Friday, February 05, 2010

Romano, Carlin. "Wise Men Gone: Stephen Toulmin and John E. Smith." CHRONICLE REVIEW 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'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. . . . Read the rest here:

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