shytone  books  music  essays  home  exploratories  new this month

book reviews

Stephen Toulmin: Cosmopolis: the hidden agenda of modernity
(Free Press: 1990)

"The failures of understanding between Science and the Humanities about which C.P. Snow was so eloquent, began early in the 17th century, when Descartes persuaded his fellow philosophers to renounce fields of study like ethnography, history, or poetry, which are rich in content and context, and to concentrate exclusively on abstract, de-contextualized fields like geometry, dynamics, and epistemology."     
(Toulmin, p. x)

When we genuinely try to understand the modern world - and how we got here from there - sadly, the usual suspects are all-too resolutely economic...and truly well-informed & broad-ranging enquiries regrettably rare in this age of specializations. 

As the philosopher/historian of science most attuned to the virtues of humanism, Stephen Toulmin is admirably placed to help correct this, and Cosmopolis is - in many ways - the culmination of his long career, drawing upon earlier investigations into practical reasoning/argumentation, rhetoric & casuistry (neither term an insult, by the way, save in our benighted age), scientific/intellectual history, and those fault-lines between disciplines which reveal the frequently unspoken assumptions underlying our habitual modes of thought.

If the game of postmodernism was truly concerned w/understanding & communication, Toulmin's work would place him in its forefront, as he has been working similar terrain since the 1950s...instead, his deep concern for clarity, refusal to worship at "our" idols, and reluctance to overstate his case have meant that few in the Humanities today read his work, including this - which is, in passing, simply the best account of "postmodernism" available...

"Seventeenth-century philosophers and "rationality" to theoretical arguments that achieve a quasi-geometrical certainty or necessity: for them, theoretical physics was thus a field for rational study and debate, in a way that ethics and law were not. Instead of pursuing a concern with "reasonable" procedures of all kinds, Descartes and his successors hoped eventually to bring all subjects into the ambit of some formal theory: as a result, being impressed only by formally valid demonstrations, they ended up changing the very language of Reason - notably, key words like "reason", "rational", and "rationality" - in subtle but influential ways." 
(Toulmin, p. 20)

Toulmin however, as this excerpt shows, is intent upon far more than merely inverting our habitual over-valuation of "reason" as currently defined. What he wants to do is to understand how that over-valuation came about, what assumptions underpinned it so as to become something that "goes without saying", and also trace the history of its decline - as well as outline a more genuinely "reasonable" approach to evidence & ideas.

"When we deal with intellectual or practical problems, we can never totally clean the slate, and start from scratch, as Descartes demands when he explains in the Discourse how to reach his position of systematic doubt. Rather, we start from where we are; and the best indication that we are handling our problems in a "rational" or "reasonable" way is not the fact that we reject all inherited concepts, but the extent to which we use experience to refine those inherited concepts." 
(Toulmin, p. 82)

Here, in a nutshell, is where Toulmin irrevocably parts company with the obscurantists. Instead of using abstract reasoning to undermine itself - a sad game with no solution - he insists upon setting it against practical reasonings, in all their enormous diversity, and situated firmly in fully-fleshed historical context, surpassing that usually offered within the history of ideas. In this he is, par excellence, an anti-utopian thinker...refusing to dumb-down the world just to fit it into some neat intellectual, ideological, or disciplinary category - or, conversely, to over-estimate our inability to comprehend it. After all, false modesty is (almost) as offensive as overweening arrogance. And, there are alternatives:

"In practical disciplines, questions of rational adequacy are timely not timeless, concrete, not abstract, local not general, particular not abstract." 
(Toulmin, p. 34)

"Separating rationality and logic from rhetoric and the emotions, we are unwittingly committed to the basic agenda of modern philosophy. Epistemology involves not just intellectual, but also moral issues. Abstract concepts and formal arguments, intuitive ideas and propositions are not the only grist for a philosopher's mill: rather, he can attend to the whole of human experience, in varied, concrete detail. These are the lessons we learnt from the humanists, and they are a long way from a rationalism that sets emotion apart from reason, and plunges us into moral escapism. Treating the feelings as mere effects of causal processes takes them out of our hands, and relieves us of responsibility: all we are rationally responsible for (it seems) is thinking correctly." 
(Toulmin, p. 41)

Which is why Toulmin spends so much time with Montaigne, a thinker who flatly refused to make the "childish" distinction between mind & body - and supported this position by quoting Augustine's tale of a man who could fart in time w/music...

In our current malaise, there have been many proposals to learn from past approaches to life & ideas. And, while the right's current preference is for the 19th century mainstream's combination of laissez-faire, nationalism, and moral certainty, the left invariably opts for either Romanticism or the Enlightenment, as all too few are aware of just what was lost when 16th century humanism gave way to far more rigid viewpoints. Here, as in many things, Toulmin is exceptional as Cosmopolis rediscovers the humanism of Montaigne - and of his friend, Henry IV of France, whose assassination sadly marked the ending for that era:

"By 1620, people in positions of political power and theological authority in Europe no longer saw Montaigne's pluralism as a viable intellectual option, any more than Henry's tolerance was for them a practical option. The humanists' readiness to live with uncertainty, ambiguity, and differences of opinion had done nothing (in their view) to prevent religious conflict from getting out of hand: ergo (they inferred) it had helped cause the worsening state of affairs. If skepticism let one down, certainty was more urgent. It might not be obvious what one was supposed to be certain about, but uncertainty had become unacceptable." 
(Toulmin, p. 55)

As Toulmin argues, intellectual history needs to fully account for the whole context before it can deliver real understandings of the value of differing positions in debates. In particular, we need to be aware of the total appeal of what was termed the "cosmopolis" -"a comprehensive account of the world, so as to bind things together in "politico-theological", as much as in scientific or explanatory, terms"  (Toulmin, p. 128). Within the medieval order, the cosmopolis was a pyramid - the principle ordering all things (on earth as it is in heaven) was embodied in chains of direct subordination. In contrast, in the modern world, categorization into classes - and, therefore, horizontal ordering approaches - are crucial, and the relationship between these as a whole was what counted...a considerably more abstract approach in close accord with Newton's cosmology, and Descartes' philosophy:

"At the base of the Modern Cosmopolis lay the Cartesian opposition between the (supposed) "mechanical causality" of natural phenomena and the (supposed) "logical rationality" of human action." 
(Toulmin, p. 163)

This is the key distinction...and much else is only fully intelligible in light of it. The emotionality of the lower orders/women (read: body/non-rational), the bias against social science (and the tendency of same to stick w/archaic, narrow & rigid notions of evidence/theory in self-defence), the over-late understanding that human action is part of the natural world, and the overwhelming failure of philosophy - in the wake of Descartes - to learn from specifics in the way that the sciences have always (eventually) managed to do:

"Reading the history of science after 1700, we might infer that it changed because scientists extended the range of their subjects, continually reapplying a common "scientific method" to new phenomena. The truth is more interesting... As they attacked each new field of study, the first thing they had to find out was how to study it." 
(Toulmin, p.148)

"Immanuel Kant had seen insurmountable obstacles to a Science of Psychology: that, in his eyes, meant treating "mentality" as another mathematically predictable causal phenomenon, governed by laws as rigid as those of planetary motion. But his successors in Germany moved into psychology from physiology rather than from physics, and so circumvented his objections." 
(Toulmin, p.149)

"As to the "human sciences"...only economics flourished, beginning in Adam Smith's Scotland as an aspect of moral philosophy, and achieving mathematical exactitude in Cambridge without losing its philosophical roots. Alfred Marshall was a philosopher at first, John Maynard Keynes was a student of G.E. Moore, while Anglo-American economic theory stayed firmly on the "reason" side of Cartesianism. Economics did not explore the causal tangle of motives or feelings behind real human choices, exploring instead the rational choices of "ideal" producers or consumers, investors or policy-makers. For the purposes of economics, "causal" factors were set aside, in favor of ever more precisely "rational" calculations. In this way, modern proprieties were protected in the life of the intellect." 
(Toulmin, p. 125)

And Toulmin has little time for - or interest in - that warhorse of cultural history, the opposition between the Enlightenment & Romanticism, seeing both as impoverished compared to their humanistic precursors:

"As a 19th-century position, romanticism never broke with rationalism... This is not a position that transcends17th-century dualism: rather, it accepts dualism, but votes for the opposite side of every dichotomy." 
(Toulmin, p.148)

Instead, the key work in dismantling the untenable framework of extreme rationalism was mostly done in more practical areas, experience wearing away at methodological certainties, and gradually undermining the hard distinctions beloved by formal logic...

"Today, we need no longer assume either that nature is generally stable, or that matter is purely inert, or that mental activities must be entirely conscious and rational. Nor do we any longer equate the "objectivity" of scientific work with "non-involvement" in the processes being studied. Least of all, do we see the distinction between "reasons" and "causes" as necessitating the separation of Humanity from Nature." 
(Toulmin, p.143)

"The burden of proof has shifted; the dream of finding a scratch line, to serve as a starting point for any "rational" philosophy, is unfulfillable. There is no scratch. The belief that, by cutting ourselves off from the inherited ideas of our cultures, we can "clean the slate" and make a fresh start, is as illusory as the hope for a comprehensive system of theory that is capable of giving us timeless certainty and coherence. The quest for certainty, the dream of a clean slate, and the equation of rationality with formal logic, all played their interdependent parts... Descartes saw the logical necessity of geometry as an exemplar of certainty, and so equated the rationality of a science with its readiness to form a logical system. In turn, since systematicity was essential to rationality, his theory had no room for given ideas or practices to change continuously into other different ideas or practices. Once one questioned the claims of any given social or intellectual system, the only thing left to do was raze it, and construct another, different system in its place." 
(Toulmin, p.178)

In many ways - as Toulmin notes - Descartes was the Plato of his era, driving a wedge between "high" theory and the messy world that has (yet again) taken centuries to clear. And, just as these two differed on many issues, so too do their current heirs - the postmodernists - albeit all are united by relentlessly abstract modes of argumentation, and their varied obsessions w/the utopian dream of a clean slate which can be drawn upon with complete certainty. The viable path ahead, as Toulmin notes, however, is considerably more modest:

"Social and political developments today run parallel to current moves away from the "modern" orientation in intellectual life, with its formal conception of "rationality". The charms of logical rigor were also learned too well, and must now in crucial ways be unlearned. The task is not to build new, more comprehensive systems of theory, with universal and timeless relevance, but to limit the scope of even the best-framed theories, and fight the intellectual reductionism that became entrenched during the ascendancy of rationalism... Interlocking modes of investigation and explanation check exaggerated claims on behalf  of all universal theories, and reinstate respect  for the pragmatic methods appropriate in dealing with concrete human problems. In clinical medicine and jurisprudence, human ecology and social history, historical geology and developmental psychodynamics alike, the model of Euclid's axioms and theorems was from the start misleading in orientation and confused in outcome. From now on, every science will need to employ those specific methods that have proved, in concrete experience, to match the characteristic demands of its own intellectual problems." 
(Toulmin, p. 193)

Stephen Toulmin's Cosmopolis - like Eric Havelock's work on ancient Greece - explores the inter-relationship of philosophy, science & politics, with an eye to deflating the hubris of abstract thought, and restoring the centrality of practical embodied reasonings of all sorts. This type of work is extremely rare, and all too little known to those who would most benefit from it...humanists/intellectual pluralists, and those fascinated by the true complexity of history untrimmed by a priori belief & disciplinary proprieties. And, while it certainly does not stand alone in accounting for modernity beyond the economics - Charles Taylor's contribution, to mention only one, is an essential complement - it is a unique and crucial contribution, carefully argued & elegantly written. As such, it amply deserves the last word:

"In choosing as the goals of Modernity an intellectual agenda that set aside the tolerant, skeptical attitude of the 16th-century humanists, and focussed on the 17th-century pursuit of mathematical exactitude and logical rigor, intellectual certainty and moral purity, Europe set itself on a cultural and political road that has led both to its most striking technical successes and to its deepest human failures. If we have any lesson to learn from the experience of the 1960s and '70s, this (I have come to believe) is our need to reappropriate the wisdom of the 16th-century humanists, and develop a point of view that combines the abstract rigor and exactitude of the 17th-century "new philosophy" with a practical concern for human life in its concrete detail." 
(Toulmin, pp. x-xi)

John Henry Calvinist