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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 152
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Stephen Toulmin, Return to Reason (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 256 pp.
Toulmin means by his title that (1) in ancient Greece and even through the time of Montaigne, reason and rationality were much the same, but that (2) as the Enlightenment gathered momentum, rationality became calculation, the engine of progress, while (3) sweet reason, reasonableness, collaborative reflection based on common sensibility and cautious judgment were all demoted. He means also that (4) this demotion was academically enforced by the creation of disciplines that became hermetically sealed to each other's wisdom and that, while contemporary life has got itself into a pretty pickle, (5) we can to some extent extricate ourselves by getting away from abstraction and a lust for universality and by acquiring a compassionate understanding of all the particularities of past and present.
Toulmin's title, Return to Reason, pairs with one chosen long ago by his contemporary, Paul Feyerabend: Farewell to Reason. Toulmin would say that Feyerabend chose the wrong noun. There is nothing wrong with being reasonable; it is only the spoiled brat, rationality, that has done us wrong. Toulmin invites a literate quest for premodernity. Fifteen years ago, in The Abuse of Casuistry, hedefended a right, and old-fashioned, use of casuistry, despite the bad reputation that its abuse had earned it. In this new book, we have something of a ramble through the historical underpinnings for Toulmin's contentions. The "modern" epoch began after Montaigne. It ended with Wittgenstein. If only Wittgenstein himself had understood this history! So Toulmin muses. And he suggests that perhaps Wittgenstein might have owned up to his own intellectual past—did he get the metaphor of the ladder at the end of the Tractatus from Sextus Empiricus? Toulmin does not so much name-drop as free-associate the names that have crossed his way in eighty years of enthusiasms. Some readers will tire of Toulmin's self-indulgence. Others will shrug and say, Why not?
Ian Hacking is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Collège de France and University Professor at the University of Toronto. His books include Mad Travelers, The Social Construction of What?, Rewriting the Soul, Representing and Intervening, The Taming of Chance, The Emergence of Probability, The Logic of Statistical Inference, and Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy?