Stephen Toulmin was born in London, England, on March 25, 1922 to Geoffrey Edelson Toulmin and Doris Holman Toulmin. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from King’s College 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. At the end of World War II, he returned to England to earn a Master of Arts degree in 1947 and a Doctorate of Philosophy from Cambridge University. While at Cambridge, Toulmin came into contact with the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose examination on the relationship between the uses and the meanings of language shaped much of Toulmin’s own work. In fact, Toulmin’s doctoral dissertation, "An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics," applied Wittgenstein’s theories to his analysis of ethical arguments.
After graduating from Cambridge, he was appointed University Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at Oxford University from 1949 to 1954, during which period he wrote his first book, The Philosophy of Science: an Introduction (1953). Soon after, he was appointed to the position of Visiting Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Melbourne University in Australia from 1954 to 1955, after which he returned to England, and served as Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Leeds from 1955 to 1959. While at Leeds, he published one of his most influential books in the field of rhetoric, The Uses of Argument (1958), which investigated the flaws of traditional logic. Although it was poorly received in England and satirized as "Toulmin’s anti-logic book" by Toulmin’s fellow philosophers at Leeds, the book was applauded by the rhetoricians in the United States, where Toulmin served as a visiting professor at New York, Stanford, and Columbia Universities in 1959. While in the States, Wayne Brockriede and Douglas Ehninger introduced Toulmin’s work to communication scholars, as they recognized that his work provided a good structural model useful for the analysis and criticism of rhetorical arguments. In 1960, Toulmin returned to London to hold the position of director of the Unit for History of Ideas of the Nuffield Foundation.
In 1965, Toulmin returned to the United States, where he held positions at various universities through the present day. In 1967, Toulmin served as literary executor for close friend N.R. Hanson, helping in the posthumous publication of several volumes. While at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Toulmin published Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts (1972), which examines the causes and the processes of conceptual change. In this book, Toulmin uses the unprecedented comparison between conceptual change and Darwin’s model of biological evolution to purport the process of conceptual change as an evolutionary process. In 1973, while a professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, he collaborated with the historian Alan Janik to publish Wittgenstein’s Vienna, which advanced a thesis that underscores the significance of history to human reasoning: Contrary to philosophers who believe the absolute truth advocated in Plato’s idealized formal logic, Toulmin argues that truth can be a relative quality, dependent on historical and cultural contexts (what other authors have termed "conceptual schemata").
From 1975 to 1978, he worked with the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, established by the United States Congress. During this time, he collaborated with Albert R. Jonsen to write The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (1988), which demonstrates the procedures for resolving moral cases. One of his most recent works, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (1990), written while Toulmin held the position of the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Northwestern University, specifically criticizes the practical use and the thinning morality underlying modern science.
Toulmin has held distinguished professorships at numerous universities, including Columbia, Dartmouth, Michigan State, Northwestern, Stanford, and the University of Chicago. As of 2007, Toulmin is Henry R. Luce Professor of Multiethnic and Transnational Studies at University of Southern California School of International Relations.
To reinforce his assertion, Toulmin introduced the concept of argument fields; in The Uses of Argument (1958), Toulmin states that some aspects of arguments vary from field to field, and are hence called “field-dependent,” while other aspects of argument are the same throughout all fields, and are hence called “field-invariant.” The flaw of absolutism, Toulmin believes, lies in its unawareness of the field-dependent aspect of argument; absolutism assumes that all aspects of argument are field invariant.
Recognizing the intrinsic flaw of absolutism, Toulmin’s theories resolve to avoid the defects of absolutism without resorting to relativism: relativism, Toulmin asserted, provides no basis for distinguishing between a moral or immoral argument. In Human Understanding (1972), Toulmin suggests that anthropologists have been tempted to side with relativists because they have noticed the influence of cultural variations on rational arguments; in other words, the anthropologist or relativist overemphasizes the importance of the “field-dependent” aspect of arguments, and becomes unaware of the “field-invariant” elements. In an attempt to provide solutions to the problems of absolutism and relativism, Toulmin attempts throughout his work to develop standards that are neither absolutist nor relativist for assessing the worth of ideas.
Toulmin believes that a good argument can succeed in providing good justification to a claim, which will stand up to criticism and earn a favourable verdict. In The Uses of Argument (1958), Toulmin proposed a layout containing six interrelated components for analyzing arguments:Claim: Conclusions whose merit must be established. For example, if a person tries to convince a listener that he is a British citizen, the claim would be “I am a British citizen.” (1)Data: The facts we appeal to as a foundation for the claim. For example, the person introduced in 1 can support his claim with the supporting data “I was born in Bermuda.” (2)Warrant: the statement authorizing our movement from the data to the claim. In order to move from the data established in 2, “I was born in Bermuda,” to the claim in 1, “I am a British citizen,” the person must supply a warrant to bridge the gap between 1 & 2 with the statement “A man born in Bermuda will legally be a British Citizen.” (3)Backing: Credentials designed to certify the statement expressed in the warrant; backing must be introduced when the warrant itself is not convincing enough to the readers or the listeners. For example, if the listener does not deem the warrant in 3 as credible, the speaker will supply the legal provisions as backing statement to show that it is true that “A man born in Bermuda will legally be a British Citizen.”Rebuttal: Statements recognizing the restrictions to which the claim may legitimately be applied. The rebuttal is exemplified as follows, “A man born in Bermuda will legally be a British citizen, unless he has betrayed Britain and has become a spy of another country.”Qualifier: Words or phrases expressing the speaker’s degree of force or certainty concerning the claim. Such words or phrases include “possible,” “probably,” “impossible,” “certainly,” “presumably,” “as far as the evidence goes,” or “necessarily.” The claim “I am definitely a British citizen” has a greater degree of force than the claim “I am a British citizen, presumably.”
The first three elements “claim,” “data,” and “warrant” are considered as the essential components of practical arguments, while the second triad “qualifier,” “backing,” and “rebuttal” may not be needed in some arguments. When first proposed, this layout of argumentation is based on legal arguments and intended to be used to analyze the rationality of arguments typically found in the courtroom; in fact, Toulmin did not realize that this layout would be applicable to the field of rhetoric and communication until his works were introduced to rhetoricians by Wayne Brockriede and Douglas Ehninger. Only after he published Introduction to Reasoning (1979) were the rhetorical applications of this layout mentioned in his works.
Casuistry employs absolutist principles, called “type cases” or “paradigm cases,” without resorting to absolutism. It uses the standard principles (for example, sanctity of life) as referential markers in moral arguments. An individual case is then compared and contrasted with the type case. Given an individual case that is completely identical to the type case, moral judgments can be made immediately using the standard moral principles advocated in the type case. If the individual case differs from the type case, the differences will be critically assessed in order to arrive at a rational claim.
Through the procedure of casuistry, Toulmin and Jonsen identified three problematic situations in moral reasoning: first, the type case fits the individual case only ambiguously; second, two type cases apply to the same individual case in conflicting ways; third, an unprecedented individual case occurs, which cannot be compared or contrasted to any type case. Through the use of casuistry, Toulmin demonstrated and reinforced his previous emphasis on the significance of comparison to moral arguments; this significance is not mentioned in the theories of absolutism nor in relativism.
In 1972, Toulmin published Human Understanding which asserts that conceptual change is an evolutionary process. This book attacks Thomas Kuhn’s account for conceptual change in his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn believed conceptual change to be a revolutionary process (as opposed to an evolutionary process), during which mutually exclusive paradigms compete to replace one another. Toulmin criticizes the relativist elements in Kuhn’s thesis, as he points out that the mutually exclusive paradigms provide no ground for comparison; in other words, Kuhn’s thesis has made the relativists’ error of overemphasizing the “field variant” while ignoring the “field invariant,” or commonality shared by all argumentation or scientific paradigms.
In contrast to Kuhn’s revolutionary model, Toulmin proposed an evolutionary model of conceptual change comparable to Darwin’s model of biological evolution. Toulmin states that conceptual change involves the process of innovation and selection. Innovation accounts for the appearance of conceptual variations, while selection accounts for the survival and perpetuation of the soundest conceptions. Innovation occurs when the professionals of a particular discipline come to view things differently from their predecessors; selection subjects the innovative concepts to a process of debate and inquiry in what Toulmin considers as a “forum of competitions.” The soundest concepts will survive the forum of competition as replacements or revisions of the traditional conceptions.
From the absolutists’ point of view, concepts are either valid or invalid regardless of contexts; from a relativists’ perspective, one concept is neither better nor worse than a rival concept from a different cultural context. From Toulmin’s perspective, the evaluation depends on a process of comparison, which determines whether or not one concept will provide improvement to our explanatory power more so than its rival concepts.