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Tocqueville and the Challenge of Historicism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 July 2014


Tocqueville's juxtaposition of aristocracy and democracy as the regimes characteristic of different historical periods gives rise to the question whether he accepts or rejects the category of human nature. In the juxtaposition of the distinct “worlds” of aristocracy and democracy and their respective conceptions of “man,” some perceive an implicit rejection of the idea of a universal human nature. Others, however, see an attempt to portray human nature comprehensively by highlighting the truth of both aristocratic inequality and democratic equality. While generally endorsing this latter interpretation, the essay maintains that most of its variants are too “democratic” in two respects. First, they underestimate the difficulties Tocqueville must confront in establishing the naturalness of the equality principle, and second, they wrongly insist that he understands nature to privilege the democratic principle. Tocqueville ultimately defends the naturalness of equality, but his claims about the greater justice of the equality principle should be understood as rhetorical rather than as reflective of his conclusions about nature.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2014 

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1 Manent, Pierre, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, trans. Waggoner, John (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996)Google Scholar, 75; see also Ceaser, James W., “Alexis de Tocqueville on Political Science, Political Culture, and the Role of the Intellectual,” American Political Science Review 79 (1985): 661–62Google Scholar; Zetterbaum, Marvin, “Tocqueville: Neutrality and the Use of History,” American Political Science Review 58 (1964): 619–20Google Scholar; and Lawler, Peter Augustine, The Restless Mind: Alexis de Tocqueville on the Origin and Perpetuation of Human Liberty (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993), 5966Google Scholar.

2 See, e.g., Kahan, Alan S., Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 9293Google Scholar, 109, though cf. 97; Masugi, Ken, “Citizens and Races: Natural Rights versus History,” in Tocqueville's Defense of Human Liberty: Current Essays, ed. Alulis, Joseph and Lawler, Peter Augustine (New York: Garland, 1993)Google Scholar, 326, 328; West, Thomas G., “Misunderstanding the American Founding,” in Interpreting Tocqueville's “Democracy in America,” ed. Masugi, Ken (Savage, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991), 155, 161–72Google Scholar; and Zuckert, Michael P., “On Social State,” in Tocqueville's Defense of Human Liberty, ed. Lawler, Alulis and, esp. 710.Google Scholar

3 See especially Tocqueville's introduction and conclusion to Democracy: de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America, trans. Mansfield, Harvey C. and Winthrop, Delba (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 315, 673–76Google Scholar. Unless otherwise noted, all translations of Democracy are those of Mansfield and Winthrop. Parenthetical references are by page to this edition, henceforward abbreviated DA. See also de Tocqueville, Alexis, The Old Regime and the Revolution, trans. Kahan, Alan S., vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)Google Scholar, esp. “Preface” and Book I. The essay will focus on DA because it is there that Tocqueville thematizes the idea of democracy and hence the idea of equality. To provide an adequate delineation of the democratic idea, it is necessary that he develop, albeit to a lesser extent, its foil: the idea of aristocracy. The relevance of this contrast to the question whether Tocqueville is a historicist will become apparent as the essay develops.

4 For a good introduction to the concept of historicism, see Beiser, Frederick, “Historicism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, ed. Leiter, Brian and Rosen, Michael (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 155–79Google Scholar. Note especially Beiser's discussion of the “two fundamental principles of historicism”: the “autonomy of the socio-political world” and the “complete historicization of the human world” (158).

5 DA, 3–15, 673–76; see also Mansfield and Winthrop, introduction to DA, xxvi; and Lamberti, Jean-Claude, Tocqueville and the Two Democracies, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989)Google Scholar, 25n79.

6 Or more precisely, in the case of aristocracy, specific kinds of human beings.

7 DA, 6; see also Tocqueville, Old Regime, 1:106–7.

8 DA, 476; see 588 for a similar remark. The characteristics and capacities identified as “natural” to man include the following: the “taste” for material well being; a basic sense of justice and morality; the desire for honor; an appreciation for sentiments of mildness and familiarity, especially in the context of family life; and the religious instinct (282–88, 506, 558–63, 589).

9 For example, there is considerable disagreement regarding what facilitates the transition from aristocracy to democracy. Salomon, Albert stresses the role of Providence (“Tocqueville's Philosophy of Freedom: A Trend towards Concrete Sociology,” Review of Politics 1 [Oct. 1939]: 410Google Scholar), Swedberg, Richard the idea of a philosophy of history (Tocqueville's Political Economy [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009]Google Scholar, 15, 17), and Lamberti the role of accident and chance (Tocqueville and the Two Democracies, 10). Of course, the notion that accident and chance contributed to the decline of aristocracy and the emergence of equality of conditions is also compatible with Tocqueville's having a conception of human nature. See Zetterbaum, “Neutrality,” 611–21; Gargan, Edward T., “Tocqueville and the Problem of Historical Prognosis,” American Historical Review 68 (1963): 332–45Google Scholar.

10 Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 74–75; Zetterbaum, “Neutrality,” 619–20.

11 Zetterbaum, “Neutrality,” 614; cf. Mansfield and Winthrop, introduction to DA, xlvii.

12 Eden, Robert, “Tocqueville and the Problem of Natural Right,” Interpretation 17 (Spring 1990): 379–87Google Scholar; Lawler, Restless Mind, esp. chaps. 6–7; Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, esp. 67–81; and Zetterbaum, “Neutrality,” 620–21.

13 Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 78–79; Zetterbaum, “Neutrality,” 621.

14 For Tocqueville's claims regarding the greater justice of the democratic principle, see, e.g., DA, 675; and Tocqueville, “L'état social et politique de la France avant et depuis 1789,” in Oeuvres, ed. François Furet and Françoise Mélonio, vol. 3 (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), 36.

15 Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 13.

16 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, “On the Social Contract,” in The Basic Political Writings, trans. Cress, Donald A. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1987)Google Scholar, 150.

17 DA, 8–9, 675; Zetterbaum, “Neutrality,” 611.

18 E.g., Swedberg, Tocqueville's Political Economy, 15, 17; Salomon, “Tocqueville's Philosophy of Freedom,” 410.

19 This would be true, for instance, of all the authors mentioned in note 2 above. The term “organic” is Ceaser's, though I use it in a sense that implies only development, not the necessary development of an idea in accordance with its own internal logic (Ceaser, “Tocqueville on Political Science,” 659–62). In a more recent article, Ceaser outlines Tocqueville's rhetorical use of “organic” historical narratives in a way that is not inconsistent with his being committed to an understanding of nature (Ceaser, James W., “Alexis de Tocqueville and the Two-Founding Thesis,” Review of Politics 73 [2011]: 221–27, 235–43Google Scholar).

20 Lamberti, Tocqueville and the Two Democracies, 10; see also Gargan, “Problem of Historical Prognosis,” 335; Burrage, Michael, “On Tocqueville's Notion of the Irresistibility of Democracy,” European Journal of Sociology 35 (May 1972): 158–59Google Scholar; and Lively, Jack, The Social and Political Thought of Alexis de Tocqueville (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962)Google Scholar, 33.

21 See, e.g., Lamberti, Tocqueville and the Two Democracies, 46; Masugi, “Citizens and Races,” 330, 332; West, “Misunderstanding the American Founding,” 166, 172; and Zuckert, “On Social State,” 7.

22 Zuckert, “On Social State,” 8. According to Zuckert, Tocqueville does identify “egoism” or “self-interest” as a persistent and universal human trait. This trait is, however, “under-determined,” and its expression varies according to the social state (9, 14). This underdetermination is so profound and the shaping effects of the social state so powerful that the content of Tocqueville's self-interested self is in fact determined entirely by the social state (14). Thus, the “malleability” of what Tocqueville recognizes as a persistent, universal human characteristic is such that he cannot be said to defend a conception of human nature (7–8, 15). My interpretation suggests that Tocqueville's understanding of nature is sufficiently robust to afford us resources for critically evaluating the way of life and dominant ideas associated with any particular social state. See Zuckert, “On Social State,” 17, for some gestures toward the difficulty of reconciling Tocqueville's “emphasis on the social state” and “reconsideration of nature” with his abiding concern for liberty.

23 Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism, 93.

24 Individualism is the tendency of the democratic individual to abandon public concerns and his fellow citizens by “withdraw[ing]” to the private sphere (DA, 482–84). Democratic despotism consists in the well-intentioned but ultimately enervating and dehumanizing rule of a centralized administration over formally free but weak citizens (661–65).

25 Tocqueville, Old Regime, 1:107.

26 Cf. Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism, 97–98.

27 Gargan, “Problem of Historical Prognosis,” 342, quoting Tocqueville, , Souvenirs, ed. Monnier, Luc (Paris: Gallimard, 1942)Google Scholar, 72.

28 Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 74–75; Zetterbaum, “Neutrality,” 619–20. It has been noted that Democracy has many of the features of “democratic history” to which Tocqueville objects. In addition to the promulgation of a grand historical narrative, it is noticeably empty of particular individuals with proper names (see, e.g., Welch, Cheryl, De Tocqueville [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001]Google Scholar, 150). The essay suggests why Tocqueville might have engaged in writing democratic history, despite its many shortcomings, but one should not overlook the fact that Democracy also defends particularity and the importance of particular individuals, albeit in somewhat general terms.

29 DA, 471. My discussion stresses Tocqueville's quasi-empirical objections to the explanatory power of democratic and aristocratic historians' hypotheses, but Tocqueville also expresses moral concerns regarding democratic history in particular. More specifically, he is concerned with the inimical effect on man's spirit of historical narration that denies free will by suggesting that, “without knowing it, societies obey a superior, dominating force.” By arguing that a nation's “position,” “origin,” “antecedents,” or “nature” inalterably binds it to a particular “destiny,” these historians “subject” peoples “either to an inflexible providence or to a sort of blind fatality.” Even if true, a possibility Tocqueville considers unlikely but leaves open, such hypotheses imperil human freedom by denying that individuals or peoples can so much as resist the bent of their epoch (471–72).

30 See note 12 above for references.

31 DA, 431; see also 170, where Tocqueville claims that aristocratic and democratic “instincts” or “passions” have always divided men in free societies into two great parties.

32 Aristotle, , The Politics, rev. ed., trans. Sinclair, T. A. (London: Penguin Books, 1981)Google Scholar, 1279a35–38, 1294a9–28.

33 Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 77–78.

34 Aristotle, Politics 1294a21.

35 See DA, 428–72, for Tocqueville's comparison of the various realms of aristocratic and democratic intellectual life and culture.

36 While there is no natural right for some to rule others, Tocqueville does maintain that there are circumstances in which the politically experienced and enlightened ought to rule the less politically experienced and less enlightened. Despite his claim that the white race in America was superior in civilization and enlightenment to the black and Indian races, Tocqueville does not advance this argument in Democracy (302–7). Rather, it is in his writings on Algeria that he attempts to justify the subjugation and political domination of one nation by another he perceives as politically liberal and administratively competent (Richard Boyd, “Tocqueville's Algeria,” Society 38 [Sept.–Oct. 2001]: 67). Here, Tocqueville says much that is illiberal, describing as “unfortunate” various harsh measures (e.g., “burn[ing] harvests,” “empty[ing] silos,” and “seiz[ing] unarmed men, women, and children”) that he considers necessary for the French to subdue the Arab portion of the Algerian population (Tocqueville, , “Essay on Algeria,” in Writings on Empire and Slavery, ed. and trans. Pitts, Jennifer [Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001]Google Scholar, 70). Melvin Richter provides the classic articulation of the claim that such illiberalism cannot be reconciled with Democracy (Richter, , “Tocqueville on Algeria,” Review of Politics 25 [July 1963]: 362–98Google Scholar). More recently, Jennifer Pitts has explored the complexities of Tocqueville's thoughts on Algeria within the larger framework of his views on liberalism and empire. One reason Tocqueville supported the colonization of Algeria was his belief that France “needed a grand undertaking” or “project” that would energize and unite its citizens, providing “an antidote” to the political lethargy that affects centralized liberal states in particular (Pitts, Jennifer, “Democracy and Domination: Empire, Slavery, and Democratic Corruption in Tocqueville's Thought,” in Tocqueville and the Frontiers of Democracy, ed. Atanassow, Ewa and Boyd, Richard [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013]Google Scholar, 250). Additionally, Tocqueville was initially hopeful that the French settlement of Algeria would prove a successful experiment in self-government for the French settlers and that over time and through intermarriage, the French and Arabs might coexist peacefully. Although these initial hopes were quickly dashed, Tocqueville continued to adhere to the colonization project as a source of both glory and unity for France despite concerns about the increasing violence of the situation (Pitts, Jennifer, “Empire and Democracy: Tocqueville and the Algeria Question,” Journal of Political Philosophy 8 [Sept. 2000]: 299300Google Scholar; Pitts, “Democracy and Domination,” 250–51). For a collection that includes Tocqueville's major writings on Algeria, including his 1841 “Essay on Algeria,” see Writings on Empire and Slavery. For additional commentary on Tocqueville and Algeria, see Veugelers, John W. P., “Tocqueville on the Conquest and Colonization of Algeria,” Journal of Sociology 10 (Nov. 2010): 339–55Google Scholar; and Welch, Cheryl B., “Colonial Violence and the Rhetoric of Evasion: Tocqueville on Algeria,” Political Theory 31 (April 2003): 235–64Google Scholar.

37 West, “Misunderstanding the American Founding,” 176.

38 Tocqueville, “The Emancipation of Slaves,” in Writings on Empire and Slavery, 207.

39 Generally speaking, I am more concerned that an idea, passion, or instinct be general or natural than with the way in which it is general or natural. However, for a discussion of subtle distinctions in Tocqueville's use of the term “natural,” see Welch, De Tocqueville, 168–72. Carl Scott draws on Welch in helpfully surveying Tocqueville's treatment of the “natural” (Scott, “The Inconstant Democratic Character: A Comparison of Plato's Republic and Tocqueville's Democracy in America” [PhD diss., Fordham University, 2009], 292–93).

40 DA, 589 with n1. While the desire for honor is universal, notions of honor differ across societies. The most fundamental distinction, however, is between notions of honor that win one the esteem of other members of the “vast human association” and notions of honor that win one the esteem of a particular society or class (ibid.). It should be noted that the desire for both kinds of honor is in some sense aristocratic, as both involve the desire for recognition and acknowledgment of one's distinctiveness. On this latter point, see Scott, “Inconstant Democratic Character,” 298.

41 DA, 306–7, 558–63. Note also the pleasant, dehumanizing “mildness” of democratic despotism (661–65).

42 For Tocqueville's treatment of the democratic family, including his comparison between it and the aristocratic family, see DA, 558–63. See Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 69–70, 71–74, and 87–88, for his respective discussions of the family, universal notions of honor and morality, and the naturalness of religious belief.

43 Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 69–70.

44 Lawler, Restless Mind, 128. Tocqueville's discussion of funeral mounds is an important mediation on the theme of mortality (DA, 26).

45 I borrow this language from Lawler, who argues that Tocqueville endorses the view that Christianity is the source of our acquaintance with the soul's “spiritual depths.” While this does amount to a version of the “historical” interpretation, it is a rather mild one. On Lawler's view, there is such a thing as human nature for Tocqueville, but such is partially latent or submerged until the advent of Christianity. The advent of Christianity precipitates more of an epistemological shift than an ontological one, though the latter does occur to a certain extent. As the essay suggests, I think that Tocqueville is more determined than Lawler allows to show that “humanity” could have been discovered, in principle, prior to the birth of Christianity. See Lawler, Restless Mind, 128.

46 Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 70.

47 Additionally, Tocqueville implicitly acknowledges the limitations of relying on sentimental evidence as indicative of anything about the moral status of human beings—a key difference with Rousseau to which Manent does not speak. Tocqueville does say that sentiments of mildness and familiarity offer confirmation of equality's naturalness, and he further suggests that such “attachments” and “bond[s] of affection” are signs of nature's “striving” to bring together those separated by “prejudices and laws” (DA, 307). Nevertheless, while he is happy to affirm humane psychological attachments where they exist, Tocqueville would not have us make too much of sentiment, which has often been unmoved by human suffering (e.g., 536–38). Moreover, because he lacks Rousseau's state-of-nature optic (Mansfield and Winthrop, introduction to DA, xxvii), such insensitivity cannot be understood merely as an effect of civilization and hence less natural than mildness.

48 In part, Tocqueville is attempting to defend the universal and ahistorical character of the “material well-being” standard discussed above.

49 Slavery might in principle and practice support a regime of vigorous aristocrats, but it also permits the master to be a slave to his passions, with the result that aristocracies supported by slavery might well be regimes of indolence. Even when one has a vigorous aristocracy, Tocqueville's analysis suggests that the economic dynamism of democracies affords them a comparative advantage. I thank Jeremy Mhire for raising this objection.

50 See, e.g., Grotius, Hugo, De jure belli ac pacis libri tres, trans. Kelsey, Francis W. et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925)Google Scholar, esp. book 3, chapter 8.

51 I borrow both the language and structure of John Dunn's critique of Peter Laslett's contention that human equality is a “matter” of “common sense.” They are speaking in the context of John Locke's thought. See Dunn, , The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the “Two Treatises of Government” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969)Google Scholar, 99, quoting Laslett, editor's introduction to Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960)Google Scholar, 93.

52 West, “Misunderstanding the American Founding,” 162.

53 For example, Masugi and West claim that Tocqueville's defense of equality and condemnation of slavery are not grounded in an understanding of nature, but are instead rooted in a sociologically sensitive pragmatism, i.e., in history (Masugi, “Citizens and Races,” 326, 328, 328n23; West, “Misunderstanding the American Founding,” 155, 161–62). Rather than arguing boldly and directly for “natural standards,” Masugi states, Tocqueville merely draws attention to the negative “consequences” of rejecting such standards (326). In doing so, he neglects the self-evident truth of the democratic principle, which is, claims West, “a precise deduction from a rational insight” about human nature (161–62). On my interpretation, West and Masugi miss the significance of Tocqueville's overt appeals to “consequences” in the case of slavery, which point toward an understanding of nature. Eduardo Nolla provides useful references and discussion related to Tocqueville's primarily economic arguments against slavery (Democracy in America / De la Démocratie en Amerique, ed. Nolla, , trans. Schleifer, James T. [Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2009], 561n)Google Scholar.

54 See references in previous note. Tocqueville is less confident than Masugi and West about the obviousness of natural equality, but an additional reason he might have hesitated to argue directly for modern natural rights was his belief that introducing them directly into political life could in certain circumstances be dangerous. See Ceaser, “Tocqueville and the Two-Founding Thesis,” 223, 237–38, 240–41.

55 Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 78–79; Zetterbaum, “Neutrality,” 621.

56 Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 79.

57 Ibid.

58 Ibid., 78.

59 For a paradigmatic account of the modern view, see Locke, John's critique of natural species in An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Nidditch, Peter H. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975)Google Scholar, esp. II. 23 and III.6.

60 Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 71–74; Zetterbaum, “Neutrality,” 621.

61 Tocqueville, “L'état social et politique de la France,” 36 (translation mine).

62 Ibid., 35 (translation mine).

63 Quite the contrary; see DA, 379–84.

64 In Democracy, Tocqueville suggests that the mixed regime is a “chimera,” for in every society “one principle of action . . . dominates all the others” (DA, 240). Although he insists that it is impossible to instantiate the perfectly mixed regime in real political life, one should not lose sight of the fact that he also insists that justice requires the aristocratic and democratic principles to be combined to some degree in actual political regimes. The particular configuration of principles will vary according to the circumstances, but my analysis suggests that approximating the mixed regime is probably the Tocquevillian ideal. In a democratic age, for example, one must support the aristocratic principle to the extent possible (see, e.g., DA, 251–58, 450–52, 469–72, 489–92, 599–604).