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Rules: A Short History of What We Live by

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A panoramic history of rules in the Western world

Rules order almost every aspect of our lives. They set our work hours, dictate how we drive and set the table, tell us whether to offer an extended hand or cheek in greeting, and organize the rites of life, from birth through death. We may chafe under the rules we have, and yearn for ones we don't, yet no culture could do without them. In Rules, historian Lorraine Daston traces their development in the Western tradition and shows how rules have evolved from ancient to modern times. Drawing on a rich trove of examples, including legal treatises, cookbooks, military manuals, traffic regulations, and game handbooks, Daston demonstrates that while the content of rules is dazzlingly diverse, the forms that they take are surprisingly few and long-lived.

Daston uncovers three enduring kinds of rules: the algorithms that calculate and measure, the laws that govern, and the models that teach. She vividly illustrates how rules can change--how supple rules stiffen, or vice versa, and how once bothersome regulations become everyday norms. Rules have been devised for almost every imaginable activity and range from meticulous regulations to the laws of nature. Daston probes beneath this variety to investigate when rules work and when they don't, and why some philosophical problems about rules are as ancient as philosophy itself while others are as modern as calculating machines.

Rules offers a wide-angle view on the history of the constraints that guide us--whether we know it or not.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published July 12, 2022

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About the author

Lorraine Daston

44 books69 followers
Lorraine Daston (born June 9, 1951, East Lansing, Michigan)[1] is an American historian of science. Executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin, and visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, she is considered an authority on Early Modern European scientific and intellectual history. In 1993, she was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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Displaying 1 - 9 of 9 reviews
Profile Image for Lee.
59 reviews
August 11, 2022
When students are introduced to the idea of an algorithm, instructors often analogize it to a cookbook recipe. Both are instances of a rule, but the algorithm differs in its exactitude and exhaustiveness: even circuits etched in silicon or gears made of brass can carry it out. If we take exactitude and exhaustiveness to be virtues of rules, then we can come to see a recipe as a defective algorithm, and an algorithm as a perfect rule.

But we could flip it around. We could equally introduce the idea of an algorithm as a recipe the assumes it will be mindlessly applied, with zero judgment. An algorithm would then be seen not as the perfection of a rule, but as a pathological case of a rule, a recipe so dumb it could be followed mechanically, incapable of handling exceptions. Recipes are then intermediate cases of rules, which introduces a puzzle: on this way of seeing things, what would be the perfect rule? It would have to be something consisting of no precepts, just a paradigm or model.

This sounds strange to contemporary ears, but Daston points out that if we look closely at the history of the English word "rule," and its cognates in other European languages, the model or paradigm was the primary sense of the word "rule" before the Enlightenment. The best illustration is the widely-misinterpreted title of the work that serves as the founding constitution of all Christian monasteries today: The Rule of Saint Benedict. That work contains instructions about meal times and such, which you might think is what the title is referring to... but wouldn't that require the plural ("rules")? It's called the "rule" (singular) because the rule (model) is the person, Saint Benedict. The ideal monk does not merely obey the instructions about meal times but embraces and and follows the model of the living standard that is the abbot, for whom Christ in turn is the model to be followed (as he was for Saint Benedict).

Once you recognize this older sense of "rule" you can see it in other phrases, but more importantly you can see the model-following as something that still competes with rules today: children model their behavior on their parents', for example. Daston: "Following the rule in this sense, understood as an inference from exemplum to example, from paradigm to particular, could not be more humdrum. The mystery is not that we do it but how we do it. This is a quintessentially modern mystery, and one that turns on the multiple senses of the word rule: how is it possible to follow a rule like the Rule of Saint Benedict without being able to analyze that ability into explicit steps like the rule for finding the square root of a given number? In other words, how can following a model be turned into executing an algorithm?"

This book covers a lot of ground, but this question seemed to me the most interesting one it addresses. Wittgenstein asked how we are able to follow rules without rules for rule-following (and so on ad infinitum). A lot of ink has been spilled on that puzzle. Daston is not so much trying to answer that question as explain why nobody was asking it until modern times.

Some other interesting items:
- the distinction between laws and regulations
- the ideal of the rule of law, and the tension with ideas of discretion, equity, clemency
- the hallowed feeling that attends rules, especially for small children but also for adults who resist even trivial language reforms
- the odd historical intersection between natural law and laws of nature
- sovereignty, miracles, and states of exception
11 reviews
August 6, 2022
Deeply researched. Some of the obscure stories and facts were quite interesting. Some of the parts discussing how difficult it is to change and enforce rules had obvious parallels with recent US Supreme Court decisions. The discussion of mathematics, algorithms and computer programming very much come off as a well read virgin giving a 120 page lecture on sexual intercourse.
Profile Image for Adrian Hon.
Author 5 books66 followers
November 6, 2022
Daston argues beautifully that we've moved from a world of "thick rules" furnished with examples and exceptions, to one of "thin rules" that don't allow for discretion or flexibility. Impressive stuff.
95 reviews1 follower
March 17, 2023
This book is well researched, I think, very much in the vein of an academic product. The kind of writing that uses a tightly reasoned with a carefully referenced argument to demonstrate a series of propositions. But if she just wrote a 20 sentence synopsis of the basic conclusions that she came to, most of us would just say that sounds about right and for a lot of people the work of getting to this conclusion ultimately won’t be found to be worth it.
5 reviews
January 3, 2023
like some of the rules Daston writes about, this book is more of a thicket of examples than a expression of a particular thesis, meant to be used through analogy and comparison more than applied through deduction
Profile Image for Thomas Noriega.
41 reviews
December 19, 2022
Mesmerizing, Daston's prose is only matched by the scope of her narrative. The only book that has ever made me care about math
Profile Image for Steve.
938 reviews41 followers
September 29, 2022
Some very interesting stuff there, but a little too academic for me. A very broad subject area, so lots of intriguing bits, but maybe it could have been a bit more focused.
Displaying 1 - 9 of 9 reviews

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