In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Another Technical Note
  2. La Ligne Maginot
  3. Actress Notes
  4. Technical Day
  5. Peripheral Explanation
  6. More Immigration Links
  7. Another Graphic Detournement
  8. Peripheral Artists (5): Mikhail Vrubel
  9. Illegal Update

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Micro-Movie Distribution | Main | Elsewhere »

November 11, 2004

Stephen Toulmin

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Do you guys bother much with philosophy? In my hyper-amateurish way, I have the occasional go at it, though I sometimes wonder why. Body vs. mind, science vs. faith, left vs. right, objective vs. subjective -- good lord, what a bunch of over-rehearsed debates. The fingers pulling the triggers may change, but the spectacle always consists of the the same old guns firing the same old bullets. What is deconstruction if not the Western philosophy-conversation dismantling itself in protest over its own sheer tiresomeness? Meanwhile pretending to accomplish something of significance, of course.

Does every Western-civ discussion have to steer us into the same dead ends? My hunch -- for what very little it's worth -- is that the answer is no. Happy to admit that I'm not remotely qualified to make these sorts of judgments. On my best day, I'm a struggling Philosophy-102 student. Well, not even a student; I just like reading intros-to-philosophy, the same way I like reading intros-to-economics. I'm almost always happier reading a good popularization of philosophy history than I am reading the actual work of philosophers, a fact I'm tempted to blame on the philosophers. How many of them qualify as enjoyable prose stylists, after all? But the truth is more likely that I'm just lazy, and enjoy being spoon-fed difficult subjects.

Still, still. If I'm no scholar and am plenty fuzzy-headed, I've read a lot of basic philosophy, and I've even got a couple of philosophy-prof friends who offer trustworthy guidance and ridicule. So I've indulged myself, and have developed a few preferences and impressions. (Hume rules!) A hyper-general question, for instance: can anyone argue that modern (ie., Descartes and forward) Western philosophy has done anyone much good?

Granted that it's fun ... Granted that it's an enormous, intricate edifice ... And granted that it's been assembled by brilliant minds and hands ... But to what end? It's my impression that the standard modern-Western philosophy-thing isn't peddling anything in the way of conclusions or "truth," let alone trustworthy life advice. (God forbid.) Instead, all modern-Western-philosophy has really been able to do is identify about a dozen Perpetual Major Questions (God, causality, right-and-wrong, knowledge, etc), and line up the major arguments that get made on various sides of these questions. Which, admittedly, is some kind of accomplishment. Nigel Warburton's "Philosophy: The Basics" takes just this approach; it's one of the quick intros I've enjoyed most.

A naif's question: are the people who are currently "doing philosophy" able to add much to what the tradition has already laid down? The impression I've taken away from some timid looks into up-to-date philosophy is that it's a matter of filling in the few, tiny remaining squares -- an activity for specialists and tenured-prof-wannabes only. Between you and me, and off-the-record only, my philosophy-prof friends giggle at the idea that anything major remains to be done in modern Western philosophy.

But, y'know, there are also all those non-standard philosophers whose work I've run into ... And those people who are impressive thinkers without being officially-sanctioned philosophers ...

Despite my total lack of qualifications, I've enjoyed using this blog to pass along the names of some thinkers whose work strikes me as useful, fresh, and helpful. (Useful and helpful -- imagine that.) For whatever sicko reasons, I've spent a lot of time searching out hypersmart people who don't steer you into the usual dismal corners -- the corners where you "have to" think this and you "have no choice" but to do that. So shoot me: I've craved insights and questions that don't shut the conversation down but instead open the world up. A few examples:

OK, maybe Nicole Kidman hasn't yet earned her place on this list. And maybe a number of these people don't qualify as philosophers. But by god they're thinkers -- and maybe it'd do philosophy some good to open itself up to them.

My current guy is Stephen Toulmin, a real-live philosopher whose work I didn't stumble across until a few months ago. He's my current Main Man.

By the way, imagine my amazement and envy when I learned that co-Blowhard Francis Morrone discovered the work of the great Michael Oakeshott while still in college. I didn't run across Oakeshott until I was in my 40s; I doubt my college's bookstore carried any of Oakeshott's books. (Norman O. Brown was certainly easy to find, though.) And imagine my double-amazement and my double-envy when I learned that Francis had actually studied with Stephen Toulmin, whose name I'd been completely unfamiliar with until six months ago. Well, some people have all the luck. The rest of us, I guess, self-educate in our rare free hours.

Hmm, how to do a useful, Cliff's Notes-style intro to Toulmin's thinking? Toulmin's work, it seems to me, can be thought of as consisting of three main parts.

  • He offers a characterization and a critique of modernity. Toulmin believes that modern philososphy -- ie., the thinking-cycle that began with Descartes and that may have disappeared up its own ass with Wittgenstein -- has run its course. Toulmin's hardly the first to make this claim, of course. But I find his account more compelling than most. For Toulmin, modernity is characterized by its attitude towards knowledge and truth, both which it insists on measuring in scientific-technical terms. All knowledge and all truth is to be evaluated in relation to abstract formal principles -- geometry, physics, math. Theorems and proofs? Real knowledge. A seat-of-the-pants feel for things? Not-knowledge.

    What makes Toulmin -- who started out as a science guy, who knew Isaiah Berlin, and who studied with Wittgenstein -- eye-opening is that he doesn't make his critique either from totally within or from totally outside the western-philosophical tradition. As Toulmin points out, most critiques of Descartes-derived philosophy are made from a Descartes-ian point of view. They're critiques that claim to free Western thought from its self-imposed bonds, but that in fact only tighten them further. BTW, this is one of the problems with deconstructivist architecture. Deconstructivism announces itself as having licked the problems -- bleakness, alienation, top-downness -- of modernism; yet it seems perfectly obvious to me that all deconstructivism has really accomplished is to take modernism and give it some chic twists. Forgive me for thinking that the problems of modernism aren't to be solved by turning straight edges into wavy ones, or by transforming flat planes into swoopy ones.

  • Toulmin locates and looks at modernity in context. He sees modernity as obsessed with a quest for certainty of a very peculiar sort: with statements whose truth-content holds everywhere and always. In Toulmin's view, statements and arguments can't be fully understood outside the situations from which they arise. This isn't to say that E doesn't equal MC-squared; it is to say that we can't fully understand the significance of the equation without knowing how, when, and why it presented itself.

    So in his own work, Toulmin tries to set modernity itself -- which he takes to mean the post-Renaissance, Euro-descended mind -- in a larger context. As he tells the story in "Cosmopolis" and "Return to Reason," modernity's obsession with using formal logic to nail down bits of irrefutable truth arose for a variety of specific reasons. Europe in the Renaissance was coming out of a long stretch of religious wars -- which means that traditional religion was providing anything but a firm basis for the peace and relief that Europeans craved. People were desperate for calm; they were looking for a shared understanding -- any shared understanding -- that could stop the killing and return life to normal. Since Descartes' idea of a rationalistic approach to knowledge seemed to provide a firm-enough basis for setting aside the chaos and death, Western-civ grabbed the concept and ran with it.

    As Toulmin tells it, the Descartes-Newton version of certainty started to crumble in the late 1800s, as doubts arose about the clockwork universe. Hmm -- perhaps there was a lot more to life than mechanical explanations could account for ... But Europe then entered another long stretch of war and misery, aka the first half of the 20th century. And once again certainty became attractive.

    Interesting to note that Toulmin compares Modernism in the arts to the late-Renaissance's search for certainty, by the way; he suggests that Modernism be understood as a religious-esque response to the chaos of 20th century Europe.

    In Toulmin's view, the rationalistic approach might have crumbled circa 1900 if the chaos of war hadn't once again made people desperate for certainties. Modernism? A substitute church of certainty. But the 20th century Euro-wars came to an end finally, and when they did, the flaws in rationalistic modernity reemerged, plain for all to see. The structure of ratonalistic modernity gave way entirely in the 1960s; we've been trying to scotch-tape together some new sense of things ever since.

  • Part three of Toulmin's project is his discussion of what an alternative approach to knowledge and truth might be. After all, here we are amidst the rubble of the Descartes-ian thing: what to do now? (I find it endearing and admirable that Toulmin -- unlike so many critical-thinking types -- feels the need to suggest something positive.) Without denying the utility or the triumphs of the rationalistic and the scientific, Toulmin asks us to take a look at what was lost when the scientistic approach prevailed.

    To convey what this is, I'll need to sketch out Toulmin's view of the Renaissance. In Toulmin's account, the Renaissance wasn't One Big Thing. He suggests thinking of it instead as happening in two phases. Phase One was the humanistic Renaissance -- informal, modest, open: Erasmus, Montaigne, and Rabelais are the patron saints here. But the makeshift quality of this gestalt couldn't deliver the certainties a desperate Europe craved. Hence, Phase Two, the Renaissance's scientistic/rationalistic phase.

    As the Descartes-Newtonian gestalt prevailed and evolved into the modern world, the virtues of Phase One got lost -- or at least began to be seen as inessential. Easily ignored. Soft. Pussy stuff, really. We got to be downright apologetic about non-formal kinds of knowledge -- about what craft, art, apprenticeships, habit, tradition, and seat-of-the-pants experience represent.

    Which leads Toulmin to suggest that the time has come to reaffirm the virtues of the early Renaissance. (That's what he means by "Return to Reason.") Understand that truth and knowledge come in many flavors and sizes; remember that, since growth and change never stop, the conversation must remain open; realize that disciplines and categories aren't eternal, but instead form and re-form; recall that the observer and the speaker are always part of the process or subject under discussion. If you've ever wondered why on-the-ground practical knowledge isn't accorded the respect given to formal logic and scientific knowledge, and if you've ever resented those who extoll the formal at the expense of the informal, Toulmin may be the guy for you.

All very provocative and helpful. But, as far as I'm concerned, Toulmin's greatest contribution is the way he distinguishes between (and describes) what he calls "the rational" and "the reasonable" -- between proceeding-via-formal-logic and proceeding-via-informal-reasoning. (Toulmin very likably indulges in a lot of "there are two kinds of people"-style analogizing to make his points.) His view here hinges on the distinction between rationality and reasonableness.

Rationalism and formal logic are modeled on math; they're the kind of knowledge or techniques that we learn when we take classes: formulas, syllogisms, equations, and such -- book-l'arnin', basically. This is knowledge and these are skills that get us through math and science, that help with software programming and debate. But, as Toulmin points out, rationality doesn't account for much of the rest of life. Yet we muddle through anyway. How? It can't be because we lack real knowledge, can it?

Toulmin thinks not. He terms what we call on to negotiate our way through the day "informal reasoning": the myriad means we call on so that we can accomplish what we need and want to do. He doesn't stop there, though -- and this is, IMHO, what makes him really exciting. He also asks: what characterizes the procedures we use to get through most of life? He comes up with many insights into this. A handful of examples: we're always in motion; information is always incomplete; time is almost always a factor; yet decisions have to be made and actions have to be taken anyway. We're seldom able to rely on absolute certainties; in order to work and play, we make use of likelihood, experience, habit, instinct, and probability.

As a result, pragmatism, openness, humility, prudence, and flexibility are what Toulmin values. Christopher Alexander fans will get a kick out of the fact that Toulmin gives what he notices about informal reasoning the label "patterns," though he seems unaware of Alexander. "Patterns" in the Alexander sense are ways of proceeding that have evolved over time and that can be relied on to contribute to the "alive-ness" of buildings and spaces -- they're like bits of useful DNA. Toulmin's "patterns" are similar; they might be thought of as the ways we've evolved to get through the day. And like Alexander's patterns, Toulmin's have grown out of specific contexts and histories. Toulmin shows the same kind of respect for the setting (and history) of an utterance that Alexander (and some others) show for the setting of a building or neighborhood.

Oakeshott fans reading Toulmin might well be reminded of Oakeshott's "modes." Oakeshott argues that various modes of knowledge -- the poetic and the political, for instance -- don't necessarily have much to do with each other; it's often a mistake to take a procedure that works well in one mode of experience and apply it to another. Instead, he urges that individual fields be understood as open-ended conversations that have their own identities; and he argues that what it means to become competent in a field is to become a competent participant in that specific conversation. Fields need to be understood and experienced in their own terms, in other words. They're discussions that need to be lived through from the inside out. Otherwise, all you've got is book-l'arnin'.

(A humble MBlowhard interjection here: art in my view has more to do with what "works" for artists and audiences than it does with enacting ideas. You pick the art-thing up less from theory than via osmosis and experience. Art history is the story of what has worked and what hasn't.)

I don't know how anyone else reading this feels, but typing out these words I'm getting mighty enthusiastic. Reading Toulmin hits me as hard as reading Bernard Rudofsky's great Architecture Without Architects did many years ago. In this head-clearing little book, Rudofsky does one simple thing: he points out that many fabulous buildings and towns were made without benefit of what we think of as "architects." How's that possible? And what does it lead us to conclude about whether or not architects are needed -- whether or not they're ever needed? Toulmin points out something similar: what an awful lot of respectable thinking gets done without the help of officially-sanctioned "thinkers." So: do we even need these "thinkers"?

Perhaps -- in architecture and thinking both -- we defer too much to the official, the theoretical, the academic, the math-centric, and the formal. Even in matters of taste, Americans especially are notoriously insecure. We love our pop treats but feel something's missing. But we're rubes, too; and when we turn to the big boys for tips and guidance, we're touchy and suspicious. Alas, our experts often don't serve us well; they often steer us to works that enrapture them but that we find awful.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we defer too easily to those who set themselves up as "thinkers." (And then, feeling burned by their input, reject the whole idea of "thinking.") Toulmin springs us from that trap. His point is that of course what we use through the day qualifies as thought; it's just thought of a different nature than formal-logic-type thought. And he argues that the knowledge we obtain and achieve via informal reasoning deserves every bit the respect that knowledge gained via formal reasoning deserves. Given how much more we rely on it, perhaps it deserves more respect than formal rationality does.

Reading Toulmin, I felt like a cage had been lifted off my head. Like the other thinkers I list above, Toulmin has the effect of decompressing and de-neuroticizing my thought processes. Your own procedures and your own experiences are basically OK. You may want to enrich and enhance the standard thing -- but it isn't really necessary, despite what the experts would have you believe. If you do want to extend your reach, why not base your actions on what you're already comfortable with? And, by the way, why shouldn't we make the experts perform their pirouettes in ways that suit us? Interesting to note that Toulmin thinks that philosophers are often at their best not when they're doing philosophy in the usual abstract sense, but when they're sitting with someone from a different field entirely and helping that person puzzle out questions and issues.

Happy to admit that there were moments reading Toulmin when I felt like Moliere's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, foolishly dazzled to learn that he was speaking something called "prose." Whoa -- who knew? But that's OK. After four hundred years of neglect, our day-to-day reasoning deserves some lingering-over, as well as some love and appreciation.

I get the impression that Toulmin is skeptical of the idea of abstract, universally-applicable philosophical truths. This may be part of the reason I'm so enthusiastic about his work; I'm temperamentally averse to an overreliance on theory -- or rather, Theory. (As The Wife will testify with an exasperated roll of the eyes, I have no end of open-to-revision, small-T theories.) As soon as I sense that someone is arguing deductively from principles, my warning-alarms go off. The Marxist thing is comin' at me? Sorry, vetoed. The libertarian gospel is being sung? Not by me, dude. I prefer to deal with as much as possible on a case by case basis -- which isn't to say that rough generalities aren't necessary, and of immense help.

So I was thrilled to read passages where Toulmin praises the case-study approach to medicine and law. I'm just guessing, but I suspect that Toulmin would find Oliver Sacks far more useful and provocative than Derrida. Me, I'm endlessly interested in how people go about their jobs, their lives, their loves, and their tasks. (I'm even interested in the way some people feel a compulsion to deduce-from-Theory. Well, I'm sort of interested in this, anyway.) As far as I'm concerned, if you set aside the search-for-certainties -- if you just sign off on it and breeze on by it -- a whole wonderful world opens up: a world of interesting things to be observed, said, experienced, and reflected on. Conversations stop grinding to painful halts and start joyfully rockin' out once again.

As for theory in the arts? I'm not much drawn to it; I prefer to discuss works and art-things as they arise. You don't learn as much about horses from watching them being herded into a corral as you do from watching them find their own way through a wide range of situations. (Including, maybe, being herded into a corral.) I've run into some art-theorizing that has been fun, and a little more that has been useful. But not much, really. Toulmin has helped me understand my beefs with the arts world far more than any Theory has. The literature vs. genre fiction pickle, for instance. Lit fiction has become academicized, theoretical, and intellectual -- nearly everyone agrees about this, even those of us who have our contempo-lit pleasures and favorites. So perhaps it's useful to think of contempo lit-fiction as the fiction of rationalists -- fiction that works more from princiiple and theory than from what works. Genre fiction, while much more catch-as-catch-can than lit-fiction, has retained its informality, and its service orientation. It accepts what life is, it doesn't attempt to overcome the business side of publishing, and it has no trouble with people's basic fiction desires. Instead, that's where it starts.

All of this may smack a bit of post-modernism. And perhaps for some the specter of total relativism rises up here. I don't think anyone needs to be alarmed, though. Toulmin is anything but theoretical and dogmatic -- and, IMHO, the problem with post-modernism (which I blogged about here) isn't its openness, it's the way that po-mo propagandists have hardened it into dogma. I like po-mo just fine so long as it remains an acknowledgement of life's variety and richness; it's when it becomes a prescription for how one ought to proceed that I object. An exchange with an interviewer helps illustrate Toulmin's subtlety on some of these points:

Interviewer: Do you disagree generally with the thesis that knowledge is a social construct?

Toulmin: I never know what that phrase means. Saying that knowledge is a social construct need only be to say the same thing I've already said -- namely, that for me all questions about knowledge have to be situated. If being a social construct only means situated, well yes. But I'll tell you, I don't like the word social. It's too narrow. It pushes one in the direction of sociology and politics in cases where more may be at stake than sociology and politics.

Oakeshott -- a hybrid liberal-conservative ("I'm a conservative in politics because I'm a radical in everything else") -- comes close to informal post-modernism in many ways too; it's odd that Toulmin never mentions Oakeshott in his own work. In any case, you'll never catch Toulmin saying that there's no such thing as truth. His focus is different. What he says instead is that there are many different kinds of knowledge, and they shouldn't all be judged according to how well they conform to rationalistic-scientific standards. And he certainly never claims there's no such thing as untruth. He calls himself a "neo-premodernist," a pragmatist, and a skeptic, and that seems a fair self-asessment.

FWIW, one of my philosophy-prof consultants tells me that, in his opinion, Toulmin's original arguments -- made in the early 1950s -- were genuinely mind-blowing. But, in his opinion, Toulmin's succeeding books haven't lived up to the brilliance of the early work. He also tells me that Toulmin has never been taken up enthusiastically by other philosophers -- no surprise, given that Toulmin's basically arguing that the modern-Western-philosophy crowd is working an already-exhausted field.

It don't bother me none. My own problems with Toulmin are minor. For one thing, he's less suspicious than I am of some of the responses to postmodernity that are coming from governments, businesses, NGO's, and economists. Perhaps Toulmin's right to trust them; but perhaps his judgment is sunnier than mine because ... Well, I dunno. Maybe he's a nice guy and I'm a cynic. I do notice that his daughter works for an NGO, though. Me, I think a lot of these adaptations are matters of the same old rationalists trying to maintain their positions atop the heap.

And Toulmin's more convinced than I am that the restructuring of consciousness and knowledge that was kicked off in the 1950s and 1960s is nearing its end. My own guesstimate is that we're just getting into the middle part of this overhaul, and that another 50 to 100 years will be required for the process to round itself off. I don't expect to be onboard when the canoe of humanity finally makes it through these rapids to calmer waters.

But who knows, eh? And, generally speaking, I couldn't be more enthusiastic about Toulmin's work. He strikes me as being to thinking-about-thinking what Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander are to thinking-about-architecture.

What's an easy and effective way to get Toulmin? His books are fascinating, exciting, and clearly written. They're also, to be blunt, just a wee bit dull as reading experiences. They're crackle- and propulsion-free -- and I'm a bit of a crackle and propulsion junkie. For all my intoxication with what Toulmin was saying, I could only manage about ten pages a night before nodding off.

Yet his ideas really are startling, and it'd be a pity not to indulge in a good wrestle with them. So here's my suggestion. Start with a few online Toulmin resources: here, here and especially here. Here's a very brief overview of his thoughts about informal reasoning. You'll get the drift and the flavor. Steven Shapin's long review of Toulmin's "Return to Reason" is clear and appreciative, if patronizing. The book of Toulmin's that seems like it might live longest is "The Uses of Argument." Ian Alexander's short presentation of this book is a good, quick intro.

If you want to dig deeper, I encourage you to listen to a Teaching Company lecture series by David Zarefsky called "Argumentation." The series' title may suggest a how-to-win-debates package. But Zarefsky's talks are really a gorgeous exposition of Toulmin's ideas and approach. I made my way through this series on my morning walks to work, barely able to restrain myself from grabbing passersby and telling them about what I was hearing. (Yes, New York City is full of crazies.) I notice that Zarefsky's series is on sale right now, at an amazingly good price.

Toulmin is 82, and as far as I can tell from a few Web-sweeps, he's still teaching at U.S.C. As for Michel de Montaigne, Toulmin's hero? He wrote at roughly the same time as Shakespeare, and was the brilliant and entertaining originator of the searching, open, and modest personal essay. Don't miss Paul Graham's essay about the history of essays, and how they became the dull literary things we think of them as today. Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily for pointing Graham's piece out.

Sorry to have been so long-winded. Now for a small bouquet of Toulmin passages:

Those who elevate hard theoretical sciences above softer practical fields intellectually tend also to elevate scientists socially above the people or things that they study. Conversely, those who are ready to let any field develop procedures relevant to its own goals, on an equal intellectual basis, will be readier to let scientists admit their research subjects into the research activity itself, on an equal social basis ...

It is as if the Frankfurt critics had a space platform from which they can diagnose the thoughts of mortals on Earth, without their own positions being open to question. Yet once we allow motivation to be an issue, we are all in the same boat, and this stratospheric attitude is in danger of being a sham. Why do the critical philosophers think they are the only people having an impartial or unbiased position? How are they so sure that the hidden class, gender, or other interests that motivate others don't motivate them as well?



posted by Michael at November 11, 2004


I first encountered Toulmin when a junior at
Bryn Mawr in 1977, at which point he must
have been 55. He spoke on casuistry and
canon law. Some eleven years later, during
my days in the film business, I was "beyond
measure astonished" (Mark 7:37) to discover
him narrating a documentary; but damned if
I can now remember whether it was the
Bauhaus architecture one or the Biedermeier
furniture one. Perhaps Francis can recall
which. Can anyone remember if ST were
profiled on that Bill Moyers Great Talking Heads series which included Joseph
Campbell and Martha Nussbaum?

Oddly enough, a lifelong propensity for
abstract thought never managed to make me
a philosophy lover. Instead, it made me impatient to cut through the layers of theory.
I diligently tried all the greats, particularly the
aestheticians. The only one I found absolutely
lucid was Oxford's Robin G. Collingwood
("The Principles of Art" and "The Idea of
History"). Suzanne Langer was all the rage
when I was in school. I found her an unequivocally crashing bore.

A subject of greater interest to me is the fate
of former philosophy majors. Of those I have
known, one is the conductor of the Maryland Symphony; one an editor for Bicycling Magazine; one in high finance; one in real
estate; one in medical publishing; one a former college president and now an officer
of the Mellon Foundation; and the
last an editor of legal books after studying city
planning in between.

Posted by: Winifer Skattebol on November 11, 2004 11:49 PM

"[Toulmin] terms what we call on to get through the day 'informal reasoning': the myriad ways we go about thinking and puzzling our way through what life throws at us."

Toulmin's _The Uses of Argument_ is said to have anticipated and influenced the development of a field of study and practice called informal logic.*

Ralph H. Johnson in his _The Rise of Informal Logic_ says that:

"Since 1970 something new has been emerging in logic. To call it a Geist is overblown, but suggestive. To call it an "outlook" is safe, but not forceful enough. The development we refer to is characterized by two interrelated features. First, there has been a turn in the direction of actual (i.e., real-life, ordinary, everyday) arguments in their native habitat of public discourse and persuasion, together with an attempt to deal with the problems that occur as a result of that focus. Second, there has been a growing disenchantment with the capacity of formal logic to provide standards of good reasoning that illuminate the argumentation of ordinary discourse. The result has been a number of initiatives to develop methods of identifying, analyzing and evaluating reasoning, which do not rely primarily on the instruments or nomenclature of formal logic." Samples-%20Rise%20of%20Informal%20Logic.htm

"Informal logic proper begins in North America in the nineteen seventies. The most influential figures in its development are Ralph H. Johnson and J. Anthony Blair. Their Logical Self-Defense was one of the first introductory texts to emphasize concrete examples of informal reasoning and their Informal Logic Newsletter quickly became a focus for discussion, news and research. Now the journal Informal Logic, it remains a barometer for developments in the field . . . ."*

"In keeping with an emphasis on concrete examples of actual reasoning, the development of informal logic has been tied to pedagogical discussions of the ways in which students can best be taught to reason well in the social, political and work related contexts. One prominent feature of the evolution of informal logic is, therefore, the publication of dozens (and probably hundreds) of textbooks designed to teach students how to reason in such contexts. In many cases, these texts (e.g., those by Govier, Kahane and Ruggiero) are also of theoretical interest, for they implicitly or explicitly advocate and elaborate a particular theoretical approach."*

The web site for "Informal Logic[, which] is a scholarly journal devoted to theoretical and practical issues in the theories of reasoning and argumentation" is here:

And an account of the development of informal logic, "Informal logic 25 years later," is here:

The Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking was founded in 1983 at the Second International Symposium on Informal Logic:


Dave Lull

*From: "Informal Logic," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Posted by: Dave Lull on November 12, 2004 12:52 AM

I think it's good to go through the aspiring-after-certainty philosophers. When one finally hits up against Wittgenstein's "remain silent" or Heidegger's abyss of Being (permeating Van Gogh's paintings of peasant shoes), the opening onto an indefinite, ineffable, and poetic sense of reality grants, by contrast, a leavening of experience, something beyond even purely religious conditioning.

Posted by: Tim B. on November 12, 2004 01:20 PM

I hope you guys are tracking how many people click on each philosopher link. I suspect Nicole Kidman will beat all the other links combined.

Posted by: Dave Munger on November 12, 2004 01:22 PM

Dave L. -- Beautiful links, many thanks.

Tim B. -- This is probably a dunderheaded thing to say, but I've often wondered why the aspiring-after-certainty crowd doesn't just go get themselves a religion. Maybe they're in a bind -- too "modern" and "secular" to allow themselves to embrace a traditional religion, yet feeling religious needs anyway. Sounds like a toughie.

Dave M. -- Let no one say I'm too good to indulge in cheap pandering! Not that anyone would ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 12, 2004 03:27 PM

I'm one of those philosophy-prof types, and I too find Toulmin engaging and refreshing. That being said, one of the constant discoveries in philosophy is just how un-original most philosophical positions are. Toulmin is indeed a trenchant critic of the Cartesian-foundational model of reason and knowledge, but that model was subject to criticism almost immediately after Descartes articulated it (by Hobbes, Gassendi, Reid, and innumerable other critics). Toulmin himself is thus in a tradition *within modern philosophy* that doubts the viability of Cartesian philosophy's aspirations to certainty. This tradition goes through not only Hume, but Kant, Mill, Popper, Wittgenstein, Quine, and Rorty (and in a rather different way through existentialism). So modern philosophy is hardly the "modern" (i.e., Cartesian) monolith it's sometimes made out to be, especially by its "postmodern" critics.

A few other points. First, while most things philosophical have been said before, we ought to be mindful that it is the dream of the more ambitious philosophers to have the last word — i.e., to develop the philosophical theory that is so watertight that it puts an end to philosophical inquiry (and puts the theorist himself out of a job!). But of course proclamations that one's philosophical theory is the last word are inevitably premature.

Second, philosophers and philosophical theses come and go fashion-wise. A good many of the most provocative "discoveries" in the philosophy are actually rediscoveries. Presently, I'd say Aristotle, Mill, and the medievals are being rediscovered and mined for insight.

Lastly, why assume, MvB, that philosophy's value resides in its advancing us toward truth? Why not that it simply clarifies questions, or indicates which disagreements are genuine and why? On some conceptions of philosophy, its value consists in ridding ourselves of error and ensuring we don't make the same foolish mistakes over and over. To complain that "modern" philosophy (though see above again, as it's not so clear how "modern" modern philosophy is) has not settled many 'truths' is to adopt a position within philosophy, associated perhaps with Plato, Descartes, and Hegel, that not only is the point of philosophy to discover truth, but that philosophy is the mother of all truth. Needless to say, that's debateable - philosophcially!

Posted by: Michael Cholbi on November 12, 2004 04:36 PM

[Excerpt from recent LJ reading]

...In our University you could always spot philosophy majors: they were the ones in cafeteria contemplating 2 types of pastry for the entire lunch break...

Posted by: Tatyana on November 12, 2004 07:30 PM

Are rationalism and pragmatism really at loggerheads?

Can you create a system that "works" if it is not based on reason?

Take systems of governance. Can a government "work," that is be in accord with our nature, our human nature, if those who structure the government, constitute it, do not start with a rational view, dare I say a scientific view of human nature?

The view I am speaking about - the rational view - is anti-dogmatic: not, this is the way human nature should be; but, based on observation this is the way human nature is: its strengths, its weaknesses, its pitfalls. Only starting with such an approach - the rational approach - can you hope to arrive at a pragmatic solution to the problem of governance.

And isn't this what - in broad terms - happened? Isn't the United States an attempt to apply insights into human nature, derived from rational thought and empirical evidence, to constitute a government? And hasn't it been a pragmatic success -- of astounding proportions?

Posted by: ricpic on November 12, 2004 10:47 PM

As usual, this conversation is way over my intelligence quota.

A homemade bowl of chili constitutes my plunge into philosophy today.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on November 13, 2004 08:28 PM

It's didnt suprise me at all that Toumlin studied under Wittgenstein...
From what you are writing about, alot of his thoughts seem straight out of the dichotomy between Wittgenstein's earlier and later writings. The earlier: a comprehensive attempt to explain the entirety of the world through logical mathematical symbols and relations, I guess a culmination of philosophy's ability to explain the world through formal logic (how best to finish philosophy?)

and the Later Wittgenstein, a repudiation of the earlier, completely contextual, completely applied, almost impossible to navigate through...
i guess the "there are two kinds of men" analogy fits well with one man.

Thank you for the links! As a grappling student, I love the pointers that people who've been through it can pass on. (I can trust you for directions, right?)

ps. the architecture links are fascinating! a whole different way to look at the human world! more time! give me more time!

Posted by: azad on November 14, 2004 01:43 AM

"Isn't the United States an attempt to apply insights into human nature, derived from rational thought and empirical evidence, to constitute a government?"

And interestingly enough, the Founding Fathers point of view corresponds quite well with Christianity's view of man's nature.

Posted by: lindenen on November 14, 2004 03:48 AM

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of _Fooled by Randomness: the Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets_, 2nd edition, New York: Texere, 2004) on the difficulty of being like Montaigne:

"I believe that the principal asset I need to protect and cultivate is my deep-seated intellectual insecurity. My motto is 'my principal activity is to tease those who take themselves and the quality of their knowledge too seriously.' Cultivating such insecurity in place of intellectual confidence may be a strange aim – and one that is not easy to implement. To do so we need to purge our minds of the recent tradition of intellectual certainties. A reader turned pen pal[*] made me rediscover the 16th Century French essayist and professional introspector Montaigne. I got sucked into the implications of the difference between Montaigne and Descartes – and how we strayed by following the latter’s quest for certitudes. We surely closed our minds by following Descartes’ model of formal thinking rather than Montaigne’s brand of vague and informal (but critical) judgment. Half a millennium later the severely introspecting and insecure Montaigne stands tall as a role model for the modern thinker. In addition, the man had exceptional courage: It certainly takes bravery to remain skeptical; it takes inordinate courage to introspect, to confront oneself, to accept one’s limitations – scientists are seeing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to fool ourselves."
(From _Fooled by Randomness_, page xxi; also found here:

"Think of someone heavily introspective, tortured by the awareness of his own ignorance. He exhibits, on the surface, a lack of personal confidence yet has the rare courage to say 'I don’t know' and the greater one to write about the properties of what he doesn’t know. He does not mind looking like a fool, or, worse, an ignorant. He hesitates, will not commit, agonizes over the consequences of his being wrong. He introspects and introspects until he reaches physical and nervous exhaustion. This person you will rarely find on the literary shelves after the works of the 16th century essayist Michel de Montaigne --for the very meaning of the word 'essay' conveys the tentative, the timid, and the nondefinitive. You will not see much of him in the university either: Even in Montaigne’s day he could not have reached doctoral authority; his form of expression contrasted with the scholastic tradition laboring intra muros within the confines of the University. I will call such person an epistemocrat; a province where the laws are structured with such human fallibility in mind I will call Epistemocristan. One cannot claim authority by exhibiting acute fallibility. (Once in a while you encounter members of the human species with so much intellectual superiority that they can effortless manage to change their mind upon being supplied with evidence, without experiencing the smallest tinge of shame – but among the people of surviving reputation, these are so rare that only one example, Überphilosopher Bertrand Russell, comes to mind.)

"Yet, although you may almost never run into such epistemocrat in scientific conferences (he would not be invited), he is the essence of science itself. Science is a fundamentally skeptical enterprise. How? By some fallacy of aggregation (i.e., the sum is not the parts), empirical-experimental science is not the sum of scientists but the upper bound of competing results; scientists are in a ruthless contest, frequently at each other’s throat. Each individual is disciplined by a few annoying peers going after the robustness of his results, not by his own intrinsic devotion to truths, a system quite similar to the assumed role of competition in a capitalist system. In the literary world and the humanities, however, the absence of hard evidence combined with the importance of reputation makes things far more dangerous: Each individual thinker needs to be a standalone embodiment of knowledge. Thinkers do not usually compete over empirically tested results but entire systems of arguments, with all or nothing acceptance or rejection. Skepticism and the exhibition of wavering beliefs can be costly. This makes one’s public display of introspection a deadly acceptance of one’s irrelevance. Perhaps the last and only essayist of note was Montaigne, before we got corrupted by the age of certainties. Try to write like Montaigne, without the tone of authority, and not only you will be denied tenure, but you will be thrown out of the university."


Dave Lull

*(". . . bringing to my attention the discussion in Toulmin (1990[: _Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity_. New York: Free Press]). On that I have to make the sad remark that Descartes was originally a skeptic (as attested to by his demon thought experiment) but the so-called 'Cartesian mind' corresponds to someone with an appetite for certainties. Descartes' idea in in its original form is that there are very few certainties outside of narrowly defined deductive statements, not that everything we think about needs to be deductive." From _Fooled by Randomness_, page 233)

Posted by: Dave Lull on November 14, 2004 12:38 PM

I'm coming in a bit late to the game on this one, and I see that Michael Cholbi has already noted that one purpose of modern philosophy is to clarify questions. Still, I wanted to contribute this small bit: when I chose a philosophy minor in college, my mom didn't understand at all why I would do such a thing, and asked what I thought I would get out of it (I'm sure she was mostly afraid it would turn me away from religion - which, in fact, it did, at least in part). I told her I didn't expect any particular philosophy to identify The Truth, but I was finding that it taught me how to ask a better question. After following one thought-train to its dead end, one can back-track to the last reasonable juncture, refine the question, and proceed along to the next dead end. I'm sure many people will disagree with me, but I find it a worthy pursuit.

Posted by: Dente on November 15, 2004 01:50 PM

I listened to the Teaching Company lecture series on "Argumentation." What I liked best about it was the discussion of the inadequacy of formal logic as a model for argumentation.

Unfortunately, the model of arguementation that the lectures describe appears to be a game that hardly anyone plays. The lectures' model assumes that both sides will work to bring out the other side's best arguments, assumes that both sides have a common understanding in the rules of argumentation (i.e. which statements need be supported by whom), and ignores status and other relationship-based rules of arguementation. This is not to say that arguementation would not be improved if people followed the lectures' model, just that both sides need to have the ability and desire to do so.

In real life, status and relationship-based rules just swamp other considerations. It is way too easy too piss people off when you are arguing, especially if the other person cares about their side of the argument.

Posted by: joe o on November 15, 2004 02:30 PM

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild:


Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on November 16, 2004 10:20 AM

I go away for a couple of days, return and find a great bunch of comments. What fun.

Michael Cholbi -- Thanks for the helpful remarks and guidance. It's funny to think of "modern philosophy" incorporating a tradition of iconoclasm within itself, but there you have it, I guess.

You write: "Lastly, why assume, MvB, that philosophy's value resides in its advancing us toward truth? Why not that it simply clarifies questions, or indicates which disagreements are genuine and why?" If you don't mind an ill-informed (if perhaps slightly to one side) response ... I'm not sure that I assume philosophy's value "resides in its advancing us towards truth." On the other hand, it seems fair to say that philosophy advertises itself -- or at least has advertised itself -- as exactly that, isn't it? Love of wisdom, etc. I wonder how most people would react if at the very outset their teachers announced that all the intense study of philosophy would help them do would be to evaluate questions more solidly. And is the study of philosophy really needed in order to be able to do that? Maybe at some ultra-high level. But horsesense can get people a lot farther in day-to-day life than philosophy can. I dunno -- I like dipping into philosophy almost in the way I like dipping into the arts, for reflection, provocation, amusement, etc. I'm curious what you think about something else too. Although it certainly seems as though philosophers ought to be able to help other people sift and sort things a bit better than they'd otherwise be able to, do they often manage to do that? When I scan (hastily, superificially, etc) contempo philosophy, most of what even the most overtly helpful philosophers say seems to have a perfectly clear agenda behind it. You can sense them nudging you in definite (and predictable) directions. Is that a fair impression? Many thanks again.

Tatyana -- I remember those philosophy majors! I usually wanted to give them a kick.

Ricpic - I think I may have done Toulmin an injustice. Toulmin is using "rationalism" and "rationality" in a very limited sense, not in the broad and humane sense you're using it. He's using it to mean abstract, top-down, modeled-on-geometry-and-math, systemic thinking. Your version of "rationality" is actually very close to the way Toulmin uses "reasonableness" -- thinking that adapts to human needs and desires. My apologies for being unclear about that.

Pattie -- One of the reasons I like Toulmin is that I'm sure he'd be thrilled to join you in that bowl of chili! Is there enough on the stove for me too?

Azad -- Great to hear you're enjoying the links! And you're certainly right that Toulmin owes a lot to Wittgenstein. He co-wrote a book about him -- I haven't read it yet, but Francis Morrone tells me it's terrific.

Lindenen -- Gotta love that fallen-nature view of man. I'm always puzzled by something -- by the way America is so averse (or so much of America is so averse) to the tragive view. Many Americans, even deeply devout Christians, seem determined to be upbeat 24/7. Where does that streak come from, do you suppose? I mean, as you note, our conception as a nation has some real grandeur, and some real acknowledgment of human fallibility built into it. So when did we get so inane?

Dave -- You're a genius. I owe half of what I'm learning these days to the links you turn up. Many thanks.

Dente -- You sound like you went into philosophy for very sensible reasons. How did you find your fellow students? As well-grounded as you? My memory of philosophy types comes from the '70s, and back then many of them (however highpowered mentally) were pretty wild-eyed. You wondered where the hell they thought all this mental application was going to get them. But then, people were taking an awful lot of drugs back then ...

Joe O -- I thought the critique of formal logic in the series was pretty great too. I guess I took the model of informal reasoning to be more of a descriptive and incomplete thing than you did. I think your observations about the role status, etc, play are really good. But now that I've read Toulmin himself, I suspect he'd appreciate your comments too. One thing I didn't go into in the posting is that the Toulmin model has been adopted by the rhetoric community -- who even knew there was such a thing. Toulmin's delighted by this. But the rhetoric people have had a tendency to turn Toulmin's model into something pretty dogmatic in its own right, and Toulmin has expressed reservations about that. He suspects his model is probably pretty helpful in some circumstances and some respects, and perhaps other models are needed for other circumstances, and tweaking is no doubt to be encouraged too. "Argumentation" presents the Toulmin model as something harder and firmer than I think Toulmin intended it to be, and I think you're very smart to have spotted that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 16, 2004 07:11 PM


Being unfamiliar with the work of Stephen Toulmin you probably have not seen the PBS series, "A Glorious Accident" in which Toulmin along with Oliver Sacks, Daniel C. Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould, Rupert Sheldrake, and Freeman Dyson were interviewed individually and then brought together to discuss "a variety of broad questions, including:
* What is the nature of our consciousness?
* What concepts has our consciousness developed about our temporal existence?
* What will we derive most from our consciousness: knowledge or understanding?
* What were the questions that fascinated you when you were growing up?
* What questions keep you spellbound today?"

If you can get your hands on the series it is pretty interesting although not groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination. I believe that there is also a companion book by the same title.

Posted by: grandcosmo on November 16, 2004 09:07 PM

Oh come on, M. Blowhard, dish about the philosophy-prof consultants who you enjoy as friends but don't trust one whit. As I don't know what sort of mutton-heads might have been the beer-and-skittle buddies of great minds past, I can't be sure that there weren't just as many useless hacks in the philosophy game back then. Every "Golden Age" has a healthy population of B-movies, you know.

Azad, do you really see adichotomy between Wittgenstein's earlier and later writings - it seems he went ... not really astray, but got mushier trying to dumb down for an audience who didn't get jokes. But then I've never understood why people go on about Merleau-Ponty being a Marxist (when they are not talking about work that directly addresses that, I mean) so perhaps I'm slow.

Back when I had a serious mind, it did seem that a lot of contemporary philosophy was a return to the mystic. WWI seems to have shaken people quite a bit.

Posted by: j.c. on November 16, 2004 11:50 PM

Just to rain all over the parade... If Toulmin says the Renaissance came after the "Wars of Religion", I can't take him seriously. Historians start the Renaissance in the early 15th century, whereas the Reformation and associated wars did not begin till well into the 16th century. Da Vinci died in 1519, only two years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door. Italy, the heart of the Renaissance, was never touched by the Reformation at all.

Now, it is arguable that the humanist philosophers of the Renaissance were affected by a common loss of faith in religion and especially organized religion, i.e. the Church. But that sentiment came not from observing religious wars but from the rampant and notorious corruption in the Church.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on November 17, 2004 12:07 AM

"Philosophy Day 2004

"On 18 November 2004, UNESCO Philosophy Day will be celebrated for the third time at UNESCO House in Paris and in Member States.

"At Headquarters: Philosophers from all over the world will gather for this event, which will include a variety of themes and activities: round tables, conferences, a “philosophy café”, art events, book exhibitions, etc. The last event of the Day will be a debate and a concert with the jazz musicians Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Diane Reeves, accompanied by the Thelonious Monk Jazz Ambassadors.

"In the field: Events will also take place in more than seventy countries around the world, in organization by National Commissions for UNESCO,UNESCO regional offices, UNESCO Chairs, universities, institutes, academies, and other partners.

"For more information, please do not hesitate to contact philosophy&"


Posted by: Dave Lull on November 18, 2004 10:05 AM

Grandcosmo -- Thanks for the tip, I'll check it out.

JC -- But I often like the B movies better than the A movies!

Rich -- I've misrepresented Toulmin a bit if I've left that impression. He's got his dates straight. Roughly speaking, the picture he offers is: early-Renaissance, with the Montaigne-Erasmus-Rabelais informal approach suiting it well. Interrupted and thrown into crisis by religious wars. A general flailing-about and searching for new certitudes, and finally resolved by the Descartes and Newton thang. With plenty of overlap and muddy spots, of course. Apologies for not making that clearer.

Dave -- Should we attend? Even if no major conceptual breakthroughs occur, it should make for an amusing blog posting...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 18, 2004 11:25 AM

Ah, that makes more sense. But the terminology still seems wrong to me. I associate the French and northern humanists with the the "Age of Reason", not the Renaissance. Just nitpicking, I guess.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on November 18, 2004 03:03 PM

"Should we attend? Even if no major conceptual breakthroughs occur, it should make for an amusing blog posting..."

Alas, too late. And, no doubt, it would've been edifying to have heard the philosophizing of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter (whose names were about the only names I recognized among those listed in the programme).

Posted by: Dave Lull on November 18, 2004 06:46 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?