by Steve Bayne
Bertrand Russell Society 2001
McMaster University, Canada

It is with some reluctance that I make public this little essay delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Bertrand Russell Society in 2001. Regrettably, most of what follows presents a very questionable view of History. However, there are at least a few desultory remarks on Toulmin's own views on explanation which may be of some value. My opinions have changed in the brief time that has elapsed since delivering the paper and by severe contemplation (this is the description that first leaps to mind) been rendered a bit more commonplace. I continue to maintain a position on the nature of historical processes that is not made explicit in the body of the paper, itself; nevertheless, I believe, it is worth appending as an afterthought. My view of historical processes emerged from a rejection of the episodic/dispositional distinction that appears to be assumed in much contemporary philosophizing. My rejection of the notion as exhaustive, at best, and artificial at worst came about following a renewed interest in dispositional properties as they were understood prior to advances in modal logic, and here I believe, or think I mean, Hintikka and Kripke. Carnap's use of the notion of a dispositional property in the philosophy of mind seemed particularly unserviceable in connection with mental processes, such as thinking. History is understood to be a related process, especially once we distinguish history from the facts which precede the present. An historical process is not the mere realization of a disposition, or law(s), nor is a tendency like the dissolving of a soluble substance. Upon realizing that this fact is important, I embraced the Spinozistic notion of conatus and in particular a variant of the views of Alexander Shand (the philosopher) and other related philosophers, such as Stout, Alexander, and Bradley - although each express significant differences of opinion on the particulars.

This paper was heard by and apparently well received by Prof. Toulmin. He unexpectedly and most kindly responded, correcting my account of his views and, at one point, noting the strong influence of Karl Popper on his early philosophy. I have never been addressed by a similarly distinguished philosopher in such a forum and while he took strong exception to my claims, particularly in regard to my use of the example from P. W. Bridgman there was some ground for agreement. I say all this lest some reader be misled into believing that what all I have to say here is approved by Toulmin; it is not. But I post this because I believe that Internet access to Toulmin is too concerned with his theories of argument and insufficiently on his views in matters of the philosophy of science.


Awareness of certain facts of biology and physics has always been part of the human experience. Death as well as matter in motion pre-exist the species. History, by contrast, didn't come into existence until about four thousand years ago; and I don't mean the study of history. I mean certain actual processes of an essentially human nature that must be recognized in any ultimately satisfying account of the present human condition.

R. G. Collingwood whom Toulmin has frequently cited, points out that it is not that mankind was before then oblivious to history, or insufficiently reflective, but rather because "History did not exist." (The Idea of History. p. 12).

There is a very real possibility, I believe, that the accumulation of history has yet to be discovered applications. Here I shall only lay out a few road signs based on an understanding of Toulmin's views on scientific explanation and try to point these road signs in the direction I think we want to go. So what I am going to do is first take a look at what Toulmin has contributed to the theory of scientific explanation and then try to draw some conclusions about that comparatively new discovery which is history.


One of the defining themes of twentieth century philosophy was the relationship between common sense and science. Toulmin is explicit about what he takes common sense to be:

'Common sense'=df 'recognizing those regularities with which we are familiar from everyday experience' (Introduction to Philosophy of Science. 46)

Among the logical positivists, I believe, there were primarily two ways of viewing the relationship between common sense and science. Some were inclined to believe that science was a complex extension of common sense; while others felt that common sense led to science and science showed that common sense could be wrong. This later view was held by Russell. Einstein approved of Russell's critique of naive realism as self defeating, by appealing to the very science it gives rise to. Stephen Toulmin, I contend, found a third way relating common sense and science. It consists in rejecting both the purely Russellian view as well as the first view, making science an extension of common sense - and here I associate Hempel.

Toulmin contends that the relation between common sense and science will take neither the form of deduction, where no valid connection can go wrong, nor the form of induction where probabilities don't exclude the possibility of error. Both views assume the possibility and even the desirability of formal representation, but it is formalization in the characterization of scientific explanation that Toulmin attacks. When we explore this third way relating common sense and science, we see curious parallels between Russell, who works from within science itself, and Toulmin whose views are largely a rejection of many of the conclusions of those who don't. In order to arrive at some semblance of the details of what I call this "third" view of the relation of common sense and science we must momentarily examine the direction from which Toulmin is coming. Toulmin has been very much influenced in his program by Wittgenstein and, since Russell and Wittgenstein are frequently compared, in order to appreciate Toulmin's tie to Russell we need to look at how he makes use of Wittgenstein, while appearing to resist the sort of excesses we find in J. L. Austin, and here I refer to Austin inordinate application of the "ordinary" use of words.


For Wittgenstein while all explanation comes to an end (PI:1) it need not. It need not because as long as we require an explanation to avert misunderstanding further explanation is in order (PI:87). Toulmin provides something of a refreshing contrast when he suggests that scientific explanation not only does but must come to an end.

There must always be some point in a scientist's explanation where he comes to a stop: beyond this point, if he is pressed to explain further the fundamental basis of his explanation, he can only say that he has reached rock bottom. FU 42
No one denies that laws are somehow involved in scientific explanation. Scientific laws for Toulmin are "inference tickets." This conception is not far from Wittgenstein's who averred that a rule stands "like a sign post" (PI. 85). Broadly speaking what they have in common is that both are saying "This (the rule) will get you from here to there." There are other important similarities between Toulmin and Wittgenstein. For example, Toulmin places a great deal of emphasis on the use of diagrams in science. One reason is the power they have in describing relationships that formalisms either can't show or else presuppose. This is reminiscent of Wittgenstein's assertion that "we must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place" (PI 109). But there is another similarity between these two philosophers, one in which Toulmin presses ahead of his teacher, using his statements like a ladder in order to climb to a higher perspective.

Wittgenstein remarks that

When philosophers use a word must ask oneself: is the word ever used in the language game which is its natural home. (PI 116)
Wittgenstein, I believe, is addressing the metaphysicians who take words like 'acquaintance' and make them into tools for tasks outside the language games of every day life. But consider Toulmin's description of the scientist who extends the notion of 'traveling' in propounding the principle that light travels in straight lines. Let's take a brief look at how the scientist extends a word already having a use in the natural home of ordinary discourse.

We are to contrast Robinson Crusoe's discovery that there is another man on the island he inhabits with the scientific discovery that light travels in straight lines.

Unlike Robinson Crusoe who, never having seen a footprint on "his" island before, might have shouted "Eureka! I've just discovered there is another man on this island" the scientist who theorized for the first time that light travels in straight lines upon observing the facts from which he drew his conclusion did not say: "Eureka! I have discovered something accounting for shadows traveling in straight lines." In the scientific case, the optical case, the actual inference was from something familiarly commonsensical, such as our experience with shadows, to something novel -- that is something that can be said to "travel.' The novelty introduced by something unseen is augmented by the fact that it is said to 'travel' and in this way the term 'travel' receives extension. By extending the terms of ordinary language systematically we see in science a new way of looking at the common sense world from the perspective of our awareness of emerging paradigms. But is this so different than Russell's and Broad's determination to extend expressions for primary qualities of experience to the unseen causes of veridical perception? Just as Toulmin accepts extending terms of ordinary language to do "a new job in the service of physics," don't metaphysicians do the same thing in the service of philosophy? And isn't this extending of terms just what James was talking about when he spoke of what we do when we "project words primarily connoting our affections upon the objects by which the affections are aroused" (Essays on Radical Empiricism. Nebraska. 143-144).

I think the source of Toulmin's greatest discontent is with the idea that the task of the philosopher of science is to provide the logical form of a scientific explanation. For Toulmin, theories that explain are much like maps. One is tempted to say that a map might be thought of as a set of possible experimental procedures just as a drawing of a machine for Wittgenstein can be thought of as expressing a set of possible motions. Do scientific laws limit the representational possibilities available for diagramming in the exactly the same way they limit our interpretation of a diagram of some machine? I doubt this, but can say no more here.

What interests Toulmin is the relation of the data to scientific discovery. Formalized theories of the "logic of the language of science" will not illuminate this region; and it's not just formalization, per se; it's cousin in the pragmatic area, predictability, shares the guilt by association (Foresight and Understanding p. 24). But for now we need to look at just what it is about the relation of scientific data to theory that formalism cannot capture. Here is how Toulmin describes the situation:

The fact of the matter is that we are faced here with a *novel method* of drawing physical inferences* -- one which the writers of books on logic have not recognized for what it is. (PS 25)
One, perhaps the most important, method of drawing the best theoretical inference from a theory is the use of diagrams. First, like Russell, Toulmin is distancing himself from common sense; not entirely, but in a way that will lay scientific discovery at the feet of paradigms rather than the feet of common sense from which the scientific paradigms are departures. Second, Toulmin excludes common sense appeals to simplicity (PS33). In his optical case, involving inferring that light travels in a straight line on the basis of shadows cast and elementary trigonometry, what he says about diagrams is that the use of diagrams of this kind it has been found possible to show, and so explain over a wide range of circumstances and to a high degree of accuracy, what optical phenomena are to be expected. PS 33
This is a topic in its own right, one I believe to be directly related to Reichenbach's Kantian treatment of axioms of physical geometry. But what I want to focus our attention on is this: There is no deductive methodology for arriving at theories. Indeed, the defenders of formalization, like Popper, had long argued for a distinction between discovery and justification. With such a distinction in mind the positivists could pursue their syntax of the logic of the language of explanation and the historians could pursue the more interesting but thankless task of drudging up historical details. But Toulmin by challenging the positivists on the matter of inference positioned philosophy of science toward rejecting the justification vs. discovery distinction. But suppose that is done, so what?

By calling the distinction into question the possibility was raised that there might be a logic of scientific discovery which could be comprehended if we examined the history of science, including its errors. What I contend is that those who posited a logic of scientific discovery were participants in the discovery of the history of science not, as some of them supposed, super scientists (as Dudley Shapere once suggested in casual discussion).


Toulmin enriched the nonformalist approach by introducing paradigms, while Russell went straight forward towards the works of Heisenberg, Einstein, and Schroedinger. Within the "context" (something very important to Toulmin) of the arguments in philosophy of science, particularly during the sixties, Toulmin and Russell share in a disregard of problems such as the confirmation paradoxes of Hempel and the "mindless" axiomatizations, if such there can be, of biology and relativity. I said I would draw some conclusions about history based on Toulmin's characterization of science. Toulmin provides reason to believe that there is continuity in moving from an attack on the formalist distinction between contexts of discovery and justification to a reexamination of the way we look at history. He says,

What better way to access the structure of history, if it exists, than looking at the history of how we have gone about gainfully describing the nature of our world?
It may be that there is little to be gained through chronology alone, but just as in Toulmin's optical case we had to say what it is that does the traveling, his novel move in providing us with what I have called the "third" view of the relation of common sense to science; so in History, we have to ask, What is our chronology to be a chronology of, and even more to the point, why do we need anything for which there is to be a chronology; just as we ask why must there be in the optical case anything at all that "travels" in straight lines? My answer to the first question is that history is composed of trends. My answer to the second question, why we need individuatable entities like trends at all, relies on thinking of history much as we would a moving stream, but not just any kind of stream. The metaphor of the stream will serve much the same purpose as diagram's in Toulmin's philosophy of science.

Imagine history as a fluid in motion, something like the stream which Heraclitus made use of in metaphor. Now let's assume the very opposite of what we want to show. Let us assume that history is not made up of individuatable phenomena, such as what I've called "trends." Indeed let us suppose, much like Emile Meyerson did, that there is no such discreteness as would distinguish historical processes. In other words, let us assume history is much like what P. W. Bridgman in his book _The Nature of Thermodynamics_ calls a "uniform fluid." One thing that Bridgman noticed about such fluids is that there are certain things that may be going on about which we can have no awareness and therefore no understanding. Says Bridgman,

...we cannot think of the velocity of a uniform fluid without imagining the "particles" of which the fluid is composed...(The Nature of Thermodynamic. Cambridge 1943 p. 10)
What Bridgman doesn't call to our attention is that there is much else we cannot know about a uniform fluid, such as the direction of any part of the fluid with respect to any other. I have said that history consists of trends; these are the vortexes of of history. Philosophers will surely ask, "In the case of a uniform fluid, can we be sure that there can be a fact of the matter of there being such a fluid?" Would we suppose the same thing of history; that is, that it might be without distinction and pass, leaving an eventless presence in its wake? This is the absurd consequence that concludes my reductio.

I am going to end with a few polemical remarks on the nature of history, remarks which bear Toulmin's imprint, although he would almost certainly object. Toulmin has pointed out that in science we often extend the meaning of a term of ordinary language in order to capture an explanation. His example was 'traveling' in the case of light, the only way to make sense of his diagram that portrayed a shadow cast from light at an angle. The sort of extension Toulmin has in mind is very much like extending the term 'memory' to include history, encompassing a past which is beyond any living recollection. But history is not just a recollection embedded in a living culture; it is not just the ordering of past facts, particularly in the case of intellectual history, which is not simply an ordered list of past ideas. Nor is history simply a natural history of the human race. History is a much more complex story of overlapping influences and tendencies. Unlike physics, the events by which we determine the flow of history, and here recall the metaphor of a uniform fluid, are the creations of people and made relevant as phenomena for study by unfolding events, themselves part of the investigator's own physical reality. Collingwood said it best when he said that "the historical development of the science of human nature entails an historical development in human nature itself" (The Idea of History. p. 84). Vico observed that history is a confused memory. As history accumulates, I believe that, as in the case of science, our commonsensical, albeit, confused recollections of our own "lowly origins" will add dignity to who we once were. Broad believed he discerned a competition between physics and death, and psychology and life; Toulmin offers us physics as life and places mind in nature in living historical perspective.