Teaching Tolstoy with Toulmin

Common Knowledge 17 (2):205-220 (2011)
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In a memorial essay on the philosopher Stephen Toulmin (1922–2009), the author discusses ideas that he and Toulmin drew, over the years, from their reading and coteaching of Tolstoy. He speculates that Toulmin's interest in Tolstoy may have been encouraged by Wittgenstein, Toulmin's teacher and a lover of Tolstoy. All three men understood philosophy as having taken a wrong turn with the rise of rationalism, which occasioned to the idea that social life could be shown to conform to a hard science modeled on Newtonian physics. They saw the dream of a social science as entirely spurious, the superstition of the modern world. They found the idea—held by economists and disciplines inspired by their models—that social processes tend to a predictable optimality absurd, both because the hallmark of real life is imperfection and because (so far as predictability is concerned) time is open to alternatives. Although he did not use the term “casuistry,” which Toulmin revived, Tolstoy saw ethics as a matter of case-based reasoning irreducible to a system; and both thinkers regarded the realist novel as the natural home of ethics viewed this way. Anna Karenina also contains an argument about modernization and reform similar to the one that Toulmin advances in Return to Reason. Toulmin took a special, and evidently personal, delight in that novel's portrait of the shortcomings of intellectuals, for whom abstract theory and solidarity with other intellectuals count above all. Such intellectuals, portrayed in the novel and all too common in Toulmin's time, smugly dismiss truly independent thinkers as “reactionary,” unenlightened, or unable to rise above the messiness of lived experience to the theoretical world of which intellectuals are the masters. Such thinking, the essay concludes, assures intellectuals' sense of superiority but at the cost of real understanding



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