Tocqueville the particularist

I believe that: 1) moral knowledge is irreducibly experiential and particularistic; hence 2) efforts to replace moral judgment with general methods and principles cannot succeed; and thus 3) we need democratic deliberation by people who also have diverse practical experiences.

The particularistic part of this argument (1)  seems an overlooked element in Alexis de Tocqueville’s political philosophy. Consider vol. 2, book 1, chapter 3 of Democracy in America:

THE deity does not regard the human race collectively. He surveys at one glance and severally all the beings of whom mankind is composed; and he discerns in each man the resemblances that assimilate him to all his fellows, and the differences that distinguish him from them. God, therefore, stands in no need of general ideas. …

Such, however, is not the case with man. If the human mind were to attempt to examine and pass a judgment on all the individual cases before it, the immensity of detail would soon lead it astray and it would no longer see anything. [So people are forced to generalize, but …]

General ideas are no proof of the strength, but rather of the insufficiency of the human intellect; for there are in nature no beings exactly alike, no things precisely identical, no rules indiscriminately and alike applicable to several objects at once.

De Tocqueville is not quick to connect particularistic thinking and democracy. Quite the contrary; he presumes that democracy encourages the habit of hasty generalization:

In the ages of equality all men are independent of each other, isolated, and weak. The movements of the multitude are not permanently guided by the will of any individuals; at such times humanity seems always to advance of itself. In order, therefore, to explain what is passing in the world, man is driven to seek for some great causes, which, acting in the same manner on all our fellow creatures, thus induce them all voluntarily to pursue the same track. This again naturally leads the human mind to conceive general ideas and superinduces a taste for them. … When I repudiate the traditions of rank, professions, and birth …, I am inclined to derive the motives of my opinions from human nature itself, and this leads me necessarily, and almost unconsciously, to adopt a great number of very general notions.

His leading example is his own people, the French, who are both egalitarian and prone to quick generalization and abstract thinking. But the Americans are an exception (chap. 4):

This difference between the Americans and the French originates in several causes, but principally in the following one. The Americans are a democratic people who have always directed public affairs themselves. The French are a democratic people who for a long time could only speculate on the best manner of conducting them. The social condition of the French led them to conceive very general ideas on the subject of government, while their political constitution prevented them from correcting those ideas by experiment and from gradually detecting their insufficiency; whereas in America the two things constantly balance and correct each other.

I am not interested in distinctions between French and American people, but in the ideal model that de Tocqueville attributed to the United States of his time. Because Americans made relatively few social distinctions, and great masses of people could vote on legislation, they were in danger of embracing general ideas that would distort reality. Indeed, this has been a recurrent frailty of our political culture. However, because we Americans “direct public affairs ourselves,” we learn to accommodate our general principles to complex reality. Denying Americans the right to participate directly–for instance, by dramatically limiting the role of juries in criminal law or, in general, by over-empowering an expert class–will make Americans worse at thinking and judging.

This entry was posted in philosophy on by .

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.