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Stephen Toulmin, a philosopher …

… on the faculty of the University of Chicago when Les UDs were students there, has died.

… “His big contribution was to bring philosophy from the abstractions of reason and logic — Plato’s world — to the reasonableness of making inquiries into human situations in which questions of morals, ethics and logic come to life,” said Roy Pea, the director of the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning at Stanford University.

… Mr. Toulmin’s provocative ideas often encountered resistance at first, especially in Britain, and his work on argument was no exception. He proposed, instead of formal logic’s three-part syllogism, a model of persuasive argument consisting of six components. Some, he maintained, apply universally but others do not. Arguments, in other words, do not unfold in a Platonic ether, but in particular contexts…

From his 1997 Jefferson Lecture:

Print taught readers to recognize the complexity and diversity of our human experience: instead of abstract theories of Sin and Grace, it gave them rich narratives about concrete human circumstances. Aquinas had been all very well, but figures like Don Quixote or Gargantua were irresistible. You did not have to approve of, or condemn such figures: rather, they were mirrors in which to reflect your own life. Like today’s film makers, 16th century writers in the Humanities from Erasmus and Thomas More to Montaigne and Shakespeare present readers with the kaleidoscope of life. We get from them a feeling for the individuality of characters: no one can mistake Hamlet for Sancho Panza, or Pantagruel for Othello. What count are the differences among people, not the generalities they share. As Eudora Welty said in appreciation of V.S. Pritchett, who died just recently at the age of 96: ‘The characters that fill [his stories] — erratic, unsure, unsafe, devious, stubborn, restless and desirous, absurd and passionate, all peculiar unto themselves — hold a claim on us that cannot be denied. They demand and get our rapt attention, for in the revelation of their lives, the secrets of our own lives come into view. How much the eccentric has to tell us of what is central!’

… Writing early in World War II, near the end of his Notes toward a Supreme Fiction, [Wallace Stevens] refers [to] the contrast I have emphasized here, between reasonableness and rationality. For him, too, Reasonableness is more important than Rationality; and its importance is itself more than an intellectual one. It is the expression – as he puts it – of a “more than rational distortion – the fiction that results from feeling.” I recall one of my Chicago colleagues lecturing on the theme, “Is it rational to act reasonably?” Unless reasonable actions could be proved to fit his abstract moral theory with geometrical precision, respect for human frailty was for him intellectually suspect. Yet, rather than ask, “Is it rational to be reasonable?”, we might equally well ask, “Is it reasonable to argue in rational terms alone? In what situations can we reasonably rely on formal theories?”

… To sum up: like the uniqueness of names, the individuality or particularity of cases and characters divides the world of practice, in its actuality, from the world of theory, with its abstractions. Behind the contrast of the reasonable and the rational, behind the rival attractions of Nation State and Global Future, underlying the survival in a time of general toleration of the things Jefferson called bigotry and priestcraft, lie abstractions that may still tempt us back into the dogmatism, chauvinism and sectarianism our needs have outgrown… Nor is this conflict likely to be resolved permanently. It is another of those conflicts that demand eternal vigilance. So listen again to Wallace Stevens, writing in 1942… :

We shall return at twilight from the lecture,
Pleased that the irrational is rational . . . .
Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night. It is
For that the poet is always in the sun,
Patches the moon together in his room
To his Virgilian cadences, up down,
Up down. It is a war that never ends.


More on Toulmin. An interviewer summarizes:

[L]ike Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty, and many others, Toulmin sees “no legitimate role for theory” and advises that we “be prepared to kiss rationalism goodbye and walk off in the opposite direction with joy in our hearts.” These views are entirely understandable given the fact that Toulmin’s mentor at Cambridge and his principal intellectual influence was Wittgenstein, from whom he inherited “a kind of classical skepticism.” As a committed pragmatist, then, Toulmin’s life’s work has concerned “the recovery of the tradition of practical philosophy that was submerged after the intellectual triumph of theory in the seventeenth century.”

… Toulmin would rather be known as a “neo-premodernist” than as a postmodernist; he believes “the thing to do after rejecting Cartesianism is not to go on through the wreckage of the temple but to go back into the town where this heretical temple was built and rediscover the life that was lived by people for many centuries before the rationalist dream seized hold of people’s minds.”

From his remarks during the interview:

[Jürgen] Habermas comes here to Northwestern most years, and we have a jolly two or three days when he’s here. He gives a couple of lectures, usually on Kant’s ethics as being the ultimate font of universalization and impartiality and the rest. He and I have a kind of joking relationship: he gets up and denounces the neo-Aristotelians, by whom he means some people in Germany who call themselves neo-Aristotelians; then I get up like St. Sebastian, take the arrows full in my chest, and say, “I’m happy to be a neo-Aristotelian.” So we chew that one a bit. Sometimes I ask my colleague Tom McCarthy, “What’s really biting Jürgen; why does he have so much investment in his pragmatics being universal?” Tom explains how different it was growing up in Germany after the Second World War from growing up in England just before and during the Second World War. We really do come out of situations in which what reasonably mattered to us was very different.

… There was a very intelligent conservative politician called Edward Boyle who died ridiculously young. I remember having an amusing conversation with him in which he was explaining how there were certain nineteenth-century novelists–the one he chose to talk about was Thomas Hardy–who could only have written after the invention of the railway and before the invention of the automobile. Chekhov is similar: everybody in Chekhov is always dreaming of going to Moscow in the same way that everybody in Hardy is dreaming of going to London. This comes out in Anna as well. One of the central things in Anna is that Anna finds herself in a series of situations that become progressively intolerable to her; she can’t cope. Because the moral demands made on her are for one reason or another too intense, too unbearable, what happens again and again is that she goes down to the railway station and gets on a train to go somewhere. Where the train is going is the last matter of importance. Right at the end, of course, she is doing it again, only this time a train journey is not enough. This is why, in some ways, the invention of the private car made it much harder to distinguish between the people with whom we are actively engaged in a moral way from day to day, and other people.

Margaret Soltan, December 11, 2009 8:54AM
Posted in: professors

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2 Responses to “Stephen Toulmin, a philosopher …”

  1. RJO Says:

    One of my few intellectual heros. He was consistently a generation ahead of his time.

    He was also a residential college master.

    A list of his publications I prepared years ago.

  2. david foster Says:

    "I remember having an amusing conversation with him in which he was explaining how there were certain nineteenth-century novelists–the one he chose to talk about was Thomas Hardy–who could only have written after the invention of the railway and before the invention of the automobile"

    There’s a very interesting book by landscape architecture professor John Stillgoe ("Metropolitan Corridor") on the impact of the railway on how people perceive and think. My brief review is here.

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