Tocqueville on the Necessity and Desirability of Dogmatism

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Jonathan Bi:

"The Necessity of Dogmatism

Dogmatic is necessary, in a first sense, simply because we do not have the intellectual capacity nor time to examine each and every one of our beliefs. We must take a subset of beliefs for granted and build meaningful structures on them.

If I now consider men as individuals, I find that dogmatic beliefs are no less vital for a man on his own than for when he acts in common with his fellows. If man was forced to prove for himself all the truths he employs each day, he would never reach an end; he would drain his energies in initial experiment without advancing at all. Since there is not the time, because of the short span of our lives, nor the ability, because of the limitations of our minds, to act in that way, he is reduced to the taking on trust a host of facts and opinions which he has neither the time nor the power to examine and verify by his own efforts but which have been discovered by abler minds than his or which have been adopted by the populace. Upon this primary foundation he erects the structure of his own thought. He is not brought to this manner of advancing by his own will but is limited by the unbending laws of his own condition.

Every great philosopher in the world believes a million things upon the authority of someone else and supposes many more truths than he can prove.

Even if one could labor to examine all of his or her opinions, dogmatism would still be necessary, in a second sense, for the formation of societies. The argument goes as such: individuals will simply come to too fundamental of disagreements, they won’t be able to coordinate collaborative action, and there can be no society. I found this eerily similar to the state of nature which the Chinese political philosopher Mozi detailed. It is neither amour proper, nor glory, nor a lack of resources which troubles Mozi’s state of nature but rather a difference in opinion. From there on his elucidation mirrors that of T.’s: when people couldn’t agree on things, they couldn’t act collectively, when they couldn’t act collectively, they could not overcome nature and her challenges.

Depending on the times, beliefs of a dogmatic character are more or less common. They arise in different ways and can change their shape and object; but it is not possible for such dogmatic opinions not to exist— that is to say, opinions which men take on trust and without discussion. If every man chose to form for himself all his opinions in an isolated pursuit for truth along paths followed by himself alone, it is unlikely that a great number of men would ever come together in any commonly shared belief. But it is easy to see that no social grouping can prosper without shared beliefs or rather there are none which exist in that way; for, without commonly accepted ideas, there is no common action, and without common action, men exist separately but not as a social unit. For society to exist and all the more so, for such a society to prosper, all the citizens’ minds must be united and held together by a few principal ideas. This could not possibly exist unless each of them occasionally draws his opinions from the same source and agrees to accept a certain number of ready-formed beliefs.

The Desirability of Dogmatism

But T. goes even further, and argues that not only is Dogmatism necessary but in many instances it is highly desirable. Christianity, at least for the US, is the prime example. T. takes the conclusions of Christianity which govern one’s worldly pursuits, general duties, and relationships with others to be of immense practical benefit to society independent of its more transcendental consequences. Even if one could reach such conclusions through reasoning alone, one would still be plagued with doubt in their actions compared to the religious dogmatic. Dogmatism, then, appears to be desirable because only through it can one reach certain highly beneficial (for oneself and community) beliefs about the world and, more importantly, only through it can one hold said beliefs with high conviction.

Men have, therefore, a huge interest in creating fixed ideas about God, their soul, their general duties toward their creator and fellow men; for any doubt about these first concerns would put all their actions at risk and would condemn them in some way to confusion and impotence. This is, therefore, the most important matter upon which each of us should have settled ideas. Unfortunately, it is most difficult for each of us, if we are alone, to arrive at such settled ideas using only our own reason. Only minds freed completely from the ordinary preoccupations of life, minds of great depth and astuteness can, with the help of ample time and attention, penetrate such vital truths. Even then, we see that philosophers themselves are almost always hedged around with doubts, that, at every step, the natural light which illuminates them grows dim and threatens to be blotted out and that, in spite of all their efforts, they have as yet managed to uncover only a small number of contradictory notions upon which the human mind has floated endlessly for thousands of years without managing a firm hold upon the truths or even finding new errors. Such studies are quite beyond the average human capacity and, even when the majority of men were capable of such pursuits, they clearly would not have the free time.

Problematic Dogmatism

But in our appraisal for dogmatism, let us not forget T.’s heed against the tyranny of the majority, a form of dogmatism so crude, disastrous, and soul-sucking that he termed it “enslavement”. “I observe how, beneath the power of certain laws, democracy would blot out that intellectual liberty supported by the social, democratic state in such a way that, having broken the shackles formerly imposed upon it by class systems or men, the human spirit would be closely confined by the general will of the majority.”

Dogmatism therefore, like many things in T., occupies a paradoxical position. On one hand it is necessary for society and produces many desirable consequences, on another, it is responsible for the greatest form of tyranny. Is there something more we can say to differentiate between productive and unproductive dogmatism?

Clearly, there are not two distinct species of dogmatism that are fundamentally different. Dogmatism is dogmatism: conviction in beliefs without examination.

The distinction must be either of degree, topic, or subject. That is how much one is dogmatic, about what one is dogmatic, and who is dogmatic that may separate productive dogmatisms from their unproductive counterparts.

First, T. might hold the position that dogmatism is only productive if, when presented with sufficient evidence, one agrees to change one’s position. While this sounds productive empirical, T. might reject that it is better, at least when religious or patriotic matters are concerned, to have a high degree of dogmaticity.

The second way to distinguish between these two forms is what one is dogmatic about. Perhaps for T. we should compartmentalize our intellectual freedom and curiosity to only certain arenas that do not challenge the moral and cohesive fabric of society, like the modes by which we conduct commerce.

Lastly, T. could also plausibly hold the position that only the majority should be dogmatic, while the intellectual elite who has abundant time and talent should challenge traditional assumptions and push society forward."