Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity

Stephen Toulmin
Macmillan (The Free Press), 1990; 228 pp.

Howard Lee Nostrand
University of Washington

Cosmopolis is a mentality and a social order characterized by the quest for certainty and system, and by the assumption that fresh thought can start from a clean slate free of conditioning by one's cultural background. These characteristics are attributed, with good reason, to the dominant movement in 17th-century Britain and France, which Toulmin calls Modernity, or sometimes, a second phase of Modernity between a Renaissance phase and a phase now emerging, both characterized by uncertainty and pluralism.

This is a book full of informative commentary, particularly on the history of science, the author's focus of expertise. But as an account of the history of Western ideas, placing science and philosophy in their sociocultural context, the book's value lies in its staking out of the challenge rather than in its response to it.

The "hidden agenda," hardly revealed here for the first time, is a synthesis of the physical, the mental, and the moral; for example, relating rationality to emotions, medicine to ethics; and a similar synthesis of the sociopolitical functions best served by national, subnational, or supranational institutions, plus the private organizations that are free to criticize public policies.

But the author's habit of mind is the opposite of synthesis. What for him "makes inquiry come to an end with satisfaction"--Suzanne Langer's essential question--is to draw dyadic contrasts. For the sake of this satisfaction he tends to reduce thinkers and periods to tags. The result is often the omission of important features, a kind of omission which he criticizes, on page 200, as a fault of the Modernity he wants to supersede.

When his plan leads him to contrast Aristotle with the quest for universal principles (75-76), Toulmin tags him as a pluralist in the sense of regarding his predecessors' conclusions as "true for their situation." Actually, Aristotle collected philosophers' views and public opinion on each question in order first to refute those that proved untenable and then to formulate the general principle that emerged, in his spirit of "εχντυνλανω" if (with the subjunctive!) I hit the target. The target metaphor does not mean an objective in the shape of a compilation of casuistic variations, but a universal principle. For example, virtues are a mean; everyday courage is a mean between cowardice and rashness; but one irreducible, irrefutable exception is that there exists a heroic courage which is not a mean.

Aristotle had use for all four of the "levels of interaction between the process and content of culture" that I have found it useful to distinguish; not only the casuistic level of application to cases, but above that, the synthesis of working principles, then the relatively free critique of accepted principles (but still constrained to be applicable), and finally the top level of speculative thought and belief, free of all obligation of applicability or justification. It is this top level that required Aristotle to recognize heroic courage as an irreducible exception to his working principle of virtue as a mean.

In tagging persons, Toulmin limits Hobbes to the Leviathan as a quest for order and certainty, and so omits Hobbes the skeptic (169). Toulmin similarly tags periods: the 16th century as one of tolerant, skeptical thinkers, despite the influence of Calvin, Luther, Zwingli...; the 17th as one of reaction against tolerance, not only neglecting the Jesuits, St. Francois de Sales, Fontenelle and Fénelon (and doubtless some gentle characters outside France that I have not read), but also treating Descartes as reacting against tolerance and skepticism, while he was really reacting much more against intolerant, anti-skeptical scholasticism. Gassendi (La philosophie d'Epicure, 1643) illustrates a neglected influence of philosophers through the arts: as a teacher of Molière, he contributed powerfully to the tolerant, skeptical countercurrent in the 17th century. Toulmin's infrequent mentions of literature and the arts inadequately carry out his intention to recognize the relation of science and philosophy to society.

One must question some points of chronology, particularly the dating as late as the 1950s and '60s of the realization that philosophy cannot adopt the rigor of mathematics; that the sciences cannot be reduced to physics; and that scientists are responsive to the values of their culture.

On the first point, Whitehead reminisced in 1934--and the conversations in his Cambridge apartment were soon reported far beyond--that at first he had hoped symbolic logic could be as rigorous as mathematics, but had come to realize that a whole chain of reasoning could be no more certain than its first link.

On the second point, James G. Crowther's The Social Relations of Science was published by Macmillan in 1941, and by that time an interdisciplinary "synthesis seminar" representing 20 fields at the University of Washington, in its annual course on "Analysis of the Modern Cultural Crisis," had rejected the reductivism of the sciences to physics in favor of a "philosophy of levels," levels on which more and more heterogeneous phenomena are to be organized.

On the third point, James B. Conant, in On Understanding Science (Yale University Press, 1947) stated that "the behavior of the scientist in his laboratory is shot through with value judgments," dramatizing another insight that had surfaced some years earlier in at least one multi-disciplinary group.

Such questions of chronology are few and only accessory to Toulmin's central purpose of defining Modernity and proposing where it should lead. The essential critical questions bear rather on two basic aspects of the book. The intent to broaden the history of ideas to include their manifestations in literature, the arts, and social institutions is not carried out, even to the level of prior sociocultural history. And the historiographic plan of dyadic opposition between dominant movements, treating as recessive the contrary currents important both to the whole synchronic picture and to historical continuity, makes little advance beyond the plan of Will Durant's Story of Philosophy (Simon and Schuster, 1926), where each thinker appeared to demolish the thought of his predecessor in the preceding chapter.

From the standpoint of the present-day reader, the effort to date the beginning and end of Modernism (or of phases of Modernism) is of minor value. At one point, interpreting the endeavor to simplify precisely what has begun or ended, he observes candidly that Modernity can have any of four different meanings depending on whence it is approached (173). The dyads entailed in defining it, moreover, are often questionable. For example, after repetitiously describing Modernity as distinguishing between the "causality" in inert nature and the "rationality" of human actors, he writes on page 151 of "the 17th-century faith in the rationality of Nature."

There is another way to reach the synthesis toward which this book points. One can digest the 17th-century contributions toward our understanding without forgetting Montaigne's critique of reason, along with all the other sources of knowledge--the revelation that justified the cruelty of the Inquisition, the sense perception that tells you an oar is bent at the surface of the water. The critic Sainte-Beuve, reading Montaigne three centuries later, commented that he leads you by the candlelight of reason past the other sources of knowledge, and then blows out the candle. A thoughtful reader of Montaigne is thenceforth inoculated against the arrogance of certainty.

The book sketches only superficially the synthesis that is to end the dualistic oppositions. On page 191, it neglects the present preoccupation with "chaos" as a state to be analyzed, and indeed the many-sided Greeks are bracketed with Newton as conceiving nature to be a stable order. Actually the Greeks of Plato's and Aristotle's generations had to reconcile any hope of order with inherited admonitions such as Heracleitus' famous "All is in flux," Aeschylus' reminder that Athens had known violence not long before, and Parmenides' On Nature, of which apparently one-seventh was devoted to the state of being and the rest (now largely lost) concerned with the process of becoming. On page 199, cultural pluralism is presented as though an absolute relativism could solve the problem of unacceptable cruelty in some contemporary cultures: the only criterion given for acceptability of a belief or custom is that it has been reached by "honest, discriminating, and critical reflection on their [the culture bearers] experience." By 1990, the state of the art had gone beyond this too simple view of intercultural relations.

Only by putting together Professor Toulmin's enviable knowledge with complements from a circle of other experts can we expect, today, to synthesize the best achievable intellectual and social history.

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