Stephen Toulmin Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: A philosopher of remarkable breadth and interests, Toulmin believed that the idea of rationality has been too closely tied to issues of formal logic and therefore analyzed rationality afresh in numerous fields of theory and practice.

Early Life

Professionally, Stephen Edelston Toulmin began in physics at Cambridge University, working on radar from 1942 to 1945. He read philosophy in the last years of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s tenure at Cambridge. For his doctoral degree, Toulmin wrote a dissertation that became a book, An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics. Although Wittgenstein was not Toulmin’s dissertation adviser, he was Toulmin’s intellectual mentor.

When Toulmin and Wittgenstein were interacting intellectually, Wittgenstein was in his famous “later period,” in which he treated meaning and language as dependent on contextual factors rather than on objective pictorial representations, as he had in his early work “Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung” (1921; best known in its bilingual German and English edition, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922, 1961). Wittgenstein was examining the relationship between forms of life and language games of distinctive communities and the enculturation of a particular mode of life within a language. However, Wittgenstein also held that ethics lay beyond the treatment of any “linguistic” or rational analysis or interpretation.

Toulmin both followed and diverged from Wittgenstein’s position. Toulmin’s doctoral dissertation advanced a Wittgensteinian analysis of ethical argumentation, arguing that “good” and “bad” reasoning (if not actually formal induction and deduction) are embedded in ethics as much as in science or law or any other realm of human activity.

Toulmin then moved to Oxford University as university lecturer in the philosophy of science, and he wrote in that field until 1960. Toulmin used the skeptical pragmaticism of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy to challenge the reliance on formal logic so prevalent in the philosophy of science practiced in Vienna and in the United States. Toulmin generalized this challenge in The Uses of Argument, in which he emphasized the “field dependence” of reasoning and the need to view arguments of all kinds—whether in science, ethics, law, politics, or medicine—as arising out of the varied practical activities of these different enterprises.

Life’s Work

While at Oxford, Toulmin published a much-admired, much-anthologized article entitled “Do Submicroscopic Entities Exist?” in the journal Philosophy of Science. A scientific realist holds that unobservable entities, such as electrons, exist in the way the chemical or physical theory claims they exist. Toulmin, taking an antirealist position, began by analyzing several different senses of the word “exist” and argued that while some submicroscopic entity may exist, it does not need to exist in the way the theory says it exists.

To prove his point, he created an analogy using the contour lines on a topographical map. For example, he said, although these lines represent the different elevations of a hill, we would not expect to see the lines on the actual hill. In any case, Toulmin argued, scientists need not and do not worry over these types of ontological problems, for scientific theories proceed very well even if these questions of existence are unresolved. For example, in 1905, Albert Einstein showed that the phenomenon of Brownian motion supported the idea that atoms and molecules really exist. However, by 1905 physicists were already showing, through the development of quantum theory by Niels Bohr, that the atomic theory was not the last word in physics, and some of the foundations of this very theory of atoms were being severely attacked. Paradoxically, then, one finds that the theory of atoms was being supported by Einstein’s argument concerning Brownian motion at the same time quantum physicists were regarding the atom as hardly more than a useful fiction.

After his Philosophy of Science: An Introduction, Toulmin wrote The Uses of Argument, in which he applied Wittgenstein’s “linguistic” approach to logic and epistemology. As a model of human understanding, Toulmin proffered “the common law,” or the jurisprudence model, in which reasoning and argumentation are founded on empirical evidence and precedents. Although neither strictly deductive nor inductive, legal reasoning and courtroom argumentation proceed from “facts” and “principles” in order to present and gain acceptance of the best possible argument. For Toulmin, all human understanding should be viewed in this way, that is, using the best possible reasoning at a given time, often with truth (as opposed to justice) as its ultimate goal.

From the late 1950’s to the mid-1970’s, Toulmin’s works explored the practical contexts of reasoning, relating issues of epistemology—even issues in natural science—to the historical evolution of concepts and practices as found in the work of the Oxford philosopher and historian R. G. Collingwood.

Toulmin greatly admired Collingwood, whom he described as a talented philosopher and a first-class writer of history. It was Collingwood who impressed on Toulmin the fundamental historicity of human thought as well as the basic danger of historical analysis. Collingwood argued that historically conceptual presuppositions underlie all instances of human understanding. However, Toulmin saw the dangers of historical analysis in Collingwood’s own work, specifically the development of an unwarranted epistemological relativism that can emerge from such historical treatments. Nevertheless, Toulmin is indebted to Collingwood for initiating his own strategic task: the quest for an historical view of human understanding that allows for conceptual change and that does not at the same time allow for intellectual anarchism (relativism). Toulmin fundamentally saw Collingwood’s vision of philosophy as a study of the methods of argument that at any historical moment served as the ultimate “court of appeal” in the various intellectual disciplines.

After spending a year (1954 to 1955) in Australia, Toulmin visited the United States and moved there in 1965. At Brandeis University, he wrote Wittgenstein’s Vienna with Allan Janik, in which they presented a...

(The entire section is 2660 words.)