Avram Alpert

Andrew W. Mellon Graduate Fellow in the Humanities

20112012 Forum on Adaptations

Avram Alpert

Comparative Literature

Rousseau's Modernity

My dissertation project seeks to understand how Zen Buddhism became such a key component of American cultural and intellectual life since the 1950s. The first chapter argues that much of its impact comes from issues relating to alienation from civilization which are most powerfully formulated in Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. By showing how the knowledge of the "New World" changed the history of thought, Rousseau's work is a fundamental example of how adaptation to new circumstances can cause a conceptual revolution. In the Discourse, Rousseau argued that primitive life had certain superiorities to contemporary civilization, but that Europeans were now helplessly cut off from that life. Rousseau did not think that we should return to earlier forms of society. Rather, he helped initiate a modern project which declared the necessity for human society to adapt to a world which was alienated from instinctual ways of being (a problem to which Zen would provide a near perfect answer). Using as an example the definition of modernity found in Foucault's essay, "What is Enlightenment?" I argue that Rousseau is a hidden but fundamental interlocutor for such prominent conceptions of the modern.