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In the millennial issue of the Journal of Democracy, public intellectuals from around the globe addressed issues affecting the future of democracy through the texts of Alexis de Tocqueville. The editors commented: “One may say with little exaggeration: We are all Tocquevilleans now.” This characterization is particularly true of scholars who study the emerging democratic politics of East Asia for two reasons. First, the theoretical point de départ of many of these scholars is eminently Tocquevillean. Just as Tocqueville combated the view of conservatives that France's aristocratic history and hierarchical religion rendered the French unfit for self-government, many theorists of democracy in East Asia struggle against the premise that patterns of paternalistic authority and popular dependency in Confucian societies prevent true democratization. However, just as Tocqueville also doubted that socioeconomic development would eventually bring freedom in its wake, directing attention instead to the uncertain political trajectory of transitional societies, many contemporary observers of Asian economic tigers argue that the fate of democracy in the region is unclear. Consolidating democracy, they argue, depends on contingent connections among modernization, political cultures, state structures, and political will. They are speaking Tocquevillean prose without knowing it. A second reason for Tocqueville's salience in this context arises from a different sort of conjoncture. Unlike other nineteenth-century theorists of the European democratic transition, who tend to reject both the form and dynamics of traditional cultures, Tocqueville's normative and rhetorical concerns align him in a particular way with a group of East Asian intellectuals who draw on the ghosts of the past to reorient the present. A consideration of Tocqueville's attempt to go beyond nostalgia and avoid self-delusion, I argue, may be instructive for East Asian theorists who share this hope.
Today we deliberately refer to social sciences in the plural. For much of the nineteenth century, however, writers more characteristically spoke of social science or la science sociale in the singular. Although there was perhaps as little consensus then as now on either the meaning of ‘social’ or the methods of its ‘science(s)’, there was an often unspoken agreement about the relationship of social science to politics: la science sociale would provide the master plan for a new political order. My purpose in this essay is not to canvas all the uses of social science as political blueprint, but rather to reconsider some key debates about the relationship of social science to political argument in France and England from the French Revolution, when the term science sociale became current, to the 1880s, when ‘positivism’ had come to prevail on both sides of the Channel. To this end, I will contrast the reach and resonance of the idea of ‘social science’ in two political milieux.
As Tocqueville’s writings on empire have become more available in translation, and as both Anglophone and Francophone political theorists have begun to grapple with the transnational aspects of democratic theory, scholars have increasingly puzzled over the apparent dissonance between Tocqueville’s liberal and imperial voices. How can his dedication to human freedom co-exist with his embrace of permanent colonial domination in Algeria? This essay attempts to contextualize this paradox in Tocqueville’s thought without turning historical context into an apologia.
One of the most surprising intellectual turns of the twentieth century - a phenomenon that shows no signs of abating - was the revival of interest in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville. In 1900, the French had almost forgotten Tocqueville, and Americans were beginning to find his famous portrait of early nineteenth century America of dubious relevance to their increasingly industrial immigrant nation. Yet in 2000, the Journal of Democracy asked public intellectuals to discuss issues affecting the future of democracy - the end of history, the problem of civil society, European federalism, race and ethnicity, the collapse of communism, war and foreign policy, international inequality, women and the family, even the democratic aesthetics of postmodernism - through Tocqueville's texts. The editors commented, ''one may say with little exaggeration: We are all Tocquevilleans now.'' Or, as Jon Elster has put it, “A generation ago it would have seemed absurd to see Tocqueville as the greatest political thinker of the nineteenth century. Nowadays, there is nothing unusual in this view.”
Tocqueville’s appeal has stemmed less from his ability to offer a grand theory of society and politics than from his curious role as intellectual provocateur, a writer who mysteriously appears to address the reader’s own concerns.3 Indeed, from the mid-twentieth century to the present, Tocqueville has manifested a unique power to bring certain political anxieties into sharper focus: anxieties stemming from efforts to sustain civic cultures that will support the practices of self-government; from attempts to create such cultures in unlikely circumstances; and, finally, from troubling questions about the need for unifying moral beliefs as the basis for democratic viability.
Near the end of his classic essay ''Two Concepts of Liberty,'' Isaiah Berlin struggled to deal with a verbal confusion that allegedly confounded negative liberty not with his famous concept of positive liberty but with ''her sisters, equality and fraternity.'' These, Berlin argued, are less matters of freedom than of status. For example, when members of groups denied both freedom and respect long for the emancipation of their entire nation or race or religious brotherhood, they often confuse liberty with the recognition of fraternity. Such longings, however labeled, are certainly no less explosive in the twenty-first century than they were fifty years ago. I read Tocqueville - interpreted by Berlin as well as many others primarily as a brilliant theorist of the tensions between liberty and equality - for insight into the perplexing relationship between liberty and fraternity. Here, as elsewhere, his struggles for clarity about democracy's contrary tendencies, his ambivalence, and his uneasy compromises in some ways mirror our own.
Tocqueville believed and feared that the modern world was moving not only toward equality but toward sameness – that “variety [was] vanishing from the human species.” Hence the distinctive ties that bind particular peoples called for analysis and evaluation. We see his attention to such ties not only in Democracy in America – with its seminal treatment of the different fates of Europeans, Africans, and Amerindians in the New World – but also in his political writings on European colonial slavery, imperial conquest, and the nationality question within Europe.
The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville contains a set of critical interpretive essays by internationally renowned scholars on the work of Alexis de Tocqueville. The essays cover Tocqueville's major themes (liberty, equality, democracy, despotism, civil society, religion) and texts (Democracy in America, Recollections, Old Regime and the Revolution, other important reports, speeches and letters). The authors analyze both Tocqueville's contributions as a theorist of modern democracy and his craft as a writer. Collections of secondary work on Tocqueville have tended to fall into camps, either bringing together only scholars from one point of view or discipline, or treating only one major text. This Companion transcends national, ideological, disciplinary, and textual boundaries to bring together the best in recent Tocqueville scholarship. The essays not only introduce Tocqueville's major themes and texts, but also put forward provocative arguments that advance the field of Tocqueville studies.