Alexis de Tocqueville, the First Social Scientist. By Jon Elster. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 212p. $80.00 cloth, $22.99 paper.
Alexis de Tocqueville is surely one of the most widely cited, discussed, and celebrated political theorists in the world. Jon Elster's book, Alexis de Tocqueville: the First Social Scientist proceeds from a provocative premise: that Tocqueville's major works were lacking in “system” and were “hugely incoherent,” and that Tocqeuville himself “was not a major political thinker” (xi). Elster argues that instead Tocqueville ought to be viewed as a penetrating historical sociologist and an exemplary social scientist who might well be considered the first true social scientist. Elster's argument is important for at least two reasons: first, because it offers a striking and challenging reading of Tocqueville; and second, because it expands on Elster's own contributions in the philosophy of social science, and develops interesting understandings of “causal mechanisms,” methodological individualism, and social explanation more generally. As Elster writes in his Introduction, “the main task of this book is to argue for the relevance of Tocqueville for social science in the twenty-first century (p. 5).” The purpose of this Perspectives symposium is to assess Elster's argument in broad terms. What are the strengths and limits of Elster's reading of Tocqueville? How ought we to assess Elster's understanding of Tocqueville's deficiencies as a “political theorist?” What is the relevance of Tocqueville for contemporary social science? And, most importantly, what are the challenges and possible trajectories facing social science in the twenty-first century, and to what extent does Elster's essay point us in the right direction?—Jeffrey C. Isaac, Editor