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RS41 - Robert Zaretsky on Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding

Release date: August 14, 2011

Imagine a time when a dispute between two philosophers was the talk of high society. That is the time that our guest, Robert Zarertsky, describes in his book "The Philosophers' Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding." He tells the story of the short and dramatic friendship between Hume and Rousseau. Hume, who championed the progress of the sciences and arts, and Rousseau, who questioned progress, wondering whether it was just another word for moral decay and despair. He also discusses the implications their friendship may have had on the Enlightenment's conceptions of reason and human understanding.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College and the Department of History. He has published several books about philosophy and history of philosophy.

Robert's pick: "How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer".

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Reader Comments (14)

Please have more guests like this!

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSam Ogden

An interesting topic and I'm sure Prof Zaretsky has some valuable insights. The problem is that the man is not a public speaker. I listened to the podcast for approximately 20 minutes and had to stop because it was littered with a series of Uhm Uhms throughout. I think he was averaging between 12-15 a minute at one point. Example sentence at 13:29 in the podcast: "Uhm, but the elders in Geneva didnt want him there either because they were incensed Uhm... by a chapter in a meal Uhm, Uhm, Uhm...the one that is often read today is an excerpt on Uhm.. the faith of a Salliard vicar Uhm, you know, they were appalled".

Again, I'm sure it was an interesting topic, and I'm sorry I ended up fixated on the man's idiosyncratic speech pattern but it ruined the podcast for me.

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteremjayvan

What a fantastic episode! This is an extremely interesting behind-the-scenes look at Rousseau and Hume and the brief intersection of their lives. Zaretsky's discussion of Hume's take on skepticism at the very end of the program was excellent and would be worth expanding into an entire episode. Yes, Zaretsky may have been nervous at times, but the content was so good that this was easily overlooked. It's extremely rewarding to listen in on a discussion with a guest who is obviously very knowledgeable and very passionate about the subject matter. Thank you!!

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHylas

Unfortunately, I think this wasn't your best episode. I have no doubt that Robert Zarertsky is very smart and has interesting things to say, and maybe in the book he is much more engaging but this episode sounded like a chat in a bar, and not a serious discussion on the philosophy of Hume and Rousseau. You all jump from onr anecdote to another, endlessly talking about how each one move from place to place, but not so much talking about their work. It add little knowledge about both of them unfortunately.

August 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGil

I was a bit confused about Professor Zaretsky's reference to Derbyshire being in the North of England. It is true that it is just in the "top half" fo the country, but it doesn't really seem to be a useful categorization. Is the relevance of Derbyshire that Rousseau's house was several days travel from the country's capital and that he may have been robbed, or killed, by highwayman travelling to and fro or was the point that the local people had strong local dialects and were hard for outsiders to understand, although Professor Zaretsky also said that Rousseau did not speak English anyway.

August 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

This podcast is utterly awesome so far. I'm so glad to find this website. I feel like I just struck a gold mine of discussion and knowledge.

"emjayvan" No one is impressed by your smug, snub-nosed trolling. Go fuck yourself. (too lazy to respond kindly :D)

August 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChance

The irony of your insulting remark appearing below a podcast called "Rationally Speaking" probably doesn't need explaining. But I am sorry my comments got you so upset as that was not my intention.

August 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteremjayvan


I agree with you, the podcast was very difficult to listen to because of the "ums". This goes well beyond not being a public speaker. The guy is a professor, which I presume means that he teaches classes, so he doesn't have much excuse not to be a more polished presenter of his ideas. It must drive his students absolutely mad. I had one teacher that tacked on an "OK" at the end of every sentence and I wrote it up on the evaluation at the end of the semester. The next time I had this teacher for a course, not one "OK" from beginning to end. These are nervous tics that can be unlearned.

Overall, I found this podcast less interesting than the ones that just have Julie and Massimo; there is normally much more back and forth between them, rather than listening to one person talk for long stretches of time.

August 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres

Having only now read the comments on my interview with Massimo and Julia, I’d like to add my two cents. First, I agree wholeheartedly with my critics: when I listened to the podcast, I, too, was shocked by the countless “uhs” and “ums.” Heaven knows I am not the most eloquent speaker, but I don’t “skip” like this in everyday conversation, class lectures, other interviews, or, for that matter, the many broadcasts I’ve done on Engines of our Ingenuity, a radio show done at KUHF, the NPR affiliate in Houston.

Why all the “uhs” and “ums” then? I suspect it was the medium: in this case, Skype. I had never before used the computer program and found myself in the novel situation of speaking to my computer screen. The fact that the visual element was strictly one-way compounded my unease: as there was no Webcam in NY, I did not see either Massimo or Julia. Instead I was condemned to watching myself as my spoke with my interlocutors. By way of experiment, I’d like to have the listeners of the podcast attempt to hold a lengthy conversation with someone else while bolted in front of a mirror. It is a disconcerting experience—or, at least, it was very much so for me.

Ironically, this experience is a condensation of all those characteristics of the modern age that so disturbed Rousseau. It is precisely this critique of modernity I had hoped to convey in the conversation with my hosts. And I deliberately chose the word “conversation.” The other criticism of the podcast, it seems, was its “chatty” character. Here, too, I am guilty as charged. But the difference, this time, is that I welcome the accusation. My understanding of the philosophical life is not, I suppose, as exigent and abstract as that of my critics. Rather than dissecting the elements to the thought of Hume and Rousseau, I took the occasion offered by my hosts to try and show (rather than tell) how the lives of these two men reflected their thought. For those of you who found the result shallow and slightly less compelling than “Hume in 90 Minutes,” I clearly failed. While I apologize for the verbal tics, I will not apologize for my approach.

August 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Zaretsky

Thanks for the reply professor. I agree, the ups and ahs made the podcast hard to listen too. I think that Julia and Massimo are at fault though. As moderators they could have informed your of the "ticks.* I think they could have also stopped the show and started over with a little more direction (is the show aired live?). Anyway, interesting show.

August 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterzubarsky

This podcast is the one I've listened to about 3 times again and again! The story is so breathtaking.. It really gave me food for thoughts! I even tried to write essays about the problems that are discussed here in this podcast! Professor Zaretsky is a wonderful person! For sure!

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrenda Arnold

The link to the guest's pick seems to point to the wrong page.

I appreciate the historical anecdotes between Hume, Rousseau, and Voltaire. I find them quite entertaining and interesting.

February 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNick Turner
Hopefully reason will continue to overcome superstition.

Very interesting true story about not only the philosophy of the enlightenment and romantics, but also their personal lives.
January 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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