Tocqueville – Analysis of the link between democracy and the study of science

Alexis de Tocqueville in the second volume of Democracy in America analyzes what distinguishes the learning of science in the United States, a democratic regime, from the learning of these same sciences in other countries, other regimes.

We advise you not to stop at this article, and to prolong the reading of Tocqueville on education, studies, science, in connection with democracy.

Three categories of science

To better understand what characterizes the study of science in a democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville first defines what these sciences are. According to him, it is possible to distinguish 3 parts easily, which one could summarize as follows:

  1. The very abstract and not very applicable theory
  2. The theory that is not very abstract and very applicable
  3. The means of applications

The mind can, it seems to me, divide science into three parts.

The first part contains the most theoretical principles, the most abstract notions, those whose application is not known or is very distant.

The second part is composed of the general truths which, although they still belong to the pure theory, lead nevertheless, by a direct and short way, to the practice.

The third part is made up of the application procedures and the means of execution.

Each of these different portions of science can be cultivated separately, although reason and experience show that none of them can prosper for long when separated absolutely from the other two.

Alexis de Tocqueville, On Democracy in America,

Now for Alexis de Tocqueville, Americans have a natural tendency to applications, to the practical side.

In the United States, the country he came to study, he noticed that.” Everyone is restless.” This permanent agitation does not leave any respite to linger on too abstract concepts, to remain in the imaginary, in the non-concrete. On the contrary, Americans are eager to put knowledge into practice:

“In the midst of this universal tumult, of this repeated clash of contrary interests, of this continual march of men towards fortune, where can we find the calm necessary for the profound combinations of intelligence?” he explains in Chapter X of the second volume Of Democracy in America.

The ways of studying science

After having distinguished the various kinds of sciences, it is easier for Alexis de Tocqueville to explain in what the democratic societies have a different approach of sciences and knowledge.

In particular, he contrasts the aristocratic and the democratic environments.

  • The aristocratic societies are more inclined towards the abstract, and reject the material.
  • The democratic societies, on the other hand, wish above all to apply their knowledge to obtain material wealth. They are less concerned with the pure and disinterested joy of knowledge, but more with the utility and effects of science.

There are many ways of studying science. There is a selfish, mercantile and industrial taste for the discoveries of the mind among many men, which should not be confused with the disinterested passion that is kindled in the hearts of a few; there is a desire to use knowledge and a pure desire to know. I do not doubt that there is born, from far and wide, in some people, an ardent and inexhaustible love of truth, which feeds on itself and enjoys incessantly without ever being able to satisfy itself. It is this ardent, proud and disinterested love of the truth, which leads men to the abstract sources of truth to draw the mother ideas. […]

In aristocratic times, one generally forms very vast ideas of the dignity, the power, the greatness of man. These opinions influence those who cultivate the sciences as well as all the others; they facilitate the natural impulse of the spirit towards the highest regions of thought and dispose it naturally to conceive the sublime and almost divine love of truth.

The scholars of these times are therefore drawn to theory, and it often happens that they even conceive an inconsiderate contempt for practice. […]

Most of the men who make up [the democratic nations] are very eager for material and present enjoyments, as they are always dissatisfied with the position they occupy, and always free to leave it, they think only of the means to change their fortune or to increase it. For minds so disposed, any new method that leads by a shorter route to wealth, any machine that shortens work, any instrument that reduces the costs of production, any discovery that facilitates pleasures and increases them, seems the most magnificent effort of human intelligence. It is mainly by this side that the democratic peoples are attached to the sciences, understand them and honor them. In the aristocratic centuries, one asks particularly to the sciences the enjoyments of the spirit; in the democracies, those of the body.

Count on the fact that the more a nation is democratic, enlightened and free, the more the number of these interested appreciators of scientific genius will increase, and the more the discoveries immediately applicable to industry will make profit, glory and even power to their authors; because, in democracies, the working class takes part in public affairs, and those who serve it has to expect honors as well as money from it.

Alexis De Tocqueville, On Democracy in America,

However, Alexis de Tocqueville maintains reservations. The author is indeed careful not to assert irrevocably, and always leaves the gates of exit.

Sometimes he reminds me that there are certainly exceptions…

It is not to be believed that, among such a great multitude, there is not born from time to time some speculative genius that the only love of the truth ignites.

Sometimes he expresses his perplexity, and let us time to sort out his predictions:

The future will prove whether these passions, so rare and so fruitful, are born and develop as easily in the midst of democratic societies as in the bosom of aristocracies. As for me, I confess that I can hardly believe it.

It is thus more about tendencies that we are dealing with here, rather than determinism and implacable truths.

→ Corrected subject – “dogmatic beliefs” — Tocqueville, On Democracy in America

→ Work for the American Indians according to Tocqueville

→ Alexis de Tocqueville : Wealth and Poverty

General Knowledge: Science