Being Modern (Toulmin)

Toulmin, Stephen. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. New York: Free Press, 1990. Print.

I really like this book, and wish I had the time now to just sit back and drink it in slowly. Toulmin’s history breaks “modernity into three phases:

  1. before 1600: Renaissance Humanism  (colored by a spirit of skepticism and reasonableness)
  2. 1650-1950: (high) Modernity (intellectual dominance of Cartesianism; commitment to rationality gradually extended to practical/political realm)
  3. post-Modernity (the reentry of context)

Cosmopolis, in brief, takes apart the positivistic “Standard Account” of Modernity and retells Western intellectual history from the 1600s forward as a result of Cartesian rationality and the quest for certainty; specifically, he de-decontextualizes the modern rationality as it developed (through Descartes, Liebniz, and others) as a response to the war and intolerance of the international national and theological landscape of Europe after the Thirty Years’ War and a counter-renaissance that thought Montaigne-like reasonableness sloppy. This modernism ultimately leads to the vast disconnects between science and the humanities Toulmin writes from the context of. Toulmin shows how mass obliteration on the scale of Hiroshima is connected to Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton’s ways of thinking about how humans are related to nature, and how challenging rationality shows that “the traditional picture of a medieval world dominated by theology yielding to a modern world committed to rationality must be reconsidered” (12).. Toulmin interprets “post-modernity” (or the third phase of modernity) as a circular return to the worldview and scientific/humanistic reasonableness of thinkers such as Montaigne and even Aristotle. In the end, Toulmin is interested in moving back out of the humanity/nature divide and embracing an “ecological insertion of human beings into the world of natural processes” (143).

“In choosing as the goals of Modernity in an intellectual and practical agenda that set aside the tolerant, skeptical attitude of the 16th-century humanists and focused on the 17th-century pursuit of mathematical exactitude and logical rigor, intellectual certainty and moral purity, Europe set itself on a cultural and political road that has led both to its most striking technical successes and to its deepest human failures” (x).

The book takes up the question “What intellectual posture should we adopt in confronting the future?” by looking at the intellectual posture and the ideological/theoretical underpinnings of modernity (i.e. of Western Europe and North America in their political and philosophical supremacy for the last two hundred years).

Among Toulmin’s good conclusions is this one, which speaks volumes:

“None of this would be news to Aristotle, who knew the differences between intellectual grasp of a theory (or episteme), mastery of arts and techniques (techne), and the wisdom needed to put techniques to work in concrete cases dealing with actual problems (i.e. phronesis).

Buried in this Toulminian concern with a case ethic of humanizing technology and science, I’m seeing possible connections here to technical/rhetorical scholars such as Katz and Faber, in the way that comment on the technocratization of discourse. Certainly lots of connects to Geertz as well, who is interested in bringing the humanities and the social sciences into an interpetive communion (exemplified by thick description).


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