Another Point for Wikipedia: Rousseau’s Citizenship

Compare the following two articles on Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau — Britannica Online Encyclopedia
Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

At the onset of the first entry, Rousseau is described unequivocally as a “French philosopher.” In the second entry, Rousseau is first described through his contributions to philosophy, literature, and music. The beginning of the biography section of that second entry contains a clear, straightforward, and useful statement about Rousseau’s citizenship. As this Wikipedia entry explains, and is clear in Rousseau’s work, the well-known French-speaking thinker considered himself a citizen of Geneva throughout his life (which ended during the Old Swiss Confederacy, before Geneva became a Canton of Switzerland). While Rousseau’s connections to France are clearly mentioned, nowhere in the body of this Wikipedia article is Rousseau himself called “French.” The article has been classified in diverse Wikipedia categories which do contain the word “French,” but this association is fairly indirect. Though it may sound like the same thing, there’s a huge difference between putting Rousseau in a list of “French philosophers” or “French memoirists” and describing Rousseau as a “French philosopher.” In fact, Rousseau is also listed among “Swiss educationists” and “Swiss music theorists.” These classifications aren’t  inaccurate as classifications. They wouldn’t be very precise as descriptions.

As a dual Swiss/Canadian citizen myself, I easily react to this type of imprecision, especially in formal contexts.

The Encyclopædia Britannica carries quite a bit of prestige and one would expect such issues as citizenship to be treated with caution. Seeing Rousseau mentioned in the “On This Day” bulletin, I accessed the Britannica entry on Rousseau via a single click. The first word of this entry was “French,” which did seem quite inappropriate, to me. In fact, I hoped that the rest of the entry would contain an explanation of this choice. Maybe I had missed the fact that Rousseau became a naturalized French citizen, at some point. Or maybe they just mean “French-speaker.” Or the descriptor was meant as a connection to philosophical trends associated with France…

Nope! Nothing like that.

Instead, a narrative on Rousseau’s life with lots of anecdotes, a few links to other entries, and some “peacock terms.” But no explanation of what is meant by “French philosopher.” This isn’t about accuracy as an absolute. The description could be accurate if it had been explained. But it wasn’t. Oh, there are some mentions of Rousseau’s “rights as a citizen” of Geneva, in connection with The Social Contract. But these statements are rather confusing, especially in the artificial context of an encyclopedia entry.

The Britannica entry was written by the late British economist Maurice Cranston. Given the fact that Cranston died in 1993, one is led to believe that the Britannica entry on Rousseau has been left unmodified in the past 15 years. The Wikipedia version has been modified hundreds of time in the last year. Now, many of these modifications were probably trivial, some are likely to have been inappropriate, and (without looking at the details of the changes) there’s no guarantee that the current version is the best possible one. The point here isn’t about the rate of change. It’s about the opportunities for modifying an encyclopedia entry. One would think that, during the last fifteen years, the brilliant people at Britannica may have had the time to include a clarification as to Rousseau’s citizenship. In fact, one might expect that a good deal of research on Rousseau’s work has happened in the meantime and it would make sense to say that the Britannica entry on the scholar could integrate some elements of that research.

Notice that I’m not, in fact, talking about factual accuracy as an abstract concept. I’m referring to the effects of encyclopedia entries on people’s understanding. In my mind, the Wikipedia entry on Jean-Jacques Rousseau makes it easy for readers to exercise their critical thinking. The Britannica entry on the same person makes it sound as though everything which could be said about Jean-Jacques Rousseau can be contained in a single narrative.

My guess is, Rousseau and his «Encyclopédistes» friends would probably prefer Wikipedia over Britannica.

But that’s just a guess.


Author: enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast.

10 thoughts on “Another Point for Wikipedia: Rousseau’s Citizenship”

  1. Yeah, noticed that inaccuracy too. But even that’s funny. Who gets to decide you’re old and when did it start being a negative thing…

  2. Great links. At the time being depicted, at 37 a peasant would have been old indeed.

  3. @Carl Pretty much the point I was trying to make but you put it more cogently.
    The funny thing about citizenship is that it really is “ingrained in people’s minds.” To be perfectly honest, it’s only nine years ago that I started to really understand how “constructed” it was. And, since then, I try to get people to think about the construction of citizenship, nationality, patriotism, and nationalism. It’s the main reason I keep bringing back Benedict Anderson, even though I originally reacted negatively to his approach. The other reference I use is Scene 3 of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s not very precise but I think it helps people rethink the assumed obviousness of those identities.
    Rousseau was instrumental in several discussions of citizenship. Even in that Britannica entry, his work is connected directly to the notion of citizenship. That’s the main reason I think it’s so important to treat the issue of his citizenship with some care.

    As for interdisciplinary sophistication, I was assuming it could be precisely what may make encyclopedias useful… 🙂

  4. Thanks for this. There’s always going to be a superficiality problem with encyclopedias (which makes them uniquely amenable to crowdsourcing); their specific value is introductory, not exhaustive. But for that reason it’s especially important to open the doors to further investigation with care.

    It’s worth noting that what it meant to be “French” or “Swiss” in the pre-revolutionary 18th century was not the same as it means now. Contemporary ideas of nation and ethnicity were in the air, but not generally formalized or effective. With the mixed exception of the Swiss, ‘citizenship’ was a matter of subjection to a sovereign and could be quite fluid and contextual. Passports were for internal travel; border crossing was free. Since Rousseau was part of the ideological wavefront of the ongoing modern transformation of all this, I’d like to see it reflected in his entry, but that would take quite a lot of interdisciplinary sophistication.

  5. @alejna Thanks for stopping by! Really glad you did because you’re making me think about the implications of crowdsourcing the writing of what serves as sources for history. Yes, with all the benefits from feminism (“herstory” instead of “history”… ) but also the ethnographic dimension of historical research: everyday life, real people, complex interactions.

  6. I didn’t have time to comment on this when I read this before (and don’t technically have time now), but I was passing by again. And wanted to mention that I really enjoyed this post. It was quite interesting and thought-provoking. It makes me think about history has traditionally been written, as in by a small number of people from a dominant group. Resources like Wikipedia have the potential to change this and give us much richer and more complex accounts of events and people.

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