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  Monday, December 01, 2003

  Stephen Toulmin

I just finished Return to Reason (Harvard Univ. Press, 2001), a highly accessible summary of Stephen Toulmin's version of pragmatism, released in paperback in 2003.  Toulmin, a seasoned philosopher on the faculty at USC, brings together much of his earlier work in this manageable (238 pages) volume.  In the first half of the book he recounts the rise and fall of the modern era's rationality project, erected on the foundation of Euclidean mathematics and Newtonian physics but leveled, in the 20th century, by Poincare's chaotic mathematics, Einstein's relativity physics, and Heisenberg's quantum mechanics.  It's not just that things don't quite add up anymore; they never really did.  This was evident even in the 17th century to Leibniz from the failure of Newton's physics to give a closed solution to the three-body problem (which is symbolized, I think, on the front cover).

In the second half of the book, Toulmin reviews the potential for reason and reasonableness (his preferred terms for the pragmatic approach, contrasted with arid rationality) to pick up the pieces.  He applauds case studies and the clinical approach employed in such areas as medical ethics, ethnography, and institutional economics.  He prescribes Aristotelean phronesis as a corrective to three centuries of overemphasis on now-discredited episteme.  A defensible Theory of Something is better than a failed Theory of Everything, it seems.  He likes Aristotle, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Dewey, and spends time on each in the course of his discussion.

How does this approach work when transposed to the specific area of religious knowledge?  Toulmin treats pragmatic moral reasoning in several contexts and criticizes rationalist science for sending moral considerations into exile, but he never adopts the "feelings of the heart" arguments that earlier pragmatists used to defend and justify religious belief.  Applying his more general discussion from the book, I think he would look askance at "religion writ large," a religious Theory of Everything, but have warmer feelings toward "religion writ small," religious conviction grounded in human experience, reason, and moral sense.  I'll quote one paragraph, the frontpiece to Chapter 12, "The World of Where and When":

Everyday experience reinforces the recognition that the seventeenth century stood the human situation on its head.  Like Virginia Woolf's novels, the essays of Montaigne convey the texture of the world we live in better than any theory.  Thus, pragmatism and skepticism are the beginning of a wisdom that is better than the dreams of the rationalists (p. 190). 10:41:45 PM      

Go check out All About Mormons, a site full of categorized articles on LDS topics.  Many of the articles are pulled directly from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (EoM)--if you are after an article from this semi-official treatment of LDS topics, there's a reasonable chance you'll find it somewhere on this site.

Small sample: (1) Biographies of every LDS President (from EoM), as well as Oliver Cowdery, Thomas L. Kane, Parley P. Pratt, Emma Smith, and others, under the "Church History--People" tab.  (2) Dozens of Church History articles drawn from the EoM.  (3) An LDS Glossary and Vocabulary; for example from the letter B you find beehive symbol, blood atonement, and Book of Commandments, all linked to an EoM article on that topic. 9:20:24 PM      

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Last update: 3/3/2004; 12:02:32 AM.