Return to Reason

A reader not interested in how to update the academic practice to better serve the society might prefer to skip this entry.

Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009) was a philosopher in good standing. Having studied at Cambridge early enough to take classes from Wittgenstein, he went on to develop his own point of view, which enabled him to make contributions to diverse areas including argumentation theory, ethics, philosophy of science and history of ideas. Toulmin begins his last book, “Return to Reason” (Harvard University Press, 2001), by introducing this viewpoint:

It is a pleasure to recognize the debt I owe to Isaiah Berlin, who unwittingly set me off on the inquiries of which this book is a belated fruit. In 1948 he invited me—as a young research fellow at King’s College, Cambridge—to spend time at our sister college, New College, Oxford, where he was the Philosophy Tutor; there he told me in terms that I never forgot that, for Anglo-American philosophers, the History of Ideas was a non-subject. Since that time he has shown that a historical grasp of social, political, and scientific ideas is indispensable if we are to make sense, either of Modernity in general, or of Modern Philosophy in particular.

This set the stage for a historical account of two distinct approaches to academic practice, which is what this book is about.

One approach is to consider the academic practice in general and the scientific method in particular as a way to objective and timeless truth. This approach is what Toulmin alludes to when he talks about considering the history of ideas as a non-subject. A scientist or a philosopher practicing under this approach would consider the historical development as trials and errors, and the present methods as the best that history has produced. He would then focus on continuing this evolution further by making the existing methods more precise and rigorous. The distinguishing characteristic of this approach is that it focuses on the method, aiming to make it infallible, and that it chooses its questions among those that can be answered by the chosen method. Toulmin designates this approach as rational.

The other approach is to consider the academic practice as situated, i.e. as a product of historical circumstances. Out of many diverse possibilities several prevailed, because the historical people saw the world in a certain way and had certain interests. Our task then is to learn from history, and to develop methods that suit our own circumstances, and the questions that we need to answer. The distinguishing characteristic of this approach is that it focuses on the questions that are relevant or interesting, and that it adapts the method to best suit the task. Toulmin designates this approach as reasonable.

Toulmin explains how the rational approach acquired primacy:

From early on, the word “philosophy” referred to the systematic and methodical treatment of any subject. […] From the mid-seventeenth century on, however, an imbalance began to develop. Certain methods of inquiry and subjects were seen as philosophically serious or “rational” in a way that others were not.

What happened in the mid-seventeenth century is well known: Descartes’ proposal to describe the reality  in the precise language of mathematics was followed by Newton’s success. The prospect of having an exact mathematical model of reality, and explaining or predicting what the reality can or will look like by calculation, was so enticing that it remained the standard practice in physics for a couple of centuries. Einstein writes in “Autobiographical Notes”:

Now to the field of physics as it presented itself [around the turn of the 20th century when he entered it as a student]. In spite of great productivity in particulars, dogmatic rigidity prevailed in matters of principle: In the beginning (if there was such a thing), God created Newton’s laws of motion together with the necessary masses and forces. This is all; everything beyond this follows from the development of appropriate mathematical methods by means of deduction.

Toulmin talks about the rationalist dream spreading through the academia – that one day all reality would appear to us like Newton’s mechanics: precise, clear and predictable. He describes the formation of disciplines, within which this purpose was to be pursued. He shows how the methodological rigor of Newtonian physics gradually became the standard against which the methods and results in other disciplines were to be judged.

Under the pressure to be in that sense “scientific”, the researchers avoided the themes that were not amenable to such treatment.

In “Physics and Philosophy” Heisenberg describes the impact that this approach to science had on our worldview and culture:

In this way, finally, the nineteenth century developed an extremely rigid frame for natural science which formed not only science but also the general outlook of great masses of people. This frame was supported by the fundamental concepts of classical physics, space, time, matter and causality; the  concept of reality applied to the things or events that we could perceive by our senses or that could be observed by means of the refined tools that technical science has provided. Matter was the primary reality. The progress of science was pictured as a crusade of conquest into the material world. Utility was the watchword of the time. On the other hand, this frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concepts of mind, of the human soul or of life.

Toulmin does not tell us that the Industrial Revolution needed an ideology, and that the rational approach to science was able to offer a fitting one.

Toulmin admires Montaigne for his breadth of themes and depth of analysis, and explains why the mathematical simplifications of Descartes finally won the day. It was not that they were more suitable for understanding all the questions that needed to be understood. It was rather that they served so well for an entirely different purpose:

How did such prestige attach to seventeenth-century physics in the first place? It sprang from the part that mathematics played in the development of a rational cosmology that was to displace earlier theological accounts of Nature. Seventeenth-century Natural Philosophy was a scholarly, not a practical enterprise. Cosmology had no day-to-day relevance to human welfare, so academics pursued it without being distracted by practical affaires.

Toulmin does not tell us that in the 20th century the rational way of exploring nature matured enough to show us its own limits. That Gödel and Turing showed that this approach had inherent limitations. That Einstein showed that Newton’s models were only approximate. That quantum physics experiments amounted to a rational disproof of the rationalist dream or of the “rigid frame,” as Heisenberg explained in  “Physics and Philosophy.” And that it even turned out that nature does not necessarily conform to rational logic or to common sense, as Oppenheimer argued in “Uncommon Sense.”

Toulmin evokes the formation of the Roman military camp to explain the etymology and the meaning of the word “discipline”.  Through numerous examples, drawing from his vast anecdotal knowledge, Toulmin shows how the academic disciplines became more rigorous and formal in their method, and more restrictive in their choice of themes. He concludes:

So, in the professional activities of tightly structured disciplines, conformity is more highly valued than originality; or, rather, originality is tolerated only for as long as it reinforces the core values of a department. […] This is what I mean in saying that disciplinary emphasis on the technicalities of the human sciences imposes on newcomers to the subject a set of professional blinders that direct their attention to certain narrowly defined considerations, and often prevent them from looking at their work in a broad human perspective.

Toulmin does not tell us that this state of academic affaires is especially unfortunate in contemporary global circumstances, when the humanity will need to develop new ways of understanding reality and new venues to solution.

I amused myself with the thought that Toulmin, like Copernicus, had an important but ‘dangerous’ idea to deliver to the world. And that he too postponed  this delivery until his last book. But being already a bit advanced in age, and also somewhat limited in expression by the very method he advocated, that he would get distracted by anecdotes and forget to bring his analysis to a clear conclusion. Had Toulmin allowed himself to use some of the method he associated with the rational approach, his last result might have turned out to be a sort of a limit theorem, in philosophy of science! Had he allowed himself to use a simple metaphor to clearly interpret his findings, as it is recommended in polyscopy, he could have simply said that academic disciplines tend to become like games (social activities marked by adherence to rules and obliviousness to purpose).

What has prompted me to write about “Return to Reason” was that at the University of Oslo we have just had “Creative Days”– a collective search for a strategy that would make us (even more) a leading university within the next ten years.

In the ensuing debate about the role and the purpose of the University, two main streams could easily be distinguished. We may call them fundamental and pragmatic. The proponents of the fundamental stream advocate strengthening “basic research”, as it is practiced within conventional disciplines. They present themselves as the true heirs of the Academy, and criticize the pragmatists for selling out. The proponents of the pragmatic stream opt for large applied projects. They present themselves as the producers of the knowledge the society wants, and criticize the fundamentalists for living in ivory towers.

As it is often the case, there are valid and useful points in both arguments.

But there is also a third possibility. And that is what Toulmin is pointing at in his book. And indeed, already in its title.

The title “Return to Reason” is not a statement. Toulmin is not talking about an event of someone returning to reason. The return to reason he is talking about has not yet hapened. The title of his book is an admonition, that Toulmin, at the end of his career, extended to his academic colleagues.  If punctuation were allowed in the title, his title would have read: Return to reason!

Which means – release the disciplinary constraints and return to the key purposes that information and knowledge have or might have in contemporary conditions; recreate academic work on this new, reasonable or pragmatic foundation.

Toulmin’s book is an appeal for an academic culture that is attuned to its creative role in the society. An academic culture that is capable of re-creating itself, and helping the society re-create itself.

By allowing ourselves to re-think and re-create the foundations of our work, we can make contributions that are more academically fundamental than what the fundamental stream might offer. By allowing ourselves to re-focus  our attention on contemporary needs, beyond the ones represented by industrial and other commercial interests, we can fulfill our vital role of “the central intelligence agency of the civil society,’ as Robert Ziman put it, and make contributions that are more pragmatically relevant than what the pragmatic stream might provide.

This third option may be difficult even to imagine in an academic world where the produced value is measured by volume of disciplinary contributions. But it is not at all impossible to implement. We only need to remind ourselves that the high popular esteem that the academia enjoys is not based on volumes of standardized publications, but on contributions of people who dared to think differently. The creation of an academic ecosystem that leaves room for responsible disobedience will then be seen as an obvious improvement.

Having preserved some of the traditional academic spirit, the University of Oslo enabled me to work in this third way for more than a decade. This would have been impossible had I remained in the United States, or in the academic conditions that are becoming prevalent worldvide.

But in a changing world this so profoundly anti-academic trend too may end. We have seen a Gorbachev come to power in the Soviet Union, and an Obama in the United States. Don’t be surprised to see a university rector with an agenda of change.

Already a decade into the future people might look back at our time and see it as that decisive moment in human history, when the need for genuine creativity was larger than ever. And when the institution that was in charge of creativity was still only rational; not yet reasonable.

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