Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In a democratic society, Tocqueville argues, the general attitude of suspicion towards authority leads to a lack of trust in scientific doctrines or lofty ideas. In America, theoretical and abstract knowledge is almost entirely ignored. For that kind of thinking, meditation is necessary—a practice antithetical to a democracy. Everyone in a democracy is in constant activity, constant striving: there’s no space for calm, detached contemplation. The fact that the French made advances in the sciences just around the time that they were destroying the old feudal order is not attributable to democracy, but rather to the productivity that accompanies a revolution, he says: it’s a special case. 
Tocqueville continues to isolate another aspect of the American personality: pragmatism, or preference for practical knowledge with concrete, identifiable results over abstract pursuits that one might call “useless.” Ironically, pragmatism would also become the name for a powerful and quite complex philosophical movement in America at the end of the nineteenth century; for Tocqueville, though, pragmatism is only comprehensible as a lack of philosophy.
Themes
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Tocqueville characterizes democratic societies as having little patience for abstract thought: they are prone to fleeting passions and the accidents of the moment. There is certainly a kind of mercantile, pragmatic interest in intellectual life, but only for the material benefits that may ensue from it. Tocqueville claims that such mercenary interests would never have led to the genius of a Pascal, for instance. Indeed, aristocracies tend to embrace lofty ideals and encourage the general elevation of intellectual life. Sometimes this preference for theory even leads to the contempt of practice—the opposite mode of the democratic pursuit of physical gratification as quickly and easily as possible.
Tocqueville displays his prejudices here in favor of both his own aristocratic-intellectual class and the French literary and intellectual tradition (as emblematized by Pascal). Unable to find an American thinker similar to Pascal, Tocqueville concludes that there is no “lofty” thinking happening at all in the country, and then he seeks to explain that lack through certain aspects of American history and politics.
Themes
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Related Quotes
Tocqueville uses as an example the fact that Americans have never discovered general laws of mechanics and yet have invented a world-changing steam engine. Thus, admirable discoveries won’t necessarily be absent from democracies—indeed, while people may not be encouraged to study science for its own sake, more and more people will devote themselves to scientific pursuit in service of practical goals. Therefore, industrial science will only be improved by democratization, even if theoretical concerns will fall by the wayside.
Throughout his analysis, Tocqueville often elaborates this idea—that Americans make up for deficiency in quality through superiority in quantity. In order to explain how Americans have, indeed, come to excel in innovation and invention, he has to argue that it’s only inventions with a direct material benefit that are privileged in America.
Themes
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Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon