Review: The Concept of Mind

Review: The Concept of Mind

The Concept of MindThe Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Men are not machines, not even ghost-ridden machines. They are men—a tautology which is sometimes worth remembering.

The problem of mind is one of those philosophical quandaries that give me a headache and prompt an onset of existential angst when I try to think about them. How does consciousness arise from matter? How can a network of nerves create a perspective? And how can this consciousness, in turn, influence the body it inhabits? When we look at a brain, or anywhere else in the ‘physical’ world, we cannot detect consciousness; only nerves firing and blood rushing. Where is it? The only evidence for consciousness is my own awareness. So how do I know anybody else is conscious? Could it be just me?

If you think about the problem in this way, I doubt you’ll make any progress either, because it’s insoluble. This is where Gilbert Ryle enters the picture. According to Ryle, the philosophy of mind was put on a shaky foundations by Descartes and his followers. When Descartes divided the world into mind and matter, the first private and the other public, he created several awkward problems: How do we know other people have minds? How do the realms of matter and mind interact? How can the mind be sure of the existence of the material world? And so on. This book is an attempt to break away from the assumptions that led to these questions.

Ryle’s philosophy is often compared with that of the later Wittgenstein, and justly so. The main thrusts of their argument are remarkably similar. According to what I’ve read, this may have been due simply to the influence of Wittgenstein on Ryle—though there appears to be some doubt. Regardless, it’s appropriate to compare them, as I think, taken together, their ideas help to shed light on one another.

Both Wittgenstein and Ryle are extraordinary writers. Wittgenstein is certainly the better of the two, though this is not due to any defect on Ryle’s part but to the indomitable force of Wittgenstein’s style. Wittgenstein is aphoristic, sometimes oblique, employing numerous allegories and similes to make his point. Ryle is sharp, direct, and epigrammatic. Wittgenstein is in the same tradition as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, while Ryle is the direct descendent of Jane Austen. But both of them are witty, quotable, and brilliant. They’ve managed to create excellent works of philosophy without using any jargon and avoiding all obscurity. Why can’t philosophy always be written so well?

There is no contradiction, or even paradox, in describing someone as bad at practising what he is good at preaching. There have been thoughtful and original literary critics who have formulated admirable canons of prose style in execrable prose. There have been others who have employed brilliant English in the expression of the silliest theories of what constitute good writing.

Ryle also has the quality—unusual among philosophers—of being apparently quite extroverted. His eyes are turned not toward himself, but his surroundings. He speaks with confidence and insight about the way people normally behave and talk, and in general prefers this everyday understanding of things to the tortured theories of his inverted colleagues.

Teachers and examiners, magistrates and critics, historians and novelists, confessors and non-commissioned officers, employers, employees and partners, parents, lovers, friends and enemies all know well enough how to settle their daily questions about the qualities of character and intellect of the individuals with whom they have to do.

This book, his most famous, is written not as a monograph or an analysis, but as a manifesto. Ryle piles epigram upon epigram until you’re gasping for just one qualification, just one admission that he might be mistaken. He even seems to get carried away by the force of his own pen, leading to some needlessly long and repetitive sections. What’s more, his style has the defect of all epigrammatists: he’s utterly convincing in short gasps, but leaves his reader grasping for something more substantial.

Ryle is often called an ordinary language philosophy, and the label suits him. Like Wittgenstein, he thinks that philosophical puzzles come about by the abuse of words; philosophers fail to correctly analyze the logical category of words, and thus use them inappropriately, leading to false-paradoxes. The Rylean philosopher’s task is to undo this damage. Ryle likens his own project to that of a cartographer in a village. The residents of the village are perfectly able to find their way around and can even give directions. But they might not be able to create an abstract representation of the village’s layout. This is the philosopher’s job: to create a map of the logical layout of language. This will prevent other foreigners from getting lost.

Ryle begins by pointing out some obvious problems with the Cartesian picture—a picture he famously dubs the ‘Ghost in the Machine’. First, we have no idea how these two metaphysically distinct realms interact. How does mind influence matter and vice versa? Nobody knows. Thus by attempting to explain the nature of human cognition, the Cartesians cordon it off from the familiar world and banish it to a shadow world, leaving unexplained how the shadow is cast.

Second, the Cartesian picture renders all acts of communication into a kind of impossible guessing game. You would constantly be having to fathom the significance of a word or gesture by making conjectures as to what’s happening in a murky realm behind an impassible curtain (another person’s mind). Conjectures of this kind would be fundamentally dissimilar to other conjectures because there would be in principle no way to check them. In the Cartesian picture, people’s minds are absolutely cut off from all outside observation.

It’s like this: Imagine if their was a mechanical wheel whose rotation was supposed to represent something happening on the surface of a planet 3 billion light years away. There would be no way to check what the wheel’s rotation meant, since the planet is beyond observation. The Cartesian picture turns all human behavior into a similar situation, where we are trying to guess at something we can never observe using signs that are related to their object in an unknown way.

Ryle is hardly original in pointing out these two problems, which are just the mind/body problem and the problem of other minds, although he does manage to emphasize these embarrassing conundrums with special force. His more original critique is what has been dubbed “Ryle’s Regress.” This is made against what Ryle calls the “intellectualist legend,” which is the notion that all intelligent behaviors are the products of thoughts.

For example, if you produced a grammatically correct English sentence, it means (according to the “legend”) that you have properly applied the correct criteria for English grammar. However, in this scheme, this must mean that you applied the proper criteria to the criteria, i.e. you applied the meta-criteria that allowed you to choose the rules for English grammar and not the rules for Spanish grammar. But what meta-meta-criteria allowed you to pick the correct meta-criteria for the criteria for the English sentence? (I.e., what anterior rule allowed you to pick the rule that allowed you to choose the rule for determining whether English or Spanish rules should be used instead of the rule for choosing whether salt or sugar should be added to a recipe?—sorry, that’s a mouthful.) The point is that we are led down an infinite regress if we require thought to proceed action. This is one of the classic arguments against cognitive theories of the mind.

(I believe Hubert Dreyfus used this same argument in his criticisms of artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. Considering the strides that A.I. has made since then, I’m sure there must be some way around this regress, though I don’t know what. Hopefully somebody can explain it to me.)

These are his most forceful reasons for rejecting the Ghost in the Machine. From reading the other reviews here, I gather that many people are fairly convinced by these arguments. Nonetheless, some have accused Ryle of failing to replace the Cartesian picture with anything else. This isn’t a fair criticism. Ryle does his best to rectify the mistaken picture with his own view, though you may not find this view very satisfying.

After doing his best to discredit the Cartesian picture, the rest of the book is devoted to demonstrating Ryle’s view that none of the ways we ordinarily use language necessitate or even imply that “the mind is its own place”. This is where he most nearly approaches Wittgenstein, for his main contentions are the following: First, it is only when language is misused by philosophers (and laypeople) that we get the impression that the mind is a metaphysically distinct thing. Second, our intellectual and emotional lives are in fact not cut off and separate from the world; rather, public behavior is at the very core of our being.

Here’s just one example. According to the Cartesian view, a person “really knows” how to divide if, when he’s given a problem—let’s say, 144 divided by 24—his mind goes through the necessary steps. Let’s say a professor gives a student this problem, and the student correctly responds “six.” The professor conjectures that the student’s mind has gone through the appropriate operation. But what if the professor asks him the exact same question five minutes later, and the student responded “eight”? And what if he did it again, and the student responded “three”? The following dialogue ensues:

PROFESSOR: Ah, you’re just saying random numbers. You really don’t know how to divide.

STUDENT: But my mind performed the correct operation when you asked me the first time. I forgot how to do it after that.

PROFESSOR: How do you know your mind performed the correct operation the first time?

STUDENT: Introspection.

PROFESSOR: But if you can’t remember how to do it now, how can you be sure that you did know previously?

STUDENT: Introspection, again.

PROFESSOR: I don’t believe you. I don’t think you ever knew.

The point of the dialogue is this. According to the Cartesian view, introspection provides not merely the best, but the only true window into the mind. You’re the only person who can know your own mind, and everyone else knows it via conjecture. Thus the student, and only the student, would really know if his mind performed the proper operation, and thus he alone would really know if he could divide. Yet this is not the case. We say somebody “knows how to divide” if they can consistently answer questions of division correctly.

Thus, Ryle argues, to “know how to divide” is a disposition. And a disposition cannot be analyzed into episodes. In other words, “knowing how to divide” is not a collection of discrete times when a mind went through the proper operations. Similarly, if I say “the glass is fragile,” I don’t mean that it has broken or even that it will necessarily break, just that it would break easily. Fragility, like knowing long division, is a disposition.

According to Ryle, when philosophers misconstrued what it meant to know how to divide (and other things), they committed a “category mistake.” They miscategorized the phrase; they mistook a disposition for an episode. More generally, the Cartesians mix up “knowing how” and “knowing that.” They confuse dispositions, capacities, and propensities for rules, facts, and criteria. This leads them into all sorts of muddles.

Here’s a classic example. Since Berkley, philosophers have been perplexed by the mind’s capacity to form abstract ideas. The word “red” encompasses many different particular shades, and is thus abstract. Is our idea of red some sort of vague blend of all particular reds? Or is it a collections of different, distinct shades we bundle together? Ryle contends that this question makes the following mistake: Recognizing the color red is knowing how. It’s a skill we learn, just like recognizing melodies, foreign accents, and specific flavors. It is a capacity we develop; it isn’t the forming of a mental object, an “idea,” that sits somewhere in a mental space.

Ryle applies this method to problem after problem, which seem to dissolve in the acid of his gaze. It’s an incredible performance, and a great antidote for a lot of the conundrums philosophers like to tie themselves up in. Nevertheless, you can’t shake the feeling that for all his directness, Ryle dances around the main question: how does awareness arise from the brain?

Well, I’m not positive about this, but I believe it was never Ryle’s intention to explain this, since he considers this question outside the proper field of philosophy. It’s a scientific, not a philosophical question. His goal was, rather, to show that the mind/body problem was not an insoluble mystery or evidence of metaphysical duality, and that the mind is not fundamentally private and untouchable. Humans are social creatures, and it is only with great effort that we keep some things to ourselves.

I certainly can’t keep this review to myself. This was the best work of philosophy I’ve read since finishing Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in 2014, and I hope you get a chance to read it too. Is it conclusive? No. Is it irrefutable? I doubt it. But it’s witty, it’s eloquent, it’s original, and it’s devoid of any nonsense. This is as good as philosophy gets.

View all my reviews

Review: The Essential Plotinus

Review: The Essential Plotinus

The Essential PlotinusThe Essential Plotinus by Plotinus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after reading Glenn’s fine review, and I’m glad I did. This is an excellent volume; and although I haven’t read the complete Enneads, so I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the editor and translator, Elmer O’Brien, did an expert job in selecting the very best sections from that long tome. In just 170 pages, one finds a complete philosophical system and worldview. I’ve read few books that pack so much into so few words.

It is often remarked that Plotinus was more of a mystic than a real philosopher. But of course, those two aren’t mutually exclusive categories. I’ve heard both Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s works compared to mystical poetry, and indeed the clear demarcation between philosophy and religion is a relatively recent phenomenon. So don’t let the mysticism put you off. This is a serious and significant work of philosophy.

At both the literal and metaphorical center of Plotinus’s system is his concept of The One. The One is the source of all reality, the source of existence itself: “It is by The One that all beings are beings.” It transcends all forms of knowledge; it cannot be described in any words: “This principle is certainly none of the things of which it is the source. It is such that nothing can be predicated of it, not being, not substance, not life, because it is superior to all these things.” The One, which is the same as The Good, is the goal of Plotinus’s system: to seek, through contemplation, an experience of the wellspring of all existence. “By directing your glance towards it, by reaching it, by resting in it, you will achieve a deep and immediate awareness of it and will at the same time seize its greatness in all things that come from it and exist through it.”

Now this all sounds quite abstract and incomprehensible, but I think Plotinus’s point is rather simple. Nothing can exist without having some sort of unity; and the more unity something has, the more stable is its existence. For example, a choir only exists if all of the people composing it are organized in some way. When they disband, the unity is broken, and the choir ceases to exist. A human body exists because all of the diverse parts which compose it cooperate and coordinate their activities. Once this organization ceases, the unity of the parts is broken, and the body ceases to function and ultimately passes away. The more simple something is, the less contingency is has. To pick an inappropriately modern example, a molecule exists because the atoms which compose it are in a particular configuration; once this configuration is broken, the molecule is gone. What persists are the fundamental particles, quarks and electrons, which are (we think) absolutely simple, and therefore persist through all the shifting configurations of matter and energy that cause everything we experience through our senses.

The One is what Plotinus calls the “first hypostasis.” The One is the principle of all existence, because, without some sort of unity, nothing could exist. But by itself, The One doesn’t exist. In fact, to give it any predicate, even the predicate of “existence,” is to attribute some contingent quality to it. So just as Heidegger is fond of reminding us that Being is not a being—that is, the cause of existence cannot itself be something that exists—so does Plotinus warn us that we can know absolutely nothing about The One. It is formless, devoid of all qualities, transcendent of all thought, beyond even our categories of “real” and “unreal.”

But of course, the universe exists, and therefore cannot be identical with The One. This leads Plotinus to his “second hypostasis,” which is The Intelligence. Now, from what I understand, The Intelligence is the realm wherein dwell all the ideals and forms that comprise true reality. Plotinus, borrowing heavily from Plato and Aristotle, considers matter to be pure potentiality. What turns the potentiality into an actuality is a form or an ideal—such as Humanity or Fire in the abstract; and these can only be apprehended through the mind, or intelligence. These ideals are eternal and immaterial; hence it is these ideals that exist in the highest degree, being contingent only on The One, completely independent of matter.

But The Intelligence is static, comprising all things at once, timeless and perfect; yet the reality we know is ever-changing. This leads Plotinus to the “third hypostasis,” which is The Soul. Plotinus thinks not only that people have souls, but that The Soul is responsible for all movement and order in the universe. Just as a human is animated by an indwelling soul, so are the planets and animals and everything around us moved by The Soul, which mediates between the inactive realm of matter and the perfect world of The Intelligence. For Plotinus, each individual soul is just a part of The Soul; and like Plato, he believes in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls.

This elaborate metaphysical doctrine is the backdrop of Plotinus’s spiritual practices. Plotinus shares with many other Western mystics a scorn for the body. The senses are the source of nothing but illusion and suffering, and drag the soul down into petty considerations and vain pursuits. The first step is to appreciate the beauty in sensible objects, for beauty is not raw sensation, but consists of an order or organization in our sensations. The next step is to move beyond the senses altogether, engaging in dialectic to examine the pure ideals through thought alone. But unlike Plato, for whom philosophy was largely a social enterprise, the last step in Plotinus’s system is an introspective voyage to The One, a state of perfect blissful peace, a contemplation of the source of all reality, that transcendent origin which has no qualities and which cannot be grasped in words or thought.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this, especially for one such as myself, a secular rationalist. Of course, Plotinus is worth reading from a purely historical perspective, for his deep influence on St. Augustine, and thence on Christianity itself. And if you are religious or spiritual in any way, be it Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or simply fond of meditation, I’m sure that you can find something of value in Plotinus. From a modern perspective, as philosophy pure and simple, Plotinus’s system isn’t very compelling; for Plotinus does not make strict arguments, but rather grounds his thought in introspective experiences. Yet if you are like me, or like Bertrand Russell—a man who could hardly be more secular or averse to nonsense—you will nonetheless find something beautiful in Plotinus, even if it is perhaps just an elaborate dream, a philosophical fancy, an extended description of one brilliant man’s lonely meditations.

View all my reviews

Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra

Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra

Tales of the AlhambraTales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To the traveler imbued with a feeling for the historical and poetical, so inseparably intertwined in the annals of romantic Spain, the Alhambra is as much an object of devotion as is the Caaba to all true Moslems.

The name “Washington Irving” has haunted me since I was a boy. I went to a school named after him. We visited his beautiful house, Sunnyside, on a field trip. The house where I grew up is just 500 feet from Irving’s grave in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—quite a modest grave. My high school football team were the Headless Horsemen.

So imagine how it felt, after moving across an ocean, to see the name “Washington Irving” hanging above a door in the Alhambra: “Washington Irving wrote in this room his Tales of the Alhambra.” It was as if some circuit had been closed, some cycle had been completed. I’d spent the previous week racing through the book in preparation for my visit. And now, here I was, face to face with the same literary giant who hung over my childhood, who had also managed to cast his spell over this magnificent palace.

That’s my tale; what of the book?

The Tales of the Alhambra is something of a hodgepodge. It begins as a travelogue and ends as a collection of fables. In 1829, Irving travelled from Seville to Granada, apparently out of simple curiosity. Once he arrived, he fell under the enchanting influence of the Alhambra, and ended up residing there for several months. At the time, the Alhambra was in a sorry state. Several centuries of vandalism and neglect had reduced it to a ruin, and dozens of poor squatters were its only residents.
IMG_1711
Probably its derelict condition added to the romantic wonder with which Irving beheld it. The book is written in a high-flown, almost mystical tone, with fact and fantasy blended into a vibrant fabric. His own observations and experiences are interspersed with historical sketches and old legends, which he purports to have learned from the residents. The final impression is of supernatural beauty. If you’ve seen the Alhambra, this is forgivable; it’s hard to exaggerate its splendor.

As Warwick points out, Irving is most fascinated with the Moors of Spain. The fact that a people with enough culture and power to create the Alhambra could totally vanish beguiles him. Who were they? How did they live? His vigorous imagination fills in the continent-sized gaps in his knowledge, allowing his fancy to run rampant. It’s obvious that he considers the lost civilization of the Moors to be a kind of forgotten paradise; he has nothing but praise for the nobility and sophistication of Spain’s erstwhile inhabitants.

While he stayed there, he grasped at whatever trace of this civilization remained, in architecture, history, and in the people. Irving does his best to convince himself and the reader that the monumental dignity of the Moors of Spain can be seen still in the Spanish peasants of Andalusia. He praises these people almost as highly as their predecessors, saying “with all their faults, and they are many, the Spaniards, even at the present day, are, on many point, the most high-minded and proud-spirited people of Europe.”

The book is enjoyable in short doses but gets tiresome in big chunks. Irving’s tone, though compelling, is monotonous. You can only tolerate breathless wonder for so long without craving something else. His stories, too, are quite repetitive. Hidden treasures, enchanted warriors, princesses in castles, forbidden love between Christians and Muslims—these make an appearance in nearly every tale.

Still, this book is well worth reading, not only because Irving is a skillful and charming writer, but also because it’s a window into the cultural history of the Alhambra, how it has been interpreted and understood by Western writers. For me, of course, this book has a personal significance that extends beyond the boundaries of its pages. Irving’s stories may not have been real, but his name is real enough, which for me has taken on the semblance of a ghost.

As for you, I hope you too get a chance to read this book, and to visit the Alhambra: “A Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land; an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West; an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished, and passed away.”

IMG_1742

View all my reviews

Review: Democracy in America

Review: Democracy in America

Democracy in America Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I struggle to penetrate God’s point of view, from which vantage point I try to observe and judge human affairs.

A few months ago, bored at work and with no other obligations to tie me to New York, I decided that I would look into employment in Europe; and now, several months and an irksome visa process later, I am on the verge of setting off to Madrid. Unsurprisingly, I’m very excited to go; but of course leaving one’s home is always bittersweet. This is partly why I picked up Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, as a sort of literary good-bye kiss to this odd, uncouth, chaotic, and fantastic place which has, up until now, molded my character, sustained my body, and contained my thoughts.

This turned out to be an excellent choice, for this book is without a doubt the best book ever written on the United States. I am able to say this, even though I haven’t even read a fraction of the books written on this country, because I simply can’t imagine how anyone could have done it better. As it is, I can hardly believe that Tocqueville could understand so much in the short span of his life; and when I recall that he wrote this book after only 9 months in America, while he was still in his thirties, I am doubly astounded. This seems scarcely human.

Part of the reason for his seemingly miraculous ability is that, with Tocqueville, you find two things conjoined which are normally encountered separately: extremely keen powers of observation, and a forceful analytic mind. With most travel writers, you encounter only the former; and with most political philosophers, only the latter. The product of this combination is a nearly perfect marriage of facts and reasoning, of survey and criticism, the ideas always hovering just above the reality, transforming the apparently senseless fabric of society into a sensible and intelligible whole. Almost everything he sees, he understands; and not only does he understand what he sees, but so often hits upon the why.

Although this book covers an enormous amount of ground—religion, slavery, culture, government, the role of women, just to name a few topics—there is one central question that runs through every subject: What does the appearance of democracy mean for the future of humanity? Tocqueville sees this question as the most pressing and significant one of his time; for, as he perceived, what was happening then in America was destined to inspire Europe and perhaps the whole world to adopt this new form of government, which would forever change the face of society. In short, Tocqueville is seeking to understand America so that he could understand the future; and the plan of the book follows these two goals successively. The first volume, published in 1835, is a thorough analysis of the United States; and the second volume, published in 1840, is a comparison of democracy and aristocracy, an attempt to pinpoint how a switch to a democratic government causes far-reaching changes in the whole culture.

Tocqueville is famously ambivalent about American democracy. He often sounds greatly impressed at what he finds, noting how hardworking and self-reliant are most Americans; and yet so often, particularly in the second volume, Tocqueville sounds gloomy and pessimistic about what the future holds. Much of his analysis is centered on the idea of social equality. He often reminds the reader—and by the way, Tocqueville wrote this for a French audience—that Americans, rich or poor, famous or obscure, will treat everyone as an equal. The entire idea of castes or classes has, in Tocqueville’s opinion, been abolished; and this has had many effects. Most obviously, it gives free reign to American ambition, for anyone can potentially climb from the bottom to the top; thus results the ceaseless activity and endless financial scheming of Americans. And even those who are quite well-off are not spared from this fever of ambition, for the lack of inherited wealth and stable fortunes means that the rich must continually exert effort to maintain their fortunes. (Whether this is true anymore is another story.)

Thus we find a kind of money-obsession, where everyone must constantly keep their minds in their wallets. In America, money is not only real currency, but cultural currency as well, a marker of success; and in this context, the creature comforts of life, which after all only money can buy, are elevated to great importance. Rich food, warm beds, spacious houses—these are praised above the simpler pleasures in life, such as agreeable conversation or pleasant walks on sunny days, as the former require money while the latter are free and available to anyone. The central irony of a classless society is that it forces everyone to focus constantly on their status, as it is always in jeopardy. You can imagine how shocking this must have been for Tocqueville, the son of an aristocratic family. There simply was no class of Americans who had the leisure of retiring from the cares of the world and contemplating the “higher” but less practical things in life. All thought was consumed in activity.

This results in a society of the ordinary individual. In America, there are few “great men” (as Tocqueville would say) but a great many good ones. Americans are self-reliant, but not daring; they are often decent, but never saintly. They will sometimes risk their lives in pursuit of a fortune, but never their fortunes for the sake their lives. An American might temporarily accept hardship if there is a financial reward on the other end; but how many Americans would forsake their fortunes, their comforts, their houses and property, for the sake of an idea, a principle, a dream? Thus a kind of narrow ambition pervades the society, where everyone is hoping to better their lot, but almost nobody is hoping to do something beyond acquiring money and things. One can easily imagine the young Tocqueville, his mind filled with Machiavelli and Montesquieu, meeting American after American with no time or inclination for something as intangible as knowledge.

In the midst of his large-scale cultural analysis, Tocqueville sometimes pauses for a time, putting off the role of philosopher to take up the role of prophet. Tocqueville does get many of his predictions wrong. For example, he did not at all foresee the Civil War—and in fact he thought Americans would never willingly risk their property fighting each other—and instead he thought that there would be a gigantic race war between blacks and whites in the south. But Tocqueville was otherwise quite right about race relations in the slave-owning states. He predicts that slavery could not possibly last, and that it would soon be abolished; and he notes that abolishing slavery will probably be the easiest task in improving the relationship between blacks and whites. For although slavery can be destroyed through legal action, the effects of slavery, the deep-rooted racial prejudice and hatred, cannot so easily be wiped clean. In support of this view, Tocqueville notes how badly treated are free blacks in the northern states, where slavery is banned. Without a place in society, they are shunned and fall into poverty. The persistence of the color line in America is a testament to Tocqueville’s genius and our failure to prove him wrong.

But perhaps the most arresting prediction Tocqueville makes is about the future rivalry of the United States with Russia. Here are his words:

Americans struggle against obstacles placed there by nature; Russians are in conflict with men. The former fight the wilderness and barbarity; the latter, civilization with all its weaponry: thus, American victories are achieved with the plowshare, Russia’s with the soldier’s sword.

To achieve their aim, the former rely upon self-interest and allow free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals.

The latter focus the whole power of society upon a single man.

The former deploy freedom as their main mode of action; the latter, slavish obedience.

The point of departure is different, their paths are diverse but each of them seems destined by some secret providential design to hold in their hands the fate of half the world at some date in the future.

While discussing such an obviously brilliant man as was Tocqueville, whose ideas have become foundational in the study of American society, it seems almost petty to praise his prose style. But I would be doing an injustice to any readers of this review if I failed to mention that Tocqueville is an extraordinary writer. I was consistently captivated by his ability to sum up his thoughts into crisp aphorisms and to compress his analyses into perfectly composed paragraphs. I can only imagine how much better it is in the original French. Here is only a brief example:

Commerce is a natural opponent of all violent passions. It likes moderation, delights in compromise, carefully avoid angry outbursts. It is patient, flexible, subtle, and has recourse to extreme measures only when absolute necessity obliges it to do so. Commerce makes men independent of each other, gives them quite another idea of their personal value, persuades them to manage their own affairs, and teaches them to be successful. Hence it inclines them to liberty but draws them away from revolutions.

In the brief space of a book review—even a long one—I cannot hope to do justice to such a wide-ranging, carefully argued, and incisive book as this. So I hope that I have managed to persuade you to at least add this work to your to-read list, long as it may be already. For my part, I can’t imagine a better book to have read as I prepare myself to visit a new continent, about the same age as was Tocqueville when he visited these shores, for my own travels in a strange place. And although, lowly American that I am, I cannot hope to achieve even a fraction of what Tocqueville has, perhaps his voice echoing in my ears will be enough to encourage me to look, to listen, and to understand.

View all my reviews