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Celebrating Toulmin

Stephen Toulmin's Wikipedia and USC photo

The late Stephen Toulmin would have turned 91 today—and he came pretty close, making it to 87.  And as an inspiration to us all, he remained very active through most of his life, released an updated version of his seminal book The Uses of Argument in 2003.  The book has never been out of print, and its ideas have influenced researchers in areas from rhetoric and communication to computer science and engineering.

At the heart of his argumentation methods is the notion of a claim, a statement that you are seeking to argue is correct.  The subtle but important part of that definition is that a claim is falsifiable, in that one can argue successfully for or against a claim.  And, the “truthiness” of a claim may vary as we learn more things—consider, for example, claims about the age of the universe or the intelligence of dinosaurs. I provide an extended look at how the notion of claims evolved in human-computer interaction in a previous post.  Or, you can read my Making Claims book for the long story about claims in HCI!

But on his birthday, we should celebrate not only his work but his his life. Toulmin was born and raised in England, and he released his seminal book in 1958, when he was still a young researcher.  But when his ideas were not well received in England, he moved to the United States.  He spent time on the faculty at Brandeis, Michigan State, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and the University of Southern California. In the paperback version of his book, released in 1963, he was defensive of his ideas.  He certainly didn’t rest on his accomplishments though—in many ways his 1992 book Cosmopolis provides a more historically-grounded view of his philosophy (and he comes across as much more comfortable with his ideas).  The updated version of his book came out in 2003, and it, like much of his work of that time, reflected both a more confident and grounded philosophy while embracing his life position as a dissenter.

In many ways it would be hard to emulate his career track, as much of his highly-cited work was books and not papers, reflecting a different era in research.  But his career focus and ability to evolve ideas is worth studying.  And our current era has its own advantages–I can instantly post a blog entry on his birthday to initiate a small celebration and reflection!

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