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June 2, 2005

Wittgenstein's Students: Stephen Toulmin

Taking a break from the usual discussion of specific passages, it might be fruitful to discuss the impact Wittgenstein had on specific contemporary philosophers/theorists. A review posted recently to the London Review of Books reminded me just how influential Wittgenstein had been on some of the greatest philosophers of the past few decades. (And then there are philosophers such as Tyler Burge, who refuse to read any Wittgenstein at all.) At any rate, here is a link to the review, by Steven Shapin, of Stephen Toulmin's latest.

Some notes on the reviewer, Steven Shapin: One of the most influential proponents of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), Shapin has worked extensively on various case studies in contemporary scientific experiments and methods, emphasizing the major impact--both positive and negative--that social considerations have on the success of scientific practice.

Some notes on the author, Stephen Toulmin: Wittgenstein's influence is evident in Toulmin's works, especially his "therapeutic" focus. As Shapin notes in his review, Toulmin wants to point out those places in which theory has lost touch with reality--those places which Wittgenstein would say have "no friction". Of course, the real problem with continuing scholarship in this vein is that one needs to show where problems are arising out of a disconnect between theory and reality; as Shapin points out, much of academia has become aware of the problem, and Toulmin is in many ways (somewhat ironically) out of touch with this fact. Choice quote:

"If...you really believe that philosophical and social scientific Dreams of Rationality and Certainty are disrupting basically healthy lay patterns of judgment and action, then you've got both a case to make and a case worth making. You've got to show, as Toulmin doesn't quite manage to do, that Rational expertise fails in general as a guide to real-life practical action, and that it does so not merely because it is in the service of unjust or uncaring agents but because it is abstracted from the world it is supposed to regulate. In which case, your message might take on a rather simpler quality: 'Don't prescribe a solution before you describe the predicament'; 'When you confront the real world, be suitably modest about your powers and your knowledge'; or, with Montaigne, 'Que sçais-je?'"

Questions arise: Does Shapin's point threaten Wittgenstein's work? And, if so, does Wittgenstein illustrate the theory/reality disconnect sufficiently to make his points valid?

In any event, Toulmin is an intelligent and interesting author, and I think his attempts at reintroducing history to philosophy will be important in the development of philosophy in the coming years. One of my former professors, Ronald Giere, contends that the linguistic turn in philosophy has begun to dry up--that is, as a research program, it has been turning up fewer and fewer philosophical insights. I would bet that some type of "historical turn" will take its place fairly soon, which is certainly in line with Toulmin's efforts. (This is also indicated by the recent surge in interest in Hegelian thought.)

Posted by tiet0024 at 2:37 PM