Althusser delivered these lectures on Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality at the École normale supérieure in Paris in 1972. They are fascinating for two reasons. First, they gave rise to a new generation of Rousseau scholars, attentive not just to Rousseau’s ideas, but also to those of his concepts that were buried beneath metaphors or fictional situations and characters. Second, we are now discovering that the “late Althusser’s” theses about aleatory materialism and the need to break with the strict determinism of theories of history in order to devise a new philosophy “for Marx” were being worked out well before 1985 in this reading of Rousseau dating from twelve years earlier, which introduces into Rousseau’s text the ideas of the void, the accident, the take, and the necessity of contingency.
“The discovery of these Lectures on Rousseau is one of the true miracles that occurred in the restitution of Althusser’s posthumous legacy. They are beautifully transcribed and edited by Yves Vargas, an auditor to the lectures and himself a great Rousseau scholar. Not only do they add unexpected developments to the already celebrated Rousseau-interpretation by the Marxist philosopher, they fill a gap in the understanding of the sources of his late philosophy of ‘aleatory materialism.’ Their reading will be a pleasure and an inspiration.”