Alexis de Tocqueville on Political Science, Political Culture, and the Role of the Intellectual

James W. Ceaser

The American Political Science Review | 1985

According to Tocqueville, the most important determinant of the character of any society is its political culture (moeurs). A political culture is shaped not only by sociological conditions and laws, but also, in modern times, by ideas propounded by intellectuals. In Tocqueville’s day, two dominant schools of thought were contending for influence over the public mind in Europe: philosophe rationalism and traditionalism. Neither one of these schools, Tocqueville argued, promoted a political culture that could reconcile liberty and democracy. Tocqueville conceived his ‘new political science’ as an alternative to these schools that could meet this challenge. Unlike the opposing schools, the new political science could not be propagated directly as an ideology. Its implementation relied on an indirect strategy–using institutions to inculcate certain “mental basis” among the citizens. This in turn called for ways of limiting the role of intellectuals in influencing political culture.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Théodore Chassériau, 1850

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