Human Understanding, Part I: The Collective Use and by Stephen Toulmin

By Stephen Toulmin

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Descartes hoped to defend the epistemic claims of natural science against the sceptics i n the same way as Plato two thousand years earlier. Michel de Montaigne had questioned whether mere humans could ever have rational grounds for deciding between opposed systems of physical theory, and—like Socrates—had confined our understanding to matters of humane experience and con­ cern: virtue and friendship, beauty and statecraft. Descartes was less ready to accept scientific defeat. Inspired i n youth by Galileo, he met Montaigne's challenge with the same device that Plato used to counter the cosmological scepticism of Socrates.

The problem of astronomical distances might stir the imagination of scientists and theologians, but most educated Europeans shared Alex­ ander Pope's beliefthat 'the proper study ofmankind is Man'. So the most forcible impression left by the expedition's reports came not from its intended astronomical results, but rather from some curious anthropological by-products. The customs of the Tahitians proved far more intriguing than the distances ofthe planets. Life o n T a h i t i , though tranquifenough, was surprisingly free and easy: the inhabitants got along happily, even though disregarding many of the taboos and command­ ments regarded i n Europe as essential elements i n God's Order.

Any epistemic self-portrait that carries conviction in other contemporary sciences must also give us a sound grasp of our epistemic situation, and so an understanding of our proper canons ofrational criticism. I n positive terms, therefore, the final group of enquiries will be organized around the question: Given the operative niches and functional correlates of con­ cepts within the communal and individual matrices of human understanding, how must we—at any rate, for our own generation—sift, compare, and so justify critical con­ fidence in our own best-founded concepts and beliefs ?

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