Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)

De Tocqueville: Individualism in America


Although the ideals of the Enlightenment were most explicitly formulated and fought for in Europe, Europe was still shaped by its numerous inherited traditions and institutions. While Enlightenment thinkers, as Descartes before them, might have wished to totally eradicate the past in one fell swoop and to start over with an entirely clean slate, the tangible results of centuries of accumulated culture were still around in the form of old cities with their historically grown lay-outs and venerable buildings, rigidly enforced social structures, recognized authorities in churches and educational institutions, and a host of deeply ingrained habits and carefully observed conventions. Often this ubiquitous presence of traditional structures seemed to overwhelm and smother all efforts to create better living conditions and a modern, more enlightened world. That is why many saw America as a country that was in a much better position to make a truly new beginning than Europe; America was not nearly as encumbered and weighed down by historical baggage as the Old World. America was the "New World," a place where a new type of human being could develop without the traditions and inherited institutions that greatly slowed down the spread of freedom and progress in Europe. America was the wide open future that could speedily transcend the ossified structures of Europe’s past.

Alexis de Tocqeville (1805-1859) was one of the French intellectuals who deeply convinced that a new type of human being was emerging in the New World. He looked at America as a fascinating social experiment of vast proportions and with portentous implications for the future of the world. He spent a year in the United States to study the penal system of this young republic. After his return, from 1835 until 1840, he wrote and published the book that made him famous, Democracy in America. His descriptions and analyses of the United States are such that political scientists and historians of culture find them informative and useful to this day; they have given generations of readers an idea of what it might mean to be an American, and what the role of America might be in the modern world. De Tocqueville was a politician and historian, rather than a professional philosopher, but his analyses are a philosophical reflection as much as they are empirical research. In the second book of Democracy in America, for example, he discusses what he calls "the philosophical method of the Americans." At that time Americans had not yet developed a distinct and formal philosophy of their own (such as Pragmatism, the theory that emerged toward the end of the 19th century as a peculiarly American philosophy), but in practice, according to de Tocqueville, they all employed the same “method” in their deliberations and conduct:

I think that in no other country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own; and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them.

Nevertheless it is easy to perceive that almost all the inhabitants of the United States conduct their understanding in the same manner, and govern it by the same rules, that is to say, that without ever taking the trouble to define the rules of a philosophical method, they are in possession of one, common to the whole people.

This is how de Tocqeville describes and defines this method:

To evade the bonds of system and habit, of family maxims, class-opinions, and in some degree, of national prejudices; to accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts only as a lesson used in doing otherwise and doing better; to seek the reason of things for oneself, and in oneself alone; to tend to results without being bound to means, and to aim at the substance through the form--such are the principle characteristics of what I shall call the philosophical method of the Americans. But if I go further, and if I seek among those characteristics the principle one which includes almost all the rest, I discover that, in most operations of the mind, each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding.

Americans, in other words, do not rely on established philosophical systems, traditional class perspectives, or inherited national viewpoints when they explain things to themselves: they rely on their own individual insights. If here and there they accept a tradition, it is only because it proves useful for a particular purpose, not because it is sacred in itself. Their general inclination is to improve things, not to leave things as they are. Their approach to things is always practical: They do not care how a job gets done as long as it gets done. They rarely let formalities of any kind get in their way. In their thinking as well as in their actions Americans live here and now. Instead of trusting communities and ancient traditions they rely on themselves as individuals. Their successes are due to the fact that they are radical, unencumbered individualists.

De Tocqueville maintains that this “philosophical method of the Americans” is essentially identical with that of René Descartes, although it was not Descartes who taught it to them. For de Tocqueville Americans are natural Cartesians:

America is therefore one of the countries in the world where philosophy is least studied, and where the precepts of Descartes are best applied. Nor is this surprising. The Americans do not read the works of Descartes, because their social condition deters them from speculative studies; but they follow his maxims, because this very social condition naturally disposes their understanding to adopt them.

The social condition that makes Americans natural Cartesians are described by de Tocqueville as follows:

In the midst of the continual movement which agitates a democratic community, the tie which unites one generation to another is relaxed or broken; every man readily loses the trace of the ideas of his forefathers or takes no care about them.

Nor can men living in this state of society derive their belief from the opinions of the class to which they belong; for, so to speak, there are no longer any classes, or those which still exist are composed of such mobile elements, that their body can never exercise a real control over its members.

As to the influence which the intelligence of one man has on that of another, it must necessarily be very limited in a country where the citizens, placed on a footing of a general similitude, are all closely seen by each other; and where, as no signs of incontestable greatness or superiority are perceived in any one of them, they are constantly brought back to their own reason as the most obvious and proximate source of truth.


America’s anti-traditionalist individualism did not come about overnight and without preparation, however, it had its own history and a sort of tradition. De Tocqeville draws a straight philosophical line from the Protestant Reformation of 1517 (when Luther declared the independence of the individual’s conscience from the authority of the church) to the establishment of the United States as a major embodiment of 18th century Enlightenment ideals:

In the sixteenth century the [Protestant] Reformers subjected some of the dogmas of the ancient [Catholic] faith to the scrutiny of private judgment; but they still withheld from it the discussion of all the rest. In the seventeenth century, Bacon in the natural sciences, and Descartes in the study of philosophy in the strict sense of the term, abolished recognized formulas, destroyed the empire of tradition, and overthrew the authority of the schools [of philosophy]. The philosophers of the eighteenth century, generalizing at length the same principle, undertook to submit to the private judgment of each man all the objects of his belief. Who does not perceive that Luther, Descartes, and Voltaire employed the same method?

This method, the individualistic self-reliance that expresses itself in a general disregard for community and tradition, has come to be considered a central part of American ideology—together with such ideals as unabridged freedom of speech, free enterprise, democratic self-government, and other support structures of individual liberty. It has been a source of deep inspiration for many—as formulated, for example, in Emerson’s rousing essay “Self-Reliance” of 1841. But it has also been criticized as unacceptably anti-social, and as growing out of a misrepresentation of significant social and historical facts. Americans, recent historians argue, were not nearly as self-reliant as the stereotype of the individualistic American suggests, and the whole notion of individuals functioning outside all social organization has increasingly come under critical scrutiny and fire. Programmatic book titles like It Takes A Village To Raise A Child reflect a widespread change of perception with regard to what isolated individuals can do, and throughout much of recent philosophical literature one can find a growing appreciation of the role of society and community in the nurturing and support of individuals, including self-reliant individuals. A short clarification of the idea of individual self-reliance will be useful at this point.

It cannot be denied that human beings are essentially social beings, whether they are aware of it or not. Human beings need each other to become human and to exist as human beings, and one could not even imagine functioning human individuals without the presence of such social support systems as a shared language, acquired skills and tools, interdependent activities, or the collective memory of important information and crucial events. Regardless of how solitary some individuals may be at times, no person ever lives in a total social vacuum. And no human individual has ever grown into a self-reliant or autonomous adult without a minimum of social care, lengthy instructions, and acculturation into some sort of civilization. There cannot be any individuals without an appropriate social matrix.

In spite of this undeniable anthropological fact, however, it is still true that some cultures and societies are more individualistic than others. Some cultures nurture and emphasize unquestioning trust in authorities, time-honored traditions, and the prevailing ways of communities, while others permit or encourage individual self-reliance, dissent, and a skeptical attitude toward traditions and the past. While no person can ever be an isolated and independent individual in any absolute sense, some people choose to live something like a hermit’s life, while others prefer to remain in a state of close interdependency with their fellow humans for most of their lives. Considering the great variety of possible forms of socialization, there is no problem with arguing that in America individualism developed much more vigorously than in other countries, and that for a good while at least individualistic self-reliance became indeed a noteworthy and distinguishing characteristic of life in the New World.

It should not be surprising that the individualism described by de Tocqueville manifested itself also in the way Americans thought of themselves--how they conceived of their personal identity. As a nation of immigrants America provided both the economic and social conditions that allowed and encouraged people to overcome or leave behind the national, ethnic, and cultural affiliations that they had inherited in their countries of origin. While some immigrants tried to maintain some of their old identities, and while group affiliation was forced on some by way of bigotry and discrimination, for most individuals the arrival in America was the beginning of a new life—and a new identity. And as de Tocqueville’s observations suggest, this new identity was based on personal choices, not on affiliations with this or that traditional group. To be an American progressively meant to be one’s own individual self.

The Ethics of Being One’s Self

Ever since it appeared on the cultural scene, the Enlightenment has had its outspoken critics. Philosophers and writers, as well as politicians, have criticized its dry rationalism, its emphasis on scientific knowledge and evidence, its mostly secular humanism, its critical attitude toward the past and traditions, its commitment to the idea of universal human rights and cosmopolitan values--and its individualism. At times Enlightenment thinking was widely out of favor and all but eclipsed, while at other times it re-surfaced with renewed vigor and urgency. It has maintained a challenged and challenging presence in Western civilization to this day.

In recent decades Enlightenment thinking has been the target of ideological assaults once more. Religious fundamentalists of all persuasions certainly regard it as a main enemy. Criticism has also come, however, from theoreticians who argue in the name of “multiculturalism,” “ethnic identity,” or the assumed importance of separate traditions and special “roots.” Their quarrel is with the Enlightenment’s commitment to individualism as well as the ideal of universal rights and cosmopolitan values. Individualism and cosmopolitanism are targeted together because both tend to undermine the authority of certain groups, groups that feel to be in danger of being assimilated into the homogenizing mainstream of modern society. Modern society is indeed characterized by its tendency to gradually absorb and transform a great variety of ethnic, racial, and religious cultures: it tends to be a “melting pot.” In the context of global markets, universally shared technologies, instantly transmitted information, and a virtually endless variety of available ideas and options, special groups now find it much harder to preserve their separate traditions and identities than in pre-industrial times. As part of a “post-modern” reaction to the threat of universal assimilation, différence has thus been promoted as a trendy concept and catchword to combat the equalizing tendencies of Enlightenment and Modernity. What distinguishes groups of people from each other is said to be more important and inspiring than the traits that all human beings may have in common. With regard to social organization, advocates of ethnic and cultural différence promote cultural and racial "salad bowls" rather than the "melting pots" of earlier years. America in particular, according to these challengers, should not be a country of assimilation and integration, but a society in which separate blocks of religious, racial, ethnic, and cultural groups can preserve their different identities and pursue their separate social agendas.

Some have seen political dangers in such a “Balkanization” of society: unhealthy tensions and split loyalties may develop if people attach too much significance and emotions to differences of race, creed, or national origin. The more basic philosophical matter at issue, however, is the Enlightenment idea that ideally every individual should not only have the right, but even something like a duty to determine for himself or herself who he or she is, what sort of life he or she is to live, or with whom he or she wants to associate more closely. An individual, according to Enlightenment thinking, should not be obliged by any group to adhere to or propagate "his" or "her" native religion, ethnicity, race, or cultural tradition, but be allowed and encouraged to make personal choices in all these regards—to be, in effect, entirely unencumbered by any such particular determinations. Once individuals reach adulthood and moral maturity, in other words, they should cease to be representatives of particular traditions or groups, and emerge as “free spirits” and conscientious "citizens of the world." Their ultimate allegiance should not be to any particular group or tradition, but to themselves and to humanity as a whole. Their individualism would be identical with a universal solidarity that singles out no other against whom any group or individual could be pitted.

Most people will, of course, be born into specific communities that may be distinguished from each other by cultural, racial, religious, or other traits. But such traits should not be considered important—certainly not nearly as important as that which all human beings have in common, namely reason. An individual’s particular race, native religion, or cultural background should be nothing more than insignificant accidents of birth, not features that are to mark a person for life. A mature adult should transcend all such inherited distinctions and create himself or herself out of personal interests, capacities, reflections, and decisions. Diversity in an enlightened society should not be the result of unassimilated groups and their allegiance to past cultures, but grow out of personal choices made by unencumbered and richly informed individuals who set out to create future.

There are a number of reasons why Enlightenment thinkers insists on their commitment to individualism and a cosmopolitan orientation. One reason is the actual and potential divisiveness that usually comes with the cultivation of separate groups and their loyalties. The hatred, cruelties, persecutions, and wars that such groups have visited on each other are largely responsible for the fact that many experience the past and the present as “the nightmare of history” from which they would like to wake up.
The main reason for not dwelling too much on traditions and the past, however, is the fact that looking backward too much obscures a clear view of the present situation. That situation is one of global interdependence. There is no corner of the world left that can escape the influence of the scientific and technological changes that have transformed the planet since the Industrial Revolution. Whether living in the Amazon rain forest, the suburbs of Denver, or inside the Arctic Circle, we all depend on the same basic consumer goods--canned foods, aspirin, flashlights, radios, eye glasses, jeans, gasoline, and other typical products of Western civilization. We all use the same services, too: Computer help, pharmacology, modern surgery, television entertainment, weather reports, police departments, and mail delivery. Equally important are the dangers that Western technology has created for all of us: The toxins, heavy metals, and other chemicals that accumulate in soils and waters and move up the food chains, the global warming and other climatic changes that industrialization has brought about, the over-fishing of oceans, deforestation of whole regions, and eventual depletion of arable land that is made possible by modern technology, and the population explosion that has changed the question of access to clean drinking water, safe living spaces, adequate schooling, and gainful employment into staggering problems. Emblematic for the situation that we all face is the threat posed by the arsenals of thermonuclear weapons over which, ultimately, nobody has any reassuring control. No matter who or where we are on this planet, accidents or rash decisions can unleash the hair-trigger machinery that will lead to the Mutually Assured Destruction built into the delivery systems of the atomic powers. It is in view of this global situation with its universal conditions, dangers, and threats that the worlds of special groups and traditions look quaint, narrow, and out of touch with the reality in which we live. A sober contemplation of what actually has become of the planet will do more for finding an identity than a dubious refuge in some inherited culture.

In view of the dire history of ethnic, religious, racial, cultural, and national groups one may wonder why many people are still interested in or eager to establish their own identity by affiliating themselves to such groups. Answers can be found by realizing that it may often be difficult to find one’s own identity—to become one’s own self. While many will experience their release from the hold of this or that group as liberation, others will experience it as being cast into a void, as a loss of orientation, purpose, and belonging. It is for this reason that Enlightenment thinkers have developed an ethic of being one’s self, a line of thought that makes plausible why an individual should make an effort to leave behind inherited affiliations and expose himself or herself to the experience of not having any guidance from outside.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, Kant defined enlightened morality as moral autonomy, as an individual’s ability and willingness to define what is right and wrong on the basis of his or her own reason. To simply accept moral values from some established authority, some surrounding community, or from an inherited tradition would indicate a serious lack of self-determination. Following rules or making moral judgements as if one were on automatic pilot is, in fact, the very opposite of being moral. An adult human being has an absolute obligation to think and decide for himself or herself, and to take full responsibility for all such decisions. That is the basic principle of Enlightenment individualism as applied to Ethics.

With respect to a person’s identity the reasoning is essentially the same. To passively accept the ways and thoughts of a group with its established traditions, ideology, and allegiances is incompatible with the ideal of self-determination. For a person who is young and dependent it is, of course, natural to grow into a particular culture. Most people automatically adopt the religion that is practiced around them, share the customs and habits of the ethnicity of which they happen to be a part, or see the world from the viewpoint of their race—if race has been made a matter of consequence in a society. If a person comes of age without ever questioning naturally adopted beliefs, ways, and perspectives, however, something essential has gone wrong. A young person who does not criticize or doubt his or her cultural heritage, who does not develop the independence of mind that permits a detached and objective study of the factors that define his or her life, and who is incapable of extracting himself or herself from inherited legacies—such a person must be seen as unduly immature: as a physical adult who intellectually has remained a minor. That is the principle of Enlightenment individualism as applied to personal identity.

When Kant defines enlightenment as a person’s “release from self-incurred tutelage," he places a good deal of responsibility on every individual. While many theoreticians prefer to blame repressive social and political conditions for the lack of enlightenment among people, Kant attributes much of this lack to the "laziness and cowardice" of the individuals themselves: "Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so many people, long after nature has released them from external direction, like to remain under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to assume the roles of their guardians," he writes in "What is Enlightenment?" And hinting at some of the motives that may produce lazy and cowardly behavior he adds: “It is so easy to remain a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a priest who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, etc., I need not make any effort myself.” Kant points out, in other words, that a lack of enlightenment and freedom in a society may not only be caused by external coercion, but by inner, psychological dispositions as well—a suggestion with which many other philosophers and writers have since agreed. The Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, analyzes at great length how threatened people often feel by the prospect of having to take charge and responsibility for their own lives. And George Bernard Shaw once remarked: "Liberty means responsibility. That is why most people dread it."

Most people, if asked, profess to value freedom; it is considered a basic value of our culture. When psychologists and other observer take a closer look at people’s actual behavior, however, it often appears that they rather dread it indeed. Psychologists have pointed out, for example, that quite a few men like the military as an institution because everything in it seems tightly prescribed and rigidly enforced—by way of uniform dress codes, standard haircuts, regimented schedules, machine-like marching in lockstep, strict hierarchies, and an established chain of command where all orders are issued from above. Personal initiative seems reduced to a minimum; in most situations obediently following orders seems the virtue most called for.

Comprehensive purposes and strategic visions are defined by those higher up; there is—at least in the minds of individuals who idealize the military in this way--not much room for the kind of existential doubt and anxiety that types like Hamlet experience. Ideally, a person’s unique and potentially disruptive individuality will disappear in a smoothly functioning fighting machine that assumes a life and identity of its own. The good soldier subordinates his (or her) autonomy and life to the unit and develops the sort of unquestioning obedience that makes the military an effective tool in the hands of commanders and political leaders. Many experience the surrender of their personal autonomy not only as honorable, but as emotionally satisfying as well--even though commanders and politicians often make disastrous use of their obedient troops. Tennyson in his "Charge of the Light Brigade" glorifies the self-sacrifice of obediently attacking and senselessly dying soldiers: "Theirs is not to make reply,/Theirs not to reason why,/ Theirs but to do and die."

The same inclination to relinquish voluntarily one’s freedom, individuality, and independence of thought can also be observed on a much larger scale. After his emigration from Nazi Germany, Erich Fromm wrote one of his most important books: Escape From Freedom (1940). In it he tried to explain, among other things, why a seemingly civilized society like modern Germany could vote for and submit to an authoritarian political party like that of Hitler. An important part of the answer Fromm offers was the willingness of large numbers of people to trade in their personal freedom and autonomy for a sheltered position in a powerful collective under the command of a domineering leader who promised a glorious and fulfilling future for the nation. Millions of Germans manifestly cared little for their individuality and self-determination, and they experienced their total integration and disappearance in an organized mass as comforting, empowering, and as a sort of salvation. (Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 film “Triumph of the Will” is the famous visualization of that disappearance of the individual in an organized, regimented mass.)

Fromm explains this “escape from freedom” as a response to the general condition of modern society. In a world of huge and impersonal bureaucracies, of crowded cities where people seem far more lonely and lost than in the villages and small towns of yesteryear, of giant industries that use people like expendable material, and of powerful economic forces that can wreak havoc at any moment, and over which nobody seems to have any control, an individual person cannot but feel isolated, powerless, disoriented, and threatened by ominous possibilities. It is, according to Fromm, this feeling of pervasive alienation and helplessness that makes people willing to give up their seemingly insignificant individuality and to merge with something that is greater and more powerful than themselves: "The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self." (p.173)

The sense of this disappearance in and identification with a collective is not just the normal desire to live and interact with other people, but a compensation: individuals hope to receive and enjoy indirectly, as part of a victorious mass, the recognition and respect that they cannot receive as the isolated social atoms as which they find themselves in modern mass society. As Fromm puts it:

By becoming part of a power which is felt as unshakably strong, eternal, and glamorous, one participates in its strength and glory. One surrenders one’s own self and renounces all strength and pride connected with it, one loses one’s integrity as an individual and surrenders freedom; but one gains a new security and a new pride in the participation in the power in which one submerges. (178)

The case of German fascism can be considered an extreme and perhaps somewhat exceptional phenomenon; not every escape from freedom into some sort of collective involves the criminal activities and horrendous enterprises that the Nazis engendered. Yet, the psychological and social mechanisms that Fromm analyzed in connection with the Third Reich are operative and significant in other contexts as well, even in political democracies. Fromm points out that under the conditions of modern mass societies it will always be tempting for individuals to renounce their personal autonomy in favor of a collective identity that relieves them of the necessity to think about and develop a meaningful existence themselves. The ready-made mold of some cultural identity allows individuals to a large degree to avoid existential doubts, moral worries, or the labor of having to think things through for themselves. Membership in an established collective provides weak and easily confused persons with a goal in life, an identity mask, a socially approved orientation in the world, and a feeling of confidence that modern individuals may otherwise not easily acquire.

A person who feels personally weak and insignificant can find comfort in belonging to "the greatest nation on earth" or to some other superlative and exclusive collective. An individual who has nothing much accomplished himself or herself can feel "proud" to be of the same culture as geniuses like Michelangelo, Shakespeare, or Bach. Someone who personally feels insecure and confused can find solace and redemption in a community of believers who assume that their faith is somehow superior to that of rival creeds or other infidels. Too often in history have collectives served as a substitute for personal growth and inner strength--and too often have these collectives provided a vicarious sense of accomplishment for deficient individuals by putting down others--for Enlightenment thinkers not to be weary of collective identities. For Enlightenment thinkers there is in the end no genuine identity except a personal one, and that is one of individual autonomy and inner independence from any collective.

All this is not to say that there cannot be communities or collectives that are rational and beneficial, or that an autonomous individual cannot be a loyal member of an association without betraying the principles of the Enlightenment. A rational individual is, as Kant argued, always a social being, a being that knows and respects the rights and needs of other autonomous individuals. A republic that organizes the democratic self-government of a people, and that facilitates the legitimate pursuits of its citizens, is a good example of a collective that a rational individual can support without detriment to his or her personal autonomy. There is also nothing wrong with such organizations as trade unions, racket ball clubs, or stamp collector associations—as long as they are open regardless of race, gender, creed, or national origin. Organizations can be pleasurable and useful without causing harm or producing surrogate identities.

What Enlightenment thinking opposes are the collectives, traditions, and identities that have been at the center of the wars, persecutions, and discriminations of the past. World history is full of events where people killed, despised, exploited, and otherwise hurt each other on account of their ethnic, religious, racial, and cultural differences. There will neither peace nor justice, according to Enlightenment thinkers, unless people learn to think of themselves honestly as human beings, and not as members of this or that group. There will not be an end to “the nightmare of history” until people develop personal identities instead of accepting the identity masks provided by traditional collectives…

(From Jorn K. Bramann: The Educating Rita Workbook, Copyright © 2006)

"Hester Street"

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