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Celebrating Toulmin

March 25, 2013 Leave a comment

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!

Categories: Claims Tags: , ,

What Toulmin claims

August 19, 2011 2 comments

The notion of a claim as a key element in design rationale entered the field of interaction design and human-computer interaction through Carroll and Kellogg’s 1989 “Artifact as theory nexus” CHI paper. In that paper, they describe a claim as the psychological effects (positive and negative) that are caused by an artifact. They outline how claims can be used to guide design through the development and understanding of goals, plans, actions, and evaluation.

But certainly the roots of design rationale predate this artifact paper. Notably, Stephen Toulmin’s classic The uses of argument–the book that several researchers (e.g., Alistair Sutcliffe and Janet Burge) point to as the seminal point in argumentation and design rationale–introduces the notion of a claim as a key part of argumentation. Similar to Carroll/Kellogg, Toulmin spends large stretches of his book noting that claims are interesting because they are falsifiable–they may be true, but perhaps not, and must be re-evaluated as context changes. For example, on p.220 Toulmin makes the summative statement that “we may accept over-hastily the suggestion that a claim to knowledge that proves mistaken must have been an improper claim” as the benefit comes from the creation and analysis inherent to claims. He criticizes our (very human) need for “a God’s-eye view” that is universally true and instead encourages us to embrace the uncertainty as method. So does this apply to claims in the Carroll/Kellogg sense? Short answer: yes; longer answer: maybe (I’ll have to think about it).

According to the preface to the 2003 edition, the Toulmin book originally was meant to “criticize the assumption…that any significant argument can be put in formal terms”. Instead, he ended up with a work that “expound[ed] a theory of rhetoric or argumentation” in a way he calls “informal” but to me seems more analytical. Other books operationalize Toulmin’s concepts in more digestible form–my favorite is The craft of research by Booth, Williams, and Colomb. It’s somewhat ironic that it seems people now view the Toulmin method (and the methods based on it) as too formal and rigid—but it’s quite influential to the notions behind Carroll’s scenario-based design and the IBIS-gIBIS-Phi-QOC-Compendium methods and tools that I discuss in another post.

Alas, Toulmin is now dead. I mention that because he hasn’t been dead for long (since 2009)–though many people assume that the person who wrote the 1958 classic “The uses of argument” has been dead for many decades. In the preface of the 2003 edition of his book (the one I used in this post), he notes as much through a great story…one of many, it seems. Just as others built on and operationalized his work, he points to Aristotle, Descartes, and others as the masterminds behind the concepts he espouses. So add them to the reading list!