Archive for May 2008

Books: Toulmin’s Cosmopolis

May 6, 2008

I’m trying to get in the habit of writing short reviews of all the books I’m reading. When I think they could be of general interest, I’ll try to post them here. With that in mind, here’s a review of Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: Macmillan, 1990).

Toulmin’s job here is to give an alternate reading to the “standard account” of modernity as ushering in the age of reason and tolerance. Basically, he sees Renaissance humanist skepticism (Montaigne, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Erasmus, Machiavelli, etc.) as celebrating pluralism and accepting the limited nature of human reason, and so focusing on the timely, local, particular oral, rhetorical, experimental, and so on. With the death of Henry IV and the advent of the 30 Years War, intellectuals at every level turn their back on skepticism in the search for “pure reason”–the reversal of all the Renaissance foci. The modern period, represented at its birth by Descartes and Donne, and later by Leibniz and Newton, is characterized by the search for a unified science, absolute authority vested in nation-states, universal art, and total philosophical certainty. In sum, it searched for a new “cosmopolis” in which the predictable, cause-and-effect character “found” in the natural world was seen to be of a piece with the “rational” character of human reason and society. This search, much more than the limited aims of medieval or Renaissance societies, gave rise to political absolutism and intellectual and cultural intolerance.

Toulmin believes that the 18th and 19th centuries and early 20th century witnessed a return to a more humanistic perspective (Kant, Freud, Darwin, Einstein, Austen, etc.), which was “deferred” by the two world wars, and then the Cold War. But we are currently experiencing a return to Renaissance values, as seen in the thought of Kuhn, Rorty, Walzer, Gadamer, Ong, and Wittgenstein. Overall this transformation can be termed a turn to the practical; e.g., in ethics we see a return to the particularism of casuistry (Walzer), in science and medicine a focus on application rather than pure theory, in art the breakdown of the “high” and “low” culture distinctions, and in politics, new possibilities for internationalism and the expanded role of non-governmental institutions, which wield moral influence rather than force. Toulmin embraces these changes, calling for the continued “humanization”, that is, subordination to human interests rather than the aims of ideological purity or certainty, of each of the various disciplines he touches on.

A fascinating and quick book, which is quite useful given the breadth of its overview and the depth of its historical insights. That said, the discussion is rarely technical; Jeff Stout’s Flight From Authority is much better in this regard. Though his narrative of modernism may be essentially sound (I’m not really qualified here), in retrospect, Toulmin’s conclusions seem somewhat naive. Many universities (and high schools) have adopted a more practical, “people centered” curriculum; but this emphasis on the practical, devoid of richer ontological or teleological accounts, only makes the “practical” subservient to the managerial and technocratic needs of contemporary global capitalism, and more often than not (especially in the sciences), the ever-expanding diet of national militaries. We surely need to learn from the Aristotelian emphasis on practical wisdom; but this cannot be sundered from Platonic speculation about the ultimate Good, however chaste we are about our claims to have identified that Good. A Platonic-Aristotelian synthesis, and indeed something which exceeds this synthesis, is to be preferred over Toulmin’s reductionist pragmatism. He does, however, make some good points about the importance of NGOs in the political sphere, the need for international political bodies to find a better way of incorporating multiple types of political communities, and the general move away from the nation-state. These recommendations seem particularly urgent in light of American foreign policy since 2003.