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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy

Return to Reason

Stephen Toulmin

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To purchase Return to Reason

Title: Return to Reason
Author: Stephen Toulmin
Genre: Philosophy
Written: 2001
Length: 215 pages
Availability: Return to Reason - US
Return to Reason - UK
Return to Reason - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid, readable argument for the need for reason

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 16/8/2001 Thomas D'Evelyn
The Guardian . 30/6/2001 Steven Poole
London Rev. of Books . 24/1/2002 Steven Shapin
The LA Times . 19/8/2001 Anthony Gottlieb

  From the Reviews:
  • "Throughout Return to Reason, Toulmin calmly addresses complex situations arising in modern disciplines. Indeed, the knack he shows for reasonableness illustrates his thesis. His book is both a diagnosis and, by example, a cure for what ails our scientific culture." - Thomas D'Evelyn, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Fine and dandy: he writes nicely and with a wide-ranging curiosity in literature and the history of ideas. The only problem is that his corrective arguments tend to traduce rationalism as the exclusive preserve of wild-eyed eggheads who only ever spin webs of marvellously useless deduction." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Return to Reason is a fittingly unprofessional work. It is loosely organised, occasionally saccharine, at times out of touch with much of what's going on in the present-day academy (.....) For all that, this is a Noble Book - serious, sincere, humane and, for the most part, profoundly right-headed" - Steven Shapin, London Review of Books

  • "It is, unfortunately, a repeated fault of the book that it fails to connect with its targets in sufficient detail, preferring to range widely over subjects and centuries, to meander and even sometimes to swerve across the line into pure waffle." - Anthony Gottlieb, The Los Angeles Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Stephen Toulmin's book is a call for a "return to reason", back from what he sees as a misplaced over-reliance on rationality. While acknowledging the use and value of rationality, he also believes it to be distinctly limiting, especially in many academic fields which currently seem dominated by it.
       He means to show that the focus on rationality, with its strict theory and its illusion of absolute certainty, is misplaced in many area of human endeavour and thought. What is also needed, he argues, is a good dose of common sense: reasonableness.
       Toulmin's book is presented as a "personal narrative". As is appropriate, given the point he is trying to make, Toulmin's arguments and examples are not restricted to the abstract and the historical, but also focus on his personal experiences.
       Toulmin sees the world having veered off course in 17th century Europe. Montaigne is his reasonable idol, but it was Descartes that proved more influential. The "scientific" method won the day, becoming the be all and end all. And, while it worked well enough for many of the "harder" sciences (though not entirely as well as is commonly thought, Toulmin also insists), it didn't do quite so well elsewhere. Economics is a favourite example, but by the 20th century the approach had spread, insidiously, to all ends of academia, even the humanities -- and the results were (and are) far from impressive.
       Toulmin gives numerous examples of an inappropriate "scientific" approach being taken to real-world situations that require a more down-to-earth approach. He presents his arguments well, and his case is fairly convincing -- but not entirely so. The pendulum may have swung too far from reasonableness to rationality, but there is value to both. Yes, reason must temper the rational approach -- but the difficulty is in finding the proper balance. And it is a devilish difficulty.
       Rationality, allowing for absolutism, is enormously tempting (like other things allowing for absolutism: from totalitarianism to faith). Reasonableness is much harder to agree on. Toulmin -- philosopher, historian of science, humanist in the best (and by now quite un-traditional) modern tradition -- is a reasonable fellow. His faith in the power of reasonableness is quite touching -- and yet also rings almost naïve. We seem to live in quite unreasonable times, surrounded by quite a number of very unreasonable people. Rationality is part of the problem -- people cling to it and use it to defend their unreasonable propositions -- but reasonableness alone seems unlikely to win the day. Toulmin also only offers very general suggestions as to how, where, when, and to what extent it should or must be applied.

       Toulmin's book is nicely and fairly clearly presented. His style is approachable and not at all complex. He uses real-life examples and experiences to explain most every theoretical proposition. It is an entertaining read throughout. Brief summaries at the beginning of each chapter also help guide the reader.
       The stories he tells -- from Balinese irrigation projects to his view of the difference between French and English culture to reminiscences from his time as one of Wittgenstein's last students -- are almost all fairly interesting. The presentation is quite Montaignesque -- as he certainly intends it to be, a counter to the dry but oh so rational philosophy tomes being produced in contemporary academia. His point is well taken.
       A worthwhile volume, and a pleasure to read -- though not entirely satisfactory in its conclusions.

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Return to Reason: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British philosopher Stephen Toulmin lived 1922 to 2009.

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