The Chronicle Review

Wise Men Gone

Michael Marsland, Yale U and Donna Toulmin

John E. Smith and Stephen Toulmin
January 24, 2010

For what achievements should we remember a philosophy professor after the final counterexample arrives, cloaked in black, bearing a scythe?

In regard to two insufficiently heralded giants who died in their late 80s this past December, let one achievement stand tallest: old-fashioned wisdom, particularly wisdom about the intellectual activity they practiced and about the illusion of technique (as the existentialist William Barrett famously dubbed it) to which that activity is perennially susceptible.

Say what you will about Stephen Toulmin, a professor at the University of Southern California's Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies, and John Edwin Smith, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Yale University, but few thinkers understood more deeply the intellectual foibles of those drawn to philosophy's illusions of certainty, and few worked harder to keep the practice tethered to the recalcitrant world it supposedly explains. Toulmin I knew only through books. Smith entered my life like a locomotive propelled through seminars by brawny energy and verbal pizazz: He was my first philosophy professor in graduate school, not to mention the first one who smiled and laughed broadly and heartily, talked easily about things great and small, and explained the tradition as if he'd read every book within it.

Toulmin, born in London in 1922, earned his undergraduate degree in 1942 from King's College, Cambridge, in mathematics and physics. After participating in radar research and intelligence work during World War II in England and at Allied headquarters in Germany, he returned to Cambridge, where he studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein, the greatest influence on his thought, earning his Ph.D. in moral philosophy in 1948. Next followed a brief stint teaching philosophy of science at the University of Oxford, a longer stay at the University of Leeds, and five years directing the Nuffield Foundation's Unit for the History of Ideas, in London. In 1965, Toulmin moved to the United States, where he taught at Brandeis, Michigan State, and Northwestern Universities and the University of Chicago before landing in 1993 at the University of Southern California.

Toulmin's first, most enduring contribution to keeping philosophy sensible came in his 1958 book, The Uses of Argument (Cambridge University Press). Deceptively formalistic on its surface because it posited a general model of argument, Toulmin's view, in fact, was better described as taxonomic, yet flexible. He believed that formal systems of logic misrepresent the complex way that humans reason in most fields requiring what philosophers call "practical reason," and he offered, accordingly, a theory of knowledge as warranted belief.

Toulmin rejected the abstract syllogistic logic, meant to produce absolute standards for proving propositions true, that had become fashionable in analytic philosophy. Instead he argued (in the spirit of Wittgenstein) that philosophers must monitor how people actually argue if the philosophers' observations about persuasion are to make any sense. Toulmin took jurisprudential reasoning as his chief example in The Uses of Argument, but he believed that some aspects of a good argument depend on the field in which they're presented, while others are "field invariant."

The larger point of his book became clear only as it exerted its influence on his own thinking and that of others: The "philosophy of argument," a task typically relegated by philosophy departments to departments of rhetoric and communication (except when dealing with formal, symbolic logic), forms a necessary grounding for philosophy writ large. According to Frans H. van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst, and Tjark Kruiger, in their authoritative Handbook of Argumentation Theory (Foris, 1987), Toulmin's "central thesis is that every sort of argumentation can in principle claim rationality and that the criteria to be applied when determining the soundness of the argumentation depend on the nature of the problems to which the argumentation relates."

In philosophy, crowded with researchers prone to reject observations that obstruct the quest for certainty, thinkers paid less attention to that thesis than did those in rhetoric and communications, where Toulmin helped revolutionize how many viewed argument. The authors of the Handbook write that it is "very largely thanks to Toulmin that interest in argumentation theory has increased considerably since 1960, both within and outside philosophical circles." Alas, mainly outside. Nonetheless, in Rhetoric and Hermeneutics in Our Time: A Reader (Yale University Press, 1997), the contributor William Rehg commented on the better-known Jürgen Habermas's "appropriation of Toulmin" and the ways in which "Habermas's theory of argumentation is heavily indebted to Stephen Toulmin's efforts to move philosophy beyond its narrow focus on formal logic."

Later, in works such as Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Free Press, 1990), Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts (Princeton University Press, 1972), and Return to Reason (Harvard University Press, 2001), Toulmin staked out an intrepid, reportorial approach to the history of philosophy, insisting on an evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) picture of how concepts and paradigms change, an end to the "delusion that human nature and society could be fitted into precise and manageable rational categories," and rich empirical investigation into how yanking the "rational" away from the "reasonable" helped Descartes's foundationalist model of philosophy arise as one that controlled the practice for centuries.

In Cosmopolis, Toulmin started talking up the 16th-century humanist thinker Montaigne as the truly must-read philosopher of the early modern period. Could he have chosen a thinker more likely to drive away the technocrats who dominated professional philosophy at the time? But Toulmin, trained in the hard sciences and mathematics himself, saw through the science worship of less-credentialed sorts. He didn't relent, announcing "our need to reappropriate the wisdom of the 16th-century humanists, and develop a point of view that combines the abstract rigor and exactitude of the 17th-century 'new philosophy' with a practical concern for human life in its concrete detail."

The shrewdness with which Toulmin applied Wittgenstein's late method of conceptual journalism to the rise of modern philosophy itself—the only one of his teacher's disciples to do so with such polymathic research—persisted up to his last major book, Return to Reason. There, drawing on his erudition in the intellectual history of the West, Toulmin declared its upshot: "From now on, permanent validity must be set aside as illusory, and our idea of rationality related to specific functions of ... human reason. ... For me personally, the outcome of 40 years of philosophical critique was thus a new vision of—so to speak—the rhetoric of philosophy."

Somewhere, Isocrates, that ancient philosopher demoted to rhetorician by Plato, must have been smiling, having won a recruit away from Socrates.

In 1997 the National Endowment for the Humanities chose Toulmin as its Jefferson Lecturer, the highest honor the U.S. government bestows on thinkers in the humanities. The choice indicated the cross-disciplinary power of Toulmin's work, similar in that regard to Richard Rorty's, and how great the gap remained between it and the insularity of established philosophy that it repudiated.

John E. Smith, for his part, carved out a career as one of the great philosophy teachers of his time, a prime mover in the enterprise he considered "the recovery of philosophy in America." Born in Brooklyn in 1921, Smith earned his bachelor's and Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia University (and a master's of divinity at Union Theological Seminary). He helped revive philosophy of religion and the serious study of pragmatism without making either believers or secular pragmatists uncomfortable.

The citation read at a March 1996 meeting of the Metaphysical Society of America, which honored Smith with its Founder's Medal, accurately described his approach:

"The heart of his thinking, the central idea, has been his interpretation of the concept of experience as developed in American philosophy. ... Much of his work has involved the interpretation of the European tradition of philosophy, especially Kant, Hegel, and the British empiricists, from the standpoint of the American approach to experience."

The citation noted the many practical ways, beyond the writing of books such as Purpose and Thought: The Meaning of Pragmatism and America's Philosophical Vision, in which Smith resisted the sterile European positivism that threatened to take over the American philosophy profession in the 1950s and 60s. He served as editor of the Yale edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, keeping that redoubtable fount of powerful impulses in American thought alive.

Smith's introductory course, the citation noted, "probably turned more undergraduates to the study of philosophy at Yale than all the other philosophy courses put together. His courses in philosophy of religion and American philosophy defined those fields for many years." Smith also struggled, the citation explained, "to keep the Yale philosophy department a fertile ground for cultivating many different philosophic traditions, often with little help besides his own presence."

"Perhaps most important of all," the citation stated near its conclusion, "he has educated a younger generation in the importance of the public life of philosophy and in how to practice philosophy publicly."

Yes, he did. If the theme resonated throughout his books, it was because it resonates throughout classic American thought. Smith rejected hermeticism, declaring that "we need to regain the boldness and independence of our classical thinkers."

"One conviction," Smith observed in The Spirit of American Philosophy (Yale University Press, 1983), "has been at the center of American reflective thought since Emerson—the conviction that ideas have a cutting edge, that they make a difference, as William James liked to put it, and that they forfeit their claim to our attention just to the extent to which their relevance is not evident. It is no exaggeration to say that in American intellectual life, irrelevant thinking has always been considered the cardinal sin."

Smith lent warmth to that message with his down-to-earth geniality, his droll, Brooklyn sense of humor, his ability to put students at ease with anecdotes about, say, the Italian television series on philosophy that ordered him to come up with a picture of "the Absolute, pronto" or that old teaching assistant of his, Richard Rorty, who seemed so shy at first that Smith was afraid he'd flee the classroom if the door weren't bolted shut.

All of it came wrapped in a grasp of philosophy's history—and the importance of history to philosophy's practice—that stressed the openness of Peirce, Royce, James, and Dewey to life and the conceptual universe as it is, rather than as precisionist poseurs would like it to be. Against the exhausted scientism of the analysts, and the supposed primacy of a purely theoretical epistemology long since rendered defunct by Dewey and James, he emphasized the "intimacy between action and thought" at the heart of American thinking.

In their capacious approach to the history of their calling, their shared insistence on how imagination and contingency shape our imperfect stabs at truth, Toulmin and Smith transcended the role of career philosophy professors. They became philosophers in the grand sense that still draws young people around the world to the subject, until the phony logic-choppers drive them away.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.