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On reason: A conversation with Stephen Toulmin, and a review of his new book, ‘Return to Reason’

Stephen Toulmin, author.

Photo by Irene Fertik

A book titled “Return to Reason,” you might think, could be a nostalgic call to arms to revive the ideals of the Enlightenment, when Western thought embraced the notion that reason could, and should, become the foundation for every field of human concern. But this is no such book.

Nor is the title ironic: This is not yet another incoherent postmodernist screed. Instead, author Stephen Toulmin argues for a humanistic philosophy grounded in pragmatism, a middle path that cleaves neither to amorphous relativism nor to pi-in-the-sky rationalism, but to practical, down-to-earth reasonableness.

“The term ‘rationality,'” explained Toulmin, “rightly or wrongly, has become associated with the ambition to provide every self-respecting subject with a theory that is as rigorous as Euclid’s geometry. Whereas the idea of reasonableness, as I’m talking about it, has to do with how we put our ideas to work in the service of human welfare.”

Toulmin is the Henry R. Luce Professor in the department of anthropology, though he said, “That is somewhat misleading.” He teaches in the School of International Relations, in the social ethics program in the School of Religion and in the Annenberg School for Communication. His original training at Cambridge was in mathematics and physics.

“I don’t believe in being penned in by disciplinary boundaries,” he said. “I don’t describe myself as a philosopher, though that is what people in the outside world would call me.”

Toulmin writes in erudite but unpretentious prose that is refreshingly free of the opaque jargon and log-jammed syntax that make so many philosophical tracts unintelligible.

Toulmin guides the reader through several key historical crossroads of the Western philosophical tradition and shows how concern with rationality, certainty and absolute truth bloomed into an obsession that has clouded and misguided much thinking since.

Modern intellectuals, he said, “even try to turn the human sciences – all the way from psychology to economics – into highly theoretical disciplines, comparable in structure to physics.”

But most arenas of human life are simply not reducible to context-free, universal theories, he said, and attempting to shoehorn them into such frameworks has retarded progress on many fronts.

For example in one chapter, “Economics, or the Physics That Never Was,” Toulmin describes what went wrong when people tried to make economics into a formal, theoretical science along the lines of Newtonian physics. He argues from several examples that economic theory just embarrasses itself when it purports to be an essence-capturing theory of market principles. At the same time, he shows how economic concepts can be useful when applied pragmatically, with culture, context and other dimensions of human concern considered along in the mix.

In another chapter, “Ethical Theory and Moral Practice,” he shows how despite philosophers’ dogged attempts to derive robust moral and political systems from first principles, theory and practice still have had remarkably little to say to one another – “like ships passing in the night.” Trying to arrive at timeless, universal ethical principles the way one derives theorems in mathematics is a fundamentally ill-founded enterprise, he insists, and is all the worse for diverting our energies from practical considerations.

Before the modern era, Toulmin claims, no one area of intellectual exercise was favored as intrinsically superior to others: mathematics, social theory, biology, medicine, astrology, art and physics were more or less on equal cultural footing.

“Theory and practice were not separate for the ancients,” he explained.

But through the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, the view emerged that any field that could not approach the formal rigor of mathematics was “mere” practice or craft. Walls began to form and ossify around what we now call disciplines, which Toulmin says have become tragically rigid and artificially insular in today’s academy.

Toulmin expresses his greatest admiration for thinkers who avoided tidy, encapsulated philosophies or strict disciplines. In the book, he discusses a diverse group of these luminaries, writers “who saw the limits of rationality and dealt with the world from a practical standpoint.” They include, for example, Michel de Montaigne, Desiderius Erasmus, William James, Ludwig Wittgenstein (with whom Toulmin studied at Cambridge in the 1950s) and Virginia Woolf.

Such writers “were suspicious of overarching theories” and wrote to convey “a very rich sense of the texture and color of everyday human life,” said Toulmin. But in spite of the fact that they made convincing and substantial explorations of the human condition in its own rich terms, he said, most of them have been relegated to the category of “mere” literary figures.

Despite his critical stance, Toulmin’s agenda is not simply to demolish the icons of the establishment, and he is equally dismissive of the postmodernist backlash against rationality – the attitude that since reason cannot, in fact, establish anything absolutely, it cannot allow us to reach any firm conclusions at all.

“Return to Reason is a call to forsake both these extremes. It is a call to philosophers and academicians to take a pragmatic stance, to apply theory where it is appropriate but to recognize its limits and acknowledge the utility of other methods. It is a call for us to set aside our quixotic quest for certainty, roll up our sleeves and get down to being reasonable.

“Return to Reason by Stephen Toulmin will be published May 29 by Harvard University Press.

On reason: A conversation with Stephen Toulmin, and a review of his new book, ‘Return to Reason’

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