Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Death of a philosopher

Stephen Toulmin has died, one of those philosophers more heard about than read. The only book (half-book?) of his that I've read is Wittgenstein's Vienna which he wrote with Allan Janik.

The NYT obit makes an unnecessarily cryptic quotation:
In the introduction to a 1986 edition of his first book, “An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics” (1950), he wrote that “having been trained as a natural scientist, I had always hoped to relate philosophical issues to practical experience, and could never wholly side with Hume the philosopher against Hume the backgammon player.” His bent, he wrote, was toward “practical moral reasoning.”
This is of course an allusion to the famous passage at the end of book I of A Treatise of Human Nature, where Hume wrote:
But what have I here said, that reflections very refin'd and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron'd with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv'd of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
More amusingly, the University of Southern California attempts to memorialize its famous professor, and ends up embarrassing itself:
Toulmin’s most influential work was the Toulmin Model of Argumentation. In it, he identified six elements of a persuasive argument: claim, grounds, arrant, backing, qualifier and rebuttal.
I myself have seen some arguments where the "arrant" predominated, but I believe that the correct Toulmin term is "warrant."

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