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from Rousseau to Surowiecki

June 9, 2010

I was reading up on Rousseau this evening. My daughter is home for a week of intensive revision for her first year exams in Anthropology and Philosophy. Like her father she has left it all to the last minute and is more interested in thinking about the subject than in reciting what other people have thought. Either way I am swatting up on theories of the individual and society not to mention the state. Its a lot of fun really, going back to the old debates and remembering just how much Philosophy differs from other subjects. There are some links here with my post of yesterday in that ontology is critical. If you think the individual exists in isolation from social form, then you have to find ways to resolve the issue of how the individual can hand over “rights” to the State. Its not a problem for those of us who think that individuals have no meaning other than as part of a society (political or religion), but its still an interesting problem.

Rousseau solves it with the notion that we put ourselves under the direction of the General Will. As citizens we share in sovereign will, but as subjects we owe obedience to the law. The interesting thing is that Rousseau does not confuse the General Will with The Will of All. He argues that we really need an elected aristocracy that makes general decisions; strains there with Plato’s Philosopher Kings and having lived through the poverty of decision making in a British General Election I have some sympathy!

The really interesting thing is the conditions he placed for a plebiscite to work. Firstly every citizen should be fully informed and secondly no two voters may have communication with each other. Now this concept in the hands of Robespierre became a license for tyranny but it has close links in the modern age to the basic theory behind the idea of Wisdom of Crowds. We know that farmers guessing the weight of a steer only works with experienced farmers (they have full knowledge) and if they make devisions independently of each other.

Its interesting to see the ideas connecting over the centuries, but what is The Terror which will follow prediction markets and the like?

tomorrow its Hegel, Marx and Rawls …..

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