Vale: Stephen Toulmin

The Anglo-American philosopher, Stephen Toulmin, has just died, aged 87.   One of the areas to which he made major contributions was argumentation, the theory of argument, and his work found and finds application not only in philosophy but in computer science.
For instance, under the direction of John Fox, the Advanced Computation Laboratory at Europe’s largest medical research charity, Cancer Research UK (formerly, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund) applied Toulmin’s model of argument in computer systems they built and deployed in the 1990s to handle conflicting arguments in some domain.  An example was a system for advising medical practitioners with the arguments for and against prescribing a particular drug to a patient with a particular medical history and disease presentation.  One company commercializing these ideas in medicine is Infermed.    Other applications include the automated prediction of chemical properties such as toxicity (see for example, the work of Lhasa Ltd), and dynamic optimization of extraction processes in mining.
S E Toulmin
For me, Toulmin’s most influential work was was his book Cosmopolis, which identified and deconstructed the main biases evident in contemporary western culture since the work of Descartes:

  • A bias for the written over the oral
  • A bias for the universal over the local
  • A bias for the general over the particular
  • A bias for the timeless over the timely.

Formal logic as a theory of human reasoning can be seen as example of these biases at work. In contrast, argumentation theory attempts to reclaim the theory of reasoning from formal logic with an approach able to deal with conflicts and gaps, and with special cases, and less subject to such biases.    Norm’s dispute with Larry Teabag is a recent example of resistance to the puritanical, Descartian desire to impose abstract formalisms onto practical reasoning quite contrary to local and particular sense.
Another instance of Descartian autism is the widespread deletion of economic history from graduate programs in economics and the associated privileging of deductive reasoning in abstract mathematical models over other forms of argument (eg, narrative accounts, laboratory and field experiments, field samples and surveys, computer simulation, etc) in economic theory.  One consequence of this autism is the Great Moral Failure of Macroeconomics in the Great World Recession of 2008-onwards.
S. E. Toulmin [1958]:  The Uses of Argument.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
S. E. Toulmin [1990]: Cosmopolis:  The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press.

Pommes frites with everything

A Guardian editorial from 1989, published followed news that the French Government Official Dictionary of Neologisms had decided whether to adopt or discard over 2400 foreign words from the French language:

This concern with linguistic purity is clearly inspired by France’s envy of Anglo-Saxon practice, which, as is well known, sets its face like flint against all overseas importations.  Regular visitors to London report with awe on the capacity of the English of all social classes for keeping the language clean.  From the blase habitues of the London clubs – raconteurs, bon viveurs, hommes d’affaires – with their penchant for bonhomie and camaraderie, through the soi-disant bien pensants of the passe liberal press to the demi-monde of the jeunesse doree, where ingenues in risque decolletages dine a deux, tete a tete and a la carte with their louche nouveau riche fiances in brassieries and estaminets, pure English is de rigueur, and the mildest infusion of French considered de trop, deja vu, cliche, devoid of all cachet, a linguistic melange or bouillabaisse, a cultural cul-de-sac.
The English want no part of this outre galere, no role in this farouche charade, no rapprochement with this compote.   They get no frisson from detente with diablerie.  And long may it remain so.  “A bas les neologismes!” as you often hear people cry late at night on the Earl’s Court Road.”

Source:  The Guardian Weekly, 1989-01-08 (London, UK).
And here is a story about the French Member of the English Language Committee of the International Mathematics Olympiad.
And here it’s Flugtag for Denglisch.

Next, the Literature Nobel

Robert Draper has an interesting essay in GQ on Barack Obama the writer.  As I noted before, Obama shares this characteristic with Teddy Roosevelt (and with no other US President).  And like TR and JFK, Bam is also a cosmopolitan urbanite.

“I think he sees the world through a writer’s eye,” says senior White House adviser and former Chicago journalist David Axelrod. “I’ve always appreciated about him his ability to participate in a scene and also reflect on it. I mean, I remember when we were meeting clandestinely with the guys who were vetting the vice presidential candidates. There was this courtly southern gentleman who was doing the vetting. The president said to me, ‘This whole scene’s right out of a Grisham novel.’
“I also have to say, one of the great thrills is to watch him work on a speech. It’s not just the content—he’s very focused on that—but more than anyone I’ve ever worked with, he’s focused on the rhythm of the words. Like, he’ll invert words. He’ll say, ‘I need a one-beat word here.’ There’s no question who the best writer in the [speech-writing] group is.”

Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1953, after writing — or perhaps supervising the writing of — his History of the English Speaking Peoples), so there’s hope yet for Bam’s next Nobel.

Public lectures

I expect that Bertrand Russell is the only person in history to have given public lectures to both TS Eliot (in lectures given at Harvard University) and Mao Tse-Tung (in a lecture series given in China).  With youtube and the web, we are in danger of forgetting how special an occasion a public speech can be.  And so I decided to list the people whose public lectures I have heard.  I’ve not included lecturers and teachers whose courses I attended, the most influential (upon me) I have previously listed here, nor talks given at conferences or in academic seminars.

Kenneth Arrow (2000), Michael Atiyah (2008, 2013), PK van der Byl (1985), James Callaghan (1980), Noam Chomsky (2003), Thomas Clayton (2012), David Coltart (2016), Joan Coxsedge (1979), Don Dunstan (1976), Steve Fuller (2008), Dov Gabbay (2012), Julia Gillard (2016), Joe Gqabi (1981),  Tim Harford (2011), Bob Hawke (1980), Xavier Herbert (1976), Anahid Kassabian (2009), Michael Kearns (2011), David Kilcullen (2013), Hans Kung (c. 1985), Kgosa Linchwe II Kgafela (1983), Bill Mansfield (1976-1980, several times), Robert May (2011, twice), Mobutu Sese Seko (1981, at gunpoint), Moshoeshoe II (1982), Robert Mugabe (1981-7, numerous times), Ralph Nader (c. 1977), Robert Oakeshott (c. 1985), Christos Papadimitriou (2009), Malcolm Rifkind (2016), Joseph Rotblat (2002), Rory Stewart (2009), Oliver Tambo (1987), Edgar Tekere (1981), Rene Thom (1979), John Tukey (c. 1979), Moshe Vardi (2010), Gough Whitlam (1975-8, several times), Gerry Wilkes (1975), Elizabeth II Windsor (1980), Andrew Young (1979) and Mick Young (1979).
Continue reading ‘Public lectures’

Speech acts

Thanks to Normblog, I have seen Terry Eagleton’s recent interview on matters of religion, in which he is reported as saying:

All performatives imply propositions.  There’s no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on.  The performative and the propositional work into each other.

Before commenting on the substance here (ie, religion), some words on Eagleton’s evident mis-understanding of speech act theory and the philosophy of language, a mis-understanding that should have been clear if he tested his words against his own experiences of life.  His statement concerns performatives — utterances which potentially change the state of the world by their being uttered.  Examples include promises, commands, threats, entreaties, prayers, various legal declarations (eg, that a certain couple are now wed),  etc.  But mere propositional statements (that some description of the world is true) may also change the state of the world by the mere fact of being uttered.
Continue reading ‘Speech acts’

Myopic utilitarianism

What are the odds, eh?  On the same day that the Guardian publishes an obituary of theoretical computer scientist, Peter Landin (1930-2009), pioneer of the use of Alonzo Church’s lambda calculus as a formal semantics for computer programs, they also report that the Government is planning only to fund research which has relevance  to the real-world.  This is GREAT NEWS for philosophers and pure mathematicians! 
What might have seemed, for example,  mere pointless musings on the correct way to undertake reasoning – by Aristotle, by Islamic and Roman Catholic medieval theologians, by numerous English, Irish and American abstract mathematicians in the 19th century, by an entire generation of Polish logicians before World War II, and by those real-world men-of-action Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Alonzo Church – turned out to be EXTREMELY USEFUL for the design and engineering of electronic computers.   Despite Russell’s Zen-influenced personal motto – “Just do!  Don’t think!” (later adopted by IBM) – his work turned out to be useful after all.   I can see the British research funding agencies right now, using their sophisticated and proven prognostication procedures to calculate the society-wide economic and social benefits we should expect to see from our current research efforts over the next 2300 years  – ie, the length of time that Aristotle’s research on logic took to be implemented in technology.   Thank goodness our politicians have shown no myopic utilitarianism this last couple of centuries, eh what?!
All while this man apparently received no direct state or commercial research funding for his efforts as a computer pioneer, playing with “pointless” abstractions like the lambda calculus.
And Normblog also comments.
POSTSCRIPT (2014-02-16):   And along comes The Cloud and ruins everything!   Because the lower layers of the Cloud – the physical infrastructure, operating system, even low-level application software – are fungible and dynamically so, then the Cloud is effectively “dark” to its users, beneath some level.   Specifying and designing applications that will run over it, or systems that will access it, thus requires specification and design to be undertaken at high levels of abstraction.   If all you can say about your new system is that in 10 years time it will grab some data from the NYSE, and nothing (yet) about the format of that data, then you need to speak in abstract generalities, not in specifics.   It turns out the lambda calculus is just right for this task and so London’s big banks have been recruiting logicians and formal methods people to spec & design their next-gen systems.  You can blame those action men, Church and Russell.

Science and poetry

The Asian scholar Arthur Waley once wrote:

All argument consists in proceeding from the known to the unknown, in persuad­ing people that the new thing you want them to think is not essentially different from or at any rate is not inconsistent with the old things they think already. This is the method of science, just as much as it is the method of rhetoric and poetry. But, as between science and forms of appeal such as poetry, there is a great difference in the nature of the link that joins the new to the old. Science shows that the new follows from the old according to the same principles that built up the old. “If you don’t accept what I now ask you to believe,” the scientist says, “you have no right to go on believing what you believe already.”   The link used by science is a logical one. Poetry and rhetoric are also concerned with bridging the gap between the new and the old; but they do not need to build a formal bridge. What they fling across the intervening space is a mere filament such as no sober foot would dare to tread. But it is not with the sober that poetry and eloquence have to deal. Their te, their essential power, consists in so intoxicating us that, endowed with the recklessness of drunken men, we dance across the chasm, hardly aware how we reached the other side.”    (Waley 1934, Introduction, pp. 96-97)

Arthur Waley [1934]: The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought. London, UK: George Allen and Unwin.

Obama the policy-wonk

Andrew Sprung, over at XPOSTFACTOID, has a powerful deconstruction of the myth that Barack Obama does not do detail.   Of course he does, as has been evident – from the start of his Presidential campaign 33 months ago – to anyone who actually listens to what he says.  Why has the myth persisted?  Partly, I think it is laziness:  it is easier to repeat a cliche than to listen and think for oneself. Partly, I think it is right-wing spin:  his enemies think they can paint him as an airhead, as some tried to paint Tony Blair (remember “Bambi”?).

Australian political debate: the teenage years

Australia’s Federal Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, is never a man one could describe as “no drama”.    Apparently his histrionic side began very early, as this letter in today’s Sydney Morning Herald recounts.   The letter-writer is Alison Lockwood of Katoomba.

“Can you do anything with this completely true reminiscence?” she writes. “In 1969 my family arrived in Sydney and I was enrolled at SCEGGS Darlinghurst in year 9 (age 13). As I was ‘academic’ I was required to be part of the debating team with our ‘brother’ school, Sydney Grammar. The topics for debate were contemporary and highly debatable subjects such as ‘Should women receive equal pay for equal work?’ and ‘Is ”no blame divorce” a good thing?’ It was, nevertheless, slightly risque for the times to propose the topic ‘Should the age of discretion (i.e. consent) be lowered?’ ”As designated first speaker I spent days preparing my arguments carefully, and my well-ordered palm cards referred to meticulously researched areas such as ‘Marriage in Hindu cultures’, ‘Underage marriage in Appalachian societies’ and ‘The menarche 1860 to 1960’. My English teacher, the enthusiastic Mrs Black, helped me refine the most pertinent points.
”I felt well prepared and as excited as any 13-year-old engaging in an activity at night time and in a boy’s school. The debate was held at Sydney Grammar and my opposite first speaker was a podgy school boy called Malcolm Turnbull. Unfortunately, there were two factors in this debate that the worthy Mrs Black had neglected to tell me were relevant.
”1. This was a mock debate; 2. I was prepubescent.
”When all the mostly male student and teacher body were assembled, and before I had any chance to speak, Malcolm Turnbull rose from his pew and announced, ‘As my opposite first speaker has obviously not reached the age of discretion I move that she be removed from this debate.’
”After which a pimply boy hooked an umbrella around my neck and dragged me into an adjoining room, to the accompaniment of loud guffaws from the audience.
”Mrs Black fussed around me uselessly, and I myself hadn’t much idea quite what had happened. I was vaguely aware I had been humiliated and that the debate was now continuing without me because …?
”As you can imagine, Ms Crabb, this was a seminal (excuse the double entendre) experience. Months later, I both reached the ‘age of discretion’ and read The Female Eunuch. I figured it out.
”Malcolm, I’m afraid, remains an opportunistic bully.
”Kind Regards, Alison Lockwood.

Computers in conflict

Academic publishers Springer have just released a new book on Argumentation in Artificial Intelligence.  From the blurb:

This volume is a systematic, expansive presentation of the major achievements in the intersection between two fields of inquiry: Argumentation Theory and Artificial Intelligence. Contributions from international researchers who have helped shape this dynamic area offer a progressive development of intuitions, ideas and techniques, from philosophical backgrounds, to abstract argument systems, to computing arguments, to the appearance of applications producing innovative results. Each chapter features extensive examples to ensure that readers develop the right intuitions before they move from one topic to another.
In particular, the book exhibits an overview of key concepts in Argumentation Theory and of formal models of Argumentation in AI. After laying a strong foundation by covering the fundamentals of argumentation and formal argument modeling, the book expands its focus to more specialized topics, such as algorithmic issues, argumentation in multi-agent systems, and strategic aspects of argumentation. Finally, as a coda, the book explores some practical applications of argumentation in AI and applications of AI in argumentation.”

Previous posts on argumentation can be found here.
Iyad Rahwan and Guillermo R. Simari (Editors) [2009]:  Argumentation in Artificial Intelligence.  Berlin, Germa ny Springer.