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In Memoriam: Stephen E. Toulmin, 87

The British-born University Professor Emeritus was chosen for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for humanities achievement.

University Professor Emeritus Stephen Toulmin, a renowned ethical philosopher in USC College, called for scholars to "come out of their self-imposed isolation and reenter the collective world of practical life and shared human problems." Photo courtesy of Donna Toulmin.
University Professor Emeritus Stephen Toulmin, a renowned ethical philosopher in USC College, called for scholars to "come out of their self-imposed isolation and reenter the collective world of practical life and shared human problems." Photo courtesy of Donna Toulmin.

Stephen Edelston Toulmin, University Professor Emeritus and one of the most influential ethical philosophers of the latter half of the 20th century, has died. He was 87.

Toulmin, the Henry R. Luce Professor for the Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies in USC College, died Dec. 4 at USC University Hospital.

“His final illness was mercifully short and he received immaculate support and care from USC University Hospital staff,” said Toulmin’s widow, Donna Toulmin, a lawyer and training director of USC School of Social Work’s Center on Child Welfare. “He ended his life as successfully as he lived it.”

Spanning nearly six decades, Toulmin’s research focused on moral reasoning analyses. A foremost authority on ethics, international relations, history and philosophy of the physical and social sciences, and the history of ideas, his research has widely influenced many fields, particularly clinical medical ethics, rhetoric, communication and computer science.

In 1997, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Toulmin for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities.

“Stephen was one of the most accomplished scholars ever to be associated with the University of Southern California,” USC College Dean Howard Gillman said. “His work influenced debates in meta-philosophy, the philosophy of science, communication, humanism, modernity, and ethics. Many of us learned from him what it meant to be a scholar.”

Gillman, professor of political science, history and law, and holder of the Anna H. Bing Dean’s Chair, recounted his first reading assignment in graduate school: Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Toulmin’s Foresight and Understanding: An Enquiry into the Aims of Science (Indiana University Press) — the latter still required reading nearly a half century after its first publication.

As director of the College’s School of International Relations, Steven Lamy recalled Toulmin working with students on projects related to the role of global civil society in creating a just and peaceful world.

“He made a real difference in the lives of his students, encouraging them to be scholars who cared about the world,” said Lamy, professor of international relations and the College’s vice dean for academic programs. “He didn’t just write about moral reasoning and ethics, he lived a moral and ethical life. He cared about his students.”

Toulmin’s most influential work was the Toulmin Model of Argumentation. In it, he identified six elements of a persuasive argument: claim, grounds, arrant, backing, qualifier and rebuttal.

In his seminal book, The Uses of Argument (Cambridge University Press, 1958), he outlined the argument model. The book investigates the flaws of traditional logic, maintaining that some aspects of arguments can vary from field to field, while other aspects are consistent throughout all fields.

Arguing against the absolute truth advocated in Plato’s idealized formal logic, Toulmin said that truth can be relative. Historical and cultural contexts, he said, must be taken into consideration.

He concluded that absolutism fails to consider the field-dependent aspects of argument. Advocating a universal truth, absolutists believe that a standard set of moral principles —regardless of context — can solve all moral dilemmas. But Toulmin purported that many of these standard principles cannot be applied to day-to-day life in the real world.

After pinpointing absolutism’s dearth of practical value, Toulmin developed a new type of argument, called practical arguments. He urged philosophers to apply their abstract theories to practical debates over real world matters such as medical ethics and environmental policies.

“It is time for philosophers to come out of their self-imposed isolation and reenter the collective world of practical life and shared human problems,” he wrote.

Toulmin’s many other books include The Discovery of Time (Harper & Row, 1964); The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature (University of California Press, 1982); Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, (Free Press, 1990); and Return to Reason (Harvard University Press, 2001).

Longtime friend and colleague G. Alexander Moore, professor of anthropology and the department’s interim chair, was highly influenced by Cosmopolis.

“For an anthropologist it represents grounded postmodernism, an approach that encourages rigorous looks at the evidence informed by approaches borrowed from close acquaintance with fields such as ethics, aesthetics or even literature,” Moore said.

Nancy Lutkehaus praised Toulmin for his many contributions to the College's Department of Anthropology and to the field itself.

"The breadth of Stephen Toulmin's scholarship and academic interests meant that many disciplines at USC claimed him as a colleague, mentor, and intellectual inspiration," said Lutkehaus, professor of anthropology and the department's chair elect. "This was particularly true of anthropology."

Born March 25, 1922 in London, Toulmin earned his bachelor’s in mathematics and physics from Cambridge University in 1942. 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. After World War II, he returned to England to earn his master's and Ph.D. in moral sciences from Cambridge University.

In 1949, he began teaching the philosophy of science at Oxford University. He has taught at many distinguished universities throughout the world, including Melbourne University, Leeds University, Columbia University, Michigan State University, Brandeis University, the University of California, Santa Cruz, as well as the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

Becoming a U.S. citizen, he joined USC College in 1993. Also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was appointed University Professor in 2001. After Toulmin delivered the Jefferson Lecture in Washington, D.C., the late philosopher Marx W. Wartofsky noted in an essay that Toulmin’s openness to the variety of reason had taken him “on an odyssey through strange seas and distant intellectual climes.”

“Toulmin had the arrogance, the wit, the style, and the scientific training to question the received view,” Wartofsky wrote. “Worse yet, he had the historical grasp and the philosophic breadth to trace it to its origins, to the contexts in which it arose; and he had the further chutzpah to offer an account of why it arose when it did historically, what its social‑political impetus was. He was not prescient, nor did he do this all at once. But here lies the vivid continuity of his project.”

Marty Levine, UPS Foundation chair in law and gerontology; professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and vice provost for faculty affairs, added:

“Stephen Toulmin was a polymath whose erudition encompassed a vast range of areas. He was a gentle man of good sense and wisdom.”

Toulmin is also survived by sister Rachel; children Polly, Matthew, Camilla and Greg; and grandchildren Megan, Myles, Hector, Simon, Eleanor, David, Clare, Luke, Agnes, William, Alice, Asha and Annie.

There will be a private cremation. A memorial will be arranged at a later date. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent in Toulmin’s memory to Amnesty International, the Los Angeles Philharmonic or the USC Good Neighbors Campaign.