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Return to Reason


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Table of Contents

Preface 1 Introduction: Rationality and Certainty 2 How Reason Lost Its Balance 3 The Invention of Disciplines 4 Economics, or the Physics That Never Was 5 The Dreams of Rationalism 6 Rethinking Method 7 Practical Reason and the Clinical Arts 8 Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 9 The Trouble with Disciplines 10 Redressing the Balance 11 The Varieties of Experience 12 The World of Where and When 13 Postscript: Living with Uncertainty Notes Index

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In Return to Reason, Stephen Toulmin sums up a lifetime's work in rescuing the reasonableness of ordinary practices from the oblivion to which they are consigned when we equate reason with abstract theory alone. From the knack of a wordless skill, to the work of really good professionals, he shows us how situated practice is central in real life. His critique applies to Modernism and Postmodernism alike and offers a true guide to those of us perplexed by the theoretical idols of the day. -- Robert N. Bellah, co-author of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society In an elegant and wide-ranging investigation through history and philosophy, Stephen Toulmin challenges the wide-spread, modern misapplications of scientific "rationality" beyond its proper bounds. He shows how the parallel recourse to "reasonableness," properly re-instituted, can help us master real-life tasks, with both cool heads and warm hearts. -- Gerald Holton, author of Einstein, History, and Other Passions: The Rebellion Against Science at the End of the Twentieth Century Stephen Toulmin speaks eloquently for the genius of ordinary life. Like Montaigne and Wittgenstein, he favors thinking that is practical and particular, not vacuous and formal. His book is an antidote and a warning: it is thoughtful, perceptive engagement, not theory, that allays personal and social problems. Human sciences describe our circumstances; they cannot prescribe solutions. Ideologists will resist. Dewey would cheer. -- David Weissman, author of Truth's Debt to Value

About the Author

Stephen Toulmin was University Professor and Henry R. Luce Professor, Emeritus, at the University of Southern California and author of, among other books, Cosmopolis and The Uses of Argument.


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 Cahners Business Information.

In elegant prose, Toulmin...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. Publishers Weekly Toulmin shows in this readable and fascinating account, the practice of reason that produced modern science goes back to the 17th century, when traditional reasonableness was replaced by the model of geometry...Eventually--and this is perhaps one of Toulmin's most challenging insights--what came of this change is the system of disciplines that govern modern intellectual life...Throughout Return to Reason, Toulmin calmly addresses complex situations arising in modern disciplines. Indeed, the knack he shows for reasonableness illustrates his thesis. His book is both a diagnosis and, by example, a cure for what ails our scientific culture. -- Thomas D'Evelyn Christian Science Monitor 20010816 There is now a 'loss of confidence' our traditional ideas about rationality, according to Toulmin. Especially among those in the humanities, he argues, the claims of rationality have been progressively challenged over the last 20 or 30 years, to the point of being sidelined. This is a common complaint and not exactly news, but Toulmin does not merely bemoan and rant, as many others have done. He offers a diagnosis and a solution. Rationality has come under threat, he believes, because of the undue influence of classical mechanics and abstract mathematical methods on our idea of what intelligent problem-solving should be. Deduction in the style of Euclid's geometry, mechanically predictable and rigorous law in the style of Galileo and Newton, indubitable certainty in the style of Descartes' 'I think, therefore I am' all exert a malign influence, insofar as they overshadow a looser, more pragmatic and less abstract concept of 'reasonableness.' What we need is more open-minded, informal reasonableness and less inappropriately mathematical rationality. Only then, Toulmin argues, can the idea of reason regain its rightful good name. -- Anthony Gottlieb Los Angeles Times 20010819 In this mature work, Toulmin...sums up a distinguished scholarly career spent tenaciously pursuing this and related questions. He adroitly integrates the arguments from his previous a broad, humanistic vision of how to restore the balance of reason maintained in Greek antiquity...Toulmin employs a rich array of examples and accessible prose...Recommended. -- T. B. Leiniger Choice 20020401 The argument in the book is wide-ranging and fluently expressed...Toulmin has taken on board arguments presented in debate by experienced practitioners, such as in the account of development economists and the water systems in Bali, his favorite vignette to illustrate the situatedness of economic relations. He ranges across the disciplines from astronomy to international relations, with a concern for professions, government policy making and the role of NGOs. -- Richard Ennals Concepts and Transformation

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. (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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