Making history safe for democracy : understanding Alexis de Tocqueville's "profoundly ambiguous" theory of history

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2020-08-18

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Wensveen, Jonathan Andrew

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This dissertation examines the problem of historical determinism in the political thought of Alexis de Tocqueville. In Volume 2 of Democracy in America, Tocqueville criticizes historians in democratic centuries for undermining man’s belief in his ability to control his own fate by reducing both individuals and nations alike to the playthings of either an “inflexible providence” or “blind fatality.” And yet, as a cursory reading of both the Introduction to Democracy in America and the Introduction to The Ancien Regime and the Revolution reveals, Tocqueville himself appears to engage in the same practice. Whereas in the former he argues that men are but “blind instruments in the hands of God,” in the latter he argues that men are being “driven by an unknown force.” As many scholars therefore note, there appears to be a contradiction at the heart of Tocqueville’s thought: on the one hand, he is overtly critical of historical determinism; on the other hand, he appears to embrace some form of it. The question that this dissertation therefore addresses is: how should we understand this contradiction given Tocqueville’s oft-stated claim that his overriding concern, as both a statesman and a writer, is for the preservation of “liberty and human dignity” in a democratic age? Does Tocqueville differ from the democratic historians he criticizes? Or does he too succumb to what he calls the “mania of the century” and advance a theory of history that, whether he realizes it or not, reduces both individuals and nations alike to cogs in a historical machine?

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