Stephen Edelston Toulmin was born 25 March 1922 in London. He earned his BA in mathematics and physics from King’s College. During World War II, he served as an officer for the Ministry of Aircraft Production. In 1948 Professor Toulmin earned his PhD in ethics from Cambridge University.
While at Cambridge, Toulmin studied under John Wisdom and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Wittgensteinian concern for contextual links between the meanings and uses of language influenced much of Toulmin’s work, including his doctoral dissertation, an investigation into human reason as used in relation to moral and ethical issues. His dissertation is included in An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics.
After graduating from Cambridge, Toulmin was appointed university lecturer in the philosophy of science at Oxford University. Subsequent appointments include visiting professor at Melbourne University, Australia, and professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Leeds.
Professor Toulmin came to the United States in 1959, where he held professorships at Columbia, Dartmouth, Michigan State, Northwestern, Stanford and the University of Chicago. He returned briefly to Britain in 1960 to become director of the Unit for the History of Ideas of the Nuffield Foundation. Upon returning to the United States, Toulmin became professor of history of ideas and philosophy at Brandeis University. In 1972, while teaching at the University of California at Santa Cruz, he published Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts. From 1973 to 1986, he was professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Dr. Toulmin then became Henry R. Luce Professor at the Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies at the University of Southern California, from which he retired in 2009.
Among his many publications are The Uses of Argument (1958), Philosophy of Science (1953), Foresight and Understanding (1960), The Discovery of Time (1965), Wittgenstein’s Vienna (coauthored with Allan Janik; 1973), Knowing and Acting (1976), Physical Reality: Philosophical Essays on 20th Century Physics (1970), Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (1990), The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (coauthored with Albert R. Jonsen; 1990), and Return to Reason (2001).
Toulmin was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Honorable Doctor of Technology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. The National Endowment for the Humanities honoured him in 1997 as the Thomas Jefferson Lecturer, and in 2005 he was the Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. He died 4 December 2009 in Los Angeles.