Decoding liberalism through Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings

Published: August 19, 2016
Anthropology prof explains concept using French philosopher's work.

Anthropology prof explains concept using French philosopher's work. PHOTO: FILE

KARACHI: It is not shocking to see a packed hall at The Second Floor (T2F) but to see a significant number of people enthusiastically participating in a discussion on liberalism came as a pleasant surprise.

Arsalan Khan, assistant professor of anthropology at Union College, USA whose research focuses on rituals, gender and ethics in the Islamic revival in Pakistan, spoke on the work of French philosopher and historian Alexis de Tocqueville and his insight on liberalism.

Speaking on the occasion, he said that liberalism is an idea which revolves around an individual; Tocqueville`s work was a comparative study of the US state and society in relation with the French aristocracy.

Khan said that while Tocqueville never used the term ‘US culture’, when he spoke about the ‘habits of the heart with which they approach’ he was indeed speaking about the US culture.

“Culture gives a specific approach of thinking towards the world and according to him in the US, due to its culture, it was the most individualistic society,” he added. “Unlike Marx and Durkham, we see in Tocqueville`s work a comparison of two different societies, US democracy and French aristocracy, and how they function.”

Khan opined that according to Tocqueville`s observations, US citizens were more prone to reject traditionalism than the French and it was due to this fact that American liberalism advocated that ‘the authority we are striving for should be internal, rather than external’.

Khan also looked into the major paradoxes Tocqueville noted in a liberal society, primarily regarding the notion of equality. He said while taking equality in practice, in which everyone is as equal as any other person, the individual feels small and the pertinent question which arises is how can one achieve ‘the truth’.

“This is when Tocqueville believes that the greater truth is with the greater number,” Khan added. “As everyone is equal, the majority would be more likely to be close to the truth. The more numbers the truth has, the more legitimate it would be.”

Khan`s lecture was followed by a question and answer session where it was observed that the participants did not hesitate to express their opinions on the subject.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th, 2016.

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