur, but rather the monotony of horizon, that which is unattainable through sense. Temporality, Rousseau’s territory of time, demands that absence of sound supersede that mere promise of presence through horizon.

The alleged silliness in Paul’s love songs, and Otis’ “wastin’ time” while on water’s edge are after all tantamount to chasing a kind of rainbow far superior to the unceasing horizon of possessiveness of Madonna whose celebration of the visually tactile leaves her in the company of beaus whose horizon is the tedium of saving for a “rainy day.” If Rousseau’s view that color is audial energy rather than static space sounds bizarre, that may only be because it is close to original. An artist three generations later would relate: “[M]usic has been...  an art which has dedicated itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomenon … but rather to the expression of … soul.” The artist elaborates citing “[R]hythm in painting … for repeated notes of colour, for setting colour in motion.”14 The artist’s name: Wassily Kandinsky.

Kandinsky heard through Rousseau’s painted ears the leaping fiery tongues of van Gogh’s foliage and found that as his inspiration for pointing to celestial marvels. In revisiting The Red Studio, Matisse speaks more subtly but with vehemence equaling that of van Gogh. The juxtaposition of angles connoting movement, fluidity, contrasts with the mere representation of other Matisse paintings. This yields the conclusion that The Red Studio presents a unique moment in time, that which Rousseau assigns to the audial. Matisse’s penetrating yellow does so by appealing to the conversation between color and the soul. The soul moves, and is conscious of its movement, the soul, considering the so-called base component of color, mutates in defiance to the vastness claimed by space, a space Rousseau’s Essay associates with the discipline of painting, in contrast with the activity that must catch the audial, to “paint.” It is discipline generally in the hands of Europeans which gives rise to the paradox of myopia through the engenderment of prejudice.

For Rousseau, both van Gogh, as Kandinsky’s proxy, and Matisse employ different styles, yet both signal the activity of “paint” to the ears through ratifying that the ear is an instrument of the soul. As reasoning and temporal, the soul sensing the audial reflects and anticipates. The union of reflection and anticipation in the soul yields suspension, which mutes space’s vastness and thereby the paradox of the visual. Rousseau’s Essay holds out that van Gogh’s fiery but earth-bound colorful flames do away with the arrogance of astronomy, an astronomy that accentuates the paradox by holding the heavens afar, nonetheless inducing the myopia of discipline for its capacity to preclude broad intellectual explanation. The flaming foliage of van Gogh provides the antidote for yielding a starry night that moves, and is moved by, the soul. Similarly, Matisse’s The Red Studio challenges discipline, evidenced seemingly by Matisse’s depiction of his own body of work in the paintings represented. However, through re-presentation of the audial, achieved by a mischievous yellow intruding on the vastness of the red, Matisse re-presents his studio at angles, askew as if burglarized by the energy of color in the audial.

In leaving the MOMA exhibit, a parting glimpse gives rise to reflection in the form of drawings, fashioned less by viewers or onlookers and more by participants in the audial enterprise of color, capturing the quicksilver of a moved and moving soul. As in parting the Essay, the final room of the exhibit reminds that the audial self is about audial selves, each in search of a “Being” that is “sentient” as well as “thinking,” anticipatory as well as reflecting. If, as noted above, Rousseau’s Essay broadens the reach of music, it surely does so for politics as it ends. Rousseau concludes with a citation appealing to politics in the broadest sense as relating to “the character, morals and interests of a people.” Thereby, Rousseau suggests that, as the Essay ends with politics, such an expansive politics is not done with us. While suggesting politics in the broadest sense, Rousseau concludes with a riddle: the citation was in service of analyzing, of all things, the seemingly mundane study of grammar.15 How so?


Making grammar the final, ultimate object of consideration seems to suggest a diminution of the Essay’s importance in Rousseau’s estimation, after having considered areas of endeavor as lofty as poetry, and music. Ending with grammar, Rousseau seems to leave his audial self, far superior to the visual one, as hanging by a thread.

Yet, this overlooks the force of paradox in Rousseau’s argumentation. Paradox lies at the heart of Rousseau’s relation between self, knowledge, and reason, as the Essay understands them. In Emile, Rousseau asks us to distinguish between a self of prejudice and a self of paradox. But in the Essay, referencing the visual against the audial, Rousseau shows the self of modernity and the Enlightenment to be both paradoxical and prejudiced. He depicts a visually oriented self, rendered myopic by cultural prejudice, a prejudice nurtured by the discipline of discipline itself. Rousseau maintains that the unknowing prejudice in the discipline of music severs self from soul through a speech in song that is modern harmonic music. Rousseau offers the unity of self and soul through melody, a song in speech that connects the soul to the ear. Most particularly, if modern music in speaking to the eye has corrupted music, that is, speech in song, with the visual, the audial may be reclaimed through salvaging ordinary song in speech, as Rousseau suggests just before his treatment of politics. Urgency means a focus on application, not implication.

With this focus on application, we are not far removed from understanding the Essay’s emphasis on and understanding of grammar.

Before this, however, we need to grasp Rousseau’s resort more fully to the broad politics on which the Essay concludes. Rousseau never finished the Essay to his liking—for who could truly finish an account of relentless audial snowflakes? Indeed, the Essay not so much finishes as ends. In it, Rousseau begins with speech and ends with a critique of modern politics. His audial self is superior in space, in society, to the atomistic dreadnaught selves launched by Hobbes and Locke.

To understand the relation of the broad politics of the Essay’s conclusion and the audial reasoning self it celebrates, Rousseau points to Emile.16 The Essay’s ending with politics was fully scripted in Emile, for the Essay is about the nature of a reasoned audial self, and politics is the stage for reason’s last feature: sentimentality. As Rousseau notes in Emile: “[T]o perfect reason by sentiment” is that which “remains” “to complete man.” Rousseau then elaborates that one may “sense” the soul through the operation of reason and innate sentiment. In short, what the Essay depicts as the social and political phenomenon of the relation of the “thinking” and “sentient” to being, Emile sees in parallel going on within the self (E, 203, 283, 290).

Emile’s injunction that sentimentality completes reason finds its application in the Essay’s paradigm of the soul instructing the mind. Sentiment and reason, soul and mind, join forces. It is here that one understands Emile’s tongue-in-cheek praise of the “wise Locke.” The Rousseau of the Essay confines that wisdom to the identification of the challenge to reason posed by self but excludes a Lockean solution which ignores the superintending role of soul to sense. As noted, it is only at the instruction of the soul that the mind anticipates that which the ear hears “beforehand.” Rousseau’s elevation of the sentimental, that is to say fully reasoning and imitating, soul, means it is reflecting and anticipating. This anticipation gives rise to a suspension, a suspension of time quite superior to the repeated spatial levitations of Madonna and Marilyn in the material world, for those levitations never confer the unsurpassed perspective of the unique, of the moment, as does audial suspension. The dominance of the visual in reification means putting one’s fingerprints on all objects, without realizing their uniqueness to the self. In the vernacular of the Essay, this is just another example of the visual prejudice of modern liberal Europeans who lead one so close, yet so far.

Rousseau’s response is an integrated audial self. He refers to a mind held in “suspense and anticipation of what is going to be said,” a mind doing the imitative soul’s bidding. Reflection gives rise to suspension of inclination, holding anticipation in check. This soulful suspense, holding the self inward toward contemplation, restrains the 'sentient' anticipating self seeking to move outward toward other beings who are “thinking” and “sentient,” leaving this aspect of the self free of predisposition.

Rousseau’s mind held in “suspense and anticipation of what is going to be said”  is a mind doing the imitative soul’s bidding. Reflection gives rise to suspension of inclination, holding anticipation in check. This soulful suspense, holding the self inward toward contemplation, restrains the anticipating self outward toward other beings who are “thinking” and “sentient,” leaving this aspect of the self free of predisposition. The introduction of politics at the Essay’s end completes an understanding of reason in the audial through a sentimentality that moderates.

To be ever the fully rational and audial sentimentalist, one transcends physical objects in space. These, Rousseau argues, can be autonomous – but a single sound must be viewed in relation to other audial phenomena. For this reason, sound is the product of ingredients that simultaneously integrate, eliminating the temptation of the endless. And in this reason lies reason. In receiving sound, we know that we are receiving a singular sensual experience that has neither predecessor nor successor. Short of horizons, Rousseau’s answer to modern liberalism’s myopia in considering relations among individuals as objects in space is a soul in  self that delights in simultaneously receiving and contributing to another like self. The audial halts the temptation of the spatially endless with the unique of a moment that is fundamentally audial. This fully reasoning, sentimental soul stands in contrast to a Lockean reason of the pedestrian senses. The soul ensures that not only is the audial unique and of the moment; the audial in sound is the moment. We only know we are human when we feel it and we only feel it in receiving and contributing.

If as von Clausewitz suggested, war is a continuation of politics by other means, the broad politics of the Essay’s conclusion is the audial experience as a means to the end of the most intimate of circumstances, that within the soulful, audial self. For all its breath, this politics is constructive and instructive, a response to Rousseau’s concluding depiction of modern political man as an agglomeration of backslides in sense, as persuasion yields to force in the spatial, listening to hearing, and hearing to pantomime. The paradox of the visual is not merely that seeming grand vision yields to narrowness, but that any pretext of the audial surrenders to the visual. Politics, the ancient discipline of men, fails men as discipline.

The burnishing of audial reason through sentiment along with the abandonment of discipline for activity explains a Rousseauean paradox that has long befuddled scholarly discipline: the compatibility of Rousseau’s profound individualism and ready communitarianism. The imitating activity of the audial self is irretrievably individual as the sound of the other penetrates inward to the core of the self. Yet, this active imitating audial self is inextricably tied to community for being exposed to the presence of another transmitting sound. This makes the audial experience both moderating and reasoning. It is only in the context of Rousseau’s treatment of the audial self that we see individualism and communitarianism not as extremes, but as two sides of the same coin, indeed symmetrical. Individual articulation anticipates communication to an other like self.

The movement to sentiment and politics is more than an abandonment of the relation of sense only to the physical. It for Rousseau means the triumph of activity over discipline, for only activity has the agility to capture audial snowflakes, especially that activity that is political in the Essay’s most essential sense,  for the connection  between   similarly “thinking” and “sentient” beings. The mind alone falls prey to discipline, the very caricature of which is the paradoxical visually oriented yet narrow Europeans of the Essay.

This emphasis on activity over discipline provides a fuller understanding of the Essay’s final statement that substitutes the audial self for men and even the strange insertion of grammar into Rousseau’s broad view of politics. But the grammar in Rousseau’s substitution is as activity, not as discipline. The realm of public life and its disciplinary presence in politics allows us to see the true cost of the European fascination with the visual and its attending myopia. Most profoundly, Rousseau’s comment as to myopic prejudiced Europeans in the middle of the Essay should be retrospectively considered given the Essay’s conclusion. So considered, myopia is merely symptomatic of a larger problem: the detachment of self and soul from sense of the other. We are as it were knocked senseless for fascination with the visual, as if in Lisbon, clutching a ground that has betrayed us.

Rousseau’s concluding remarks implicating grammar also suggest that detachment of soul from sense registers at the societal level. They concern “the character, morals, and interests of a people.” Grammar as activity rather than discipline must mirror these outward concerns internally. Rousseau is calling us back to the reasoning integrating exercise of imitation, that which moves outward in anticipation and inward through reflection. Whereas the visual reaches and fails, yielding paradox and prejudice through desire for visual expansion that becomes in fact contraction through the reinforcement of ingrained prejudices, the audial integrates the self. The audial occurs through the reasoned and reasoning exercise in the audial of imitation. Imitation is dual, corresponding to the imitation of sound received and the imitation of corresponding movements of the sound. The soul is positively provoked by a special quality in true sound that Rousseau finds totally lacking in the mere “noise” of modern music. The special quality is that of accent.

Accent both animates and emanates from the soul, tracking the inward-outward push of the reasoning exercise of imitation. In terms of the portrait of the human at the Essay’s commencement, accent enables the heart to feel the “sentient” other, the mind to anticipate the thinking other, and the soul to reflect and superintend. Accent demonstrates melody for so engaging the soul, and melody in turn demonstrates the songlike quality of ordinary speech, song in speech. In contrast, modern harmonic music is  noise without melody.  It  succumbs to the visual of “speaking to the eyes” when analyzed in the Essay. This thereby compromises the discipline of music as speech in song.17  By attrition, the last refuge of accent as the Essay concludes is the activity of song in speech.

Rousseau’s concluding chapters in the Essay thereby assign to accent the most common and adaptable of platforms: the word, that which is song in speech.18 This accounts for the remarkable concluding transition in the Essay, from focusing on the audial self of reasoned imitation and melody, and moving to “the character, morals, and interests of a people.”

So understood, Rousseau means to cordon off accent from the fate of discipline, that which befell speech in song as modern harmonic music taken in by the visual.19 The activity of grammar in the Essay’s last chapter supplants the discipline of modern politics rendered in the Essay, a situation so dominated by space that politicians are “talking heads” appealing to visual imagery for the complainant, those incapable of being transformed into the “sentient” and “thinking” in the audial.  In an order deprived of goods, that which is in space is pursued through “speaking to the eyes” an empty demagoguery of acquisition. In contrast, the grammar of the Essay’s conclusion is the activity, not unlike color’s fluid energy in The Red Studio of Matisse, the “action” that subordinates the “lights, camera” of the visual through the content of accent. In the 1995 film Crimson Tide, Gene Hackman, playing the commander of a nuclear submarine, retorts to his second in command, played by Denzel Washington, stating that on his vessel he as commander does not practice democracy, he defends it.

Because Rousseau has application rather than implication in mind, he intends that, in practicing song in speech, we defend it. Grammar is the activity, more precisely, the usage, the practice of speech. Most of us view grammar as discipline, a set of rigid prescriptions that, if followed, advance correct usage. Rousseau wants to reverse that. He wants usage to determine grammar, thereby giving priority to reclaiming the song in speech for the audial, not the visual. Perhaps that most known of stage disciplinarians as to grammar is Shaw’s Professor Higgins. The good professor does not mean that Eliza will speak, much less sing, through accent. Instead, she will engage in that tool of the visually obsessed in reforming the audial, repetition and mimicry. Eliza’s finally flattened “a” will be enunciated slowly as she bids farewell to her Cockney. Professor Higgins prizes above all that side of accent Rousseau associates with the discipline of oration.
Rousseau will contrast this with the accent of grammar as activity, that activity being the movement of imitation, the inward and outward movements of the soul. Rousseau’s musical writings will term the desired accent of song in speech or “simple discourse,” that which is “rational”20 for engendering soulful reflection and anticipation of a being who is “thinking” and “sentient.” It is not by accident that when the Paris Island Marine Corps drill instructor screams, “I can’t hear you,” he or she merely expects the roughest kind of acknowledgment – and cares not whether recruits regard him or her as “thinking” or “sentient.” The drill command is the roughhewn noise of modern politics Rousseau delivers at the Essay’s conclusion. It is, as the Essay initially proposes, language, not speech, language being the barely audible on the border of visual gesticulation and posturing. In this respect, the Paris Island drill instructor shares much in common with Rameau, whose ponderous speech in song, modern harmonic music, kills the temporality of soul for killing audial anticipation of hearing audial snowflakes that will never again pass. Rameau and the drill instructor share the view that the limitlessness of horizons is fashioned through the discipline of a dull repetition. Rousseau counters that the reasoned activity of imitation produces a superior horizon of never before, or since, sound issued from a never before, and never since, other.

Rousseau’s view of song in speech as the last refuge for the human soul is based in his confidence that speech, untethered from the visual promptings of language, especially those in the printed word, can touch the soul. Rousseau’s profile of such speech removed from language mirrors for us some of life’s most poignant moments, ranging from the solemnity of the injunction to initiate communication and “speak now or forever ….” in a ceremony of marriage, to receipt of an infant’s precious first utterings “mama” or “dada” to  an expectant new parent, to a lover’s longing for reciprocation through receiving “sweet nothings in the ear.”

We may crudely communicate with language as an instrument, but we live through speech, as through the life moments just noted above. These are the moments of animated, accented song in speech to which Rousseau calls us. Here, Rousseau very much has soul and sense in mind. One hears language as noise, but through the movements of the soul one alone listens to speech, that which issues from a fellow being as “sentient” and “thinking.” The Marines have done their job when it would never occur to the raw recruits that the drill instructor is either. Orders are orders.

Just as the Marines receive sound through their orders, so do the rules of grammar, when  inhabiting the discipline of grammar. These rules guide noise thereby, perhaps unbelievably, linking Rameau’s harmonic music to Marine drills. Such is the depth, and breath, of Rousseau’s audial.

This rules-based order contrasts to lived experiences through activity, through usage. It is in this sense that Rousseau would banish rules, especially those of the sight-to-sound McGuffey reader,  a relic of   the fraud of the spatially boundless American horizon and a tool of the adage that children, like all else, are better seen than heard.21 It is thus that in the conclusion of Emile’s first book, Rousseau removes the schoolhouse from the country and elevates usage, sound when one “comes to sense the utility of it.”

Usage preserves stability within the context of change. It does so through the reasoned activity of imitation that includes alternating reflection in soul and anticipation outside it.

Modern discipline’s claim to monopoly on knowledge in effect pries self and soul from the initial sense of the ear. It seizes on speech in song,  leaving  us only with the hope offered by song in speech. This is, to the Essay, sound freed from modernity – the modernity of harmonic music and speech in song. And it is thus no accident that Rousseau ends his Essay with the strangest of paeons – that to grammarians. The grammarian is an “-ian” like the custodian and the librarian. That is to say, all three preside over a kind of necropolis, as caretakers of that which has just passed, but now is moribund. But this comparatively passive role invites change. Both reflection and anticipation suggest that which has been handed over yet must be augmented, as to the custodian, that which has been processed and classified becoming part of a large collection, as to the librarian – and that which has been spoken, which must reverberate through the ricochet of imitation, as to the grammarian. Grammatical rules, discipline, have no place, but reason, the reasoned activity of imitation, does.

The broad politics of Rousseau’s grammarian is the antithesis of the paradox and prejudice of the visual. It is less that we should speak, hear, and listen than that all percolate from a reflecting, anticipating soul. Only then does all culminate in the shout that is song in speech. It is a shout that as sound precludes the empty visualism of Rameau, Madonna and Gutenberg, and leads to an imploring McCartney, a tantalizing Matisse. And so it is that we proceed from the rubble of Lisbon to the Essay’s most immediate beyond, from the forlorn territory of myopic Europeans, to shout at the barricades of Thermidor. For it is in this audial beyond that the “thinking” and the “sentient” of modernity abides.


Gary M. Kelly is an attorney and political scientist living in New York City and currently teaching at Ukraine Free University in Munich, Germany. He has presented on Rousseau at meetings of the American, the Northeastern, and the New York State Political Associations as well as at leading universities.  He is the author of The Human Condition in Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2021) and Philosophy and Politics at the Precipice Time and Tyranny in the Works of Alexandre Kojève (Routledge, 2018)


1 A leading commentator on Emile has attributed this view to Kant. Allan Bloom, “Introduction,” 4 in Rousseau, Emile, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979). Quotations and references to Emile in this essay are from this source and cited as E followed by pagination.

2 Rousseau, The Confessions, Book 11 in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 5, ed. Kelly, Masters, and Stillman, trans. Kelly (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1995), 469. Recent scholarship has seen fit to highlight the Essay as foremost among Rousseau’s musical writings. See Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 7, ed. Kelly, Masters, and Stillman, trans. Kelly (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2009).

3 E, 69 and notes as to Hobbes; E, 89 as to Locke.

4 Second Part of the Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, also known as Rousseau’s First Discourse abbreviated hereafter as FD. Rousseau, The Major Political Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ed. and trans. Scott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

5 See the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, also known as Rousseau’s Second Discourse abbreviated hereafter as SD. Rousseau, The Major Political Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ed. and trans. Scott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

6 [Draft Preface], Essay on the Origin of Languages in Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 7, ed. Kelly, Masters, and Stillman, trans. Kelly (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2009), 289.

7 Descartes, Fifth Part, Discourse on Method (Paris: Philosophic Library E.J. Vrin, 2005), 105-08.

8 Bloom, Introduction, Emile, 5.

9 See Rousseau’s discussion of modernity’s diminution of song in music in the definition of “Music” and “Song” in his Dictionary of Music.

10 Scholarship associates Rameau with the view that music as a natural phenomenon might be captured by mathematics and the development of music theory against the backdrop of Newtonian science. Christensen, Rameau and Musical Thought in the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 26, 32, 250.

11 See Rousseau’s discussion of modernity’s diminution of song in music in the definition of “Music” and “Song” in his Dictionary of Music.

12 As if to underline the point, this is also known as Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts.

13 Bloom, Introduction, Emile, 5.

14 Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M.T.H. Sadler (Garden City, New York: Dover Publications 1977) 19.

15 To underline the seeming feature of esotericism, the Essay’s final words quote Rousseau contemporary Charles Duclos, not a grammarian but a reviewer of a grammar.

16 Rousseau, Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques: Dialogues, in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 1, ed. Kelly, Masters, and Stillman, trans. Kelly (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1990), 211-16.

17 Ibid, 211-16.

18 See definitions of “Song” and “Accent” in the Dictionary of Music.

19 Rousseau’s ambivalent treatment of opera is evidence of his skepticism as to the mingling of audial and visual; see the definition of “Opera” in his Dictionary of Music. At the same time, Rousseau recognizes such presence as song in speech has in opera, noting that “(I)t is never more strongly felt that the Actor sings than when he speaks a Song.” Masters and Kelly, vol. 7. 453.

20 See the definition of “Accent” in Rousseau’s Dictionary of Music.

21 The Duclos analysis segments grammar into the “general” and the “reasoned.” This segmentation suggests the general emphasis of of sight to sound in grammar. This stands in contrast to an audial grammar that is reasoned for emphasis on the audial and the actual practice of speech. See Duclos title Remarques sur la gram(maire) géné(rale) et raison(née) as cited in the Essay.



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