Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction

Oxford University Press, 2010.


In view of Tocqueville’s criticisms of philosophy, it may seem paradoxical and presumptuous to call him a philosopher. But he calls himself a “new kind of liberal,” and he sets forth a new liberalism that he has rethought. In Democracy in America he criticizes materialist philosophy for encouraging democracy’s habit of finding nothing in life but material pleasure and for depriving it of the pride excited by religion. In The Old Regime he criticizes rationalist philosophy for seeking systems of reform without caring about liberty. It is not hard to see the two philosophies as aspects of the modern political philosophy that is the source of liberalism: materialism for the sake of reform rather than resignation to the inevitable, and rationalism for the material improvement of life rather than contemplation. Now in the Recollections [Souvenirs] Tocqueville displays the pride he wants to add to liberalism, his own somewhat rueful pride, in an account of the Revolution of 1848 in France, which he witnessed and acted in. It is an account of failure, so hardly a triumph of pride. But it is also instructive to philosophers who fancy themselves statesmen and to citizens who let themselves be inspired by philosophers.

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