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chapter 10 a: Why the Americans Are More Attached to the Application of the Sciences Than to the Theory b - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 3 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 3.
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Why the Americans Are More Attached to the Application of the Sciences Than to the Theoryb
If the democratic social state and democratic institutions do not stop the development of the human mind, it is at least incontestable that they lead it in one direction rather than another. Their efforts, limited in this way, are still very great, and you will pardon me, I hope, for stopping a moment to contemplate them.
When it was a matter of the philosophical method of the Americans, I made several remarks that we should benefit from here.
Equality develops in every man the desire to judge everything by himself; it gives him, in everything, the taste for the tangible and the real, scorn for traditions and forms. These general instincts make themselves seen principally in the particular subject of this chapter.
Those who cultivate the sciences among democratic peoples are always afraid of being lost in utopias. They distrust systems; they love to stay very close to the facts and to study them by themselves; since they do not allow themselves to be easily impressed by the name of any one of their fellows, they are never inclined to swear on the word of the master; but, on the contrary, you see them constantly occupied with searching for the weak part of his doctrine. Scientific traditions have little sway over them; they never stop for long in the subtleties of a school, and they spin out a lot of fancy words with difficulty; they enter as much as they can into the principal parts of the subject that occupies them, and they love to explain them in common language. The sciences then have a freer and more certain, but less lofty allure.c
The mind can, it seems to me, divide science into three parts.
The first contains the most theoretical principles, the most abstract notions, the ones whose application is unknown or very distant.
The second is made up of general truths that, though still pure theory, lead nevertheless by a direct and short path to application.
Each one of these different portions of science can be cultivated separately, even though reason and experience make it known that none of them can prosper for long when it is separated absolutely from the other two.
In America, the purely applied part of the sciences is admirably cultivated, and the theoretical portion immediately necessary to application is carefully attended to; in this regard the Americans reveal a mind always clear, free, original and fruitful; but there is hardly anyone in the United States who devotes himself to the essentially theoretical and abstract portion of human knowledge. In this the Americans show the excess of a tendency that will be found, I think, although to a lesser degree, among all democratic peoples.f
Nothing is more necessary to the cultivation of the advanced sciences, or of the higher portion of the sciences, than meditation; and nothing is less appropriate to meditation than the interior of a democratic society. There you do not find, as among aristocratic peoples, a numerous class that remains at rest because it finds itself well-off, and another that does not stir because it despairs of being better-off. Each man is in motion; some want to attain power, others to take hold of wealth. Amid this universal tumult, this repeated clash of contrary interests, this continual march of men toward fortune, where to find the calm necessary for profound intellectual syntheses? How to fix your thoughts on some point, when around you everything moves, and you yourself are dragged along and tossed about each day by the impetuous current that drives everything?g
The type of permanent agitation that reigns within a tranquil and already constituted democracy must be clearly distinguished from the tumultuous and revolutionary movements that almost always accompany the birth and development of a democratic society.
When a violent revolution takes place among a very civilized people, it cannot fail to give a sudden impulse to sentiments and to ideas.
This is true above all of democratic revolutions, that, by moving at once all of the classes that make up a people, give birth at the same time to immense ambitions in the heart of each citizen.
If the French suddenly made such admirable progress in the exact sciences, at the very moment when they finally destroyed the remnants of the old feudal society, this sudden fertility must be attributed, not to democracy, but to the unparalleled revolution that accompanied its development. What occurred then was a particular fact; it would be imprudent to see in it the indication of a general law.
Great revolutions are not more common among democratic peoples than among other peoples; I am even led to believe that they are less so. But within these nations there reigns a small uncomfortable movement, a sort of incessant rotation of men that troubles and distracts the mind without enlivening or elevating it.
Not only do men who live in democratic societies devote themselves with difficulty to meditation, but also they naturally have little regard for it. The democratic social state and democratic institutions lead most men to act constantly; now, the habits of mind that are appropriate to action are not always appropriate to thought. The man who acts is often reduced to being content with approximation, because he would never reach the end of his plan if he wanted to perfect each detail. He must rely constantly on ideas that he has not had the leisure to study in depth, for he is helped much more by the expediency of the idea that he is using than by its rigorous correctness; and everything considered, there is less risk for him in making use of a few false principles, than in taking up his time establishing the truth of all his principles. The world is not controlled by long, learned proofs. The rapid view of a particular fact, the daily study of the changing passions of the crowd, the chance of the moment and the skill to grab hold of it, decide all matters there.
So in centuries when nearly everyone acts, you are generally led to attach an excessive value to the rapid flights and to the superficial conceptions of the mind, and, on the contrary, to depreciate excessively its profound and slow work.
This public opinion influences the judgment of the men who cultivate the sciences; it persuades them that they can succeed in the sciences without meditation, or turns them away from those sciences that require it.h
There are several ways to study the sciences. You find among a host of men a selfish, mercenary and industrial taste for the discoveries of the mind that must not be confused with the disinterested passion that is aroused in the heart of a small number; there is a desire to utilize knowledge and a pure desire to know. I do not doubt that occasionally, among a few, an ardent and inexhaustible love of truth is born that feeds on itself and gives constant delight without ever being able to satisfy itself. It is this ardent, proud and disinterested love of the true that leads men to the abstract sources of truth in order to draw generative ideas from there.
If Pascalj had envisaged only some great profit, or even if he had been moved only by the sole desire for glory, I cannot believe that he would ever have been able to summon up, as he did, all the powers of his intelligence to reveal more clearly the most hidden secrets of the Creator. When I see him, in a way, tear his soul away from the midst of the cares of life, in order to give it entirely to this inquiry, and, prematurely breaking the ties that hold the soul to the body, die of old age before reaching forty years of age, I stop dumbfounded; and I understand that it is not an ordinary cause that can produce such extraordinary efforts.
The future will prove if these passions, so rare and so fruitful, arise and develop as easily amid democratic societies as within aristocratic ones. As for me, I admit that I find it difficult to believe.
In aristocratic societies, the class that leads opinion and runs public affairs, being placed above the crowd in a permanent and hereditary way, naturally conceives a superb idea of itself and of man. It readily imagines glorious enjoyments for man and sets magnificent ends for his desires. Aristocracies often undertake very tyrannical and very inhuman actions, but they rarely conceive low thoughts; and they show a certain proud disdain for small pleasures, even when they give themselves over to them; that gives all souls there a very lofty tone. In aristocratic times, you generally get very vast ideas about the dignity, power and grandeur of man. These opinions influence those who cultivate the sciences, like all the others; it facilitates the natural impulse of the mind toward the highest regions of thought and naturally disposes the mind to conceive the sublime and nearly divine love of truth.
So the scientists of these times are carried toward theory, and it even often happens that they conceive an ill-considered scorn for application. “Archimedes,” says Plutarch,k “had a heart so noble that he never deigned to leave any written work on how to erect all of these war machines [<for which he gained glory and fame, not for human knowledge but rather for divine wisdom>]; and considering all of this science of inventing and making machines and generally any art that brings some utility when put into practice, as vile, low and mercenary, he used his mind and his study to write only things whose beauty and subtlety were in no way mixed with necessity.” Such is the aristocratic aim of the sciences.
It cannot be the same among democratic nations. [Among these peoples, the opinions of the class that governs and the general mores of the nation hardly ever raise the human mind toward theory; on the contrary they draw it every day toward application.]
Most of the men who compose these nations are very greedy for material and present enjoyments; since they are always discontent with the position that they occupy, and always free to leave it, they think only about the means to change their fortune or to increase it. [Men naturally have the desire to take pleasure quickly and easily, but that is particularly true of those who live in democracies.
This sentiment to which scientists themselves are not strangers leads them to look for the consequences of a principle already known rather than to find a new principle; their work is at the very same time easier and better understood.
The same sentiment makes the public attach much more value to applications than to abstract truths.]m For minds so disposed, every new method that leads to wealth by a shorter road, every machine that shortens work, every instrument that reduces the costs of production, every discovery that facilitates and increases pleasures, seems the most magnificent effort of human intelligence. It is principally from this side that democratic peoples are attached to the sciences, understand them and honor them.n In aristocratic centuries [v.: societies], people particularly demand enjoyments of the mind from the sciences; in democratic ones, those of the body.
Depend on the fact that the more a nation is democratic, enlightened and free, the larger the number of these self-seeking men who appreciate scientific genius will grow, and the more discoveries immediately applicable to industry will yield profit, glory and even power to their authors; for, in democracies, the class that works takes part in public affairs, and those who serve it have to look to it for honors as well as for money.
You can easily imagine that, in a society organized in this manner, the human mind is led imperceptibly to neglect theory and that it must, on the contrary, feel pushed with an unparalleled energy toward application, or at least toward the portion of theory necessary to those who do applications.
An instinctive tendency raises the human mind in vain toward the highest spheres of intelligence; interest leads it back toward the middle ones. That is where it puts forth its strength and restless activity, and brings forth miracles. These very Americans, who have not discovered a single one of the general laws of mechanics, have introduced to navigation a new machine that is changing the face of the world.
Certainly, I am far from claiming that the democratic peoples of today are destined to see the transcendent light of the human mind extinguished, or even that they must not kindle new light within their midst. At the age of the world in which we find ourselves and among so many lettered nations that are tormented incessantly by the ardor of industry, the ties that bind the different parts of science together cannot fail to be striking; and the very taste for application, if it is enlightened, must lead men not to neglect theory. In the middle of so many attempts at application, so many experiments repeated each day, it is often nearly impossible for very general laws not to happen to appear; so that great discoveries would be frequent, even though great inventors were rare.
I believe moreover in high scientific vocations. If democracy does not lead men to cultivate the sciences for their own sake, on the other hand it immensely increases the number of those who cultivate the sciences. It cannot be believed that, among so great a multitude, there is not born from time to time some speculative genius inflamed by the sole love of truth. You can be sure that the latter will work hard to penetrate the most profound mysteries of nature, whatever the spirit of his country and of his time. There is no need to aid his development; it is enough not to stop it. All that I want to say is this: permanent inequality of conditions leads men to withdraw into proud and sterile research for abstract truths; while the democratic social state and democratic institutions dispose them to ask of the sciences only their immediate and useful applications.
This tendency is natural and inevitable. It is interesting to know it, and it can be necessary to point it out.
If those who are called to lead the nations of today saw clearly and from a distance these new instincts that will soon be irresistible, they would understand that with enlightenment and liberty, the men who live in democratic centuries cannot fail to improve the industrial portion of the sciences, and that henceforth all the effort of the social power must go to sustain the theoretical sciences and to create great scientific passions.
Today, the human mind must be kept to theory, it runs by itself toward application, and instead of leading it back constantly toward the detailed examination of secondary effects, it is good to distract it sometimes in order to raise it to the contemplation of first causes.
Because Roman civilization died following the invasion of the barbarians, we are perhaps too inclined to believe that civilization cannot die otherwise.
If the light that enlightens us ever happened to go out, it would grow dark little by little and as if by itself. By dint of limiting yourself to application, you would lose sight of principles, and when you had entirely forgotten the principles, you would badly follow the methods that derive from them; no longer able to invent new methods, you would employ without intelligence and without art the learned processes that you no longer understood.
When the Europeans reached China three hundred years ago, they found all the arts at a certain degree of perfection, and they were astonished that, having arrived at this point, the Chinese had not advanced more. Later they discovered the vestiges of some advanced knowledge that had been lost. The nation was industrial; most of the scientific methods were preserved within it; but science itself no longer existed. That explained to the Europeans the singular type of immobility in which they found the mind of the people. The Chinese, while following the path of their fathers, had forgotten the reasons that had guided the latter. They still used the formula without looking for the meaning; they kept the instrument and no longer possessed the art of modifying and of reproducing it. So the Chinese could not change anything. They had to give up improvement. They were forced to imitate their fathers always and in all things, in order not to throw themselves into impenetrable shadows, if they diverged for an instant from the road that the latter had marked. The source of human knowledge had nearly dried up; and although the river still flowed, it could no longer swell its waves or change its course.
China had subsisted peacefully for centuries however; its conquerors had taken its mores; order reigned there. A sort of material well-being was seen on all sides. Revolutions there were very rare, and war was so to speak unknown.o
So you must not feel reassured by thinking that the barbarians are still far from us; for if there are some peoples who allow light to be wrested from their hands, there are others who trample it underfoot themselves.p
[b. ] Order of ideas./
[c. ] “Under democracy the sciences get rid of useless words, of empty formulas. Efforts of the Americans to get out of the judicial routine of the English. Code of Ohio.
See Beaumont, G. B. Q.” (Rubish, 1). Cf. Marie, I, pp. 247–48.
[d. ] Note in the margin: “Louis thinks that this piece should be modified a bit and do three classes of scientists instead of three classes of sciences. For, in fact, he says, there are only two of them.”
[e. ] At the end of the chapter, you find a jacket with the title: “Development that seemed too long to me, but which is good in itself.”:
An example would make my thought easier to grasp: I would choose the science that I know best which is that of the laws. The distinctions that I have just indicated are found in the science of laws and I believe, without being able to assert it in so positive a way, that you should see at least the trace of those distinctions in all of the laws and principally in those that are called exact, because of the rigorous manner in which they proceed.
There is a science of laws whose object is lofty, speculative, general. The former works hard to find the rules by which human societies exist and to determine the laws that various peoples must impose on themselves in order to reach the goal that they propose for themselves.
There is a science of laws that, taking hold of a particular body of laws, or even of the higher portion of a body of laws, demonstrates what general principles dominate there and shows the economy that reigns and the overall view that is revealed.
There is a last one that enters into the administrative or judicial detail of the processes by which the legislator wanted to have his plans carried out, learns how political assemblies or the courts interpreted their will, and that teaches the art of making good the rights of each citizen with the aid of the laws.
A class of scholars is attached to each of these portions of the science to whom you give the name writers on law, legal experts, jurists (examine these definitions in the best authors).
If you now come to examine how these different men are related to each other, you discover that in the long run the legal expert and the jurist cannot do without the writer on law, but that at a given moment they can easily act and prosper independently of him.
If men limited themselves to studying the whole and the detail of existing laws without ever going as far as the general theory of laws, it is clear that by degrees they would reach the point of seeing in the legislation of their country only a collection of formulas that they would end up using without exactly understanding their sense, and that they would not take long to become miserably lost in the maze of the subtleties of the school. That is how you can truthfully say that there is a necessary relation between Montesquieu and the least bailiff of the kingdom, in such a way that the enlightenment of the first gives light by a far and distant reflection to the works of the second.
But men do not need to return every day to the philosophy of law in order to know the laws in force; without having sought what the legislator must have wanted, they are able to understand what he wanted. They are able to apply the general wills [volontés générales —Trans.] to the particular case and draw from legal science its most useful consequences. Therefore each one of these different portions of the science of laws can be cultivated separately, although each cannot prosper in the long run when it is separated absolutely from the others. Coming back now to my subject, I want to know if democracy tends to develop the various parts of science in the same way.
In America, where the practical portion of human knowledge and the theoretical portion immediately necessary for application are admirably cultivated, there is so to speak no example of anyone interested in the essentially theoretical and general part.
I think that you would not do justice by attributing this to democracy alone. The Americans are pushed exclusively toward application by powerful causes that are due neither to the social state nor to the political constitution. I have carefully enumerated them above.
[In the margin] Quid.
[f. ] Now in all free governments, a great number of men are involved in politics, and in free governments whose social state is democratic, there is hardly anyone who is not occupied by it. So among nations subject to these governments it must be expected that a kind of public scorn for the higher speculations of science and a kind of instinctive repulsion for those who devote themselves to them will be established.
I imagine that a people constituted like the Germans of today, among whom great civil liberty would be found, where enlightenment would be very widespread, where communal independence would not be unknown, but where great political liberty would not exist, would be in a more fortunate position than another to cultivate and to perfect the theoretical portion of the sciences; and I would not be surprised if, of all the countries of Europe, Germany soon became for this reason the principal center of higher human knowledge.
Despotism is hardly able to maintain what it finds existing, and by itself alone it has never produced anything great. So I am not talking about an enslaved nation, but about a people who would not be entirely master of itself.
Great political liberty seems to me so precious a thing in itself and so necessary to the guarantee of all other liberties that, as long as it does not disappear at the same time from all the countries of the earth, I am more or less sure of never inhabiting a country where it will not exist; but I cannot believe that, following the ordinary course of societies, great political liberty must favor the development of the general and theoretical part of the sciences. I recognize in it a thousand other advantages, but not that one (Rubish, 1).
[g. ] “Of all branches of human studies, philosophy will be, if I am not mistaken, the one that will suffer most from the establishment of democracy. If the men whose social state and habits are democratic wanted to concern themselves with philosophy, I do not doubt that they would bring to this matter the boldness and the freedom of mind that they display elsewhere. But you can believe that they will rarely want to concern themselves with it” (YTC, CVj, 1, p. 66).
[h. ] The taste for well-being makes a multitude ask the sciences loudly for applications and recompenses with money and with glory those who find them.
And acting on the soul of scientists the multitude leads them to take their research in this direction and even makes them incapable of directing it elsewhere by taking from them the taste for non-material things that is the principal motivating force of the soul (Rubish, 1).
[j. ] Different motives that can push men toward science.
Desire for glory.
Passion to discover the truth. Personal satisfaction that is impossible to define or to deny its effects.
Perhaps the greatest scientists are due uniquely to this last passion. For will is not enough to bring action; the mind must rush forward by itself toward the object; it must aspire.
Imagine Newton or Pascal in the middle of a democracy. The soul is given a less lofty tone in democracies. It envisages the things of life from a lower perspective (in the rubishthe influence of democracy on literature,Rubish, 1).
[k. ] This fragment appears in the rubish with this bibliographic reference: “Plutarch, Vie de Marcellus, p. 269, vol. III, translation of Augustus.” The quotation, longer in the draft, contains a phrase that is missing from the book: “. . . so noble <and an understanding so profound in which there was a hidden treasure of so many geometric inventions>” (Rubish, 1).
[m. ] This fragment is found on a separate sheet of the manuscript.
[n. ] “So if it happens in the United States that there is no innovation in philosophy, in literature, in science, in the fine arts, that does not come from the fact that the social state of the Americans is democratic, but rather from the fact that their passions are exclusively commercial” (YTC, CVj, 1, p. 91).
[o. ] With a note, in the manuscript: “<Louis says that he is afraid that this last piece, although good, appears a bit exaggerated given the current state of our notions on China. It now seems certain, he says, that if the Chinese have declined, they have at least never been as advanced as I suppose and as was supposed in Europe sixty years ago.>”
[p. ] In the rubish:
Louis said to me today (1 June 1838) that what had struck him as more obvious and more clear in the question of the sciences was that the applied sciences or the theoretical part of the sciences most necessary to application had, in all times, been cultivated among men as the taste for material enjoyments, for individual improvements increased, while the cultivation of the advanced sciences had always been joined with a certain taste for intellectual pleasures which found pleasure in encountering great truths, even if they were useless.
This seemed to him applicable to aristocratic peoples like the English or the men of the Middle Ages, in the period of the Renaissance, although some were occupied in this period with the things of heaven; it is clear however that there was a reaction toward the things of the earth. But he admitted that democracy drove this taste and that it could thus be considered as the mediate cause of this scientific impulse whose immediate cause would be the taste for material enjoyments./
It seems clear to me that I do not make the taste for material well-being suggested by this social and political state play a large enough role among the causes that lead democracies toward the applied sciences. It is however the greatest, the most incontestable, the truest reason. I have not precisely omitted it, but under-played it. This gap must be repaired. See note (a, b, c).
To cite England. The taste for well-being taking hold of the democratic classes would give these classes, thanks to liberty and commercial possibilities, a great preponderance, allowing them in a way to give their spirit to the nation, while letting the aristocratic classes subsist in its midst. What follows for [the (ed.)] sciences.
Still more intense taste; class that feels it still more preponderant in America. Practical impulse of the sciences still more exclusive.
[In the margin: Another point of view that is not sufficiently appreciated. Peoples who have strongly devoted themselves to the application of something, very practically occupied with something, find neither the time nor the taste to be occupied with theory. I said something similar while talking about the sciences among free peoples. But I was talking only about taste.
It is clear that an aristocracy, like a democracy, can be constantly occupied in a practical way with something and neglect all the rest. It is the case of the Romans who were so devoted to the conquest of the world that they were not able to think about the sciences. They have left nothing on that. While the Greeks more divided made great scientific progress./
How many things are explained by the taste for material well-being!!] (Rubish, 1).