Books: Toulmin’s Cosmopolis

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.



  1. 1
    wess Says:

    Great review Jamie, thanks for the reminder on this book. I read it last August and enjoyed it thoroughly, but went through it pretty quick, so much didn’t stick.

    Anyways, I agree with your assestment:

    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.

    I think your point about capitalism and military is really good here and I also wonder how Anthony Giddens’ own account of modernity works with or undercuts Toulmins. Giddens defines modernity in terms of sociology saying as capitalism, military, surveillance and industrialization are the key features of modernity and then argues that we’re in a state of hyper-modernity because all these things are still alive and well within the West. And actually, I’d argue that these things are the very things America is trying to reinforce within its nationalism since 9/11.

    I think Giddens account may be somewhat more helpful in describing some of the issues, whereas Toulmins historical analysis is more helpful.

    It’s seems Toulmin’s account, a) may be to neatly packaged, b) and doesn’t account enough for the “turn to alterity” of Derrida, Levinas and other continentals. Did you see much on an explication of ‘difference’ in his text? I am curious because I know he kind of favors a kind of extended pre-modern (or very early modern) form of postmodernity, but I wonder how much of that pre/early modern (i forget which one he uses) really reinforces sameness over difference. If that’s the case, it seems unlikely that his form of postmodernity could ever wholly come about.

  2. 2
    elcaballo Says:


    Haven’t read any Giddens, but sounds like an interesting perspective.

    I agree that Toulmin’s arguments are too “neatly packaged,” although I think this was meant to be more of an accessible work than deeply philosophical. But that’s not to say he couldn’t have let some of the loose ends of his analysis show. There are indeed times where his historical arguments seem a little silly (e.g., Descartes as the youthful author of a Henriade), as if he’s reaching to tie up arguments he could probably make otherwise, with a bit harder work.

    Toulmin only engages recent French thought at the end of his book, and then it’s only a short dismissal of it as radical relativism, a surrendering to chaos (I think I’m remembering this correctly). But though he never uses the language of difference or alterity, his concern to restore and renew Renaissance skepticism should indeed be seen as an endorsement of tolerance of others and deep appreciation of cultural variety. Whether humanism can sustain these things is another matter, but he is trying.

    It is the early modern period which Toulmin wants to renew, though he certainly finds much to like in the medieval era and in the late 19th century. He seems to be ambivalent about whether or not this renewal occasions a postmodern turn, or rather remains within the modern period. In this respect there is overlap with Milbank, who is also interested in the continuation of a “shadow modernity” that includes the best of medieval times (though for Milbank this will now be postmodern); but Milbank’s vision far exceeds Toulmin’s pragmatism.

    No, I don’t think pragmatism can curb the elision of difference by modernity. Toulmin valorizes Richard Rorty’s early writings throughout Cosmopolis, which is all too telling. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty calls for the elimination of metaphysical categories to discuss human life (which in particular cases is persuasive), and envisions a society run by “conversation,” the search for majority consensus which ignores the metaphysical commitments citizens clearly cannot agree on. But this pragmatist rule by majority, no matter how it is reached, seems to negate the possibility of true minority flourishing or the harmonization of the many with the few. The exclusion (or supposed defeat) of metaphysics signals that Rorty’s true intention is homogenization. Whether you are into French theory, Anabaptism, or whatever, that’s a problem. Further, before the end of his life, Rorty made his intentions explicit, announcing that university professors should see themselves as secular fundamentalists on a mission to antagonize and convert any religious student they encounter. In endorsing Rorty’s early work (and through his own similar statements), Toulmin indeed falls into the trap of confusing an attitude (i.e., pragmatic tolerance) with a political reality which in the end suppresses difference.

    (To the last paragraph, I add that it’s been a long time since I’ve read Rorty, so take this analysis with a large grain of salt! But I do think I’m being fair to his arguments, even if some of the terms are wrong.)

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