Stephen Toulmin, the twentieth-century British philosopher whose book The Uses of Argument helped to make logic available for everyday use, seems bemused in his preface to that book’s updated edition about the first edition’s significant contribution to informal logic. He had not, he says, “set out to expound a theory of rhetoric or argumentation: my concern was with twentieth-century epistemology, not informal logic” (vii). I’ll ignore his protestations as I present two practical contributions his book has made – and will make – in my classroom, but I’ll take him at his word in examining how his epistemological approach may have inadvertently contributed to my own educational theory and practice.
I’ve taught “the Toulmin model” in AP Language and Composition courses as a modern means of argument, more flexible than Aristotle’s compromise between Plato and the Sophists. Aristotle’s syllogisms and deductive reasoning get one only so far, and it would be tragic if logic of some kind might not be used for matters of that call for less than mathematical certainty, particularly matters of morality and public policy. Toulmin’s flexible construction of claims, data, and warrants meets this need. If Toulmin has successfully identified these “modes in which we assess arguments, the standards by reference to which we assess them and the manner in which we qualify our conclusions about them, [that] are the same regardless of field (field-invariant)” (15), or at least if he has created a model that makes something like logic more accessible to arguments normally impervious to Aristotle’s more syllogistic logic, then my students at least have a way of talking about, critiquing, and challenging many kinds of arguments the same way.
Toulmin oversimplifies Aristotle, however, and ends up duplicating Aristotle’s method for informal argument to some extent. Toulmin implicitly blames Aristotle for boiling down argument to “‘minor premiss; major premiss; so conclusion’” (89). However, Toulmin’s model, particularly his notion of the warrant as “incidental and explanatory, its task being simply to register explicitly the legitimacy of the step involved and to refer it back to the larger class of steps whose legitimacy is being presupposed” (92), is a lot like Aristotle’s notion of an enthymeme. Toulmin gives an example of an argument over someone’s hair color and identifies its trivial warrant: “the knowledge that Harry’s hair is red entitles us to set aside any suggestion that it is black, on account of the warrant, ‘If anything is red, it will not also be black’” (91). Yet Aristotle’s enthymeme, called by rhetorician Thomas De Quincey a “syllogism of which one proposition is suppressed” (Seaton 113), has some overlap with Toulmin’s warrant, which is distinguished from his data in part because of the former’s implicitness: “This is one of the reasons for distinguishing between data and warrants: data are appealed to explicitly, warrants implicitly” (92). Specifically, if an enthymeme’s minor premise is implied, then it serves also as Toulmin’s warrant. I’ve stopped teaching enthymemes in AP Language classes: the potential for overlap and confusion seems to outweigh the benefit from learning the subtle differences between enthymemes and Toulmin arguments.
Uses, now that I’ve read it, may help me teach argumentation in other ways. Toulmin’s occasional templates may also help my students express the relationships among claim, data, and warrants. He offers two such templates here: “‘Data such as D entitle one to draw conclusions, or make claims, such as C’, or alternatively ‘Given data D, one may take it that C’” (91). Toulmin, in fact, seems to have provided the philosophical backbone as well as the pedagogical structure for a popular book on argumentation I assign my students, They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say has a section on “Prove it” (Toulmin’s “data”)(42) and on “So what?” (Toulmin’s “warrant”)(92). It also discourages the use of formal logic (xxv) and expands on Toulmin’s use of templates (e.g., 64 – 65). They Say and its ilk, then, may be seen as means of implementing Toulmin’s theory into the classroom and expanding his practice there.
But the biggest contribution Toulmin makes to my classroom could be in the area of educational theory. Ironically, he addresses educational theory in Uses only in passing and then only to disclaim his theory’s applicability to educational theory:
If one asks how in the course of children’s lives they come to pick up the concepts and facts they do, or by what educational devices particular rational techniques and procedures are inculcated, one will of course have to proceed a posteriori, using methods drawn from psychology and sociology . . . (200)
Yet if one believes with Maria Montessori that a child’s reason begins functioning at birth (Standing 206), then the more logical side of Toulmin’s epistemology may be helpful in discovering in what sense that reasoning occurs. Seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke also believes that children begin to reason at birth; his famous epistemological work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding famously dismisses the notion of “innate ideas” in favor of what has since been called a child’s tabula rasa, or “blank slate” (White 16 – 19). Locke’s position has been misunderstood: his “blank slate” protects the political sanctity of children since the existence of innate ideas would give “no small power,” as Locke puts it, to “one man over another, to have the authority to be the dictator of principles, and teacher of unquestionable truths; and to make a man swallow that for an innate principle which may serve to his purpose who teacheth them” (18 – 19). Toulmin tacitly acknowledges the link between his epistemology and this aspect of educational theory when he finds himself unable to wholly dismiss the seventeenth-century controversy over innate ideas because “in the last resort one cannot set the psychological and logical aspects of epistemology utterly and completely apart” (196 – 197).
Toulmin, then, refuses to take a stand on either side of the “innate ideas” controversy, but his epistemology favors Locke’s and Montessori’s positions. Toulmin is often seen as an unwitting antidote to the extreme position of the early twentieth-century logical positivists, whose radical division of logic from rhetoric caused them to regard “statements of value as merely reports on the state of one’s glands,” as Northwestern University School of Communication Professor David Zarefsky puts it. Zarefsky sees Toulmin’s model as one of a few “reformulations of the concepts of reason and rationality” that came later in the twentieth century (16). Toulmin’s broadening of the notion of reason to include moral and practical concerns mirrors similar efforts by Locke and by Montessori, the latter of whom in discussing the Western world’s “moral paralysis” states that “reason today is hidden under a dark cloud and has almost gone down to defeat. Moral chaos in fact is nothing but one side of the coin of our psychic decline; the other side is the loss of our powers of reason. The pre-eminent characteristic of our present state is an insidious madness, and our most immediate need a return to reason” (Montessori 13 – 14). Toulmin, whom Zarefsky sees as attempting “to explain ethical reasoning” (16), seems to have unwittingly affirmed Locke (an educational theorist as well as a philosopher) in restoring reason as a tool of epistemology and educational theory.
Aided by the Toulmin model and the license to moral inquiry that the model represents, my students are empowered to argue claims of fact, value, policy, and definition without having to pretend that those claims’ moral implications are beyond the scope of reason.
Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. Print.
Montessori, Maria. Education and Peace. Trans. Helen R. Lane. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Pub., 2007. Print.
Seaton, R. C. “The Aristotelian Enthymeme.” The Classical Review 28.4 (1914): 113-19. JSTOR. Web. 25 May 2015.
Standing, E. M. Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work. New York: Plume, 1998. Print.
Toulmin, Stephen. The Uses of Argument. Updated ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.
White, Morton. The Philosophy of the American Revolution. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. Print.
Zarefsky, David. “History of Argumentation Studies.” Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning. 2nd ed. Chantilly, VA: Teaching, 2005. Print.