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.
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.