Tocqueville on doubt and the demands of democratic citizenship
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Tocqueville’s view of the relationship of doubt to democracy is an important and underexplored aspect of Democracy in America. Illuminating it not only deepens our grasp of his thought, but also adds to broader theoretical debates about political psychology. I deepen our understanding of this theme by elaborating why exactly the democratic social state produces in people the sort of skeptical doubt characteristic of the Cartesian approach to philosophy. I also enumerate what factors in the democratic social state and in human nature set a boundary on the extent to which the exertions of the individual intellect can achieve knowledge. Additionally I draw together different sections of Democracy in America to show how democratic people’s tendency toward this kind of thinking poses serious risks for self-government if left unmediated. Religion, which Tocqueville holds out as the key to restraining that doubt, has seen its authority wane in the time since he wrote. Nonetheless, I argue that other remarks Tocqueville makes in Democracy in America suggest that a robust conception of individual rights can provide a new source of intellectual authority for political and moral debate that is resistant to doubt’s corrosive power.