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A Conversation with Stephen Toulmin

By Amy Lifson | HUMANITIES, March/April 1997 | Volume 18, Number 2

Endowment Chairman Sheldon Hackney talked recently with philosopher Stephen Toulmin about postmodern society and the shifting of power. Toulmin, Henry R. Luce Professor at the Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies at the University of Southern California, is the author of many books, among them Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, The Abuse of Casuistry (with Albert R. Jonsen), The Return to Cosmology, and Wittgenstein's Vienna (with Allan Janik). Toulmin is this year's Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities.

Sheldon Hackney: There is a great deal of talk about posteverything these days, especially postmodernity. Would it be fair to say that in Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity you provide, not an explanation of postmodernity, but an alternative understanding of modernity?

Stephen Toulmin: That's what I set out to do, and I did so as much for my own edification as for other people's sake. I grew up accustomed to a particular, slightly rosy view of how much the modern era had done for us, and it was only as my career went along that I found the darker side of the picture pressing itself on my attention. I had to explain to myself how it was that there was this divergence between the optimistic view of scientific progress and philosophical clarification, and how the world seemed to have gone and what the role of these new ideas had truly been since 1600.

Hackney: These new ideas I take to be the Cartesian- Newtonian version based on rationality, faith in science, progress.

Toulmin: It includes Descartes and Newton but also embraces Thomas Hobbes and the founders of the various political traditions that one thinks of as characteristic of the modern world.

Hackney: What is the central notion of that received notion of modernity?

Toulmin: The central thing, which was the one I found most attractive to attack, is the belief that rationality has to be understood in terms of formal argumentation, in terms of rather strict ideals of argument, which, in the ideal case, should become geometrical in the kind of way that Plato explains -- whether he advocates it or not is another matter -- in antiquity, and which Descartes makes explicit in his discourse.

Hackney: You use the term "the quest for certainty" or "the search for certainty."

Toulmin: Yes. I'm consciously associating myself with John Dewey, who also, in the late 1920s, picked on the quest for certainty as a perennial disease of modern thought, although he never sat down and thought enough from a historical point of view about why this quest for certainty had the kinds of attractions it had in the first half of the seventeenth century and provided the kind of mold or template on which modern science, modern politics, modern philosophy were shaped.

Hackney: Exactly. But someone in that tradition would object to your notion that it is to be explained by events outside of the discipline itself and in society.

Toulmin: I wouldn't say it is explained. Throughout history there has been -- and I think in all of us there is -- a tension between a concern for precision and a concern for particularity, a concern for getting things stated in an absolutely rigorous way and a concern for the broader humane streams of understanding that we find flowing around these technical arguments and providing a context for them, providing a situation for them.

In fact, there's one thing about the book Cosmopolis that you're mainly alluding to.

Hackney: Right.

Toulmin: There's one thing that I slightly regret. I repeatedly use words like "conceptualized" and "decontextualized" in that book when I would have preferred (and should have preferred) to use words about situations. It's not a question of the relation between one text and another text. It's a relation between how intellectual thought has progressed and the situations to which it has been responsive. It's not outrageous to suggest that the beginnings of modern philosophy have to be seen in a context, or have to be seen against a background of a situation in which it has ceased to be possible to get any general agreement about the overall framework of human understanding, for reasons of theological deadlock.

To this extent -- and we know that Descartes and his colleagues were exposed to this terrible final religious war between rulers of different European states who professed to be defending the interests of Protestantism on the one side, Catholicism on the other -- we know that this made a deep impression on Descartes and Leibniz. It's been naive of a lot of us to think that Descartes and Leibniz and their successors could dissociate the arguments they put forward entirely from the rest of the experience they had, which must have been a searing and indigestible kind of experience.

Hackney: Yes, making the search for certainty more attractive.

Toulmin: Making it seem more urgent. Leibniz, who was born right at the end of the Thirty Years' War, long after Descartes by humane standards, spent the whole of his career afraid that the argument might go in a way that enabled the religious wars to break out again. Since his family had seen much of Germany destroyed and about a third of the population of Germany killed in the course of those thirty years, it's understandable that he felt an intellectual mission to create a basis for people to agree on foundations about which they need no longer fight.

Hackney: It's interesting that you prefer the word "situation" to "context." I haven't been infected enough by the literary theorists to misunderstand your use of context.

Toulmin: No. I only mention it because in the last resort it was quite an achievement of Wittgenstein, with whom I studied, to have taken the argument behind texts to the life within which texts have a life. Literary theory discussions which treat everything as a text, even life, put the cart before the horse, and I stay on Wittgenstein's side of the fence in this respect.

Hackney: But they have contributed another element to your sense that knowledge has to be seen as contingent and situational. I'm paraphrasing now what I take to be a literary theorist's approach: If everything we know, we know through language and we communicate through language, and language is not the thing itself but a representation of the thing, that's simply another barrier between us and the ideal thing, is it not, that we're trying to understand?

Toulmin: I don't want to quibble over the word, but if you're saying that contemporary literary theory is itself as much a response to our present return to a respect for contingency, a respect for happenstance, then, as my own work or the work of Richard Rorty and others who have been moving in the same direction shows, over that I agree.

Hackney: But they go beyond that.

Toulmin: They're coming at it from a different starting point, and we all bear the impress of our starting points on the ways we think, and even more on the ways we express ourselves.

Hackney: Yes. And you do also.

Toulmin: It's inevitable. We do the best we can given where we start from, and there's nothing to despair about. There's nothing in the way of absurdity involved in acknowledging that fact.

Hackney: Is that a fundamental error of Descartes?

Toulmin: It's an interesting thing. I feel about Descartes as I feel about Plato, that he had at least two things at stake in his philosophizing. I talk about him in the book as partly a cryptanalyst, partly a foundationalist; by which I mean part of the time he thought he was, in the spirit of a scientist, deciphering the code in which the book of nature is written, and so developing an account of the world of nature in which God's fundamental language is translated into a form that humanists could follow. But, of course, that pursuit is not one that necessarily gives one absolute certainty.

The other part of the time he was infected with Dewey's quest for certainty. He was hoping that we could find some absolute foundation for our ideas, and that's the point on which his rationalist successors seized. But whether it's fair to call Descartes a Cartesian is a bit like, is it fair to call Plato a Platonist, or even more, Aristotle an Aristotelian.

Hackney: You are much more sympathetic to the other, the alternative arc of modernism from Montaigne. Why is that? Or, maybe even first, what is that?

Toulmin: Cosmopolis is intended as a balance-redressing book. There is so much in high school textbooks, in orthodox philosophy of science, in all kinds of much published, much read, much assimilated public thought, which takes it for granted that Galileo and Descartes and Hobbes were embarking on a great new positive direction and that this mathematization of thought was a splendid and admirable thing. In some ways, it's true. It bore all kinds of fruit. But, at the same time, these formal achievements have been allowed to cloud our vision of the other half of our modern inheritance, which goes back a bit further to Erasmus and Thomas More, to Cervantes and Rabelais, to Montaigne and Shakespeare, and people who lived and wrote and contributed before the beginning of modern science and modern philosophy as the academies and schools know it.

At the present time what we see is a convergence of these two traditions. The domination of an ideal of rationality rather than a reasonableness has been receding, so that now we find people in all kinds of fields recognizing that the technicalities and mathematical formulations of that tradition need always to be looked at as contributing or failing to contribute to humane ideals and to humane achievements.

Forty years ago, you would never have discovered in the daily newspapers of this country or any of the other industrialized countries discussions about the moral problems in medicine, for instance. Medicine was a technical art which the doctors were responsible for. To the extent that ethical questions arose in the practice of medicine, the doctors, as professionals, were expected to take care of them, and, indeed, took good care that it was they who took care of them. Twenty years ago, there was quite a tussle between people who argued that it was time for the public to be allowed into this discussion and people who still wanted to hang onto a professional monopoly in the resolution of these problems.

The debate about whether people should be allowed to die when they feel their time has come, to say nothing of all the debates about abortion -- all of these questions are now public property. Leaving aside the question about how they're argued in actual practice, I think it's an excellent thing.

It goes along with the environmental critique of engineering. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used to build canals and locks and cut up the countryside quite lightheartedly on the basis of technical specifications, which their theories have yet to justify. Now the whole question of environmental impact and ecological consequences is a central part of the public face of engineering.

Technicality, technical excellence, is no longer an end in itself. It's something which has to be kept in balance with humane consequences.

Hackney: So you're urging us to keep in balance these two traditions.

Toulmin: This is one of the extraordinary things about the last thirty-five years or so. It still strikes me as amazing that Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, appeared as recently as 1962.

Hackney: That is very recent.

Toulmin: Thirty-five years. At that time, if you had said to Rachel Carson in her last years that by the mid 1990s no government in the world with any pretension to respectability would fail to have some kind of environmental protection agency, it would have appeared quite incredible to her.

This is a major change in the agenda of politics, and it's a change which moves precisely in the direction that represents a return from, shall we say, Descartes to Erasmus. I remain charmed by Erasmus's famous essay, In Praise of Folly, which is a prophylactic against the quest for certainty.

Hackney: Yes, exactly. And you recall the humanistic or the more humane . . .

Toulmin: Well, yes, yes. This is the beginning of the tradition which the academic world knows as the humanities in the way in which Galileo and Descartes are the beginning of the tradition which the academic world knows as the exact sciences. Because I myself began my professional training as a physicist and have been spending the decades opening all the doors that lead out of physics into other areas of reflection, I welcome any evidence that this broadening of the agenda of the exact sciences is being reflected in the way in which human life is being led on the public as well as on the private level.

Hackney: That raises the question of your teacher, Wittgenstein, and his own professional progress or the changing agendas of his intellectual career. He did change several times in his own intellectual pursuits.

Toulmin: Wittgenstein was deeply preoccupied with two questions throughout his life. To talk about him as though he had a professional career as a philosopher is a mistake. Wittgenstein was, as Ray Monk shows in his biography, a person in whom one can't draw a distinction between the life and the career, the personality and the proficiency. He was a struggling person in the kind of way in which, for instance, Kierkegaard was a struggling person.

One of the things he was struggling with was the question, how communication is possible, how human modes of expression are capable of being meaningful at all. It is characteristic of him that he saw that if indeed there were any real doubt about the possibility of human communication then even to raise the question of the possibility of human communication should itself be open to challenge. This is a view he shares with Sextus Empiricus in antiquity and with Montaigne at the end of the sixteenth century, and it finds expression in this image of the ladder which the philosopher climbs up and then throws away as being itself deceptive and illegitimate.

The interesting thing is that this very same image, which appears at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, also appears at the end of Sextus Empiricus's book, Against the Dogmatists. This is that kind of commonplace which traditional skeptics have been familiar with.

I said there were two things he was preoccupied with. In relation to that question, which is the question that professional philosophers continue to tussle with, it's true that there is a shift. He thinks in the early stages of his career, when he's generating the Tractatus, that he can give us a kind of technical model which will show us what's the trouble about communication. Later on, he realizes that this technicality is itself unsatisfactory, and he comes back and adopts a quite different way of helping us to bring ourselves around to the point at which we'll see the necessity for the skepticism which he continues to hold.

There is the other question. The other question is an ethical question, about which Wittgenstein never fully reconciles the personal puzzlement he has in the realm of ethics with the intellectual puzzlement he has in relation to language in general and communication. In this respect, I think he is like the French seventeenth-century writer, Blaise Pascal, who was a brilliant mathematician and a wonderful controversialist for half the time, but the other half of the time retired to the abbey of Port-Royal outside Paris and meditated on the question whether his intellectual brilliance was a temptation that God had imposed on him as a test for his faith. As a good Jansenist, he was inclined to suspect his own motives in being an intellectual and to reject his own intellectuality. Wittgenstein had something of the same duality, torn between his own intellectual brilliance and feelings of deep personal inadequacy which he struggled with, not entirely successfully.

Hackney: But not the question of whether we can reach some general agreement about what is ethical behavior and what is not?

Toulmin: The one thing he was sure about was that any agreement that we could reach would not be a matter of intellectual consensus. It would be a convergence of humane attitudes. He was clearly attracted by the way in which Leo Tolstoy expresses much the same point.

In Anna Karenina, for instance, Tolstoy has as one of his characters a professor of philosophy whom he makes look rather ridiculous because he's theorizing about things which amaze Levin -- as the hero of the book and as an expression of Tolstoy's own personal points of view -- in terms of the way in which dealing with these matters on a purely intellectual basis trivializes them and fails to address the deep conflicts which one is faced by in the course of life -- especially those which people like Tolstoy or Wittgenstein faced as a result of inheriting a large fortune in a world full of poverty.

Hackney: Yes. But you speak as if you think that Wittgenstein's own intellectual journey is a matter of internal dynamics. That is, he has these two important questions in his life which he pursues in slightly different ways at different times, but he is not influenced by the world he sees around him.

Toulmin: I suppose this is really what a career in philosophy tends to be like. Ray Monk subtitles his biography of Wittgenstein The Duty of Genius. The implication is that to be a philosophical genius is a calling, a vocation, and the best we can do is to see how the different strands that go to express the nature of this vocation for a particular writer weave together. I think one can do this in the case of Pascal; I think one can do it in the case of Wittgenstein. It is one of the things I try to do in the case of Descartes in Cosmopolis.

Hackney: Oh, yes, indeed.

Wittgenstein is mainly known from his students. He wrote, or, published, relatively little.

Toulmin: He published almost nothing in his lifetime. He published the Tractatus, and he let one or two other essays be put into print. Even the Philosophical Investigations, which he was working on throughout his last years, was published only posthumously. He is a person who left behind him a lot of influences on teachers and students who see themselves as the inheritors of a tradition.

There's a curious article -- "The Philosophers That Sophie Skipped" -- in the December 7, 1996, issue of the Economist which is a discussion of Russell versus Wittgenstein in the history of twentieth-century philosophy. The writer of this article is clearly on Russell's side and takes some satisfaction in the fact that the profession of philosophy has never been so populated. There have never been more professional philosophers than there are now, and this is something which he thinks that Russell would have welcomed. Certainly, Wittgenstein wouldn't have. Wittgenstein saw his vocation as having to clean the Augean stables of the intellect. He thought that the brilliant young were being distracted from urgent tasks by pursuing these intellectual dead ends. I think he would have been deeply depressed if he'd lived long enough to see how many thousands of philosophers are earning a living that way.

This is not the first time in history that something of this kind has happened. Plato was caustic about Gorgias and the other Sophists who set up what he dismissed as "thinking shops" and, he implied, prostituted their skills for pay.

Hackney: Let's shift to the future, about which you've also thought philosophically. I assume there is a future out there, even though we're living through a brief period in which many authors and public intellectuals are using postsomething, "postmodernism," in the titles of their books.

Toulmin: I think there's a lot to be said for Jurgen Habermas' criticism of this habit. He pokes fun at what he calls the posties, for whom everything is postsomething. There is a giveaway in the fact that this label implies that the people in question don't see what directions there are available for going in.

In this respect, I don't like being called a postmodernist myself, because I hope one can see that actually there was, as Habermas also insists, a lot that we must value and treasure in the things that were achieved between 1600 and 1950, or whatever -- choose your own date. What we have to do is make the technical and the humanistic strands in modern thought work together more effectively than they have in the past.

When I look back at my own life, it is my good fortune that, although I started being trained professionally as a physicist, I was able, after the Second World War, to start opening the doors out of physics into other neighboring subjects, so that, beginning with the philosophy of science and going on to the history of science and sociology of science and the history of ideas, I have been concerned with establishing the possibility, and also the value, of knitting together the strands that come from the technical, exact sciences with the strands that come from history, sociology, and the rest. We're seeing all kinds of important inquiries developing which are very constructive in their own ways.

At USC there's a professor in the law school -- Christopher Stone, whose father was I. F. Stone, the well-known political journalist and commentator. Christopher Stone has done some very striking things by developing environmental law. Some years ago he wrote the famous paper, Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. This was a beginning. He argues that it should be possible to go into court and say, "The redwoods don't deserve to be destroyed. They deserve to be protected. The tradition of common law should devise new ways of making this possible and of justifying injunctions against acts which would be threatening to endangered species just as much as to human beings." This is the sort of discussion which eighty years ago would have been regarded as dotty.

Hackney: I'm thinking here again about how we get into the future. You write very sensibly about the future, there being a number of futures that we ought to understand.

Toulmin: Yes. There's a whole set of issues we haven't talked about up to this point which have to do with the parallelism that I trace between the evolution of intellectual theory and the political evolution of the state system.

Hackney: I was trying to get into that.

Toulmin: This is more speculative than the arguments that I put forward in looking at the relations between the exact sciences and the humanities; though, indeed, the arguments that I speculate about in Cosmopolis have been taken up by colleagues in the international relations profession. There is a very active discussion about the ways in which political organization is having to be reconsidered in a period in which the old claims about the absolute sovereignty of the nation-state are losing their plausibility. It's striking that when people start banging the drum about outsiders not being allowed to criticize the way they're running their States, they complain that this is an infringement on their absolute sovereignty. I find the people who do this highly suspect. They tend to be the Burmese military or Saddam Hussein.

Hackney: Exactly. They're complaining for a reason.

Toulmin: Yes, and when the prime minister of Malaysia complains that we are seeking to impose Western values on other cultures unjustifiably, the run-of-the-mill Malaysian probably doesn't like being arbitrarily imprisoned any more than the run- of-the-mill Frenchman or American.

Hackney: That's true, and it is arising here in regard to Serbia and China and many other states.

Toulmin: Indeed. We're living in an extraordinarily exciting and fascinating, though also frustrating, time because we're seeing the emergence of a set of institutional relationships which are not, as some people fear, moving in the direction of world government. World government could easily turn into world tyranny. We're seeing the emergence of a whole set of patterns of association, of mechanisms of agreement, of ways in which people from different countries can work together to place limits on the arbitrariness and propensities to tyranny of people who still think that they're entitled to run a country as they please.

Hackney: Does that critique from the outside depend on our being able to agree among ourselves internationally on some universal concept of tyranny?

Toulmin: Here I would make a distinction. I'm sure that it will never be possible to get the governments of the members of the United Nations and the rest to sign a common document. On the other hand, I think on the nongovernmental level there is in practice a strong and large consensus which governs the way in which people do things. And if ethics is more a practical matter than an intellectual matter, that may be what really is important.

Hackney: That's what I thought you would say, that it's not so much discovering the platonic ideal of justice universally but people talking with each other across their differences and reaching some agreement.

Toulmin: Indeed. In this respect I've been increasingly struck by the role which nongovernmental organizations play in the world. To the extent that people look for the creation of what they call civil society we can find the beginnings of it on an effective level more by looking at the way in which these transnational nongovernmental organizations operate than by looking at the ways in which official nation-state governments operate. That, for me, is a genuinely new feature of the world, and one which leads us back to look with interest at things that happened long ago, before the beginning of modernity.

Hackney: Do you detect echoes of the late sixteenth or seventeenth century today?

Toulmin: It really was very difficult during these three hundred years for people to put forward from outside intellectual critiques of the ways in which governments ran what they regarded as their own affairs. On the other hand, if we go further back, King Henry II of England was forced to go to Normandy and bow the knee before a papal legate in order to shrive himself of the sins involved in being associated with the murder of Thomas … Becket. At that stage, there was an outside body, namely the church, which had the power to put rulers in shame, which meant that they were simply not acceptable on the international scene.

One of the great virtues of nongovernmental organizations is that they are able, in a new kind of way, to practice the politics of shame rather than the politics of force. The moment Amnesty International buys its first machine gun, its moral authority would be destroyed. It's the fact that they are speaking for a very widespread consensus about what is and is not tolerable behavior by governments that gives them political influence.

Hackney: That's true. That sort of moral authority though does depend on a couple of things: on a government's thinking that it has to respond in some sense to its own population; and on an enlarging agreement among different populations about what standards are or what tyranny is.

Toulmin: Yes, but then the question becomes, how do you define, how do you differentiate populations, and I argue that the entire transnational medical profession say is a population. We have to stop thinking about effective populations as being the populations of a particular country or a particular state. What binds us together in a moral network is very often the fact that, for example, we're all doctors and that we share the values that the profession of medicine embodies for all who practice it.

Hackney: I suppose you would also say that the more people from different political entities talk to each other the more they would develop some shared experience and a shared sense of proper behavior, shameless behavior.

Toulmin: Yes. None of this, of course, is entirely new. The first modern nongovernmental organization to be truly effective was the Red Cross, founded in Switzerland -- a neutral state -- in the second half of the nineteenth century. It's much older than Amnesty International and the rest, which are essentially post-World War II foundations.

There are interesting but not irrelevant facts, such as, there is a legal difference between the status of a soldier who operates in the United States medical corps and all other members of the armed forces. It is against military discipline for a soldier in war to have anything to do with a member of the enemy forces, except in response to an explicit command. On the other hand, a member of the United States medical corps is entitled to pick up wounded members of the enemy forces and treat them. All the rules against fraternization, all the rules against illegitimate association between soldiers and the enemy, are heavily qualified in the case of members of the medical corps, who are seen as being as much doctors as they are Americans, and as having obligations which are on them as doctors, which they have to reconcile with the obligations which are on them as Americans.

Hackney: Very interesting.

Toulmin: None of these ideas, none of these traditions, has ever been lost. They've always been there, but somehow the preoccupation with the sovereignty of the nation-state, like the preoccupation with the rigor and necessity of theoretical argument, has kept our attention directed away from these considerations which are now coming back to the center of our picture.

Hackney: You've written and talked about so many different subjects that we could go on much longer, but we must not. Thank you so much.

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