The Past in the Present

Stephen Toulmin has always been a philosopher of extraordinary range and confidence. Over the past forty years he has published a steady stream of important books, encompassing such diverse topics as the logic of explanation, the uses of argument, the place of reason in ethics, and the historical development of modern science. But he has now tackled perhaps his most ambitious theme of all. Although his new work, Cosmopolis, is relatively brief—Toulmin himself describes it as an essay—his aim is nothing less than to lay before us an account of both the origins and the prospects of our distinctively modern world. By charting the evolution of modernity, he hopes to show us what intellectual posture we ought to adopt as we confront the coming millennium.

For Toulmin, the story of modernity begins with the humanists of the Renaissance. He sees in sixteenth-century humanism a new lay culture distinguished above all by “an urbane open-mindedness and skeptical tolerance.” Machiavelli is mentioned as one exemplar of the new attitude, but its leading exponents are listed, perhaps a trifle airily, as “Erasmus and Rabelais, Montaigne, and Shakespeare.” What they had in common is said to have been a willingness to call for “toleration of social, cultural, and intellectual diversity.” This in turn derived from the fact that they regarded human affairs

in a clear-eyed, non-judgmental light that led to honest practical doubt about the value of “theory” for human experience—whether in theology, natural philosophy, metaphysics, or ethics.

As a summary of Montaigne’s unique genius this account is more or less recognizable. But as a general characterization of Renaissance humanism it is woefully sentimental and inaccurate. Shakespeare is remarkable for many things, but surely not for his views about the proper relationship between theory and evidence. Nor is it possible to endorse Toulmin’s central contention that the humanists as a whole sought to remain “skeptically tolerant of uncertainty, ambiguity, and diversity of opinion.” Many leading humanists of the late sixteenth century, such as Jean Bodin, recommended toleration not so much as a value in itself, but rather because they could see no other way of bringing the incessant religious warfare of the period to an end. Many others, such as Justus Lipsius, feared that skepticism would lead to anarchy and explicitly repudiated toleration on pragmatic grounds. Still others, such as Sir Thomas More, began by embracing a wide principle of toleration but later changed their minds. Although More allowed for religious and moral diversity in his Utopia, the outbreak of the Lutheran Reformation turned him into a vociferous opponent and active persecutor of the Protestant faith.

Toulmin has no time for this sort of quibbling, however, as he sweeps on to the second episode in his history of modernity, which he entitles “the Quest for Certainty.” The exemplary characters at this point in his story are Hobbes, Leibniz, Newton, and especially Descartes. Toulmin is willing to concede, although rather grudgingly, that some of these thinkers bequeathed to us “fine examples of…

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