Too Much Integration

I’m reading Stephen Toulmin’s 2001 “Return To Reason” (I also have, but have not yet read his “Cosmopolis“). It is as good an expose so far on the enlightenment wrong turn as I have yet read. That reasonableness is more than rationality, that wisdom is more than knowledge.

I hadn’t before quite appreciated how the 17th century enlightenment (Newton, Leibniz,  Descartes et al) was such a direct reaction to the sectarian religious violence laying waste to the populations of Europe in the 30 Years War. The response was the attempt to create and capture the  perfection of (God’s) nature in the certainty of mathematics and logic.

Some significant quotes here from Toulmin, illustrating the too-greedy-reductionism in assuming a scientistic view is a solution to every problem.

In practical terms, the people with the best claim to be the heirs of Leibniz are computer information engineers … .

We can dream up all the theories we please (of communication and control, neurophysical holography and artificial intelligence, automated reasoning, deep grammar and brain function, etc) But the further we move away from the Sciences of Matter and Energy, and toward the Sciences of Information, the more we must integrate theoria and praxis, and the fainter the distinction between “pure” and “applied” sciences.

By now, the question “How should the new ideas of science be utilized?” needs to be faced even at the initial state of conceiving possible new theories. So it is helpful to recall why the dream of rationalist philosophy proved to be a Dream indeed.

No formalism can interpret itself;
No system can validate itself;
No theory can exemplify itself;
No representation can map itself;
No language can predefine its own meanings;
No science can decide which of its technologies are of real human value.

… we must ignore the seventeenth-century ideal of intellectual exactitude, with its idolization of proof and certainty and recall the practical wisdom of sixteenth-century humanists, who hoped to recapture the modesty that had made it possible to live happily with uncertainty, ambiguity and pluralism.

It is admirable to share Bacon’s dreams in The New Atlantis, but let us be realistic about the obstacles to realizing those dreams – the most serious being the epistemological obstacles. The greater our interventions in the natural world, the less we can forecast their effects, the more significant will be their unintended outcomes. (… risks run today in the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.)

The dreams of seventeenth-century philosophy – infallible scientific method, perfectly exact language, and the rest – may still fascinate and inspire powerful new theories. But the future depends just as much on our ability to recapture the values of the sixteenth-century humanists and maintain the fragile balance between refinement of our practical skills and the human interests they serve.

…. there ends Chapter 5 – “Dreams of Rationality“.
Chapter 6 – “Rethinking Method” opens with ….

One aspect of the standard view of “rationality” is the assumption that a single method can turn any field of enquiry into a “hard science” (like physics …)

3 thoughts on “Too Much Integration”

  1. Toulmin’s two books you highlighted are excellent in regard to going back and forth between a big picture (Plato to now) to specific details (smaller stories within the big one). They are impressionistic in that good way–one would need to go to specific scholars in various fields to develop a fuller picture of any particular thing, but Toulmin generally doesn’t get his scholarship (to my estimation, at least) wrong when he puts them in his slender blender. Cosmopolis, in particular, does an amazing job in giving you a good picture of how Descartes didn’t create modern philosophy ex nihilo, but was a very specific reaction to something previous, both in the realm of writing (Montaigne) and the wider realm (political developments, like Henry de Navarre’s assassination).

  2. Thanks Matt,
    But “generally doesn’t get it wrong when he puts them in his slender bender” you will have to decode for me. (not wrong = right ?)

    I haven’t got to anything like conclusions or prescriptions for future positions / action yet – but he reinforces that theory & practice, top-down and bottom-up problem endlessly. Top down being “wrong” for most human situations.

    (He seems quite critical of MacIntyre, though he seems to read MacIntyre as being more extreme than I did so far. Stories within stories rather than one story “fixed” by “your” culture – but I didn’t read MacIntyre quite as crass as the latter.)

    I am very impressed with Toulmin so far – scholarly, but practically wise – have more to blog in a day or two.(It was Sam put me onto him).

  3. Heh, “doesn’t get it wrong”–it’s just one of those verbal tics you get in the habit of when you make a distinction between, I guess, scholarship and sweeping stories. I don’t think the idea of correctness goes by the board if you narrow you parameters down to small questions (scholarship). But you also need to tell big, sweeping stories about what’s going on in our culture. So the tic just registers the fact that there are other ways of telling the story that don’t get the “facts” (those little details “correctness” applies to) wrong, but aren’t always useful for what you’re doing (sometimes Blumenberg’s story, or Rorty’s, or Yack’s, or Foucault’s blah, blah).

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