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The book proposes a new interpretation of Alexis de Tocqueville that views him first and foremost as a social scientist rather than as a political theorist. Drawing on his earlier work on the explanation of social behavior, Elster argues that Tocqueville’s main claim to our attention today rests on the large number of exportable causal mechanisms to be found in his work, many of which are still worthy of further exploration. Elster proposes a novel reading of Democracy in America in which the key explanatory variable is the rapid economic and political turnover rather than equality of wealth at any given point in time. He also offers a reading of The Ancien Régime and the Revolution as grounded in the psychological relations among the peasantry, the bourgeoisie, and the nobility. Consistently going beyond exegetical commentary, he argues that Tocqueville is eminently worth reading today for his substantive and methodological insights.Read more
- Innovative and revisionist reading of Tocqueville as a social scientist rather than as a political theorist
- Identifies many of his theoretical insights that are still worthy of further development today
- Consistently tries to show the relevance of his arguments to contemporary social and political events
Reviews & endorsements
“Elster’s jeweler’s eye has seen into the hidden intricacies and profundities of Tocqueville the political psychologist and comparative social historian. A sumptuous, stringent and path-breaking book.”
-Stephen Holmes, New York University School of LawSee more reviews
“The long battle over the thought of one of the nineteenth century’s most enigmatic figures continues here with the publication of Jon Elster’s Alexis de Tocqueville, the First Social Scientist. With characteristic care and incisiveness, Elster explores insights embedded in Tocqueville great works, Democracy in America and The Ancien Régime and the Revolution, with a view to the question: does social science begin here? This book lays the groundwork for what ought to be an ongoing conversation among social scientists intent on exploring the origins of their field. No serious readers of Tocqueville will return to his writings without Elster’s question in the back of their minds.”
-Joshua Mitchell, Georgetown University
“Apart for his own contributions to social theorizing, Elster is famous for his skills of ‘making sense’ of the work of classical writers in social thought. In this book, he mines the plentiful repository of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Ancien Regime. The author finds, apart from limited instances of ‘elusive’, ‘muddled’, and ‘extravagant’ rhetoric, an amazing number of original and fine-grained causal mechanisms that Tocqueville pioneered to employ in his effort to explain social phenomena and change. Elster’s method of ‘extracting’, ‘reconstructing’, and ‘decoding’ through sophisticated interrogation the French democratic aristocrat's writings brings to light a number of ‘exportable’ causal mechanisms. They can enrich the toolbox of today’s social scientists. In the process, the book’s provocative title becomes ever more plausible.”
Claus Offe, Hertie School of Governance, Berlin
“In this remarkable book, Jon Elster makes Tocqueville’s conceptual system a critical part of a large intellectual project. Dubbing Tocqueville the ‘first’ social scientist, Elster focuses on how he thought rather than on what he found. He brilliantly explains Tocqueville’s seemingly contradictory formulations and ambiguities of language as iterations in search of causal linkages. We can profitably use Elster’s Tocqueville for making sense of our own social state.”
Olivier Zunz, University of Virginia
"There is much ingenuity in the arguments put forward here and a refreshing newness of approach … The fresh air of new scholarship and new approaches can only invigorate."
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- Date Published: April 2009
- format: Paperback
- isbn: 9780521740074
- length: 212 pages
- dimensions: 228 x 152 x 17 mm
- weight: 0.33kg
- availability: Available
Table of Contents
1. Preference formation
2. Belief formation
3. Self-interest and individualism
5. Desires, opportunities, capacities
6. Patterns of social causality
7. Equality and mobility
8. Democratic government
Instructors have used or reviewed this title for the following courses
- Political Science Honours Seminar
- Seminar in Public Policy I
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