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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 well-formulated theory.” But he leaves us in no doubt that the scientific advances they fostered brought with them a grave human loss. Faced with Montaigne’s willingness to suspend belief in surface appearances and live with the resulting ambiguities, Descartes made it his task to lay bare the foundations on which an absolutely indubitable body of knowledge could instead be built up. He found his principle in the celebrated axiom that, because I apprehend myself as a thinking being, I cannot possibly doubt my own existence—cogito ergo sum. With this retort to Montaigne’s skepticism, a counterrevolution was launched: the toleration of ambiguity was replaced by a quest for formal theories and “foundational” knowledge throughout a wide spectrum of the human and natural sciences.

This seems to me a most illuminating perspective from which to view the philosophies of Descartes and Hobbes, and it gives rise to one of the most interesting and original sections of Toulmin’s book. It is still all too common for both these thinkers to be discussed in complete isolation from the history of Renaissance philosophy, without any sense that they might have been conducting a polemical attack on what went before. By contrast, Toulmin makes a convincing case for saying that the structure in particular of Descartes’s epistemology cannot be understood except in relation to the revival of classical skepticism in the hands of such writers as Montaigne. Without seeing that Descartes is trying to refute their arguments, we cannot hope to explain the distinctive shape and character of his own thought.

These contentions prompt Toulmin to make a general point of great importance about the writing of intellectual history. It will always be a mistake, he insists, to treat past philosophies in a “decontextualized” way, viewing them simply as addressed to a canonical set of distinctively philosophical themes. Even the most abstract intellectual systems cannot be regarded simply as bodies of propositions; they must also be treated as utterances, the rhetorical aims and purposes of which we need to recover if we are to understand them properly. Moreover, once we commit ourselves to “recontextualizing” the great scientific and philosophical systems of the past in this way, we must guard above all against the tendency to reconstruct their intellectual context with anachronistic narrowness.

To us, for example, the details of the Anglican Church hierarchy in the age of Newton are likely to seem completely irrelevant to the truth of his celestial mechanics. But to Newton himself, the fact that his theories about the heavens appeared to mirror such earthly verities may well have supplied him with a good reason, by his lights, for adopting them. It follows, as Toulmin observes, that if we are seeking to understand how Newton arrived at his beliefs, and what convinced him of their truth, we shall do well to “remove all limits on the factors that may be accepted as ‘relevant.’ ”

When Toulmin turns, however, from tracing the origins of the Quest for Certainty to anatomizing the world view to which it gave rise, his analysis seems to me excessively monolithic and, in consequence, misleading in a number of ways. The chief element in the resulting “framework of modernity,” he maintains, was a distinction between a human world of agency and a natural world of causal necessity. Descartes certainly worked with a dichotomy of this kind. But Hobbes never did. On the contrary, he always insisted that the actions we call free, and describe as the products of our will, are in fact the necessary outcome of pure causality in every case. It follows, as Hobbes concluded in Leviathan, “that to him that could see the connexion of those causes, the necessity of all men’s voluntary actions would appear manifest.”

Toulmin goes on to assert that this basic distinction between reasons and causes carried with it a number of implications that “set the limits within which modern’ thinkers were free to speculate.” One of these was that “there can be no science of psychology.” Again, this would have surprised Hobbes, not to mention Spinoza (who makes no appearance in Toulmin’s book). The aspiration to construct a science of human nature, and to use it as the groundwork for a theory of social life, was the ambition that underlay Hobbes’s entire philosophy, as well as Hume’s later hope of becoming “the Newton of the moral sciences.”

Finally, Toulmin makes some questionable claims about the way in which the founders of modernity sought to exclude the emotions from their analysis of rationality. The issue in this case is highly complex, and Toulmin has some very interesting points to make about it. But again he seems to flatten out the contours of the argument. It is certainly clear that Descartes, and later Kant, hoped to insulate reason from desire. Both of them believed that a truly moral being will always be moved by reason as opposed to the passions. But this was a view that Hobbes among others energetically contested. Hobbes dismissed the traditional distinction between liberty and license, arguing, that reasons can never function as motives unless they are somehow connected with our desires. After Hume adopted the same standpoint, it soon became enshrined as the psychological basis of utilitarian ethics, a doctrine that in turn became one of the ruling ideologies of the modern world.

Toulmin is on firmer ground when he arrives at the next stage in his lightning tour of modernity, the stage at which the Cartesian system began to be dismantled. Since he regards this development as primarily the achievement of the late nineteenth century, it is surprising that he makes no mention of Nietzsche’s assault on philosophical pretensions to objectivity. Nonetheless, he gives a fascinating survey of the process by which a number of planks in the structure of modernity were gradually pulled away, and in some cases replaced. The earth sciences, and subsequently the Darwinian theory of evolution, established that man and nature alike have a history vastly more extensive and complex than had been imagined. Freud’s theory of the unconscious challenged the prevailing rationalist pieties by casting doubt on whether the ego is truly master in its own house. And with the collapse of classical physics, even the belief that causal necessity reigns supreme throughout the natural world began to be undermined.

After this, however, Toulmin commits himself to moving at breakneck speed through the whole cultural history of the West in the twentieth century. Although he provides us with a great deal of valuable information along the way, his thesis involves him in too much special pleading to make him a reliable guide. He first tries to persuade us that, during the half century following World War I, there was a “general return to formalism” and theoretical abstraction throughout the arts and sciences. We are told, for example, that in music Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system was seen as “the exclusive way ahead to the musical future.” But many giants of the period—Bartok, Stravinsky, Shostakovich—paid little or no attention to it. Similarly, we are told that in painting “the greater part of the European avant garde” supported “a return to abstract fundamentals” in the manner of Mondrian. But some of the greatest painters of the era, such as Braque and Picasso, abandoned complete abstraction after the First World War, while others, such as Matisse, never embraced it.

Finally, when speaking of philosophy Toulmin is obliged to concentrate on Russell’s logic and the project of a unified science associated with the Vienna Circle. He makes no mention of Gödel’s disproof of Russell’s pivotal assumption that mathematics can be reduced to logic. Nor has he anything to say about Heidegger’s profound anti-Cartesianism in Being and Time. Nor does he mention Collingwood’s insistence that philosophy must be seen as an inherently historical discipline. Yet a good case could be made for saying that these were among the most significant philosophical achievements of the interwar years.

Toulmin concludes by arguing that the Quest for Certainty finally came to an end in the decade after 1965. This was the period, we are told, that saw “humanism reinvented.” (The Beatles are thus guaranteed a place in Toulmin’s index.) The peoples of Southeast Asia might be particularly surprised to learn that this was the exact moment at which the West returned to more modest and tolerant ways. But even if we restrict ourselves to local cultural history the generalization still seems a surprising one. This was the decade that witnessed not the abandonment but the revival of grand theoretical constructions in moral and social philosophy, especially in the hands of such explicitly Kantian writers as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. At the other extreme, the same period saw the Deconstructionists launch their most destructive attacks on the traditional aims of the humanistic disciplines, thereby founding an antihumanist movement that went on to enjoy an enormous vogue, and has only recently been discredited.

As Toulmin emphasizes at the outset, his book is intended to be about the future as much as the past. His story is designed to convey a moral, and in his closing chapters he proceeds to spell it out. The Quest for Certainty and its accompanying deification of reason betrayed us into overreaching ourselves. The way forward lies in reappropriating the more modest, skeptical, and tolerant outlook that Toulmin associates above all with the humanists of the sixteenth century. As he puts it, what we now require is a “re-Renaissance.”

By adopting this perspective, Toulmin is able to make a number of wise and salutary observations about the need for cooperation in order to prevent our greed and mutual hostility from destroying our entire habitat. But in spite of this, it is hard to feel that he has in fact achieved what he calls the best intellectual position with which to confront the future. For one thing, his argument seems to lack the very humility he commends, especially when he assures us with such confidence that “modern thought and practice has in fact already gone some way toward redeeming itself” by following more humane goals. Have we really become so much better at living together in a spirit of mutual tolerance? If so, the news seems to have been slow in reaching Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland, Lebanon and the Soviet Union. And is it so clear that, from now on, “the name of the game will be influence, not force”? This will surely be greeted with some skepticism not just in China and in the townships of South Africa, but also in the occupied territories of the West Bank, among the Vietnamese in Hong Kong, and in many equally hapless places across the globe.

There is also a deeper reason for feeling uneasy about Toulmin’s recommendation that we face the future armed only with an attitude of cautious skepticism. There seems so little to separate this advice from the claim that it will always be rational to live with the status quo, or at least to leave things very much as we find them. That Toulmin’s own book implicitly endorses such a claim slips out most revealingly in his discussion of the French Revolution. Speaking in a tone that has recently become depressingly fashionable, he dismisses the Revolution as nothing more than the apotheosis of our modern, rationalist tendency to overreach our human capacities. Looking back with lesser confidence but greater wisdom, he sagely concludes, we have come to recognize that, in politics as in philosophy, any such “dream of cleaning house and making a new beginning” is nothing but an illusion, and was “a mistake all along.”

As the new decade dawns, it is exhilarating to reflect on the astonishing degree to which this rather weary piece of conventional wisdom has suddenly been exposed as a failure of imagination and refuted by events. Toulmin still feels able to assume with familiar irony that the intelligentsia of modern societies can be regarded as impotent groups who have merely “discussed theoretical issues from the sidelines.” But the intelligentsia in East Germany have just played a crucial part in restructuring their state, while in Czechoslovakia a dissident intellectual has just been installed as the country’s new president. Similarly, Toulmin seems ready to dismiss the political demand for “a clean slate and a fresh start” as little better than a project of collective irrationality.

But 1989 will surely go down in the history books as the year in which we were reminded that, for those of sufficient courage, the idea of dethroning tyranny and making a new beginning can be seen as both a practical possibility and a natural right. (This was always the view of such sixteenth-century humanists as Hubert Languet and George Buchanan, though Toulmin fails to mention those particular exponents of his favorite creed.) No less inspiringly, the events of recent months—and especially the collapse of the Communist regimes in Prague and Berlin—have also served to remind the fainthearted that, by contrast with the French Revolution, full-scale political revolutions can be brought to successful completion in an almost bloodless way.

The road ahead for the new governments thus created will undoubtedly be very hard, and it will be a miracle if they manage to live up to the hopes they have now engendered. But nothing can take away the lessons they have already taught. As we confront the new millennium, we suddenly find ourselves living in a world of greater uncertainty, but also of far wider human possibility, than a generation of Western pundits have dreamed of in their philosophy.