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On Natural Inequality?: Huxley’s Rebuttal of Rousseau

Posted in political philosophy by KevinCK on September 20, 2009

There is much to be said in favour of the view that Rousseau, having got hold of a plausible hypothesis, more or less unconsciously made up a clothing of imaginary facts to hide its real nakedness. He was not the first nor the last philosopher to perform this feat. – Thomas Henry Huxley, “On the Natural Inequalities of Man” (309)

RousseauIf I had not doubted Rousseau before, and I had, having cats would have led me to doubt Rousseau. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is in large part known for his Discourse on the Nature of Inequality. In the book, he writes that inequality did not exist in humans’ “state of nature” but only came after society was invented and entered into.

Now why would cats make me doubt such a story? Well, even though my cats have “entered into society” (they sleep on couches rather than grassy plains, and eat processed food rather than raw meat), they are quite instinctual animals; their instincts give us a glimpse into their natural inclinations. And cats’ natural instincts know nothing of such concepts as fairness or equality.

In fact, right now , my cats are eating. I have to look over every few minutes to make sure that one cat doesn’t “kick the other cat out” of the room in order to eat their food. I’ve tried many times to let the three cats know that this is wrong behavior  – that each cat gets to eat only from her own food bowl – but the cats simply don’t learn this. I have also tried to “unlearn” their behavior of order establishing, with one cat being the most dominant and another being the most submissive, but again, too much travail. According to the several books I’ve read and websites I’ve consulted, cats are just naturally this way – territorial, opportunistic, caring not  a lick for equality.

It simply makes one wonder whether humans could also have been this way in their natural state. (Hint: science has been proving Rousseau wrong for years, as evidenced in such works as Lorenz’s  On Aggression.)

One of the best critiques of Rousseau’s work, though, was Thomas Henry Huxley’s essay, “On the Natural Inequalitythomas huxley of Man.” This is so, I think, not only because Huxley was a biologist every bit as good at philosophy as Rousseau was (better, I think).

To me, the most notable thing about Huxley’s critique is that he essentially turns Rousseau’s view on its head, arguing that equality is not something the establishment of society removed from nature, but something that it imposed on nature.

Huxley did not necessarily agree with Hobbes that humans lives in a state of nature were “a solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” war of everyone against everyone. Using the best anthropological evidence at the time, Huxley postulated the view – that has endured into today – that

The particular method of early landholding of which we have the most widespread traces is that in which each of a great number of moderate-sized portions of the whole territory occupied by a nation is held in complete and inalienable ownership by the males of a family, or of a small number of actual or supposed kindred families, mutually responsible in blood feuds, and worshipping the same God or Gods.  (324) (more…)