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).

This conversation with Elizabeth Ferry and John Plotz about the book first appeared in Recall This Book, a Brandeis-based scholarly podcast that is affiliated with both Public Books and the New Books Network (hear the full episode here). Previous PB/RTB conversations include Robert Lee, Samuel Delany, and Kim Stanley Robinson.


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.

JP: You have an argument about the rise of the algorithm, specifically the laws of arithmetic, which you say predate current technology. But what is your chicken and egg? Do people come to prize algorithms more, and thus we get certain technologies? Or do the technologies come along and make algorithms more attractive?

LD: In the postwar period and perhaps even as late as the spread of personal computers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there not only is an enormous amplification of what algorithms are applied to; they also become almost a prosthesis for us. A great deal of our ways of thinking are now being shaped by the hours and hours and hours that we spend interacting with algorithms. The most intuitive way I can think of to make this vivid is learning how to search for something on Google as opposed to preparing a conventional index. Almost without realizing it, we formulate the syntax of searches in terms of queries rather than as nouns modified by qualifying phrases: “When was the Wars of the Roses?” versus “Wars of Roses, dates.” This is hardly the first time that such technologies have infiltrated our ways of thinking. Writing is the most obvious example, both reading and writing. Knowing how to use search algorithms intuitively has become what is sometimes called a cultural technique, which is more than just a technique. It’s more than just a tool; it becomes a way of thinking.

Elizabeth Ferry (EF): I was really interested in your description of the rules in early modern cookbooks, that there is no claim to generalization.

There are lots of modern dilemmas that Jesus never encountered in first-century Galilee.

LD: In the case of the cookbooks we’re told more or less explicitly, especially in the early cookbooks of the 17th century, that these books are not meant for rank beginners but are aimed at people who’ve already undergone an apprenticeship, who have trained at the elbow of a master cook. These intended readers have already learned the bodily movements required to fold in egg whites properly, or how to candy orange peel. The cookbooks are quite sparse on procedural instructions because they’re meant for already accomplished chefs. Instead they tell you the ingredients; in fact, they’re extremely finicky about the ingredients. And there are some quantities as well.

But what you see over time is that cookbooks become ever more idiot-proof. Cookbooks begin telling you things that an apprentice would already know. For example, if you’re making a boiled pudding, stir the pot every now and again to make sure the bag containing the ingredients does not stick to the bottom. Later cookbooks even tell you not to use a soapy bag, instructions no previous cookbook would’ve thought necessary.

EF: Tie it loose for this, and tight for that …

LD: Yes, exactly. That returns us to the questions about models. It’s important that the rule be set down in explicit form as a guide rope, but it has to be supplemented by the model, the implicit form.

JP: You don’t talk a lot about childhood in the book; these are mostly examples of adults. But you do at one point say, children understand intuitively how to follow but not ape their parents’ example. Maybe you could say more about that notion of following without aping. We have all these words like ape and mimic that diminish emulation, but there’s this other form of valorized emulation.

LD: We’ve lost a vocabulary, which is a more discriminating one, about these forms of following that contrast to making an exact facsimile. But it seems to me that genres are doing this work. So the Aeneid is not an imitation of the Iliad. And Paradise Lost is not an imitation of either of them, but you can see that they belong in a family lineage. Milton had internalized both the Iliad and the Aeneid in deep ways. I’ve read really fascinating work by the philosopher Arnold Davidson and the musicologist George Lewis on musical improvisation. What strikes me are recognizable themes, but also an enlargement of the possibilities without losing the motif of the original theme. In watching children, I see something similar going on. It is essential for the child to realize not only what is the rule in this circumstance, but also how they know in which domain to apply this rule. And that is learned through model following.

EF: The discussion about children just reminded me of a searing early memory of being in grade school and doing a play, acting out a little scene. And in the middle of the scene I forgot that it was a play and thought we were just playing. So I said, “Oh, let’s pretend something.” And the other kids came down on me so hard. I’m still ashamed about it years later. It was clearly that I just forgot which context I was in!

LD: It’s so interesting what you say about how ferociously the other kids responded: there is a deadly earnestness with which children take up whatever rules have been established for a particular context. The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello has investigated the attitudes of young children toward rules. As in your recollection, the children are quite savage when they see violations of rules—unless they are told that the child is a newcomer and doesn’t know the rules yet. Then they are capable of moderating their disapproval.


JP: What about the religious dimensions? Has emulation left the religious sphere?

LD: Imitatio Christi, “What would Jesus do?” is still around. But interestingly, it is a form of rule following that cannot be true mimicry. Jesus did not find himself in the situations that we find ourselves in. He never had to worry about running red lights or carbon emissions. There are lots of modern dilemmas of the sort that people write in to the New York Times column “The Ethicist” about that Jesus never encountered in first-century Galilee. To use Jesus as a model of conduct in such modern situations therefore requires emulation rather than imitation: we are extrapolating from his model, improvising on his themes. We are in analogical mode: mutatis mutandi, what would be the way to behave in the here and now.

The Catholic church has a very wise doctrine: saints are to be admired but not emulated. The maxim recognizes—especially in the case of female saints—that life would come to a halt if we did emulate them. The first thing the saints do is announce that they no longer have time to do the household chores: think of the biblical story of Mary and Martha. Saints have bigger fish to fry.

JP: What about Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, that notion of demarcated spaces? The notion that what games do is provide a well-regulated space, which is at once fully realized and also understood to be fictional.

LD: Yes, one of my favorite books of all time!

JP: I remember, Huizinga makes this crucial distinction between a cheat and a spoilsport. He says, a cheat is somebody who’s consonant with the rules of the game. Like, you can understand wanting to get an extra point. But the spoilsport is the person who walks across the lines without admitting that they’re lines. Much more of an existential threat.

LD: The spoilsport is the anarchist, absolutely.

JP: So we turn now to the podcast’s final section, “Recallable Books,” where you name at least one older book—could be ancient, but could be 20th century—that those who enjoyed the conversation might enjoy.

LD: I have two. The Rules of St. Benedict, which is the sixth-century set of precepts for how to run a monastic order, and which is still being followed in monastic communities all over the world, from Arizona to Monte Cassino in Italy. It’s pretty typical—indeed, prototypical—of thick rules in action. And the other is the Joy of Cooking, the archetypal idiot-proof cookbook with which many of us grew up.

EF: I love the pick of the Joy of Cooking, because it’s from following the rules that the joy emerges. It perfectly captures the interplay of creativity, delightful chaos, and rules.

JP: I gotta go grab my copy of Joy of Cooking right now. This has been a real pleasure.

LD: It was delightful to talk with both of you. icon

This article was commissioned by John Plotz. Featured image: Lorraine Daston. Photograph by SCAS.

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