Stephen Toulmin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2660

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.

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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.

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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 radical thesis to the effect that Wittgenstein’s early work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is not so much a treatise on language and ontology as it is a treatise on ethics. Also in 1972, Toulmin wrote Human Understanding, a treatise on conceptual change in natural science.

Human Understanding is characterized by Toulmin’s moving into the borderland between epistemology and the sociology of knowledge by way of the history of science. Toulmin analyzed the historical development of the procedures and concepts that guide human understanding, particularly (but not exclusively) in the sciences. Influenced again by the later-period Wittgenstein, Toulmin focused on the actual use of concepts. However, this analysis was joined to an explicitly Darwinian analysis of the evolution of concepts. Toulmin used the term “intellectual ecology” to characterize his approach. He argued that in any given population of concepts (say, in chemistry or physics), certain concepts are better adapted to current demands or pressures or forces in the intellectual and social environment. These concepts will be used more often and thus perpetuate themselves. However, as the demands or population pressures of concepts in a given area change, the survival value of these concepts may decrease and that of others may increase. This transformation is conceptual evolution and is guided by “rationality,” defined as the adaptation of the procedures and patterns of argument to the demands of the changing problem. Toulmin also extended his treatment of conceptual “growth” to include analyses of concept acquisition and judgments of value. Overall, Human Understanding is a major treatment of the subject that has formed the basis of evolutionary epistemology and is a major contribution to the nature of human understanding.

Beginning in 1973, Toulmin concentrated on the study of practical reasoning—for example, by relating clinical medicine and other activities to Aristotle’s discussion of phronesis in book 6 of Ethica Nicomachea (second Athenian period, 335-323 b.c.e.; Nicomachean Ethics, 1797). For fifteen years, Toulmin worked on problems in clinical medical ethics, first in human experimentation and later in hospital work, at the University of Chicago Medical School. At the same time, Toulmin’s position on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago led him to focus on the development of the humanities, as exemplified, above all, in the sixteenth century tradition from Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther to Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and William Shakespeare.

At this stage of his work, Toulmin contrasted the concrete particularity of the sixteenth century humanists and the abstract generality aimed at in natural philosophy, from the time of the scientist Galileo and French philosopher René Descartes. This work resulted in his reanalysis of modernity in Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. In this work, Toulmin interprets the rise of the exact sciences as one response to the political, social, and spiritual crisis of early modern Europe, as displayed in the theologically rationalized brutalities of the Thirty Years’ War. Toulmin argues that the Westphalian settlement in Europe after 1648 was built on static ideals of order in nature and society and nourished by Newton’s physical worldview. Only at the end of the twentieth century was this alliance of science and politics directly challenged, with chaos and complexity theory in the natural sciences and with the critique of the sovereign nation-state as the natural unit of political order.

After his formal retirement in 1992, Toulmin began to work at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, in multiethnic and transnational studies and to make regular visits to Europe, notably Sweden, Austria, and Holland. His focus became the evolving institutions of science, politics, and “civil society”—often nongovernmental or supranational institutions of science—and the loss of centrality for nation-state governments.

Across a spectrum from theory to practice, Toulmin argued that the effective loci of action reside in dispersed “functional networks” rather than localized “point sources” of power. He argued that the basic concepts can be found less in the axiom system of a physical theory (as in the 1650’s) than in the ecological categories of biological science. In clinical medicine, technology, and practical politics equally, Toulmin wanted to show that our fundamental ideas of logical structure and national sovereignty are often more misleading than trustworthy for the purpose of practical decision and argument. For Toulmin, nothing is entirely stable and immutable, yet nothing is in total flux either.

Toulmin was the 1997 Thomas Jefferson Lecturer of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In his lecture, he discussed the value of dissent in philosophy, politics, and religion. He focused on the theologian, chemist, and philosopher Joseph Priestly, who corresponded with Jefferson long before emigrating to the United States in 1794. Toulmin argues that dissenters form their own opinions by their own judgments and are ready for honest debate. By contrast, dogmatists condemn dissenters as dissidents and dismiss them as troublemakers. Toulmin concludes that dogmatism is an enemy of freedom in science, politics, and religion. Toulmin also argues that, rather than denounce people whose ideas we do not share, we need to listen to what they say and see what is at stake for these people in those ideas. The alternative is the philosophical distrust of language that Socrates knew as misology. Toulmin concedes that during a time of bitterly contested ideas, tolerance may not be an easy lesson to learn.

At the end of the twentieth century, Toulmin’s philosophical work focused mainly on the methods of the human sciences, with particular attention to the practical uses of economics. Indeed, in a lecture entitled “The Humanity of the Human Sciences,” which Toulmin delivered in 1998 to the symposium Science and Culture, sponsored by the Student Philosophy Association at California State University, Long Beach, Toulmin noted that one of the curious things about the history of the human sciences is that psychology, sociology, and economics modeled themselves for so long on physics rather than biology. Physics, it is claimed, is a “hard” science, full of mathematical and logical rigor, strictly “factual” and free from “values.” However, Toulmin also notes that the activities of human beings are much more like those of animals than like the movements of physical objects, such as the planets going around the sun.

Toulmin asked what was the source of “physics envy” in the human sciences. On examining the “theory” model on which the human sciences are fashioned, Toulmin found that the model does not fit the actual work of physics itself. Instead, Toulmin argued, it is preferable to think of the human sciences as concerned, exactly, with the values of human life, that is, with how things go well or badly in human affairs, in one way or another. As a result, Toulmin argues that development economics stays closer to the historical, social, and/or cultural facts of human life than do formal analyses of general theory. Development economics also stays closer to concrete particular practice rather than abstract general theory.

At the end of the century, Toulmin also became interested in demonstrating the “clinical” character of the human sciences (ethics included) and accounting for the relation between theory and practice in terms of a contrast between the concepts of rationality and reasonableness.


Toulmin blended a background of physics and philosophy in his diverse writings. A common thread uniting many of his works is his challenge of the reliance on formal logic in the philosophy of science. His work in evolutionary epistemology contributed largely to human understanding of the processes involved in the quest for knowledge. His writings on argumentation and the human sciences acted as the source for much further discussion and debate on these issues.

Additional Reading

Bove, Paul A. “The Rationality of Disciplines: The Abstract Understanding of Stephen Toulmin.” In After Foucault: Humanistic Knowledge, Postmodern Challenges. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988. This book discusses French literature from 1900 through the 1980’s and includes material on Michel Foucault, the prose treatment of power, and human understanding in relation to the writings of Stephen Toulmin.

Dellapenna, Joseph W., and Kathleen M. Farrell. “Modes of Judicial Discourse: The Search for Argument Fields.” In Argumentation: Analysis and Practices, edited by Frans H. van Eemeren et al. Studies of Argumentation in Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis. Dordrecht, Holland: Foris, 1987. This article uses the theories of Toulmin to examine legal argumentation and legal language.

Fromm, Harold. “Stephen Toulmin’s Postmodernism. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, by Stephen Toulmin.” The Hudson Review 43, no. 4: 654-660. An in-depth discussion of Toulmin’s book.

Fulkerson, Richard. “The Toulmin Model of Argument and the Teaching of Composition.” In Argument Revisited, Argument Redefined: Negotiating Meaning in the Composition Classroom. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996. The theories of argumentation of Toulmin are discussed in terms of language, stylistics, rhetoric, argumentation, and their relationship to the teaching of writing.

Kneupper, Charles W. “The Tyranny of Logic and the Freedom of Argumentation.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory 5, no. 2 (1984): 113-121. This article discusses literary forms as well as the role of logic and the freedom of argumentation based on ideas of Toulmin.

Olson, Gary A. “Literary Theory, Philosophy of Science, and Persuasive Discourse: Thoughts from a Neo-Premodernist.” Journal of Advanced Composition 13, no. 2 (1993): 238-309. This article includes an interview with Toulmin. Toulmin discusses the relationship of philosophy of science to literary theory and criticism.

Seibert, Thomas M. “The Arguments of a Judge.” In Argumentation: Analysis and Practices, edited by Frans H. van Eemeren et al. Studies of Argumentation in Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis. Dordrecht, Holland: Foris, 1987. The article discusses judicial argumentation, language, and pragmatics using the theories of argumentation of Toulmin.

Skinner, Quentin. “Cosmopolis by Stephen Toulmin.” The New York Review of Books 37, no. 6 (1990): 36. A full-length discussion of Toulmin’s book.

Smith, P. Christopher. “Towards a Discursive Logic: Gadamer and Toulmin on Inquiry and Argument.” In The Specter of Relativism: Truth, Dialogue and Phronesis in Philosophical Hermeneutics, edited by Lawrence K. Schmitt. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1995. The article uses the theories of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Toulmin to examine the relationship of logic to hermeneutics.

Zappel, Kristiane. “Argumentation and Literary Text: Towards an Operational Model.” In Argumentation: Analysis and Practices, edited by Frans H. van Eemeren et al. Studies of Argumentation in Pragmatics and Discourse. Dordrecht, Holland: Foris, 1987. The article applies the theories of argumentation advanced by Stephen Toulmin to general literature.

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