Category Archives: philosophy

Considering Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in Historical Context


Thomas Cole [Public domain], “The Arcadian, or Pastoral State,” via Wikimedia Commons

Looking for a new abridgment of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America? Then look no further. You will have to wait until early November for the release from Lexham Press, but my Democracy in America: A New Abridgment for Students will (hopefully) fill a need. Tocqueville’s Democracy is two volumes–the first volume was published in 1835 and the second followed in 1840. The entire work is about 305,000 words–my abridgment consists of 150,000 words. Many abridgments of Democracy are far too short, so my contribution is designed to offer an accessible abridgment that isn’t cut to the quick.

This September, I will be giving a lecture at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan entitled “How to Read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.” Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) is one of the most recognized names among readers of American political science, philosophy, and history. Most people who are familiar with his name also know that he wrote one of the most important books of modern times dealing with American social ideas and institutions—Democracy in America (1835/1840). While Tocqueville’s name is well known, and his book is frequently referenced and quoted, many who attempt to read the two-volume work find themselves disoriented in what seems to them a howling wilderness of minutiae and esotericism. Still others labor within the work as though it were a diamond mine, hacking away at it in search of usable quotes to deploy for narrow ideological purposes, or to cast Tocqueville as a prophet with warnings for present-day Americans to heed his clairvoyant wisdom. Finally, there are others who simply rely on experts to break it down into bite-sized pieces, in order that they may understand the gist of Tocqueville’s classic before moving on to more recent (and comprehensible) books.

Like any book, we should read Tocqueville’s Democracy with its historical context in mind. Tocqueville wrote his work as an outside observer, not as an American. He wrote as a critical bystander, not as an admirer. And he wrote as one who saw first hand the effects of revolution on his family and his country. Furthermore, he was describing a snapshot of an America that is long gone—Jacksonian America, to be precise. And also, Tocqueville thought of New England as the frame of reference for America. New England left a deep impression on Tocqueville, and so he saw most things outside of New England in relative terms.

Tocqueville’s Democracy is a classic for good reasons. It is an historical artifact, but it is not valuable only as such. But to fully appreciate, grasp, and utilize the work, we must understand how to receive it in our own times. When we join historical with philosophical thinking in our chewing of Democracy, then we may find ourselves most ready to digest and absorb it.

If you’re in Grand Rapids on September 29, drop by the Acton Institute for a noon lecture and Q&A. Would love to see you!


New Abridgment of Tocqueville’s *Democracy in America* Forthcoming

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) , french jurist and political thinker, painting by Chasseriau

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) , french jurist and political thinker, painting by Chasseriau (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

I’ve been out of the blogosphere the past several weeks because I have been finishing up my abridgment of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic work, Democracy in America for Lexham Press. My project was specifically to take a Goldilocks approach to editing this book–to produce an abridgment that was not too short, not too long, but “just right.” Tocqueville’s two volume work comes in at just over 300,000 words, and I brought it down to 150,000. I hope it will serve as a useful resource for students in high school and college, but more importantly, I hope that it is accessible to the broader public.

I included a 9000 word introduction to Tocqueville’s work. In the introduction, I gave a brief biography of Tocqueville and also touched on some of his major themes. Equality of condition, despotism, liberty, manners, religion, exceptionalism, and interest rightly understood figure prominently in Democracy. These are, indeed, some of the things for which the book is most famous. But Tocqueville’s chapter on race–chapter XVIII of Volume I–is the longest chapter in the book. And while Tocqueville admitted that race was a secondary topic in the book, he was unable to simply ignore it. I find it interesting also that Tocqueville’s views on race, which were quite forward thinking for his time, are often slighted or ignored altogether by many who have analyzed his work. One abridgment that I am aware of does not even include chapter XVIII–which I found to be a profound weakness.

One of the ways I hope the abridgment will be useful is that I did not cut any chapter out in either volume I or II. I also did not cut any of Tocqueville’s sentences short. I tried to make logical cuts at appropriate points in the prose, without disturbing Tocqueville’s overall development of his ideas.

More on this project later, but the good news is that I recently submitted the manuscript to the publisher. It should come out in late 2016 in three formats–electronically, as part of the Logos Bible Software platform; paperback; and cloth bound hardback.

In the meantime, head over to The American Conservative and see my op-ed on Tocqueville and the importance of manners in a democracy, and what they say about the status of our national character and value-assumptions.

Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Enlightenment


Last year, I was invited by Veritas Press to participate in the production of a video curriculum for its Omnibus program, geared toward middle and high school students that focused on the history of Western thought. It was a lot of fun, and the best part was that one of my favorite people in the world, my good friend Bruce Etter, was the host of the program. We had a lot of fun doing the interviews on Rousseau–and we also got together for some round table discussions with John Fea of Messiah College. He posted one of the videos on his blog a few months ago.

My students in History of Philosophy are studying Rousseau, and these videos are also for them to watch and review as they gear up for their final exam. Enjoy guys! Study hard! 🙂

*Correction from the first video: I mentioned that John Locke’s conception of justice was that it existed only in the presence of civil law. As the politicians say, I misspoke. I was thinking about Thomas Hobbes, while I was saying John Locke’s name. Sorry!

Off to the HBU Philosophy Conference


Looking forward to attending the fourth annual philosophy conference at Houston Baptist University tomorrow through Saturday. I have been enjoying this conference every year but the first one, and looking at the schedule of papers to be presented, I can see that the trend is going to continue.

This year, the conference theme is “Religion, Science, and the Intellectual Virtues.” None other than Jay Wood of Wheaton College will be the keynote speaker, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing his remarks. I’m a big fan of his introduction to epistemology entitled Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous, which is part of the Contours of Christian Philosophy series published by IVP Academic. Dr. Wood will be giving a lecture Friday evening entitled “How Is Your Intellectual Appetite?” and Saturday afternoon entitled “Intellectual Humility and Scientific Inquiry.”

Here are a few of the paper presentations I am hoping to attend:

John Laing, “Calvinism, Natural Knowledge and Fatalism,” Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

John Macias, “A Defense of the Thomistic Account of Divine Omniscience,” University of St. Thomas

Ben Arbor, “Intellectual Idolatry: On the Incompatibility of Scientific Realism, Methodological Naturalism, and Christian Intellectual Virtues,” University of Bristol

David T. Echelbarger, “Four Virtues of Teaching the Vices,” Baylor University

Shannon Holzer, “The Definition of Rights and Same-Sex Marriage,” HBU

Mike Keas, “Intellectual and Theoretical Virtues in Civil Discourse: Science, Religion, and the Public Square,” College at Southwestern

I’ll be presenting a paper entitled “Exceptionalism as an Aspect of Civil Religion.” Should be a lot of fun.


At the HBU Philosophy Conference

I thoroughly enjoyed the first day at the conference, listening to some good papers, hearing good questions, meeting some interesting scholars and students, and just overall having a philosophical theological par-tay!

The first paper presentation I attended was from an undergraduate, who presented on Hegel. She explained Hegel’s phenomenology in his historical context, by discussing the thinkers who influenced him–Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant. She further explained that Hegel’s contributions are more in the field of epistemology than metaphysics. When she finished her paper, she got some good questions on the relationship of epistemology with metaphysics and she responded to those questions very well.

I had lunch at Quizno’s. Very tasty, but no Co-Cola.

After lunch, I went to two more presentations, one on how neuro-biology does not disprove free will. This was essentially an argument against physicalism, and the presenter’s purpose was mainly to show the limits of scientific inquiry into the human constitution. I would like to have seen him go further and explicitly defend substance dualism, but I had to make peace with disappointment on that score.

The next paper following the neuro-biology one was a defense of theosis against charges of blurring the distinction between Creator and creature and the absorption of the creature into the divine. Very good treatment of the topic as far as I could tell. It was a concept that did not seem to be familiar to the audience (myself included), and a few had a hard time applying some of the terms, but the presenter did a nice job of explaining and illustrating those terms.

I spent the next hour or so getting ready for my own presentation. Right before I spoke, I heard a well articulated paper on the importance of dialogue with other religious traditions in order to advance social justice issues. I’ve been interested in civility lately, so this presentation caught my interest immediately.

I presented my paper, and it went great. Got some good questions and had great discussion. I also got some valuable feedback.

Overall, it has been a very beneficial conference. The discussions have been challenging, respectful, and insightful, and the papers have been valuable and erudite. Looking forward to hearing my colleague John Laing discuss middle knowledge in the morning.

How to Recover and Defend Religious Freedom

Tomorrow, I am attending a philosophy conference at Houston Baptist University. The funny thing is, the theme is Agency and Action in Philosophy and Theology, but I am presenting a paper on religious freedom. Hopefully, someone will want to come to my paper presentation, even though I’m not dealing with middle knowledge, quantum physics, or the neuro-biological challenge to free will.

In this paper entitled “Trends in the Justification of Religious Freedom, 1600-Present,” I will try to do four things: 1) present a brief historical overview to show that the principle of religious freedom has been argued on a theological basis since the first century, 2) show that in the twentieth century, the theological underpinnings for religious freedom have been taken away, leaving ambiguity and incoherence in its wake, 3) look at the Manhattan Declaration as an attempt to recover a theological justification for religious freedom, and 4) show that the Manhattan Declaration is not an inconsistent statement, but is a good start toward recovering the lost theological foundation for religious freedom.

In short, my argument is that theology has served as the basis for religious freedom for centuries until recently, and if those theological underpinnings are not restored, religious freedom will be a thing of the past.

Here is the paper if you’d like to read it.

Looking the Problem of Evil in the Face

Rich Holland is initiating a series of posts on the problem of evil at his blog, “Befriending Wisdom.” Over the next few days and weeks, he is going to address the various manifestations of the problem and attempt to deal with them as a Christian theist.

Dr. Holland’s conviction on the problem of evil is that it may be the most significant challenge to belief in God, and belief in Jesus. How could an all-loving and all-powerful God allow so much evil in the world, and evil that seems to be spread so unevenly in the world? We should all benefit greatly from Holland’s even-handed and readable treatment of the problem.

One important note that Holland gives to Christians is that we must be honest and sensitive as we address the problem with non-believers.

What are your thoughts on this statement he makes at the end of today’s post?

My point here is that if we are going to “solve” the problem of evil (and I think we can do something like that), we must do it with genuine honesty. If God does not exist, then I am wrong about a great many things. In fact, I am confident that God does exist. But if we are not willing to admit – at least in principle – that we can be wrong, then our belief in God is empty and useless, and atheists have no good reason to listen to what we have to say.

Read Holland’s entire piece here.