Friday, December 22, 2006

by Patrick Clauss, from here

Born in London in 1922, the English philosopher Stephen Toulmin earned his Bachlor of Arts degree in mathematics and physics from King's College. During World War II, he served as an officer for the Ministry of Aircraft Production; soon after, he earned his Doctorate of Philosophy in 1948 from Cambridge University.

While at Cambridge, Toulmin came into contact with Ludwig Wittgensteien, whose investigations into the contextual links between the meanings and the uses of language have shaped much of Toulmin's own work. In fact, Toulmin's doctoral dissertation was a "Wittgensteinian" analysis of ethical arguments: in An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics, he investigated how humans reason about both ethical and moral issues. Toulmin's work encouraged him to consider the shortcomings of formal logic as both a descriptive and a presecriptive argumentation tool, an important tenet in his later works.

After graduating from Cambridge, Toulmin was appointed University Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at Oxford University. In 1953, while at Oxford, he published The Philosophy of Science: An Introduction. Soon after, he served as visiting professor at Melbourne University in Australia. In 1958, while Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Leeds, he published The Uses of Argument, a work that was initially shunned by philosophers but later praised by rhetoricians, particularly those in the United States.

Toulmin came to the US in 1959; since then he has held distinguished professorships at numerous universities, including Columbia, Dartmouth, Michigan State, Northwestern, Stanford, and the University of Chicago. While at the University of California at Santa Cruz, he wrote Human Understanding, published in 1972. One year later, Toulmin and Alan Janik published Wittgenstein's Vienna; next Toulmin collaborated with Albert Jonsen on The Abuse of Causitry: A History of Moral Reasoning. Toulmin has also collaborated with Richard Rieke and Allan Janik, co-authoring An Introduction to Reasoning, first published in 1979 and now in its second edition. His most recent work is Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.

Although Toulmin's The Uses of Argument was criticized by many philosophers, his works have influenced scholars in several disciplines, including contemporary rhetorical theory and argumentation theory. Scholars of rhetoric have credited Toulmin--along with Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca (authors of The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation)--for the epistemological shift away from formal, technical logics and toward informal, applied, and rhetorical logics. These logics are, essentially, working methods of argument that recognize rhetoric's epistemological power. Thanks in part to Toulmin, rhetoricians have seen well beyond the limits of formal logic and understand better the complex and complimentary natures of human rationality and language.


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