Cartesian States of America: Alexis de Tocqueville on the philosophic habits of Americans

tocqueville descartes

From Democracy in America (Alexis de Tocqueville, trans. Harvey Mansfield & Delba Winthrop; University of Chicago Press: 2000), p. 403:

I think there is no country in the civilized world where they are less occupied with philosophy than the United States.

The Americans have no philosophic school of their own, and they worry very little about those that divide Europe; they hardly know their names.

It is easy to see, nevertheless, that almost all the inhabitants of the United States direct their minds in the same manner and conduct them by the same rules; that is to say, they possess a certain philosophic method, whose rules they have never taken the trouble to define, that is common to all of them.

To escape from the spirit of system, from the yoke of habits, from family maxims, from class opinions, and, up to a certain point, from national prejudices; to take tradition only as information, and current facts only as a useful study for doing otherwise and better; to seek the reason for things by themselves alone, to seek the reason for things by themselves and in themselves alone, to strive for a result without letting themselves be chained to the means, and to see through the form to the foundation: these are the principal features that characterize what I shall call the philosophic method of the Americans.

If I go still further and seek among these diverse features the principal one that can sum up almost all the others, I discover that in most of the operations of the mind, each American calls only on the individual effort of his reason.

America is therefore the one country in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed. That should not be surprising.

Americans do not read Descartes’s works because their social state turns them away from speculative studies, and they follow his maxims because this same social state naturally disposes their minds to adopt them.