The Tyranny of Theory

By Morson, Gary Saul | New Criterion, February 2015 | Go to article overview

The Tyranny of Theory


Morson, Gary Saul, New Criterion


The world is nothing but variety and dissimilarity.

--Montaigne

When the Berlin Wall still stood, and Germany was divided, I had trouble remembering which Germany was which. Was the "Federal Republic of Germany" the Communist part, or was that the "German Democratic Republic"? At last I realized the answer: the place that has to call itself democratic isn't. Now consider: we have one discipline called physics and another called "political science." Which is the science?

The philosopher Stephen Toulmin, for many years my colleague at Northwestern University, ascribed bogus claims of scientific status not only to a thirst for prestige but also to a mistaken view of knowledge. Since the seventeenth century, philosophers and educated laymen have presumed that true knowledge resembles Euclidian geometry. Newtonian physics, which reduced the amazingly complex motions of the planets to four simple laws, served as a model for all knowledge. And so in the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte, who coined the term "sociology," originally proposed to call his new discipline "social physics." In our time, economics downgraded the study of mere historical facts in favor of timeless mathematical models. The humanities as well as the "social sciences" suffer from "physics envy"

Toulmin spent his career combatting such fallacies, which he found not only philosophically mistaken but also socially destructive. Abstract rationality, he argued, is only one model of knowledge, appropriate in some circumstances but not in others. He once told me about a lecture he attended at the University of Chicago entitled "Is It Rational to be Reasonable?" "I suddenly realized," he explained, "that the central question of my intellectual life has been the opposite one: is it reasonable to be rational?"

That question shaped Toulmin's contributions to an impressive variety of disciplines: ethics, rhetoric, social policy, the history of science, and the theory of knowledge. So decisive was his work on rhetorical theory that professors in communication departments are often surprised that his classic study, The Uses of Argument (1958), and the textbook derived from it, An Introduction to Reasoning (1979), represent only a small part of his legacy. He entitled his 1997 Jefferson lecture--which the NEH officially describes as "the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities"--"A Dissenter's Life" and chose to devote it to an entirely different field, the role of non-state actors in solving world problems. His last book, The Return to Reason (2001), addresses issues in economic modernization and social policy, while his key contribution to ethical theory, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (co-authored with Albert R. Jonsen, 1988), reflects his work in medical ethics as a member of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. In all of these fields, he reveled in his role as "dissenter" from the prevailing intellectual consensus. Toulmin and I were initially drawn together by two shared interests. Each of us regarded Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as our favorite novel, and we twice co-taught a class on it. In addition, as confirmed contrarians, we both deplored recent developments in "critical theory" endorsing absolute relativism. That puerile conclusion was invariably reached by presuming that unless knowledge could be absolutely certain, it was not knowledge at all. Without unshakeable "foundations," everything was at best a matter of taste but more likely an expression of hegemonic power. As we liked to joke, such reasoning was not only shallow but deeply shallow.

In our view, this post-structuralism was simply dogmatism stood on its head. It leaves no room for reasoned argument, which can thrive only where certainty is not to be had but some positions are better than others. Doctors can offer no guarantees, but we do not therefore conclude that medical treatment is just a matter of taste. …

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