The Politics of the Particular: Tocqueville’'s Critique of Rationalism

28 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2012 Last revised: 25 Sep 2012

Date Written: 2012


Since the publication of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville’s readers have debated the nature of his political allegiances, with critics on both the right and left attempting to claim him as a partisan. In this paper, I reassess an aspect of Tocqueville’s work frequently cited as evidence of his conservative sympathies: his criticism of a “philosophic method” he thought peculiar to democracies, one grounded on the belief that “everything in the world can be explained and that nothing passes beyond the limits of intelligence.”I refer to this as Tocqueville’s critique of rationalism. My driving concern is not that conservative interpretations of Tocqueville’s critique of rationalism are misleading — though I believe that, generally, they are — but that they have tended to short-circuit a potentially fruitful discussion about Tocqueville’s insights into the uses and abuses of different modes of political thinking. This paper lays the groundwork for such a discussion by offering an alternative to conservative readings of Tocqueville’s critique of rationalism.

My argument proceeds as follows. I begin the paper by offering a basic sketch of Tocqueville’s critique of rationalism, attempting to draw together its various aspects while avoiding the more controversial interpretative claims that I deal with later in the paper. I then go on to examine some of the ways in which Tocqueville’s critique of rationalism has been taken to support more or less conservative readings of his work, drawing out common themes in these accounts. Specifically, I argue, Tocqueville’s conservative readers tend to assume that he opposes rationalism because it fosters a pernicious sort of free thinking that undermines the stabilizing force of established opinions and existing institutions. Next, I challenge these readings by showing that Tocqueville’s critique of rationalism is compatible (and intentionally so) with far-reaching social criticism and political reform. I argue that we should read Tocqueville’s critique of rationalism as part of a larger effort to defend a mode of critical political thought that aims to enliven and preserve independent judgment rather than limit it. I then raise another problem for conservative readings of Tocqueville’s critique of rationalism by showing that this critique is not intended to be categorical. Otherwise put, I argue that Tocqueville does not mean to reject rationalism completely but merely to indicate its proper role as one particular mode of political thinking. I conclude that once we recast Tocqueville’s critique of rationalism in the terms I propose, we can better see both how it informs his reflections on institutional design and how it can inform our own thinking in this area.

Keywords: Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Rationalism

Suggested Citation

McCoy, Matthew, The Politics of the Particular: Tocqueville’'s Critique of Rationalism (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Matthew McCoy (Contact Author)

Princeton University ( email )

22 Chambers Street
Princeton, NJ 08544-0708
United States

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