Universidad Adolfo Ibañez

Chair of Alexis de Tocqueville

The Chair of Alexis de Tocqueville was created to promote the study, the research, and the dissemination of the thinking and the work of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). It also develops a critical study of the contemporary democracy, as the French intellectual and politician laid the foundations of democracy of the 20th century. The Chair is directed by professor Óscar Godoy Arcaya, who holds a PhD in Philosophy from the Complutense University of Madrid.

Why we do this?

Alexis de Tocqueville laid the foundations of contemporary democratic theory with his work Democracy in America, published in Paris in 1835 and 1840.

Until the end of the 18th century, the political regimes theory was firmly anchored in sovereignty, the state and the prevailing monarchies in Europe. However, the publication of Tocqueville’s work was a striking event, in that it disclosed a new field of study and political analysis, namely: the democratic-republican regime emerging from the American Revolution of 1776.

From the 16th to 18th centuries, the term “democracy” had a narrow and restricted meaning, circumscribed to a specific political regime instituted in the Antiquity and suitable for the government of small political communities, such as the Greek city-states of the 4th century BC. Democracy in America expands the scope of the theory of political regime to include the American innovation of the democratic regime. The book was a resounding publishing success and had a strong effect not only on the intellectual circles but also on public opinion.

On the other hand, Democracy in America introduced a further profound innovation, as it is the study of “civil society”, considering it an autonomous and independent sphere from the state. Tocqueville portrayed the strong roots of liberty and equality in American society, and he included the study of the latter in what would become a new science in the future, that is sociology. Hence he built the foundation of what he called a “new political science”. Tocqueville’s studies of the American civil society and the development of the civil society during the French Ancien Régime ground his bold thesis concerning the decisive and irreversible expansion of democracy to the rest of the world during the 20th century, along with the consolidation of the democratic legitimacy as a universal political principle in our times.

Tocqueville identifies the seminal elements of humanity’s political and social development to come, along with the advent of a universal historical cycle that would be launched in the 20th century, in the factual reality of American democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville stood out not only due to his remarkable contribution to political theory, history and sociology, but also due to his insightful anticipation of the Western and global political future. Tocqueville’s analyses of political and social phenomena were not merely confined to describe the current affairs of the actuality (as it was in the 19th century). He also ventured boldly into the future. He did not suggest a utopia, as Thomas More did, nor a prospective narrative based on eschatology or presumptive laws of history after the fashion of Marx. Neither did he seem to be guided by the enlightened idea of indefinite progress of humanity and the abstract idealization of its democratic prognosis.

His perspective is profoundly realistic. Indeed, Tocqueville identifies the seminal elements of humanity’s political and social development to come, along with the advent of a universal historical cycle that would be launched in the 20th century, in the factual reality of American democracy. His anticipation of such a democracy “to come” turns out to be realistic, complex and to some extent dramatic, because it involves the polemical dissemination of freedom, on the one hand, and the presumably never-ending debate about its relationship to equality, on the other. In this context, Tocqueville was able to surmise the advent of a second democratic alternative: democratic despotism, grounded on equality and its priority over liberty. Thus, according to Tocqueville, the scenario of the political evolution of Modern times would necessarily be marked by the imprint of a polemical debate and a strong antagonism between two models of democracy.

Therefore, Tocqueville’s political thinking underpins something more than a theory of the state and the government. It underpins, too, a historical process that unfolds the political expansion of democracy and the constitution of a new form of social life, as demonstrated by the emergence and deployment of political and social democracy in the 20th and 21st centuries. They all are reasons justifying the foundation of the Chair of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose vocation is to study and disseminate both the thinking of this French intellectual and the contemporary democratic theory by hosting activities that gathers outstanding Latin American and international scholars.

Why we do this?
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