When Was the State of Nature? A Lockean Response to Rousseau's Critiques

28 Pages Posted: 14 May 2009

See all articles by Josh Blackman

Josh Blackman

South Texas College of Law Houston

Date Written: May 13, 2009


When was the state of nature? Rousseau views the state of nature much differently than other natural rights theorists, including Hobbes, Pufendorf, and Locke, and vigorously critiques their philosophies. While the differences between these two states of nature are vast, a key distinction can be reduced to one concept; time. Ostensibly, the dissimilarity is the temporal location of the state of nature, defined as how far removed that epoch is from the present time. In this essay, I will explore the concept of when the state of nature was located. In the process, I will seek to vindicate Locke's oft-attacked notion of the state of nature, and weaken many of Rousseau's critiques. Further, I will venture a guess how Locke, if given the opportunity, would have responded to some of Rousseau's attacks.

First, I highlight Rousseau's critiques of Locke's state of nature. In discussing these criticisms, I focus on Rousseau's argument that savage man in the state of nature lacked reason and language, could not consent to the social compact, and did not cohabitate in families. Contrary to Locke, Rousseau contended these human characteristics are products of civil society and did not exist in the state of nature.

Second, I explore whether Locke and Rousseau considered the state of nature to be a hypothetical or a historical period. I contend that both philosophers viewed the state of nature solely as a hypothetical construct useful to discuss human nature and civil society. Assuming the state of nature is a fictitious and hypothetical state, I query why should philosophers study it? In answering this question, I focus on Locke's purposes in writing the Second Treatise, and how the state of nature conveys that message. This analysis attempts to vindicate Locke's philosophy against cynical attempts to disparage his state of nature, and shows why it remains a valid and persuasive method to explain the origins of civil society.

Third, I propose a Lockean defense to Rousseau's critiques. Because many of Rousseau's criticisms are styled as if Locke actually viewed the state of nature to be a historical, provable fact, which Locke did not, many of Rousseau's critiques are blunted. I contend that Locke and Rousseau are answering different questions, and therefore many of Rousseau's criticisms are inapt.

Keywords: Locke, Rousseau, State of Nature, Natural Law, Laws of Nature, Hobbes, Grotius, Pufendorf

Suggested Citation

Blackman, Josh, When Was the State of Nature? A Lockean Response to Rousseau's Critiques (May 13, 2009). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1403936 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1403936

Josh Blackman (Contact Author)

South Texas College of Law Houston ( email )

1303 San Jacinto Street
Houston, TX 77002
United States

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics