Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Botany:

The Salutary Science

Winner of the
University of Hong Kong - Faculty of Arts 
Research Output Prize 2012-13
The Society for the History of Natural History
John Thackray Medal 2013


Jean-Jacques Rousseau and botany: the salutary science

(Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, December 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0-7294-1055-7)

Universally studied for his writings on politics, philosophy, morality and education, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s interest in botany has been deemed a mere curiosity. In this radical reinterpretation I demonstrate how this seemingly marginal activity shaped and was shaped by his philosophy.

Rousseau’s botanical project was informed by his belief in the superiority of nature over artifice – a principle illustrated in his famous Lettres élémentaires sur la botanique, in which he used the ‘natural method’ of plant classification, a ground-breaking system which would eventually triumph over rival systems. Based on a wide range of original sources, I trace and re-assess Rousseau’s botanical education, the complex history of his plant collections, and his participation in scientific correspondence networks. I also reveal how his botanical writings were manipulated and misinterpreted following his death.

In this richly illustrated study, supported by inventories of his botanical library, correspondents and herbaria, I provide an unprecedented insight into Rousseau’s study and practice of botany. Not simply an intellectual pursuit, it became part of his physical and psychological self-discipline, a precursor to today’s ‘environmental therapy

Table of Contents



1. The ‘remède dans le mal’
2. Rousseau’s Botany: The chemical background
3. Helvetia mediatrix: the atmosphere of eighteenth-century Swiss science
4. Patriotism in a new key: Rousseau encounters Neuchâtel botany
5. Sex, plants and classification
6. ‘Se tracer un plan à sa guise’: Rousseau and the natural method
7. Modes of mediation: botanical books and binomial names
8. The herbarium as boundary object
9. A forged legacy: the strange fates of Rousseau’s botanical works
10. Reading Rousseau on botany at the end of nature

Appendix 1: Rousseau’s botanical sources
Appendix 2: Rousseau’s botanical correspondents and contacts
Appendix 3: Rousseau’s herbaria: summary table



Dr Cook’s scholarship is impressive. Her interpretation of Rousseau’s taxonomic views, how they developed and how (and why) they have been distorted by later commentators, is original and compelling.

Comment from the John Thackray Medal award panel (April 2014)

The work of Alexandra Cook brings an original contribution not only to the botany of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but also to the profound significance that it has for his entire body of thought. Particularly important is the recognition of the philosophical and mystical significance of Rousseau’s botany, as this constitutes an essential contribution to the understanding of his oeuvre.


Philippe Roch, PhD in biochemistry, CEO of the World Wide Fund for Nature Switzerland (1977-1992), Director of the Swiss Federal Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape (1992-2005). (May 2013)

My overall sense is that this is a very rare and important book that will be read widely and that will finally draw attention to the scientific work of a major European philosopher. I think it will prove invaluable for the historian of science, for the Rousseau scholar and for historians of 18th century Europe. It is beautifully written, well organized, and its scholarship is superb.


Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, Distinguished Alumni Professor 2009-2011, Professor, History of Science Departments of Biology and History, University of Florida. (May 2013)

Her scholarship, her perspective on history of science, and her ambition to clarify Rousseau’s botany in the light of his philosophy makes the work of Alexandra Cook a solid and novel historical documentation of the subject, making this ‘science aimable’ (pleasant science) that the Philosophe cultivated with passion, understandable in our era.

Claire Jaquier, Professor at the Institute for French Literature, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland (July 2013)

Alexandra Cook’s very detailed, scrupulous and extensive work establishes a new foundation for further development of the philosophical study of nature in Rousseau’s work beyond botany and its importance for the ecological transition that we have to achieve.

Philippe Roch, PhD in biochemistry, CEO of the World Wide Fund for Nature Switzerland (1977-1992), Director of the Swiss Federal Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape (1992-2005). (May 2013)

​How did Rousseau's emotions and philosophical and, indeed, religious passions, as well as his general psychology, make him an enthusiastic and skilled amateur botanist on the frontier of a near-professional expertise? Alexandra has reconstructed this intricate story with what seems to me consummate skill.. [...] Seen from my perspective as a specialist on the environmental history of China, now retired and working on plant science in late seventeenth-century Europe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Botany is a rare and extraordinary venture into a known, but difficult and therefore little-practiced sub-discipline: the historically shifting psychology of science….It is a fascinating portrait, and to see it properly drawn and painted, with its full complexities, you will of course have to read the book….

Mark Elvin, Professor Emeritus, Australian National University and Emeritus Fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford (January 2013)

Last updated May 2016

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