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Toulmin, Stephen Edelston (1922–2009), philosopher and historian of ideas, was born on 25 March 1922 at 32 Glenloch Road, Belsize Park, London, the elder son and second of four children of Geoffrey Edelston Toulmin (1888–1953), company secretary, and his wife, Elsa Doris, née Holman (1895–1984). At the time of his birth registration the family lived at 152a Haverstock Hill, Belsize Park. His younger brother, Roger Toulmin (1926–1993), was a journalist and civil servant.

Toulmin was educated at Oundle School and King's College, Cambridge, where he read mathematics and physics. He emerged with a first in 1943, and became a junior scientific officer in the Ministry of Aircraft Production, where he worked on radar development for the rest of the Second World War. He married Margaret Alison Coutts (1919–1988), an assistant labour officer in the Ministry of Supply, and daughter of Charles Ronald Vawdrey Coutts, actuary and manager for a life insurance company, at Bromley register office on 23 August 1945; they had four children, Polly, Matthew, Camilla, and Gregory. When the war ended Toulmin was sent to Germany to work in aircraft production, but he returned to Cambridge in 1946 to embark on a PhD degree in moral sciences.

At Cambridge, Toulmin was able to attend the last two years of Ludwig Wittgenstein's lectures, which influenced him deeply, though he said later that attending those classes ‘gave me the courage of previous convictions’ (Olson, 287). Those previous convictions must have included a sense that the exact sciences should not be taken as the only paradigm for intellectual inquiry. Both Wittgenstein and Toulmin started in mathematics and physics, and Toulmin spent much of his life trying to show that, even if this were a good place to start, it is one that would distort one's intellectual perspective if taken as the ideal for other disciplines to emulate. (Much later Toulmin wrote with Allan Janik a highly-regarded study, Wittgenstein's Vienna, 1973, which emphasized the historical and cultural context of Wittgenstein's thought.)

Toulmin was elected a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, in 1947 but left Cambridge for Oxford in 1949, becoming university lecturer in the philosophy of science. His first book, essentially the thesis for which he was awarded his PhD in 1948, was ‘The Place of Reason in Ethics’ (1950). This book made him a reputation; it was reviewed by several major figures. The first half was a powerful attack on prevailing ethical theories; the second half, less well received, suggested that the way to make progress is to make sense of what is a good reason in moral contexts. A better title for the book would have been ‘The Place of Reasons in Ethics’. This hint was not much taken up until forty years later when a new interest in reasons really took hold among philosophers.

Toulmin's second book was The Philosophy of Science: an Introduction (1953), which was an early precursor of Thomas Kuhn's challenge to rationalistic conceptions of progress in science. In 1954–5 he spent a year in Australia at the University of Melbourne, returning to the UK as professor of philosophy at Leeds. While at Leeds he published The Uses of Argument (1956). This was to be his most influential book, though it received little immediate attention and that largely negative. A dismissive review by P. F. Strawson in The Listener meant that the mainstream philosophical world ignored it. But it was taken up with great enthusiasm by an unexpected audience in departments of rhetoric and communication in the USA and eventually achieved the status of a classic, being still in print forty years later.

The Uses of Argument set out to underpin suggestions made in Toulmin's two previous books, about ethics and about science; its deeper purpose was to argue that the problems of epistemology all derive from a confusion between formal and substantive argumentation, so that once we achieve a sound understanding of substantive argumentation the standard problems of epistemology fall away. Much of the book is therefore devoted to a novel account of substantive argumentation. Formal approaches cast all relevant considerations as premises, and view all reasoning as aiming at the perfection of formal validity. Toulmin insisted that many forms of substantive reasoning have no such aim; rather they aim to show that it would be reasonable to believe their conclusion. This was held to be an attack on logic, and the book became known as ‘Toulmin's anti-logic book’. But the fruitful part of the book was the distinctions it drew between several different ways in which considerations can be relevant to a conclusion (rather than the logician's catch-all ‘premises’): as data, warrant, backing, rebuttal, or qualifier. These distinctions offered ways of mapping and understanding the different sorts of substantial argumentation to be found in ethics, in the law, and in science. They thereby offered new tools to the students of rhetoric, who eagerly embraced them, and became a dominant paradigm in that field.

In 1959–60 Toulmin spent a year in the USA, as a visiting professor at New York, Stanford, and Columbia universities. When he returned to the UK it was to become director of the Nuffield Foundation Unit for the History of Ideas in London. His marriage had been dissolved, and on 25 July 1960 at Hampstead register office he married (Gwyneth) June Goodfield (b. 1927), a lecturer in philosophy (and daughter of Richard Morgan Goodfield, minister of religion), who came from Leeds to join him at the Nuffield unit. There they wrote three books together, under the general title of The Ancestry of Science (1961–5).

In 1965 Toulmin moved definitively to the USA, as professor of philosophy at Brandeis University, where he taught both philosophy of science and ethics. His subsequent career involved frequent changes: he worked at Michigan State University from 1969 to 1972, the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1972–3, the University of Chicago from 1973 to 1986, Northwestern University from 1985 to 1993, and the University of Southern California from 1993 to 2001. In 1973 he was divorced a second time and was very briefly married to Nancy Baker. In 1975 he married Donna Anastasia Boyan.

During these years in the USA, Toulmin published many books, of which perhaps the most significant were The Abuse of Casuistry (1987, with Albert R. Jonsen), Cosmopolis (1989), and Return to Reason (2001). The main themes in these books were the contrasts between the rational and the reasonable, and between the particular and the universal. Reasoning in most areas is not the context-free derivation of conclusions from timeless principles or laws; it requires a sense of the particularities of the case at hand. Further, there is no one-size-fits-all account of good reasoning. Reasonings in different areas (moral, legal, practical, scientific) are similar in what they are not, but different in what they are, and, as R. G. Collingwood (another considerable influence) held, they can change over time too.

Toulmin's other hero was Michel de Montaigne. Cosmopolis pitted Montaigne against Descartes, arguing that the Cartesian desire for a certainty that is the product of a rationally compelling, water-tight system, which has dominated philosophy ever since, displaced Montaigne's sceptical humanism, which was interested in the particularities of human experience and felt no need for certainties or the sort of rational guarantee that Descartes thought would make empirical knowledge into something like an exact science.

Toulmin was similarly suspicious of the inherited methods of academic philosophers, who seek to answer all their questions with a theory. Medical ethics, for example, should not be the discovery of the correct theory, to be taught to practitioners, but a training in how to respond to the particular nature of each case. ‘The “modern” focus on the written, the universal, the general and the timeless is being broadened to include the oral, the particular, the local and the timely’ (Cosmopolis, 186). Toulmin here, as always, was not trying to replace one thing with another, but to unseat a paradigm by adding something for which that paradigm officially left no room.

Toulmin was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1989. In 1997 he was invited to give the annual Jefferson lecture at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington. He died of heart failure in Los Angeles on 4 December 2009 and was survived by his fourth wife, Donna, and the four children of his first marriage.

Jonathan Dancy

Sources  

G. A. Olson, ‘Literary theory, philosophy of science, and persuasive discourse: thoughts from a neo-premodernist’, Journal of Advanced Composition, 13/2 (autumn 1993), 283–309 · M. W. Wartofsky, ‘Stephen Toulmin: an intellectual odyssey’, Humanities, 18/2 (March–April 1997), 8–13 · D. Hitchcock and B. Verheij, eds., Arguing on the Toulmin model: new essays in argument analysis and evaluation (2006) · USC News (8 Dec 2009) · New York Times (12 Dec 2009) · The Age [Melbourne] (23 Dec 2009) · The Guardian (11 Jan 2010) · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. certs. [1945, 1960]

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UNT Libraries, JAC audio interview, G. A. Olson, 1993, http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc40383/?q=toulmin


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