A “general will” is a philosophical and psychological contradiction in terms; will is a conception understandable, if at all, only in terms of individual actions. The problem cannot be glossed over by attempting to reduce the general will—as did T. H. Green—to a “common ego,” or to an analogical forerunner of Kant's pure practical reason. Why, then, did Rousseau make so unviable an idea the center of his political theory, and why has that idea continued to receive serious attention?
The general will has continued to be taken seriously because it is an attempted (though not explicit) amalgam of two extremely important traditions of political thought, which may be called, roughly, ancient “cohesiveness” and modern “voluntarism.” Political thought since the 17th century has been characterized, among other things, by voluntarism, by an emphasis on the assent of individuals as the standard of political legitimacy. One certainly finds this in many of the most important thinkers between Hobbes and Kant; and even Hegel, while scarcely an “atomistic individualist” or a contractarian, explicitly argued that while “in the states of antiquity the subjective end simply coincided with the state's will,” in modern times “we make claims for private judgment, private willing, and private conscience.” When a political decision is to be made, Hegel continued, “an ‘I will’ must be pronounced by man himself.” This “I will,” he thought, must have an “appropriate objective existence” in the person of a monarch; “in a well-organized monarchy, the objective aspect belongs to law alone, and the monarch's part is merely to set to the law the subjective ‘I will’.” If even Hegel allows this voluntarist turn in his own non-contractarian theory, it goes without saying that all of social contract theory can be seen as the supreme example of voluntaristic ideas.