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Return to Reason [Hardcover]

Stephen Toulmin
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Book Description

May 29 2001

The turmoil and brutality of the twentieth century have made it increasingly difficult to maintain faith in the ability of reason to fashion a stable and peaceful world. After the ravages of global conflict and a Cold War that divided the world's loyalties, how are we to master our doubts and face the twenty-first century with hope?

In Return to Reason, Stephen Toulmin argues that the potential for reason to improve our lives has been hampered by a serious imbalance in our pursuit of knowledge. The centuries-old dominance of rationality, a mathematical mode of reasoning modeled on theory and universal certainties, has diminished the value of reasonableness, a system of humane judgments based on personal experience and practice. To this day, academic disciplines such as economics and professions such as law and medicine often value expert knowledge and abstract models above the testimony of diverse cultures and the practical experience of individuals.

Now, at the beginning of a new century, Toulmin sums up a lifetime of distinguished work and issues a powerful call to redress the balance between rationality and reasonableness. His vision does not reject the valuable fruits of science and technology, but requires awareness of the human consequences of our discoveries. Toulmin argues for the need to confront the challenge of an uncertain and unpredictable world, not with inflexible ideologies and abstract theories, but by returning to a more humane and compassionate form of reason, one that accepts the diversity and complexity that is human nature as an essential beginning for all intellectual inquiry.


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From Publishers Weekly

Indictments of contemporary culture often blame its demise on an overdependence on rationality. Since at least the early 17th century, mathematical reasoning has reigned as a model of cultural inquiry, even infiltrating literary criticism in the guise of deconstruction. Yet the natural disasters and human atrocities of the late 20th century call into question reason's efficacy as a beacon for cultural well-being. In elegant prose, Toulmin (Cosmopolis), Henry R. Luce Professor at USC, contends that advocates of pure reason have forgotten "the complementary concept of reasonableness," a model of intellectual practice focused on values and experience rather than facts and theories. His rich conceptual history outlines the ways in which early modern science and philosophy separated reasonableness from rationality, and the resulting imbalance in all academic disciplines. Toulmin uses medical ethics to illustrate how an intellectual commitment to a single moral theory inadequately addresses the practical experiences, limits and values of a given patient and physician. Drawing on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, William James, Wittgenstein and William Gass, Toulmin argues for redressing the balance between the Ideal (Reason) and the Actual (Reasonableness) in order to respect "the manual skills and practical experiences" of those who have the "right to be the intellectual equals of any system of theory." Although Toulmin is not as thoroughgoing in his denial of reason as Richard Rorty, who once claimed that reading novels best prepares one to do philosophy, he pleads eloquently for a new pragmatism that recovers the values of shared experience and practice for reflecting on the nature of truth.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Henry Luce Professor at the University of Southern California after a career at Oxford, Cambridge, and Northwestern, the 79-year-old Toulmin champions "reasonableness" against the imperialistic strictures of formal reasoning. He pursues two distinctions between formal and informal arguments and between the hard sciences and other claims to knowledge. "Horses need plants, and plants need sunlight, so horses need sunlight" is a formal argument depending on logical rules, meanings, and facts. If the facts are right, the conclusion is certain. The suggestion that it is more likely that Caesar first invaded Britain to stop cross-channel raiding than that he was pursuing a runaway mistress is an informal argument depending on historical and cultural contexts. All such arguments are inconclusive, but Toulmin argues that "pragmatism and skepticism are the beginning of a wisdom that is better than the dreams of the rationalists." Toulmin further states that Newtonian physics is a bad model for social science for instance, in trying to be universal, economics has sometimes caused local disasters and he believes that, by getting people together to grasp one another's stories, we can achieve reasonableness. But can we? Everyone could tell the bad guys in Westerns, and Trekkies knew Captain Kirk acted for the best, but not everyone thinks Hollywood got everything right. In a world in which moviemakers, publishers, politicians, and religious leaders influence the stories we get to think about, a little demonstrable proof would be handy. Leslie Armour, Univ. of Ottawa, Ont.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Don't agree with tiglath_iii's review Dec 10 2003
Format:Paperback
My experience in reading this book has been opposite of what tiglath_iii describes. The point of this book is almost too clear, given the author's repeated efforts to summarize it clearly (i.e. "there is too much emphasis on reason and not enough consideration of practical and contextual factors in understanding, a situation that has developed in philosophy only since the seventeenth century and has become cemented in our thinking only in the twentieth"). To say "His name dropping is incessant and intrusive" is unfair: Every source discussed is well-introduced, and he seems to deliberately avoid making his argument too academic or too technical. I will grant that the idea could be expressed more concisely, but it seems to me that the point of the book is to show that concise, streamlined argumentation is very often artificially abstracted, and so its conclusions are very often "useful" in a limited sense. It seems to "practice what it preaches," in that sense. One can hardly fault Toulmin for writing in a sometimes meandering, anecdotal style when his subject is the damaging effects of overemphasizing logical argumentation.
I have been looking for writers (besides Rorty) who address the growing resistance of philosophers to the suggestions of the those in the humanities (in Toulmin's terms, defending "logic" against the "casuistry of rhetoric"), and Toulmin's book was just what I was looking for. I had trouble putting this book down once I started it, and wanted to read more when I was done.
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2.0 out of 5 stars A Few Nuggets in Muddy Waters. May 22 2001
Format:Hardcover
This is a book that fails to engage the reader. The subject is of immense interest to me, yet I found it hard to keep reading. Toulmin meanders and piles information and thoughts furiously in a way that distracts rather that concentrates the reader's attention. His name dropping is incessant and intrusive. Unlike Bertrand Russel, to whom he frequently refers, and who had a lucid, accessible way to layout complex thoughts, Toulmin, who doubtlessly has a mastery of the subject, joins the ranks of those who know much but can't communicate it well.
If one is prepared to make the crouching effort to pan for gold in this book, however, one doesn't end up empty handed. The book's premise of contrasting rationality and reasonableness deserves attention despite its difficult framing. Although the idea could have been expressed much more concisely. Reading Chapter 13 "Postcript: Living with Uncertainty" would suffice to know the central tenet of the book. The rest is background information delivered as intricate fill.
If I had to summarize the key points of each chapter I would have to read it several times. I read with a pen in my hand ready to mark memorable paragraphs and sentences to aid revision. There is very little I've marked in this book.
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Don't agree with tiglath_iii's review Dec 10 2003
By skeptical of both sides - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
My experience in reading this book has been opposite of what tiglath_iii describes. The point of this book is almost too clear, given the author's repeated efforts to summarize it clearly (i.e. "there is too much emphasis on reason and not enough consideration of practical and contextual factors in understanding, a situation that has developed in philosophy only since the seventeenth century and has become cemented in our thinking only in the twentieth"). To say "His name dropping is incessant and intrusive" is unfair: Every source discussed is well-introduced, and he seems to deliberately avoid making his argument too academic or too technical. I will grant that the idea could be expressed more concisely, but it seems to me that the point of the book is to show that concise, streamlined argumentation is very often artificially abstracted, and so its conclusions are very often "useful" in a limited sense. It seems to "practice what it preaches," in that sense. One can hardly fault Toulmin for writing in a sometimes meandering, anecdotal style when his subject is the damaging effects of overemphasizing logical argumentation.
I have been looking for writers (besides Rorty) who address the growing resistance of philosophers to the suggestions of the those in the humanities (in Toulmin's terms, defending "logic" against the "casuistry of rhetoric"), and Toulmin's book was just what I was looking for. I had trouble putting this book down once I started it, and wanted to read more when I was done.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars PROVIDES LITTLE POSITIVE GUIDANCE Sept. 23 2011
By Yehezkel Dror - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Living with the Genie: Essays On Technology And The Quest For Human Mastery

This is an important book, but also a disappointing one. The critique of "rationality" in its naïve forms, such as geometric logic and rational choice theory, as applied to social issues, and the endorsement of the importance of tacit (and I would add "local") knowledge are well taken. But the alternative of relying on "reason" is not elaborated in ways which are useful for coping with the pressing issues of humanity (and of the social sciences). "Common sense" is not discussed and is in any case no good for coping with "uncommon problems," the work of the Santa Fe Institute on Complexity is several times mentioned favorably without critical examination, chaos theory is complimented despite its limited usefulness beyond some illuminating metaphors, a case approach to moral issues is recommended though it does not work for novel and unique situations in the absence of theoretic-philosophic guidelines, and so on.

Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, recognized the limits of induction and deduction, but proposed "abduction" as a form of "educated guess" as a basis for "pragmatic" theories that can serve as grounding for action. Modular and temporal logic also provide approaches which are not "rational" in the strict sense, but are much more than "reason" in the vague meanings discussed in the book. No such positive contributions to urgently needed new ways of "pondering" are provided by this book.

Humanity, for the first time in its history, has the ability, as supplied by science and technology, to eliminate itself (deliberately or unintentionally), to create a new post-human species, or to thrive pluralistically. But, to avoid self-destruction and decide on the other options, unprecedented global policies are required, involving for instance intrusive regulation of the production and uses of knowledge and technologies - approximating some features of a, hopefully benevolent, Global Leviathan directed by a small number of superpowers.

The author is right: Geometric thinking, including modern derivatives such as theory of games, will not help in pondering such options. But neither will "reason" in its classical meanings, such as "practical knowledge, past-based tacit knowledge and case-pragmatism. Instead, essential is a novel type of "melody of the mind" based inter alia on interaction between conjectural theories, responsible revaluation of values, much creativity, and explicit and tacit a feel for historic processes.

The author is to be complimented in posing the need to think in terms of "futuribles," that is alternative perhaps possible futures. He helps to clear away some of the barriers to doing so. But he provides no guidance how to do the required thinking and on what to base it.

Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
msdror@mscc.huji.ac.il
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile, but Major Reservations Nonetheless May 21 2013
By Dennis B. Mulcare - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book's message seems rather straightforward, stimulating, and more or less plausible, but the development and presentation of its core ideas are somewhat fuzzy. For starters, the term "rationality" is not explicitly defined, and the sense in which this highly overloaded word is employed here is left to the reader to infer. My take is that the author's usage refers to a "procedural" rationality that observes the norms of the scientific method, and in consequence applies rigorous methods in theory formulation. In any case, however, it is not clear how rationality could necessarily exclude or inhibit reasonableness, except in obtuse practice.

On page 203, it is stated that "the recovery of Reasonableness can restore the concept of Rationality to the richness" deprived it by Descartes. So reasonableness can temper the exercise and efficacy of rationality, as through some judicious combination thereof. This is essentially what I take Holton's thematic dimension to portray - in actual, historical scientific practice (see Chapter 1 of "Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought"). This dimension includes "fundamental presuppositions, notions, terms, methodological judgments, and decisions". These are all unverifiable and unfalsifiable elements, in contrast with the content of Holton's analytic-empirical plane that is orthogonal to the thematic dimension. In any case, the Enlightenment's legacy has of course included the exaggeration of the capabilities of rationality. Or more apropos here, their uncritical or inappropriate deployment has clearly resulted in such excesses or failures as Toulmin regrets.

Another case of message clouding pertains to the tension between reasonableness and rationality that appears on page 2. Here these two concepts are purported to be complementary, i.e., polar opposites. Instead, the opposite of rationality would seem to be spontaneity, impulsivity, or extemporization. Reasonableness would then lie along the continuum between rationality (rigorous rule following) and spontaneity (intuitive redirection), in the form of rationality augmented by spontaneity. Such spontaneity would yield the often-decisive bursts of opportunistic insight that propel scientific advances. This continuum is analogous to Hammond's analytical-intuitive continuum. Moreover, his term quasirationality is a very apt synonym for generic reasonableness (see Chapter 6 of "Human Judgment and Social Policy").

Alas, my above of construal of reasonableness is apparently not what Toulmin had in mind. I see reasonableness as in fact largely augmenting the rigorous scientific effort associated with Holton's aforementioned analytic-empirical plane. Research legitimately associated with this plane itself constitutes idealized hard science, and efforts in the thematic-axis are facilitative scaffolding that embodies reasonableness. In contrast, after Toulmin characterizes clinical practice, historical case studies, and action research, etc., he seems to equate such efforts with reasonableness itself. Moreover, in his explication, this variety of reasonableness displaces rather than augments rationality. Such practices are undoubtedly efficacious in many cases, but these sorts of activities hardly constitute or resemble science.

Furthermore, the author's rejection of Popper et al.'s contention that the theory of evolution is not bone fide science appears to rest on the author's implication that reasonableness of narrative or argument per se may stand as science. However, any such resultant theory is inherently speculative, unverifiable, and unfalsifiable. To designate such tenuous or lightweight caliber of theory as science is "unreasonable". That would call for a rather loose definition of the term science, or else a substantial qualification of the author's usage, to render the term science so broadly inclusive.

Beyond these not insignificant reservations, I found "Return to Reason" to be a stimulating and in parts an enlightening read. The author's tracing of the trajectory of reasoning and its attendant predispositions from antiquity through modernity was quite illuminating, especially with regard to the post-Enlightenment divergence into an inordinate fixation on a strict or compulsive version of rationality. As this book is the fourth by Toulmin that I have read, it happens that I do admire his original and provocative thinking. As the following commentary reveals, certain of the ideas and conclusions presented in the subject book rather strongly resonate with me.

For example, for several centuries now, rationality has been an obsession if not a fetish in attempts to confer scientific authority or credibility across all disciplines, especially with respect to aspiring human sciences. Moreover, the success of physicists in achieving dramatic if misinterpreted advances since the Enlightenment has induced other disciplines to emulate their methods in rather pretentious, naive, or self-conscious ways. Such indiscriminate emulation has yielded generally disappointing results, but fortunately this fad now seems to be in substantial decline. Toulmin's generally applicable prescription is that each discipline should apply methods suited to its own nature and to the particular challenge at hand. That advice has hardly been disregarded altogether in the past by the hard sciences.

Despite my stated reservations, this is a quite worthwhile book, with a lot of valuable coverage on supporting topics like rhetoric versus logic, substantive versus theoretical argument, abstraction versus situatedness, undue generalization, and clinical practice. Toulmin offers us much here upon which to reflect, as well as major points with which to disagree perhaps, i.e., genuine intellectual stimulation.
5.0 out of 5 stars Stephen is always thought-provoking Feb. 23 2013
By mike - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Have enjoyed many of this author's books. Gives an analysis that helps keep my thinking in line to reach a good, substantiated result. You must always consider the results of any claim.
30 of 48 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Few Nuggets in Muddy Waters. May 22 2001
By Joseph Suriol - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a book that fails to engage the reader. The subject is of immense interest to me, yet I found it hard to keep reading. Toulmin meanders and piles information and thoughts furiously in a way that distracts rather that concentrates the reader's attention. His name dropping is incessant and intrusive. Unlike Bertrand Russel, to whom he frequently refers, and who had a lucid, accessible way to layout complex thoughts, Toulmin, who doubtlessly has a mastery of the subject, joins the ranks of those who know much but can't communicate it well.
If one is prepared to make the crouching effort to pan for gold in this book, however, one doesn't end up empty handed. The book's premise of contrasting rationality and reasonableness deserves attention despite its difficult framing. Although the idea could have been expressed much more concisely. Reading Chapter 13 "Postcript: Living with Uncertainty" would suffice to know the central tenet of the book. The rest is background information delivered as intricate fill.
If I had to summarize the key points of each chapter I would have to read it several times. I read with a pen in my hand ready to mark memorable paragraphs and sentences to aid revision. There is very little I've marked in this book.
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