96 Lorraine Daston Rules the World (EF, JP)

Historian of science Lorraine Daston‘s wonderful new book, Rules: A Short History of What We Live By is just out from Princeton University Press. Daston’s earlier pathbreaking works include Against Nature, Classical Probability in the Enlightenment and many co-authored books, including Objectivity (with Peter Galison) which introduced the idea of historically changeable “epistemic virtues.”

In this conversation, Daston–Raine to her friends–shows that rules are never as thin (as abstract and context-free) as they pretend to be. True, we love a rule that seems to brook no exceptions: by the Renaissance, even God is no longer allowed to make exceptions in the form of miracles. Yet throughout history, Raine shows, islands of standardized stability are less stable than they seem. What may feel like oppressively general norms and standards are actually highly protected ecotopes within which thin rules can arise. Look for instance at the history of sidewalks (Raine has)!

Raine, Elizabeth and John dive into the details. Implicit and explicit rules are distinguished in the case of e.g. cookbooks and monasteries–and then the gray areas in-between are explored. When students unconsciously ape their teachers, that is a tricky form of emulation–is it even possible to “follow but not ape”? Perhaps genres do this work: The Aeneid is not the Iliad and yet older writers are somehow internalized in the later ones.

Mentioned in the Episode

Karl Polanyi, 1944) The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, on the embeddedness of markets in norms and rules.

John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1690) denounces the “arbitrary will of another,” an early case of seeing will simply qua will is unacceptable.

Arnold Davidson sees genre variation (like Milton learning from Homer) also happening in musical invention.

Michael Tomasello works on children’s rule-following and enforcement against violations,

Johannes Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938) with its notion of demarcated “sacred spaces of play” is a touchstone of rule-following Lorraine and John both adore.

Recallable Books

The Rule of Saint Benedict (516 onwards)

Irma Rombauer, Joy of Cooking (1931 onwards) As Elizabeth says, it’s from following the rules that joy emerges….

Walter Miller’s Canticle for Liebowitz

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground (1864) an instance of the notion that one establishes free will by caprice or defiance against natural laws (“damnit, gentleman, sometimes 2+2=5 is a nice thing too?”)

Listen to the episode here.

Read the transcript here.

Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

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