Cover image for Return to reason
Return to reason
Toulmin, Stephen, 1922-2009.
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
x, 243 pages ; 24 cm
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BC177 .T596 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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.

Author Notes

Stephen Toulmin is Henry R. Luce Professor at University of Southern California

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

An adolescent boy who was dissatisfied with his father's truth claims became captured by the question: "What sorts of reasons can we expect from people in order to establish that they truly know what they claim to know?" In this mature work, Toulmin (Univ. of Southern California) sums up a distinguished scholarly career spent tenaciously pursuing this and related questions. He adroitly integrates the arguments from his previous works (dating back to The Place of Reason in Ethics, 1950, 1986) in a broad, humanistic vision of how to restore the balance of reason maintained in Greek antiquity. That equilibrium was profoundly damaged by the idolization of the mathematical rationality of Descartes and Newton in 17th-century Europe. Only quite recently, Toulmin says, have we started to recover the humane reasonableness needed to skillfully negotiate the complexity and contingency of human values. Like Aristotle we must recognize that diverse forms of human reason are needed to serve well the diverse forms of human activity. Toulmin employs a rich array of examples and accessible prose. At times he achieves breadth of vision at the expense of depth of analysis, e.g., in his treatment of opponents and his pivotal notions of "pre-theoretical knowledge," radical pragmatism, and metaphysical avoidance. Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. T. B. Leininger University of San Diego

Table of Contents

Prefacep. VII
1 Introduction: Rationality and Certaintyp. 1
2 How Reason Lost Its Balancep. 14
3 The Invention of Disciplinesp. 29
4 Economics, or the Physics That Never Wasp. 47
5 The Dreams of Rationalismp. 67
6 Rethinking Methodp. 83
7 Practical Reason and the Clinical Artsp. 102
8 Ethical Theory and Moral Practicep. 123
9 The Trouble with Disciplinesp. 138
10 Redressing the Balancep. 155
11 The Varieties of Experiencep. 175
12 The World of Where and Whenp. 190
13 Postscript: Living with Uncertaintyp. 204
Notesp. 215
Indexp. 239