Stephen Toulmin, Philosopher, 1922-2009

The philosopher Stephen Toulmin has died. I only met him once, in a very long bar on the San Francisco waterfront, the home purportedly of Irish coffees. I introduced myself — I had seen him earlier in the day at a philosophy conference — and he was warm and friendly, with (as is said in England) no side to him at all.  We drank a great many Irish coffees and I went home drunk and somewhat nauseous, but thrilled nevertheless. 

Toulmin was a hero of mine although, as is the nature of philosophy, I did not always agree with him. His first book was on ethics, An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics, and as an undergraduate I had found it incredibly useful in understanding the various positions that one could take about moral theory and its foundations. What are the differences between Kantians and utilitarians, and what are the possible groundings of these various ideas? Never, ever, underestimate the importance of a good meat-and-potatoes sort of book that lays out the basics in a non-flashy but sensible manner.

Toulmin then turned to the philosophy of science. He wrote an excellent little book, The Philosophy of Science: An Introduction, in what was then a major academic series in England, the Hutchinson University Library. Some 20 years later I was very proud that my first book, The Philosophy of Biology, was also published in that series and that the first reviewer, Anthony Flew, drew attention to this fact and praised me as a worthy successor.  These days Flew, who before Dawkins was the atheists’ atheist, has gone off into flights of religious fancy — one fears that, like the aged Bertrand Russell, there are those who are using a man past his prime for their own ends — but he too was a hero of mine, another who could write on important subjects clearly without trivializing or condescending.

Toulmin then became increasingly interested in the history of science and by the early 1960s, like the American Norwood Russell Hanson, he was one of those people who was starting to think that the then-reigning “logical empiricism” (of people like Richard Braithwaite, Carl Hempel, and Ernest Nagel), that insisted on logical reconstructions of scientific theories and that drew a strict line between the context of discovery and the context of justification, was simply inadequate to analyze the intricacies and downright cultural nature of science, past and present.  

As it happens, these reformers all got rather swamped or pushed aside by the arrival in 1962 of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  After that, it was paradigms all of the way, and a real threat to logical empiricism had arrived on the scene. (As it happens, my Philosophy of Biology written ten years later was a late flowering of logical empiricism. The next year I spent on my first sabbatical at the University of Cambridge, learning how to do the history of science, and I have spent the last 40 years trying to make amends for that first book.)

Toulmin then took up what is known in the trade as “evolutionary epistemology,” arguing that Darwinian evolution is a good model for the development of science: Ideas battle for existence as do organisms. This is an idea that can be found in the Descent of Man by Charles Darwin himself, but that finds its first real enthusiasts among the American pragmatists, especially William James. Others who embraced this philosophy included the late Karl Popper, who naturally of course thought that he had invented it all himself. (That is a nasty crack but not entirely unmerited. I have great admiration for Popper and his lifelong commitment to Enlightenment ideals, including the emphasis on the significance of scientific knowledge.)

I myself don’t think this kind of analogy works — for a start I do think that science proceeds towards the truth, whereas I see Darwinian evolution as undirected. (Anyone who says that it is directed towards the highest form of organism, humankind, has obviously never lived with teenagers.) But I think it an important idea to think about, if then to reject. In a new anthology I have just put together, Philosophy after Darwin: Classic and Contemporary Readings (published by Princeton University Press), I include a great essay on the topic, by Toulmin, written back in 1967. His book Human Understanding (1972) goes into the topic in much detail, but gets rather boring in my opinion.

I don’t think Toulmin is much read by philosophers these days, although obviously I am trying to do my bit. The funny thing, however, is that in departments of rhetoric and like studies he is a major figure, thanks to a little book he wrote on informal logic back in 1958. I have never read The Uses of Argument and if I was asked about its contents I could answer only because I looked it up on Wikipedia 10 minutes ago — so if you want to find out, you had better go there yourself. But just a month ago I was talking to a scholar of rhetoric at Georgia State, who told me he had written his thesis on Toulmin and that the ideas were very important in his field. 

I suspect that this all tells you a little about me and a lot about the way that academics close themselves off from other disciplines. There are two lies always told at job interviews. One, we take teaching seriously. Two, we value interdisciplinary studies. Take it from me. Don’t try either until you have gotten tenure. (I know that at this point all of the humorless readers of the CHE will explode.  Of course I know that teaching evaluations and so forth will count. But imagine you are a young scholar in a research-oriented university and you told your chair that you wanted to spend your summers working on alternative paradigms in the classroom, or some such thing. And I would have a fortune if I had a buck for every time someone has said, usually about me: “Not real philosophy.”)

I celebrate the life of a man who lived the life of the mind to the full.

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