Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stephen Toulmin

I write about Stephen Toulmin today, a philosopher who died recently and who had been a persistent critic of a certain brand of modernism which, to his disappointment, had put the quest for certainty and for universals at the center of scholarly concern. Toulmin, who first became known for a more practical, down to earth and real world approach to logic in his 1950 The Uses of Argument, spent the last few years of his life singing the praises of such unsystematic but "wise" thinkers as Montaigne and Emerson. Seeking to put less emphasis on the theoretical and more on the practical, striving to draw new attention to the concrete at the expense of the abstract, Toulmin was attacked by many of his colleagues for this "unphilosophical" agenda. But to me, anyway, unschooled and uninterested in the purities of Platonic ideals, Toulmin seemed to be trying to come up with an approach to philosophy that was truer to the actual twists and turns of the everyday world.

Following John Dewey in some surprising ways, Toulmin became enthralled with the lessons of experience, of the value of narrative, of the honoring of the here and now in all its gleaming concreteness. Toulmin's desire of modernism to recall the lessons of a pre-rationalist humanism led him to reemphasize the value of the oral, the local, the particular and the timely. Which meant that Montaigne's informal and uncensored reflections on experience should be regarded as one paradigm of how to do philosophy, not in a vacuum, but in the crucible of the "hard knocks" of chance, contingency, and uncertainty. Doing philosophy that humbly faces up to the challenges of uncertainty was one of Toulmin's legacies, and why, I suppose, I felt this pang of sadness when I saw his obituary this morning.

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