Tocqueville between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life

Tocqueville between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life

Tocqueville between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life

Tocqueville between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life


"Alexis de Tocqueville may be the most influential political thinker in American history. He also led an unusually active and ambitious career in French politics. In this book, one of America's most important contemporary theorists draws on decades of research and thought to present the first work that fully connects to Tocqueville's political and theoretical lives. In doing so, Sheldon Wolin presents sweeping new interpretations of Tocqueville's major works and of his place in intellectual history. As he traces the origins and impact of Tocqueville's ideas, Wolin also offers a profound commentary on the general trajectory of Western political life over the past two hundred years." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


Alexis de Tocqueville has become a fixture in contemporary American political discourse, both within the academy and outside. Arguably there have been only two classics of American political theory, The Federalist Papers and Democracy in America. It is safe to say that today Tocqueville's masterpiece is invoked more often in support of some interpretation of present-day American politics than is the Federalist, even though the latter is commonly represented as the thinking of the Founding Fathers. While the Federalist is typically cited to shed light from the past on the present, as in current appeals to the “intentions of the Framers,” Democracy in America is summoned not only to interpret the past and present but to augur the future.

Accordingly, I have tried to present a Tocqueville who is not so firmly in the French intellectual and political context of his times as to be irrelevant to ours. Scarcely a week passes without some quotation from Democracy in America appearing in the popular media or in literary reviews. Although John Rawls may provide the common reference point for academic philosophers and Michel Foucault for postmodern literary theorists, Tocqueville may well be the more substantial presence in the public philosophy current in the media and in the rhetoric of politicians. To reflect on present-day American politics invites reflection on Democracy in America and vice versa.

Unlike Karl Marx, Tocqueville serves as a unifying rather than a divisive symbol, his magistral status owing much to the consensual function he has been made to perform. Interpreters have created a certain Tocqueville, one who slips easily into the main dialogue of American politics between selfdesignated liberals and conservatives, with each camp claiming him as its own. To the one he is a “liberal conservative” who values freedom as well as property rights; to the other he is a “conservative liberal” who is alert to the dangers of “too much democracy” and who commiserates with the burdens borne by political elites, not the least of which is the periodic invasion of the political realm by the masses. Both sides assume that Democracy in America equals Tocqueville's “theory”; that a book about America is synonymous with a book about the United States; and that whatever Tocqueville ascribed to democracy applied to the United States. Each of these assumptions is, as later pages show, either wrong or in need of significant qualification.

Throughout this volume I have tried to keep three principal concerns in mind: first, to present a conception of what Tocqueville understood by political theory, how he experienced and practiced it, and how he tried to . . .

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