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Stephen Edelston Toulmin (25 March 1922 – 4 December 2009) was a British philosopher, author, and educator. Influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Toulmin devoted his works to the analysis of moral reasoning. Throughout his writings, he sought to develop practical arguments which can be used effectively in evaluating the ethics behind moral issues. His works were later found useful in the field of rhetoric for analyzing rhetorical arguments. The Toulmin model of argumentation, a diagram containing six interrelated components used for analyzing arguments, and published in his 1958 book The Uses of Argument, was considered his most influential work, particularly in the field of rhetoric and communication, and in computer science.
Stephen Toulmin was born in London, UK, on 25 March 1922 to Geoffrey Edelson Toulmin and Doris Holman Toulmin. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from King's College, Cambridge in 1943, where he was a Cambridge Apostle. Soon after, Toulmin was hired by the Ministry of Aircraft Production as a junior scientific officer, first at the Malvern Radar Research and Development Station and later at the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Germany. At the end of World War II, he returned to England to earn a Master of Arts degree in 1947 and a PhD in philosophy from Cambridge University, subsequently publishing his dissertation as An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics (1950). While at Cambridge, Toulmin came into contact with the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose examination of the relationship between the uses and the meanings of language shaped much of Toulmin's own work. After graduating from Cambridge, he was appointed University Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at Oxford University from 1949 to 1954, during which period he wrote a second book, The Philosophy of Science: an Introduction (1953). Soon after, he was appointed to the position of Visiting Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Melbourne University in Australia from 1954 to 1955, after which he returned to England, and served as Professor and Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Leeds from 1955 to 1959. While at Leeds, he published one of his most influential books in the field of rhetoric, The Uses of Argument (1958), which investigated the flaws of traditional logic. Although it was poorly received in England and satirized as "Toulmin's anti-logic book" by Toulmin's fellow philosophers at Leeds, the book was applauded by the rhetoricians in the United States, where Toulmin served as a visiting professor at New York, Stanford, and Columbia Universities in 1959. While in the States, Wayne Brockriede and Douglas Ehninger introduced Toulmin's work to communication scholars, as they recognized that his work provided a good structural model useful for the analysis and criticism of rhetorical arguments. In 1960, Toulmin returned to London to hold the position of director of the Unit for History of Ideas of the Nuffield Foundation. In 1965, Toulmin returned to the United States, where he held positions at various universities. In 1967, Toulmin served as literary executor for close friend N.R. Hanson, helping in the posthumous publication of several volumes. While at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Toulmin published Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts (1972), which examines the causes and the processes of conceptual change. In this book, Toulmin uses a novel comparison between conceptual change and Charles Darwin's model of biological evolution to analyse the process of conceptual change as an evolutionary process. The book confronts major philosophical questions as well. In 1973, while a professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, he collaborated with Allan Janik, a philosophy professor at La Salle University, on the book Wittgenstein's Vienna, which advanced a thesis that underscores the significance of history to human reasoning: Contrary to philosophers who believe the absolute truth advocated in Plato's idealized formal logic, Toulmin argues that truth can be a relative quality, dependent on historical and cultural contexts (what other authors have termed "conceptual schemata"). From 1975 to 1978, he worked with the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, established by the United States Congress. During this time, he collaborated with Albert R. Jonsen to write The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (1988), which demonstrates the procedures for resolving moral cases. One of his most recent works, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (1990), written while Toulmin held the position of the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Northwestern University, specifically criticizes the practical use and the thinning morality underlying modern science. Toulmin held distinguished professorships at numerous universities, including Columbia, Dartmouth College, Michigan State, Northwestern, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the University of Southern California School of International Relations. In 1997 the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) selected Toulmin for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. His lecture, "A Dissenter's Story" (alternatively entitled "A Dissenter's Life"), discussed the roots of modernity in rationalism and humanism, the "contrast of the reasonable and the rational", and warned of the "abstractions that may still tempt us back into the dogmatism, chauvinism and sectarianism our needs have outgrown". The NEH report of the speech further quoted Toulmin on the need to "make the technical and the humanistic strands in modern thought work together more effectively than they have in the past". On 2 March 2006 Toulmin received the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art. He was married four times, once to June Goodfield and collaborated with her on a series of books on the history of science. His children are Greg, of McLean, Va., Polly Macinnes of Skye, Scotland, Camilla Toulmin in the UK and Matthew Toulmin of Melbourne, Australia. On 4 December 2009 Toulmin died of a heart failure at the age of 87 in Los Angeles, California.
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