Rousseau pp 66-83 | Cite as

The General Will

  • John C. Hall
Part of the Philosophers in Perspective book series (PHPE)


The central idea of Rousseau’s theory of political right is the general will. Around this idea are clustered others — words like sovereign, state, and law, which play big parts in the exposition of his theory, and are found to be definable in terms of each other and of the general will — but these other words are borrowed from his predecessors, even though he gives them all a new meaning. The expression ‘general will’, on the other hand, is his own. No one had used it as a technical term of political philosophy before the appearance, in 1755, of vol. v of the Encyclopédie. Nor was it just the expression that was new: the idea that the expression was coined to express was also new. Furthermore, whatever is new in the way Rousseau uses the other words of the group will be found to originate in this same central idea. For example, when we look at the things he says about the sovereign, we can divide them into two clearly distinct classes: (a) what could equally well have been said by Hobbes — e.g. that sovereignty is indivisible, that the sovereign alone is the source of law, and that it cannot make laws that bind itself; (b) what is peculiar to Rousseau, and, to someone who understands by sovereign what Hobbes understood, inexplicable — e.g. that the sovereign cannot hurt anyone in particular, and that the power to condemn a criminal is one that the sovereign can confer but cannot exercise.


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  1. 8.
    There is a more modern variety of utilitarianism known as 154 Rule Utilitarianism (see R. B. Brandt, Ethical Theory (London, Prentice-Hall, 1959) pp. 253 ff.), of which this statement is not true; but we do not need to consider it here.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John C. Hall 1973

Authors and Affiliations

  • John C. Hall
    • 1
  1. 1.University of St AndrewsUK

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