Cooking, Monasteries, Arithmetic: Lorraine Daston on the History of Rules

From Public Books:

Historian of science Lorraine Daston’s many pathbreaking works include Against Nature and Classical Probability in the Enlightenment. Among her many coauthored works is Objectivity (with Peter Galison), which developed an influential account of historically changeable “epistemic virtues.” Now she is back in the same conceptual domain with Rules: A Short History of What We Live By (Princeton University Press, 2022).

. . . .

John Plotz (JP): I’d like to start by asking you to lay out the key questions or claims of your new book.

Lorraine Daston (LD): The rules book began with an everyday observation of the dazzling variety and ubiquity of rules. Every culture has rules, but they’re all different.

I eventually settled on three major meanings of rules: rules as laws, rules as algorithms, and finally, rules as models. The latter meaning was predominant in the Western tradition until the end of the 18th century, and I set out to trace what happened to rules as models, but also the rise of algorithmic rules. It’s hard to imagine now, but the word algorithm didn’t even have an entry in the most comprehensive mathematical encyclopedias of the late 19th century.

To get at these changes over time, I cast my nets very wide. I looked at cookbooks, I looked at the rules of warfare. I looked at rules of games. I looked at rules of monastic orders and traffic regulations, sumptuary regulations, spelling rules, and of course algorithms for how to calculate. And if there’s one take-home message from the book, it is a distinction between thick and thin rules.

Thick rules are rules that come upholstered with all manner of qualifications, examples, caveats, and exceptions. They are rules that are braced to confront a world in which recalcitrant particulars refuse to conform to universals—as opposed to thin rules, of which algorithms are perhaps the best prototype: thin rules are formulated without attention to circumstances. Thin rules brook no quarter, they offer no sense of a variable world. Many bureaucratic rules, especially bureaucratic rules in their Kafkaesque exaggeration, also fit this description.

The arc of the book is not to describe how thick rules became thin rules (because we still have thick and thin rules around us all the time), but rather to determine the point at which thick rules become necessary—when you must anticipate high variability and therefore must tweak your rule to fit circumstances—as opposed to the stable, predictable settings in which we turn to thin rules.

In some historically exceptional cases, thin rules can actually get a job done because the context can be standardized and stabilized.

JP: At one point in the book you say, “Behind every thin rule is a thick rule, cleaning up after it.”

LD: Yes. I had a very vivid mental image when I was writing that sentence of the poor moderators at Facebook having to undo the damage done by the site’s algorithms. But it’s a much more general problem: thin rules have a bad conscience; they’re never as thin as they pretend to be. We are always applying them mauvaise foi (in bad faith) because we must so often adjust and bend and even break them. For example, anyone who teaches is constantly confronted with students who have special circumstances, special needs, who ask whether the rules can be, if not be bent or broken, then adjusted. That is, we’re all casuists at heart, and we’re casuists at heart pretending to administer unequivocal, unbending thin rules.

JP: What is the relationship of this book to the argument that you put forth in Objectivity about the rise of epistemic virtues?

LD: It’s certainly very much shaped by the many, many, many discussions that Peter Galison and I had about mechanical objectivity. The root of the word arbitrary refers to “an act of will,” and its associations are quite positive up until about the 16th and 17th century, when it starts to take on a distinct odor of whim and caprice—often cruel whim and caprice—in the political theory of the era. John Locke, writing in the Second Treatise on Government, can think of nothing, absolutely nothing more intolerable than to be subject to the arbitrary will of another. “Arbitrary will” is somewhat redundant (because arbitrary is always about the exercise of will), but the ipso facto assumption is that all exercises of will as only an act of will are somehow unjustified, excessive, and a form of the unacceptable exercise of power that in the most extreme cases is that of master over slave.

JP: What about the rise of discourses that prized subjectivity in the 19th century? Romanticism would be the most straightforward example. I take the point about the denigration of the arbitrary or the capricious, but what about the concomitant prizing of the space of the interior? How does that fit into this? Is it an anomaly?

LD: I don’t think it’s an anomaly. Rather, it’s the yin/yang of objectivity and subjectivity. You see this explicitly among the scientists. Someone like Claude Bernard, the great 19th-century French experimental physiologist, says art is subjective and science is objective; “l’art, c’est moi; la science, c’est nous.” There is a division of the territory between subjective, individualistic art and objective, collective science. In the context of literature, especially Romantic literature, the arbitrary is never really judgment. Instead, the arbitrary blurs into the spontaneous, the inexplicable. Indeed, the exercise of free will complements its counterpart, scientific naturalist doctrines of determinism. Within this framework, the only way to actually exercise free will is for it to erupt like a volcano, outside the chain of causation.

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