Stephen Toulmin

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Stephen Toulmin, an important twentieth century philosopher, was born in London, England in 1922 and died in 2009. He attended King's College, Cambridge, graduating in 1942. After participating as a science officer in World War II, he returned to school, studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein, and earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1948. His undergraduate degree was in mathematics and physics, lending a real world bent to his philosophy.

Toulmin is known for his pragmatic approaches, especially in the logic of argument. He asserted that any understanding of persuasive argument needs to be grounded in reality and context. He is famous for what is called the Toulmin model of argumentation. This replaced logic's three part syllogism, which worked on the basis of major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. In Toulmin's model there are six parts: a claim, support for the claim, a warrant (which ties together the claim and the grounds for the claim), backing for the warrant, and then modality and rebuttal. Modality explores the level of certainty of a claim and rebuttal explores exceptions to the claim. Variations of this model will be familiar to modern day students of writing and rhetoric. He emphasized that logic is not pure and Platonic but often rough at the edges.

After earning his doctorate, Toumlin taught at the University of Leeds. In 1960, he accepted the directorship of Nuffield Foundation’s Unit for the History of Ideas in London. He later moved to the United States, where he taught at various universities, including Brandeis, Michigan State, and the University of Chicago.

Toumlin is most known for his 1958 book The Uses of Argument, in which he outlines his six-part syllogism. Other books include three he wrote with his wife, June Goodfield: 1961's The Fabric of the Heavens, The Architecture of Matter in 1962 and 1965's The Discovery of Time.

He also wrote Foresight and Understanding: An Enquiry Into the Aims of Science, and he addressed science's aims again in 1972's Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts, which used Darwin's theories to explain the way changes in human mental processes result in evolving pictures of the world.

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