Critical Thinking After the Second World War
by Michael Boyle
In my first essay on critical thinking, I focused on the period prior to and during the Second World War. In this essay, I wish to follow the narrative into the post-war years, focusing on two somewhat forgotten scholars (at least in philosophy and, more specifically, critical thinking, as taught in philosophy departments in the US): Stephen Toulmin and Chaïm Perelman. As we saw in the earlier piece, the background to the post-war period was the eclipse of propaganda analysis and the emergence of a more abstract and quantitative conception of critical thinking, embodied by the assessment tool developed by Goodwin Watson and his student Edward Glaser, the Watson Critical Thinking Test. This stream would be strongly reinforced in the early 1960’s, by scholars associated with a subfield of the Philosophy of Education, in particular Robert Ennis, perhaps the most influential single figure in post-war critical thinking, at least as it is taught in philosophy courses.
Critical thinking, however, is not only taught in philosophy departments, in free-standing courses, but is also commonly found in the fields of Speech & Communications and English. One of the great ironies in philosophy is that two of the most important scholars to contribute to this other stream were themselves philosophers, but whose contributions remain largely unknown in their home discipline. Both men, Stephen Toulmin and Chaïm Perelman, published their seminal works on argumentation in the same year (1958), both were Europeans, and both were influential largely through the efforts of American speech and communications scholars. My aim, here, is to give a rough overview of both men’s works and briefly sketch out how both challenged the view that rigorous argumentation should be equated with deduction, a view rooted in their understanding of the history of logic in the modern period and their common belief that the traumas and the challenges of the 20th century demanded an expansion of logic to include a broader analysis of everyday argument, beyond deduction.
Toulmin (1922-2009), a British philosopher, who studied under Wittgenstein, taught at Oxford, Leeds, and elsewhere, but spent the bulk of his teaching career in the United States. Following service with SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) during WWII, his first major book argued that ethical arguments are important (and not just expressions of emotion) and that an analysis of how and why they work is crucial. His key work on argumentation, The Uses of Argument, published almost a decade later in 1958, reflects a basic view of philosophy (and later, the history of philosophy) that would remain consistent throughout his career. The essential point of the Uses of Argument is to challenge the view in logic that good reasoning is represented by deductive arguments. Put very roughly, Toulmin maintained that many of the everyday decisions we make, both as professionals and as ordinary people, have little to do with formal deductive reasoning, but instead involve many varieties of defeasible argumentation.
The most famous (and influential) part of the work is his basic argument structure, now simply called the “Toulmin Model,” which Toulmin suggests is a more helpful way to analyze everyday claims, which often make distinctions that are difficult to capture formally. In this model, one begins by making a claim based on a certain datum/data. These are connected to the claim via what Toulmin calls “warrants,” which are sometimes described as “inference licenses” that permit the move from the data to the claim. These warrants are supported by information that Toulmin calls “backing.” Warrants, since they can operate with different levels of force, sometimes need qualifiers (e.g., the data “probably,” “mostly,” etc. supports the claim, via the warrant). Lastly, circumstances under which the grounds/data do not support the claim are referred to by Toulmin as the “rebuttal” of the claim and constitute exceptions.
Toulmin was initially unaware that he was arguing for elements already found in Aristotle. For example, the data/claim pair is essentially a rhetorical enthymeme (a defeasible, non-theoretical enthymeme) — that is, a non-deductive argument with a number of assumed parts that can be fleshed out, if required. In addition, the warrant and the backing for warrants are not, Toulmin argues, formal, “field-invariant” matters (like the principle of non-contradiction), but are “field-dependent,” given that the relevant information will often come from a distinct discipline (the germ of this idea of field dependency is also found in Aristotle), with its own standards of evidence. What counts as a justification, consequently, may vary accordingly. Toulmin (and Perelmen, as we shall see) believed that we should understand defeasible arguments, not according to a geometrical model, but along a jurisprudential one, insofar as practical reasoning seeks to convince an audience and operates within certain procedural constraints that may vary, depending on what the arguments are about.
Toulmin’s work in the analysis of argument is deeply connected to his scholarly work and reflects a specific interpretation of the history of philosophy and the relationship between theoretical argumentation and practical reasoning. In Toulmin’s view, beginning with Descartes in the 1600’s, the dominant tradition in philosophy has been theoretical, notwithstanding some noteworthy dissenters. In the centuries that followed, philosophy increasingly eschewed what he saw as four key elements of practical reason: the oral, the particular, the local, and the timely. Influenced by Descartes, argumentation amongst real people, reflecting a sense of history is set aside and written propositions become dominant, with the oral relegated to rhetoric and the local disappearing entirely. The particular, that is to say the classic method of casuistry, which Toulmin believed was crucial to ethical inquiry and which proceeds by way of case-by-case analysis, declined in the Early Modern period. Timeliness, once seen as inextricably tied to the rational, in fields like law and medicine, increasingly took a back seat, as philosophy followed a universal and abstract path, focusing on what he calls “the permanent.” As to the reasons for this shift, believed that the most important was the fact that the first half of the 17th century was a time of war and chaos, so that timelessness, both scientific and philosophic, was far more attractive than an insistence on the importance of the (often unpleasant) particularities, in which one found oneself.
So, why did Toulmin think it so important that we recover our capacity to analyze arguments in terms of practical reason? As he explained over a quarter-century ago, as modern people, we face three fundamental challenges that will require more dialectical resources than abstract logic can provide: biotechnology, atomic warfare, and the global ecosystem. These challenges, he insists, will have to be confronted in terms that take into consideration human life in all its fullness and breadth and also, in all its particularity.
Baron Chaïm Perelman, born in 1912 and dying in 1984 (he was made a nobleman in 1983), was a Belgian scholar of jurisprudence and a philosopher, who published his seminal work with research assistant Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, Traité de l’argumentation – la nouvelle rhétorique, in the same year as Toulmin’s Uses of Argument (1958). Unlike Toulmin’s work, which was for the most part rejected by philosophers, Perelman’s was acknowledged by a substantial section of the discipline in Europe and even garnered accolades from Peter Strawson in Mind, a premiere Anglophone journal of analytic philosophy. It was influential in the United States, particularly at Penn State, ultimately contributing to the establishment of a new philosophy periodical, Philosophy & Rhetoric. Despite this, Perelman’s influence in the United States has been outside of philosophy, particularly with students of communications and rhetoric.
Much like Toulmin’s, at the heart of Perelman’s thought is the idea that good arguments involve more than just formal logic. Also like Toulmin, who began his investigations into argumentation with his early work on ethics, a chief concern of Perelman’s was the fact that the formal deductive model of logic left little room for the analysis of normative arguments, an analysis of which he believed essential, in the context of 20th century history.
Perelman started out as both a law scholar and a philosopher, specializing in Frege. What changed him were his experiences during the Second World War, a brief examination of which is instructive. Following the Nazi invasion and occupation of Belgium, Perelman became a key figure under the Front de l’Indépendance (the main Belgian resistance organization against the Nazis), by helping establish the Comité de Défense de Juifs (CDJ), whose job was to save as many Jews as possible from being deported to the death camps. In addition to this underground work (done under the codename Dumont), he had direct contact with the Nazis, because he was at the same time a leading figure in the Association des Juifs en Belgique (AJB), the group that the Germans dealt with in their administration of the Jewish population in Belgium. He used his official post at the AJB during the occupation, in order to simultaneously carry out his underground resistance activities, supplying the Jewish community with materiel and foodstuffs, as well as acting as a conduit for the funneling of monies from the United States through Switzerland. In the meantime, his wife Fela, an historian and granddaughter of the Grand Rabbi of Lodj, was in charge of a kindergarten (Nos Petits) that protected Jewish youngsters from deportation. After the war, Perelman, who personally knew both David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, was closely involved with matters regarding Israel, both before the 1948 independence and after. For her part, his wife Fela was for a time an agent for the Mossad, helping her husband get over 500 refugees through the British blockade of Palestine.
His wartime experiences inspired Perelman to search for a structure of normative arguments, akin to Frege’s logicism project for mathematics. What he uncovered instead was the Western tradition of rhetoric and dialectic, with its origin in Aristotle.
As Perelman scholar David Frank (1) has noted, Perelman realized something that Hannah Arendt would write about in The Origins of Totalitarianism, namely, that inherent to totalitarianism is the following-through of a sort of demented deductive logic (albeit from false premises) that is inherent to ideological movements and which serves both as an excuse and a motivation, as well as providing protection from any disconfirmation, coming from the real world. Arendt puts it this way: “Ideological thinking orders facts into an absolutely logical procedure which starts from an axiomatically accepted premise, deducing everything from it; that is, it proceeds with a consistency that exists nowhere in the realm of reality.” Make no mistake- Perelman believed that formal logic was perfectly legitimate and important. He was, after all, a professor of philosophy at the Free University of Brussels, authoring a textbook on logic and heading both the National Center for Research in Logic and the Center for Philosophy of Law. Nonetheless, Perelman came to believe that formal reasoning alone was insufficient, in the context of what he believed was required of argumentation analysis. And that analysis was important, he thought, to strengthen liberal, pluralist societies in the West and to try and prevent the catastrophe of the Nazi era from reoccurring.
In the book he co-authored with Olbrechts-Tyteca, Traité de l’argumentation, Perelman agreed with Toulmin that the separation of logic and rhetoric begins with Descartes and with the idea that proper logical argumentation should be modeled on geometry. Also like Toulmin (but much more self-consciously), Perelman argued that his work was an attempt to bring back the Aristotelian view evident in the Topics and the Rhetoric, whereby non-deductive argumentation is to be seen as a valid and important area of inquiry for philosophers, a view which Perelman and Toulmin both argued had prevailed from antiquity through the Renaissance. The task of modern logic, says Perelman, is incomplete, because the tradition following Frege had labored on “the theory of demonstration” but had largely ignored working on the “theory of argumentation.” The goal of his work was to map out a taxonomy of such non-deductive argumentation so as to balance things out.
The basic thrust of Perelman’s work was to analyze how a speaker or writer employing non-deductive arguments gains the “adherence” of his audience. He believed that conceptions of reasonableness could vary between communities, because of their different circumstances, abilities, education, and expertise and thought it possible that one community could recognize the reasonableness of a view held by the other, even if they still disagreed.
In terms of focusing on the audiences and how one convinces them, Perelman explicitly rejected an analysis of delivery or ornamentation, in order to focus on the part he thought proper to philosophy — the structural aspects of argumentation and how this is connected to the people to whom one is speaking or for whom one is writing. Thus, the audience is front and center for Perelman, partly because he believed that the person engaged in argumentation — from “discussion around the family table” to the public square — depended on “an effective community of mind.” (2) Moreover, different audiences have different varieties of expertise, so some are more qualified than others to render judgment on various matters. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca go on to discuss how a speaker engages with his audience in terms of figures of speech and the like, the matter of the choice and presentation of data, and they give a taxonomy of different kinds of non-deductive arguments and how and why they work.
Perelman, coming from the direction of philosophy and the perspective of a Frege specialist, wanted to expand the scope of modern logic to include those arguments whose demonstration did not automatically demand the adherence of the audience because of their deductive character, but which were nevertheless essential for human life. These everyday arguments speak to what Perelman elsewhere described as the “reasonable” as opposed to the “rational,” the latter taking as its model mathematics and the former functioning like jurisprudence, insofar as argumentation procedures can be mapped out, procedures followed (ideally at least) to seek answers that are provisional, yet equitable.
Both of these influential figures in 20th Century argument-analysis have been victims of disciplinary segregation. Neither Toulmin nor Perelman are typically even mentioned in critical thinking courses, as they are taught in philosophy departments across the US, much less discussed. Nor do their names commonly occur even in the scholarly literature tied to critical thinking in philosophy. (3) This is despite the fact that both were philosophers in the analytic tradition and despite the fact that Perelman was influential in the founding of a respected philosophy journal, Philosophy & Rhetoric, still published at Penn State. By contrast, in other fields that also deal with matters of critical thinking (at least in terms of argument-analysis), one finds that they are still quite relevant.
(1) Frank’s work is helpful in understanding not only the link between Perelman and American scholars of speech and communication — as well as the connection between Perelman and Arendt — but also in terms of what Frank argues is a clear opposition between the deductive, geometrical model that goes back to Plato and a paratactic model seen most clearly in the Talmud. See Frank’s “The Jewish Countermodel: Talmudic Argumentation, the New Rhetoric Project, and the Classical Tradition of Rhetoric” Journal of Communication & Religion 26 (2003): 163-194; “The New Rhetoric, Judaism, and Post-Enlightenment Thought: The Cultural Origins of Perelmanian Philosophy,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 83(1997): 311-331; “Argumentation Studies in the Wake of The New Rhetoric” Argumentation and Advocacy 40 (Spring 2004): 267-283.
(2) He unpacks this by analyzing the difficulties faced by Alice, in the realm of Wonderland.
(3) For a fascinating discussion of how logic (especially non-monotonic logic) has caught up with Toulmin, see Johann van Bentham’s “One Logician’s Perspective on Argumentation,” Cogency 1 (Summer 2009): 13-25. Van Bentham, who holds appointments both at Stanford and the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Logic, Language, and Argumentation, describes the Toulmin Model as “…a rich way of seeing many crucial aspects of ordinary reasoning.” (16)
For more on non-monotonic logic and Toulmin (especially the tricky matter of warrants) see William Keith’s “The Toulmin Model and Non-Monotonic Reasoning,” a paper given at a 2005 McMaster University conference on Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument. The conference papers may be accessed online: http://scholar.uwindsor.ca/ossaarchive/OSSA6/papers/