Rousseau left us three examples of life-writing: The Confessions, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, and the Dialogues (also known as Rousseau: Juge de Jean-Jacques). It is here argued that The Confessions is an example of autobiography and The Reveries is an example of memoirs. In contrast to these two works, in form and style the Dialogues have hitherto been thought of as one of a kind, an unparalleled anomaly. In this essay, it will be argued that the Dialogues are an early example of autoethnography. It will be shown how the concept of autoethnography may help us to better appreciate and contextualize this neglected and original work. Furthermore, armed with this knowledge, we might avoid repeating some of Rousseau’s mistakes.

The life-writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) consists of three works: The Confessions, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, and the Dialogues. In The Confessions, Rousseau pursued two intertwined aims: most obviously he aimed to reveal his innermost self, but he also hoped, and expected, that in doing so his work would help to reform society. In The Confessions, these aims are two sides of the same coin. However, as will be explained in the first two sections of this essay, following his disappointment at the reception of The Confessions he pursued these aims separately in two new projects. In The Reveries, he took refuge in the nostalgic sanctuary of memory, with no intended audience other than himself; in the Dialogues, he attempted to make sense of his recent experiences of an unjust society—to justify himself in the face of slander—and thereby to reform society. In The Reveries, his primary focus is his innermost self; in the Dialogues, his primary focus is himself in relation to society.

The Dialogues are one of the least read of Rousseau’s works. Rousseau’s biographer describes them as “the strangest and, except for intermittent moments of eloquence, the most unreadable” of Rousseau’s works.1 Here it will be argued that although the Dialogues are unusual, and although Rousseau entirely failed to make sense of the culture of celebrity that surrounded him, in their aims and structure they anticipate the genre of autoethnography. In order to make this case, the principal features of autoethnography are outlined and a synopsis of the Dialogues is provided. I will then argue that the Dialogues add weight to a suggestion made by Jann Purdy,2 that autoethnography has a prehistory predating the reification of disciplinary boundaries that occurred in the nineteenth century. Finally, following Michael Sheringham’s suggestion that “intertextual affiliations within the French domain [of life-writing] have been of paramount importance,”3 I will argue that significant common ground is shared between the life-writings of Rousseau and Arnie Ernaux. In particular, it will be argued that, at a deep level, the life-writings of Rousseau and Annie Ernaux share the same motivation.

Rousseau devoted the last twenty years of his life to what might broadly be termed life-writing. His life-writing was in many ways a continuation of his earlier philosophy rather than a departure, for he stressed that his philosophy—including his most famous claim that civilization corrupts our innate innocence—sprang from within, from deeply felt intuitions. Sometimes his philosophy was expressed formally as a series of propositions, but it was not initially worked out in this form; rather, it originated in feeling and intuition. It was not divorced from his person or his own life. In his own words:

I have seen many who philosophised much more learnedly than I, but their philosophy was so to speak, foreign to them. Wanting to be more knowledgeable than others, they studied the universe in order to know how it was ordered, just as they would have studied some machine they might have perceived—through pure curiosity. They studied human nature to be able to speak knowingly about it, but not in order to know themselves.”4

Thus, of all Enlightenment philosophers, it is unsurprising that Rousseau was most influential in giving rise to the modern genre of autobiography. However, in writing The Confessions, he had no expectations that his work would inspire works of a similar nature. He confidently declared: “I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator.”5

As to his vaunted originality, he was right that the work fitted no ready-made mould, but there were partial precedents. Montaigne’s Essays contain autobiographical elements in that Montaigne tells us of his emotional reactions to numerous situations. However, although all of Montaigne’s essays are incidentally about himself, their primary focus, at least ostensibly, is on the external world. Augustine’s Confessions is another partial precedent in that it relates the author’s life story; but it is told as a confession to God. By contrast, Rousseau’s Confessions are primarily and explicitly the story of his own life and are addressed not to God but to an imaginary reader. As such, The Confessions is a recognizably contemporary autobiography. Further, as intimated in the introduction, the motivation of The Confessions and the Dialogues is recognizably contemporary. We shall return to this claim in the final section, with reference to the life-writing of Annie Ernaux.

At some level, Rousseau may also have been influenced by the relatively new genre of novels. Robinson Crusoe was a particular favorite. But, although parts of The Confessions can be read as an adventure story, Rousseau’s intention was not simply to entertain. In this respect, his work differs from Benvenuto Cellini’s earlier autobiography, which is more like pure adventure.6 Rousseau pauses over seemingly small incidents for the sake of the emotions they evoke.

One of his intentions was to attempt to justify himself in the face of an anonymous revelation that he had abandoned his newborn children at Foundling Hospitals. He wished to fully reveal himself, in the naïve belief that if he were but fully known, then society would no longer disapprove of him—instead, society would be reformed. These aims went hand in hand. In his own words:

He believed that by fully manifesting his soul and revealing his Confessions, the very frank, simple, and natural explanation of all that might have been found to be bizarre in his conduct, bearing with it his own testimony, would make felt the truth of his declarations and the falseness of the horrible and fantastic ideas he saw being spread about him without being able to discover their source.7

But, more generally, he believed The Confessions might benefit society. This is made clear in an early unpublished preface: “I have conceived a new genre of service to render to man: this is to offer them the faithful image of one amongst them in order for them to learn to know themselves.”8

However, society did not react as Rousseau had anticipated. The Confessions ends with an account of their first public reading:

Thus I concluded my reading, and everyone was silent. Mme d’Egmont was the only person who seemed moved. She trembled visibly but quickly controlled herself, and remained quiet, as did the rest of the company. Such was the advantage I derived from my reading and my declaration.9

In other words, he derived no advantage at all from having written, and read, The Confessions—just the opposite.

Although not yet published, following Rousseau’s public readings, The Confessions took on a discomfiting life of their own—as a source of gossip, scandal, and delighted outrage. Second-hand knowledge of Rousseau, derived from The Confessions, fed his public image as a notorious libertine. At this point, it is worth noting that literary celebrity was as yet a relatively new phenomenon but, fueled by newspapers and coffee houses, this was what Rousseau now unwittingly experienced.10 A little earlier, Voltaire had experienced literary celebrity and had enjoyed the experience; but Rousseau was of a very different character:

he was baffled and alarmed at being turned into a legend. Not only were there detractors and well-wishers but praise itself was painful if aimed at an unreal image of himself […] The split between the public image and the sense of true self was something quite new in the eighteenth century, when a rapidly growing reading public began to assume a personal relationship with authors they had never met. In later years this aspect of celebrity would become commonplace, but to Rousseau it felt like a uniquely personal injustice. And he was a collector of injustices.11

As Foucault noted in his introduction to the Dialogues, after the first public reading of The Confessions, Rousseau’s “great anxiety” between 1768 and 1776 was that “his voice might be lost”12—overwhelmed by his public image.

To his horror, Rousseau came to realize that it was a popular opinion, shared even by many people who had never read him—and before The Confessions was published—that he should be ashamed of having written and published such reputedly blasphemous, obscene, and seditious books.13 It should be said that many readers adored Rousseau as the author of the best-selling novel Julie ou La Nouvelle Héloïse, but many others, often without even reading his work, saw him as personally depraved. Furthermore, his authorship of the opera The Village Soothsayer was questioned; and other works were attributed to him that he knew nothing about.

Rousseau blamed the Parisian philosophes for his notoriety and to some extent he was right, in that the stories originated in the Parisian literary salons. However, from Rousseau’s public readings, a book as unusual and entertaining as The Confessions was almost bound to cause a stir and to live its own life, independent of its author. This was something Rousseau never recognized for, in short, although he had come to know himself very well, his knowledge of other people was weak and unreliable. He came to see even innocent well-wishers as having sinister ulterior motives.

His planned continuation of The Confessions was at this point abandoned. Whereas in The Confessions his two aims were entwined—on the one hand, revealing himself, and on the other, reforming society—from now on he pursued these aims separately in two separate projects: The Reveries of the Solitary Walker and the Dialogues. For a while he jumped from one project to the other, but in character they are entirely different. The Reveries is much closer to The Confessions. However, whereas The Confessions is best categorized as an autobiography—a chronological narrative of the author’s life (including both public events and inner mental life)—The Reveries is best categorized as a series of memoirs. It presents a series of disconnected episodes in which the primary focus is on the evocation of the author’s emotions. (The lack of an integrated chronology in memoirs seems to be a generally accepted difference between that genre and autobiography, although in practice the two terms are often used interchangeably.)

Moreover, whereas The Confessions were intended to influence public opinion, this ambition was dropped in The Reveries. In The Reveries, Rousseau writes only for himself as a form of emotional sanctuary. In his words:

Since he prefers enjoyment to suffering, he turns away from sad and unpleasant memories that are useless, in order to surrender his whole heart to those which are soothing.14

In The Reveries, he claims his isolation from society is an advantage in that, without distractions, he is better able to devote himself to his memories and to the task of presenting a truthful account of himself. However, the exercise retained an element of inquiry.

But I, detached from them [his fellow men] and from everything, what am I? That is what remains for me to seek.15

He never arrived at a final answer.

In summary, in The Reveries, Rousseau turned inward; by contrast, in the Dialogues, he related his recent experiences but in order to make sense of them, to justify himself, and to attempt to see himself in relation to society. Thus, the context that gave rise to the Dialogues were the perceived failure of The Confessions (in Rousseau’s eyes) and relatedly the phenomenon of literary celebrity, which Rousseau experienced but, sadly, with very little understanding.

It pained Rousseau to think badly of anyone, for he did not believe that humanity is, by nature, malicious. But this left him with a quandary: “The problem was not to find reason in favour of my feeling, but to imagine any opposing ones, to establish a semblance of equity for actions where I saw none whatsoever.”16 How could he objectively set about explaining how reasonable people could be so unreasonable?

His attempted solution was highly original. Prompted by the thought that, “if someone had given me ideas about another man like those my contemporaries have given about me, I would not have behaved toward him as they have toward me,”17 he created a fictional character named Rousseau. Rousseau has recently returned from abroad. He has read the works of his namesake Jean-Jacques and greatly admired him. He is therefore (as an unprejudiced observer) astonished and dismayed to find that Jean-Jacques is in person so disparaged. He learns of this from a Frenchman who has not read any of Jean-Jacques’ books but who is very familiar with the scurrilous stories that are told about him. This set-up is explained in the preamble to the book, entitled “On the Subject and Form of this Writing.”

The main body of the book consists of three dialogues between Rousseau and the Frenchman. They refer to Jean-Jacques himself—the author—as J.J. However, J.J. himself only addresses us directly in the preamble “On the Subject and Form of this Writing,” in the footnotes, in the postscript (in which he briefly discusses the fate of the book), and occasionally in Rousseau’s quotations from his conversations with J.J.

In the preamble, Jean-Jacques tells us that—whereas he had enjoyed working on The Confessions—he could only bear to work on the Dialogues for a few minutes at a time. It was a work undertaken solely out of a sense of duty—to correct the falsehoods that were continually told about him and to defend himself from society’s disapproval. He warns us that the resulting work is entirely different from his Confessions:

As for those who want only some agreeable rapid reading, who sought and found only that in my Confessions, and who cannot tolerate a little fatigue or maintain their attention in the interest of justice and truth, they will do well to spare themselves the boredom of reading this. It is not to them I wished to speak, and far from seeking to please them, I will at least avoid the ultimate indignity of seeing that the picture of the miseries of my life is an object of amusement for anyone.18

He is right. The Dialogues are not amusing, but they are interesting, in their ambition, subject matter, and highly original form, adopted by Rousseau in the valiant but impossible attempt to be completely objective about himself. The book relates J.J.’s personal experiences of the previous ten years: it is about the interactions between the author and a particular society (and what these tell us about that society); and it is written in an attempt to improve society. Its general features are shared with the modern genre of autoethnography, as outlined in the following section. The principal difference is that contemporary autoethnographers forsake the ambition of achieving complete objectivity.

Autoethnography as a continuous tradition has only a relatively recent history. The term “autoethnography” was first used in 1975,19 but the formal practice of autoethnography has become more prevalent only since the 1990s. It developed mainly in the fields of sociology, anthropology, and ethnography in response to the concern that traditional methods of research were misleading in conveying an impression of disembodied, impersonal, and impossible objectivity. Autoethnography questions the neutrality of the objective observer, and also questions the coherence of an essential individual self.20

The autoethnographer believes that rather than attempting to achieve objectivity through cloaking the self in invisibility, the self should be foregrounded, so that the investigator becomes not only the author of the inquiry but also its subject.21 There is great variety in the attempts to achieve this, and much experimentation. It has attracted criticisms of subjectivity, which I shall address here only at a general level by saying it would be odd indeed if a researcher in the social sciences could not in principle make their own life the subject of investigation.

Autoethnography has been defined as “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno).”22 It is a practice in which “[a]utoethnographers use their personal experiences as primary material (data) for social investigation.”23 More specifically, Adams, Jones, and Ellis characterize autoethnography as a research method that:

  • Uses a researcher’s personal experience to describe and critique cultural beliefs, practices, and experiences

  • Acknowledges and values a researcher’s relationships with others

  • Uses deep and careful self-reflection, typically referred to as “reflexivity,” to name and interrogate the intersections between self and society, the particular and the political

  • Shows people in the process of figuring out how to live

  • Balances methodological rigor and emotions

  • Strives for social justice and to make life better24

(I interpret “balancing methodological rigor and emotions” as the point that whilst some form of methodological rigor is maintained, objectivity can be enhanced when personal experience is foregrounded rather than hidden.) The additional characteristic should be mentioned that sometimes, but not always, there is also a therapeutic component to autoethnography.

There follows a synopsis of Rousseau’s three Dialogues. After which, in “The Dialogues as Autoethnography,” having given the synopsis as evidence, it will be argued that the Dialogues contains all of the above features. It will be argued that although Rousseau is ultimately unsuccessful in understanding the society that surrounds him, and his relationship to that society, nonetheless, in its aims and structure, the Dialogues are recognizable as autoethnography. As will be seen, the essential similarity is that, in the Dialogues, Rousseau, like a contemporary autoethnographer, seeks a form of objectivity that does not banish personal experience.

Rousseau, who knows J.J.’s writing very well, has recently arrived from abroad and is shocked by the stories about the author that are told by the Frenchman; but he is also puzzled. As he explains to the Frenchman: “The Author of the Books and of the crimes appears to you to be the same person. I believe I am correct to see them as two. That, Sir, is the enigma.”25

The first puzzle, which is fairly quickly cleared up, is the rumor that J.J. is not the composer of The Village Soothsayer. Rousseau criticizes the alternative attributions and demonstrates that its attribution to J.J. is consistent with his authorship of various articles on music in the Encylopédie. As to J.J.’s alleged depravity, Rousseau asks how could “the most dissolute, vilest decadent who could exist”26 be the author of Émile and La Nouvelle Héloïse? It is not possible. “Show me the love letter of an unknown person and I am certain to know by reading it whether its author is of good morals [moeurs].”27

It is then revealed that certain passages from J.J’s books have been quoted out of context. But, protests the Frenchman, J.J.’s accusers are “all men of the most sublime virtue and great philosophers who are never wrong.”28 Rousseau thus entreats the Frenchman to read the books himself, as the philosophers did. But: “Don’t even think of the Author as you read, and without any bias either in favour or against, let your soul experience the impression it will receive. You will thus assure yourself of the intention behind the writing of these books.”29

The Frenchman replies: “If I make this effort for you, at least don’t expect it to be without a cost. In order to bring myself to read these books despite my distaste, you yourself, despite yours, must promise to go and see the Author […].”30 Rousseau does not immediately reply to this suggestion but asks whether, if someone is accused of grave crimes, is it not right that that person should hear of what they are accused. The Frenchman admits “that in ordinary forms, the formal accusation and examination of the guilty party are necessary in order to punish him. But basically what do these forms matter when the offense has been well proved?”31 The Frenchman believes that the philosophes are perfectly justified in persuading the whole of Paris to look upon J.J. with horror.

But Rousseau insists: “As long as the accused has not been heard, the proofs that condemn him—however convincing they might appear—lack the seal that can show them to be so, even when it has not been possible to hear the accused as is the case when there is a trial held in the memory of a dead man, for in presuming he would have had nothing to say one may be right, but it is wrong to change this presumption into a certainty in order to condemn him, and a crime can be punished only when all doubt has been removed.”32

Rousseau suggests that the accusations against J.J., of depravity and hypocrisy, may be prejudiced: “If you see the possibility that for forty years he was thought to be an honest man when he was not, I see even more clearly the possibility that for ten years he has been wrongly thought to be a scoundrel. For there is this essential difference between these two opinions: formerly he was judged fairly and without bias, whereas he is no longer judged except with passion and prejudice.”33 He will go to see J.J. for himself, not assuming his guilt, but with an open mind. In which case, replies the Frenchman, “I will read his books. After that, we will meet again.”34

The second Dialogue commences after Rousseau has met J.J. and the Frenchman has read J.J.’s books. Rousseau is the first to give his report. Morally, he found J.J. to be completely different from his public image: “He is a man without malice rather than good, a soul healthy but weak, who adores virtue without practicing it, who ardently loves the good and does hardly any. As for crime, I am persuaded as I am of my own existence that it never came near his heart, nor did hate.”35

J.J., usually so mistrustful of curious members of the public, had agreed to meet him because Rousseau seemed to have a sincere desire to know him better. According to J.J., “You are the first led here by this motive [to know him]. For of all people who are curious to see me, not one is curious to know me. They all believe they know me well enough.”36

There follows a very detailed description and analysis of J.J.’s character. Rousseau describes him as often ponderous, clumsy, lethargic, and with a poor manner of expressing himself but prone to sudden excited animation when something takes his interest. On those occasions his interest is all-consuming.

His great misfortune is that all this is never ruled by prudence, and that he throws himself impetuously into whatever impulse excites him without foreseeing the effect and the consequences, or without caring about them. He is incapable of moderate animation. He must be either fire or ice; when lukewarm, he is nothing.37

He is active, ardent, laborious, indefatigable; he is indolent, lazy, without vigour. He is proud, audacious, foolhardy; he is fearful, timid, awkward. He is cold, disdainful, rejecting to the point of harshness; he is gentle, affectionate, easygoing to the point of weakness, and doesn’t know how to guard against doing or enduring what he likes least. In short, he shifts from one extreme to the other with incredible speed and without even being aware of it or recalling what he was the moment before.38

J.J., incapable of the slightest sustained foresight and completely engulfed by each feeling that rocks him, does not even know while the feeling lasts that he can ever cease being affected by it. He thinks of his interest, that is to say of the future, only when he is absolutely calm; but then he falls into such a torpor that he might as well not think about it all.39

When he is visited by Rousseau, J.J. is earning his living by copying music. Because of his low threshold of boredom, when he makes a mistake, he will do anything he can to avoid starting afresh.

Since he doesn’t keep his mind on anything, he doesn’t keep it on his work either, especially when he is forced by the crowds of chance visitors to combine it with chit-chat. He makes many mistakes and then corrects them by erasing his paper, wasting time and having incredible difficulties. I saw nearly whole pages that he had preferred to erase in this way rather than to start a fresh sheet, which would have been finished much sooner. But in his laboriously lazy turn of mind, he cannot reconcile himself to start afresh something he has already done once, albeit badly.40

Yet, reluctantly, J.J. finds himself compelled sometimes to set aside his music in order to write the Dialogues. As though in a strange hall of mirrors,41 Rousseau meets J.J. just as the latter is writing about him.

Finally, despite the resolution he made when he arrived in Paris not to pay any further attention to his misfortunes or to write any more about this subject, the continual indignities he suffered, the unceasing harassment he underwent because of the fear that he would write, the impudence with which new books were constantly attributed to him, and the stupid or spiteful credulity of the public about this having exhausted his patience and making him feel that he gained no rest by keeping silent, he made one more effort, and attending once again to his destiny and to his persecutors despite himself, he wrote a judgment of them and of himself in the form of a Dialogue, rather like the one that may result from our conversations. He often complained to me that this piece of writing was, of all he had done in his life, the one he undertook with the most repugnance and executed with the most boredom.42

J.J. explains that he would detest the feeling of being compelled to write, as a livelihood, rather than because he had something to communicate.

Why write books instead of copying music, when that work pleases me, suits me more than any other, and when its result is a just honest profit that suffices for me? Thinking is very painful work for me, which tires, torments, and displeases me […] thinking of this or of that as an obligation, as a trade, making my productions correct, methodical is for me the work of a galley slave, and thinking as a livelihood seems to me the most painful as well as the most ridiculous of occupations.43

(His view is, incidentally, the opposite of that expressed by Samuel Johnson, at about the same time: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” [April 5, 1776]).44

Rousseau observes the routine nature of J.J.s daily life:

Nothing is more uniform than his way of life. He gets up, goes to bed, eats, works, goes out and returns at the same hours, without willing it and without knowing it. All days are cast in the same mould. The same day is always repeated. His routine takes the place of all other rules: he follows it very precisely without fail and without thought.45

He notes that this lifestyle suits J.J. very well.46 But Rousseau’s prime concern is to investigate the discrepancy between J.J. in person, the alleged moral reprobate, and J.J. the author. Having met J.J., Rousseau is convinced there is no discrepancy at all: “Just as I found the man of nature in his books, I found in him the man of his books.”47 He therefore demands of the Frenchman: “Either make me feel how I am deceiving myself or show me how my J.J. can fit the J.J. of your Gentleman, or agree finally that these two beings, so different, were never the same man.”48

The Frenchman replies: “To unravel the truth with certainty, it would be necessary to have impartial observations, and whatever precautions you took, yours are no more impartial than theirs.”49 Furthermore: “Are you really the only just and sensible man left on earth?”50

Rousseau responds: “All your proofs to the contrary, drawn from further afield, break down against the axiom which carries me on irresistibly, that the same thing cannot be and not be; and everything your Gentlemen say they saw is, by your own admission, entirely incompatible with what I am certain I saw myself.”51 Furthermore: “You say that my reason chooses the feeling that my heart prefers, and I don’t deny it. That is what happens in all deliberations where judgment is not enlightened enough to reach a decision without the help of the will. Do you believe that in taking the opposite view with so much ardour, your Gentlemen are influenced by a more impartial motive?”52

As to how the scurrilous rumors spread, the explanation is simply that the human mind is naturally lazy and “likes to spare itself some effort by thinking the way others do.”53 The slanders have become an innate feeling, promulgated with particular intolerance among the young, but they originated among the philosophes who cannot comprehend someone of his character.54 Whilst it is true that we possess a natural inner goodness, it is also true that we often lack the courage to speak out against injustice, and so—without J.J. being given any sort of hearing—the defamation is allowed to gain traction until, with regard to his character, everything he does is interpreted with prejudice and in the worst possible way.55

The Frenchman gives his report on the books that he has read. He says that J.J. states some harsh truths that might be keenly felt by those at whom they are aimed. However, his doctrine is healthy and simple and “directed only to the happiness of the human race.”56 “His system may be false, but in developing it, he portrayed himself truthfully in a manner so characteristic and so pure that it’s impossible for me to mistake it.”57 His great principle is that “nature made man happy and good, but that society depraves him and makes him miserable.”58 But he does not believe it is possible to return to times of innocence and equality.

Rousseau offers to introduce him to J.J., but the Frenchman says that is unnecessary. He is now convinced of J.J.’s innocence and, in his mind, there is now no discrepancy between J.J. the author and J.J. the man. However:

don’t expect either that I will thoughtlessly go about displaying myself openly as his defender and forcing his detractors to drop their mask in order to accuse him aloud to his face. That would be undertaking a step as imprudent as it would be useless, to which I don’t want to expose myself.59

Rousseau replies that the opinion of the fickle philosophes is now a matter of indifference to J.J. However, he would be consoled if he could find but one trustworthy person.60 In the long run, J.J. is convinced that he will be seen with justice. Rousseau agrees: “His books […] will show their Author was not as they strove to portray him.”61 But the Frenchman is doubtful: “Let’s not say that time always allows truth to triumph, because that is what is impossible for us to know, and it is far more credible that erasing all its traces step by step, time more often allows lying to triumph, especially when men have an interest in supporting it.”62 He advises silence: “Give J.J. one piece of advice, perhaps the best one left for him to follow, surrounded as he is by traps and snares into which every step he takes can’t fail to draw him. It is to remain immobile if he can, not to act at all.”63

At this point, J.J. himself intercedes with the following footnote:

I cannot allow myself to follow this advice as regards the just defence of my honour. Until the end I must do everything within my power if not to open the eyes of this blind generation at least to enlighten one that is more equitable. All the means for doing [so] have been taken away from me I know. But without any hope of success, all efforts possible even though useless are nonetheless my duty, and I will not stop making them until my final breath is drawn. Do what you ought, come what may.64

The Frenchman is worried that public opinion is directed by the atheist philosophes who, he argues, are just as despotic and intolerant as the Jesuits. But, Rousseau asks, “Do you really think you are the only man in whose heart justice still speaks independently of all other interests?”65 Rousseau grants that public hostility is fomented by the philosophes, but he says this will not always be the case. When it is no longer stirred up, some will ask whether J.J. really deserved to be held in such opprobrium. He suggests that he and the Frenchman might together work with that day in mind to bear testimony to the injustice suffered by J.J.

At last, the Frenchman agrees: “I will gladly cooperate with you to conceal from their vigilance and transmit to better times the facts they work to make disappear, and which will someday furnish powerful indications for obtaining knowledge of the truth.”66

Rousseau’s project was unsuccessful in that the Dialogues failed to advance knowledge of himself or society or of the relationship between himself and society. However, it remains an interesting and highly original experiment. One mistake may have been to model a social scientist’s objectivity so closely upon the procedures and decisions of a court room. For, however impartial, the court does not have the luxury of suggestion: a conclusion must be reached “beyond reasonable doubt” within a finite amount of time. By contrast, a social scientist’s conclusion will often happily take the form of suggestions; and it is not a sign of failure that they are not “beyond reasonable doubt.” It is acknowledged that—although there is no impartial “view from nowhere”—future generations, with different insights, may productively develop them further. But Rousseau was not interested in suggestion, for he believed that his self-knowledge was infallible. As he wrote in the Confessions: “I may omit or transpose facts, or make mistakes in dates; but I cannot go wrong about what I have felt, or about what my feelings have led me to do.”67 Here, contemporary autoethnographers would rightly hesitate to follow him, for insights from philosophy and psychology have undermined such claims of personal infallibility.

However, I would argue that, despite its shortcomings, in its aims and structure the Dialogues is recognizable as autoethnography. Its principal concern conforms to the definition of autoethnography discussed earlier. Rousseau “seeks to describe and systematically analyse (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno).”68 He is unsuccessful, in that he fails to understand the phenomenon of celebrity; but he is attempting to examine his personal experiences—of the previous ten years—in order to better understand the relationship between himself and society, and to reform society.

Furthermore, the Dialogues shares all of the features of autoethnography outlined by Adams, Jones, and Ellis:

  • He uses his personal experience to describe and critique cultural beliefs, practices, and experiences.

  • He acknowledges and values his relationships with others. This is demonstrated by the hurt that he clearly feels at the scandalized reception of his work, especially among the philosophes. If he did not value their opinions, he would be indifferent.

  • He uses reflexivity to examine his relationship with society. As noted by a contemporary autoethnographer, “Every telling of an experience in autobiography or ethnography requires a double consciousness of what took place. In narrating past experience, the autobiographer is both participant and observer in that the younger participant was part of the experience while the older narrator, temporarily removed from the past, is the detached witness to the experience through memory.”69 This splitting of the self is found in the Dialogues through the experimental device of Rousseau splitting himself between two narrators.

  • He shows himself in the process of figuring out how to live amidst those who know him by reputation only and not in person. He is unsuccessful: he presupposes that others are as sincere in their beliefs and actions as he is and, subsequently, he is led to suspect a willful conspiracy in order to make sense of them. He has very little understanding of gossip.

  • In his attempt to address the reader (rather than writing for himself and assuming the interest of the reader and society in general), he strives to achieve an objective methodology that will not be distorted by his emotions. This is not a task he enjoys but is what he tries to achieve.

  • He strives for social justice and to make life better. However, to strive for social justice for himself so overtly, as the victim of injustice, is difficult for him. After the hostile reception afforded the first reading of The Confessions, he would rather make life better for himself as a hermit by retreating into the nostalgia of the Reveries. In the Dialogues, although he does not hide his hurt, he attempts to rise above his own personal feelings—for the sake of social justice. In trying to come to terms with his fame (or, more precisely, his notoriety), he is facing a subject that is obviously extremely unpleasant to him.

Rousseau’s biographer describes the Dialogues as “an improvised form of therapy.”70 This comment is intended as a criticism. But, as previously noted, a therapeutic component is often a feature of autoethnography and is seen as not necessarily undermining its “reflexivity.”

It is perhaps, above all, in the highly original format of the Dialogues by which Rousseau attempts to convey his personal viewpoint whilst yet retaining objectivity that the Dialogues are recognizable as autoethnography. In this respect, they are entirely different to The Confessions and The Reveries, in both of which Rousseau’s primary concern is with transparency—and objectivity is to a great extent simply left to take care of itself.71

As we have seen, Rousseau did not advance toward autoethnography from the social sciences but from autobiography. Unlike a modern researcher, he retains the idea that his knowledge of his emotional self is infallible, and this hampers his investigation. Although he knows himself very well, he does not learn from his inquiry, either about himself or about celebrity. Nonetheless he is forced into experimenting with a new form of writing from the sheer frustration of being, as he saw it, unappreciated and misunderstood. His experiment was made possible by the fact that boundaries between disciplines were not as rigid as they would become in the following century.

Purdy has made the point that modern autoethnography developed in reaction to a period in which any form of literary self-reflection would have been thought completely inimical to scientific objectivity.72 But she points to Augustine’s Confessions, Montaigne’s Essays, and Christine de Pizan’s L’Avision de Christine as preceding this period (of determinedly impersonal objectivity), and as all containing elements of autoethnography. “Perhaps autobiography and ethnography are always already entwined, despite the humanistic attempt to disassociate them.”73 Another example of avant la lettre autoethnography cited by Purdy is Restif de la Bretonne’s Monsieur Nicolas (1794–1797).74 Bretonne included ethnographic notes on peasant life and documentary evidence within his autobiography, and Monsieur Nicolas is consequently of interest to readers who are not only interested in Bretonne’s life.

Rousseau’s Dialogues are by comparison less successful in informing us about Rousseau’s society—they tell us more, unwittingly, about Rousseau’s misunderstanding of it. However, in ambition, subject matter, and form, the Dialogues are recognizable as autoethnography. They precede the reification of disciplinary boundaries and the elevation of impersonal objectivity; and they are another example that can be added to Purdy’s list of, so to say, “prehistoric” autoethnographies.

In the short postscript to the book “History of the Preceding,” J.J. recounts the problem of disposing of the manuscript in such a way that it would not fall into the wrong hands. He resolves to leave its fate to God and to leave it on the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral. However, entering the Cathedral by a side door, he was shocked to find his way to the altar is barred by a grill (which he had never previously noticed).

He was only able to calm himself with the thought that God himself had prevented the manuscript from falling into the wrong hands. He subsequently gave a portion of the manuscript to an acquaintance from England, Brooke Boothby, but J.J. is in retrospect somewhat suspicious of him. The book ends with J.J. wishing there was but one person to whom he could leave his manuscripts with confidence. However:

Whatever men do, Heaven will do its work in due time. I do not know when, by what means, or how. What I do know is that the Supreme Arbiter is powerful and just, that my soul is innocent, and that I didn’t deserve my lot.75

But the problem of how to dispose of the Dialogues also remained unresolved. Alongside The Confessions and The Reveries, they were published posthumously in 1782.

Modern-day autoethnographers may very well sympathize with Rousseau’s worry as to the fate of his Dialogues. For, at a personal level, autoethnography is an inherently and unavoidably vulnerable research method. The difference is that today many autoethnographers work within an established discipline and support each other’s work. However, some contemporary authors still choose to work entirely alone: for example, Annie Ernaux—who, in order to continue writing, sometimes resorts to reminding herself that she might perchance die before publication.76

In a dialogue with Frédéric-Yves Jeannet, Ernaux has spoken of her admiration for Rousseau: “I cannot prevent myself from saying to what degree I find admirable the writing of Rêveries du promeneur solitaire and many passages of the Confessions, its infinite transparency.”77 Indeed, without vanity, she compares herself to Rousseau: “I also [like Rousseau], I need to tell the things which happen in writing which the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know.”78 To what extent Ernaux is directly inspired by Rousseau is unclear, but it is interesting that, in explaining her own project, she cites him.

She is also familiar with the Dialogues. She prefaces her Journal de Dehors with the following wise words from the Second Dialogue: “notre vrai moi n’est pas entire en nous” [“our true self is not entirely within us”].79 The passage in full is as follows:

I also know that absolute solitude is a state that is sad and contrary to nature: affectionate feelings nourish the soul, communication of ideas enlivens the mind. Our sweetest existence is relative and collective, and our true self is not entirely within us.80

Here, in these lines from Rousseau, is the reason that, although complete objectivity is impossible, a study of the self in relation to society is still a worthwhile undertaking.

That Ernaux is familiar with even the usually overlooked Dialogues is not surprising. Michael Sheringham has argued convincingly, at length and with numerous examples, that French autobiographies operate within “an intertextual nexus.”81 But the common ground between Rousseau and Ernaux may in fact exist at a very fundamental level. According to Ernaux:

Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations, and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.82

This is reminiscent of Rousseau’s original preface to The Confessions, as previously quoted: “I have conceived a new genre of service to render to man: this is to offer them the faithful image of one amongst them in order for them to learn to know themselves.”83 Thus, although Rousseau never explicitly discussed “the true purpose of my life,” from the above quotation and from all that we know of him, it seems highly likely that he shared the same “true purpose” as Annie Ernaux.

I hope to have persuaded the reader that Rousseau’s Dialogues is a recognizable example of autoethnography. It is unsuccessful in that, through the exercise of writing the Dialogues, Rousseau gained very little understanding of the relationship between himself and his society. He experienced celebrity culture but with very little understanding of that phenomenon. Nonetheless, the book shares the features of the modern genre of autoethnography. Thus, although Rousseau’s biographer called the Dialogues “the strangest” of Rousseau’s works, when we compare the book to autoethnography it no longer seems one of a kind. I have argued that it may be added to Jann Purdy’s list of autoethnographies avant la lettre. Finally, I have suggested that, at a fundamental level, Rousseau’s work shares significant common ground with the life-writings of Annie Ernaux. The motivation underlying their writing seems to be the same.

A two-way perspective has thus been opened up. Autoethnography provides a new light in which to view the Dialogues, one of Rousseau’s least read works; and we gain a longer-range and deeper perspective from which to view the discipline of autoethnography. We may thus admire Rousseau’s ambition and originality in the Dialogues whilst at the same time being forewarned not to repeat his mistakes.

My thanks to the journal’s anonymous reviewers for their very helpful and knowledgeable suggestions.


Leo Damrosch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 476.


Jann Purdy, “Ethnographic Devices in Modern French Autobiography: Michel Lewis and Annie Ernaux,” Pacific Coast Philology 42, no. 1 (2007): 24–36.


Michael, Sheringham, French Autobiography: Devices and Desires: Rousseau to Perec (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 331.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, trans. Charles E. Butterworth (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), 29.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions, trans J.M. Cohen (London: Penguin, 1953), 17.


Cellini’s work was only given the title of “autobiography” in the nineteenth century. The word “autobiography” was first used by Robert Southey in 1797. James Goodwin Autobiography: The Self-Made Text (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993), xvii.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques: Dialogues, eds. Roger D. Master and Christopher Kelly, trans. Judith R. Bush, Christopher Kelly, and Roger D. Masters (Hanover, NH and London: University Press of New England, 1990), 188.


Quoted in Peter Abbs, “The Full Revelation of the Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Birth of Deep Autobiography,” Philosophy Now 68 (2008): 17–20, 18.


Rousseau, The Confessions, 606.


See Antoine Lilti, The Invention of Celebrity, trans. Lynn Jeffress (Cambridge: Polity, 2017).


Damrosch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 477.


Michel Foucault, “Introduction to Rousseau’s Dialogues.” In Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley et al. (New York: The New Press, 1998), 33–51, on 35.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 236.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 153.


Rousseau, Reveries, 1.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 3.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 3.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 7.


Tony E. Adams, Stacy Holman Jones, and Carolyn Ellis, Autoethnography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 16.


Deborah E. Reed-Danahay, “Introduction,” to Auto/Ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social (New York: Berg, 1997), 1–20.


Susanne Gannon “Autoethnography.” In The Oxford Research Encylopedia of Education, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education (2017).


Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams, Arthur P. Bochner, “Autoethnography: An Overview,” Historical Social Research 36, no. 4 (2011): 273–290, on 273.


Heewon Chang, “Individual and Collaborative Autoethnography as Method.” In Handbook of Autoethnography, eds. Stacy Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, and Carolyn Ellis (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2013), 108.


Adams, Jones, and Ellis, Autoethnography, 1–2. These bullet points are almost, but not quite, a direct quotation.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 13.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 23.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 23.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 30.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 31.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 31.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 38.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 55.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 63.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 86.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 87.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 89.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 111.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 122.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 122. The all-consuming all-or-nothing nature of J.J.’s attention has led some of J.J.’s readers to suggest he may have been affected by attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For an analysis of Rousseau by someone who is himself affected by this condition, see Richard W. Orange, “Did Rousseau Have ADHD?” Aeon (2016), The more frequent diagnosis of paranoia seems more problematic—complicated by the fact that J.J. was subjected to unreasonable persecution by, for example, Voltaire.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 132–133.


Damrosch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 478.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 136.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 139.


In James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. David Womersley (London: Penguin, 2008).


Rousseau, Dialogues, 144.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 145.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 159.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 166.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 167.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 169.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 169–170.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 170.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 170–171.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 178–179.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 182–183.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 209.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 212.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 213.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 221–222.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 225.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 230.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 230.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 234.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 234.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 240.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 245.


Rousseau, Confessions, 262.


Ellis, Adams, and Bochner, “Autoethnography,” 273.


Alice A. Deck, “Autoethnography: Zora Neale Hurlston, Noni Jabavu, and Cross-Disciplinary Discourse,” Black American Literature Forum 24, no. 2 (1990): 237–256, 247–248.


Damrosch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 478.


This point is overlooked in Alina Pop and Maroc Marzano, “Discovering the Roots of Autobiography and Autoethnography in the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” Radical Interactionism and Critiques of Contemporary Culture Studies in Symbolic Interaction 52 (2021): 73–94. They prefer to trace the roots of autoethnography to The Confessions rather than the Dialogues. Rousseau’s ideal in The Confessions and The Reveries is transparency, but that is not to say that they are rhetorically naïve. See Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).


Purdy, “Ethnographic Devices,” 32.


Purdy, “Ethnographic Devices,” 32.


Purdy, “Ethnographic Devices,” 33.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 255.


Annie Ernaux, Se Perdre (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), 42.


Annie Ernaux and Frédérik-Yves Jeannet, L’Ecriture Comme un Couteau (Paris: Stock, 2003), 90.


Ernaux and Jeannet, L’Ecriture, 145. Translations from L’Ecriture Comme un Couteau are taken from Chloë Taylor Merleau, “The Confessions of Annie Ernaux: Autobiography, Truth and Repetition,” Journal of Modern Literature 28, no. 1 (2008): 65–88, 78–79.


Rousseau, Dialogues, 118; Annie Ernaux, Journal du Dehors (Paris: Gallimard, 1993).


Rousseau, Dialogues, 118.


Michael Sheringham, French Autobiography: Devices and Desires: Rousseau to Perec (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).


Annie Ernaux, The Happening, 2nd ed., trans. Tanya Leslie (London: Fitzcarraldo, 2020), 75.


In Abbs, “Full Revelation of the Self,” 18. “The idea of ‘the writer’ transmitted by Rousseau to subsequent generations […] is of someone who puts his or her self on display for the purpose of personal witness, self-affirmation, and sociopolitical emancipation, and whose writings address themselves directly to humanity at large.” Dennis Porter, Rousseau’s Legacy: Emergence and Eclipse of the Writer in France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 12.