Law and disorder

Lorraine Daston is one of those historians of science who make scientists uneasy. She made a brilliant debut in 1988 with Classical Probability in the Enlightenment, which presented the history of probability not as a purposeful journey towards theoretical perfection, but as an assortment of social negotiations in which pure reason took second place to practical wrangles over equity, annuities and the credibility of evidence. Since then she has continued to discombobulate her readers with witty, wide-ranging and well-researched inquiries into the picaresque careers of such notions as “reality”, “nature”, “rationality”, “objectivity” and “order”, and in her latest book she brings her wry historical intelligence to bear on the capacious concept of “rules”.

The delights of her scholarship are on full display in a pivotal chapter on “Rules and Regulations”. Daston begins by evoking sumptuary laws – bans on sable trim in twelfth-century Genoa, on slashed sleeves in fifteenth-century Ferrara and on gold buttons in seventeenth-century Paris. She shows how they led not to humble compliance but to ingenious evasion and exuberant defiance, provoking further cycles of legislation and indignant delinquency: “five hundred years of rule failure”, as she observes with evident satisfaction. Daston then tells the story of repeated attempts to regulate the streets of Paris, with prohibitions on littering and ball games, and instructions to residents about sweeping up in front of their houses. Faced with general non-compliance, the police reissued their pointless orders, and made themselves even more ridiculous by promising to keep records of every act of disobedience and dreaming up fantastic machines for storing and accessing exact millions of secret files. All of which goes to show, according to the author, that regulation tends to be an expression of “obsessive-compulsive neurosis” rather than administrative rationality.

Daston has further fun with schemes for controlling vernacular spelling. Scholars in seventeenth-century Tuscany seem to have acquiesced to reforms that brought Italian orthography exceptionally close to Italian speech: they even agreed to sacrifice the traditional Latin transliteration of the Greek letter phi, and courted ridicule by replacing wise old philosophia with flashy filosofia. But such compliance has proved unusual, and the proposals of prescriptive lexicographers such as Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster and Konrad Duden have, like the dogged efforts of the Académie française, proved remarkably ineffectual. The same applies to various attempts at state-sponsored Rechtschreibreform in Germany, where in 1876 a committee called on schoolmasters to implement a set of rational spelling rules (abandoning the letter “c”, for example), only to have its work sabotaged by Otto von Bismarck, who told his civil servants to stick to their time-honoured ways. And readers may recall a more recent failure, dating from 1996, when a proposal to replace ph with f was left to wither on the vine and the dignity of deutsche Philosophie was preserved.

All history is, it would seem, the history of regulative struggles. After surveying two thousand years of western civilization, and reconstructing battles between manic regulators and recalcitrant regulating in fields ranging from monasticism through cookery to astronomy and military tactics, Daston is able to discern a few long-term trends. In the beginning, she finds, rules tended to be “thick”, in the sense of being replete with examples, observations and exceptions; but with the passage of time they have grown thinner and thinner and are now approaching the extreme etiolation of the absolute algorithm. At the same time rules that used to be flexible have become more and more rigid, and the specificity of old-world regulations has been replaced by universality, or rather – as Daston surmises – by the pretence or illusion of it. Behind all of these changes she notices a larger one, in which rules have followed a “rough historical arc” that leads from an ancient world of “high variability, instability and unpredictability” to a modern one in which we all tend to assume, without much justification, that “the future can be reliably extrapolated from the past, standardisation ensures uniformity, and averages can be trusted”.

The idea of ​​a single “historical arc” in the evolution of rules is appealing, but it runs into difficulties when Daston turns from the social to the natural world. A chapter on “the grandest rules of all” – those that supposedly derive their authority from “nature” – starts with the ancient story of Antigone, who believed in immutable universal obligations and insisted that they must take precedence over arbitrary human conventions. Daston finds the legacy of Antigone at work not only in notions of natural right elaborated within Roman law and Christian jurisprudence, but also in pre-modern natural sciences, where the idea of ​​God providing a transcendent pattern for moral righteousness morphed into the notion of divinely sanctioned “natural laws”, which operate as norms that draw dividing lines between different species and impose order on an otherwise chaotic physical world. In the 1640s this notion was, as Daston observes, given a new twist and a fresh lease of life by the philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, who came up with three quantitative “principles” – concerning inertia, rectilinear motion and conservation of momentum – and referred to them as “laws of nature” that admitted of no exception, thus defining the conceptual structures that have framed the natural sciences ever since.

But Descartes’s mathematical laws of nature were not just another phase in some smooth “historical arc”: they were a true intellectual novelty, marking a sharp break with the scientific past. Laws as Descartes conceived them were not empirical observations open to correction in the light of experience, but incorrigible mathematical truths. They resemble geometrical constructions where, for example, you define a circle as what you get by joining all the points at a certain distance from a given point on a flat surface, and concludes that any figure that cannot be constructed in that way will not count as a circle. Descartes’s laws of nature were – to use the language of Immanuel Kant – “constitutive” rather than “regulative”, and they functioned rather like the rules of a game, defining their domain in advance rather than describing it in retrospect. If anything failed to conform with his laws, then, as far as Descartes was concerned, it could not be part of the natural world.

Many of Descartes’s contemporaries baulked at his conception of laws of nature. In 1678 the theologian Ralph Cudworth observed that rational human beings are not much good at obeying God’s eternal laws, and wondered why “stupid inconscious nature” should be expected to do any better. He sought to get round the difficulty by comparing the divine creator to an architect who can revel in the perfection of his grand design, but has to rely on a mere “manuary opificer” – a brawny builder with limited skills – to bring something like it into being. Not that this really resolved the paradox: “I cannot conceive”, as Robert Boyle wrote in 1686, “how a body devoid of understanding and sense, truly so-called, can moderate and determinate its own motions, especially so, as to make them conformable to laws, that it has no knowledge or apprehension of”.

When she describes the idea of ​​mathematical laws of nature as a “powerful and puzzling metaphor”, Lorraine Daston underestimates the audacity of Descartes’s innovation. Perhaps we all do much the same, three or four centuries later, when we take the absolute authority of laws of nature for granted. But if that is an oversight on her part, it bears out the overriding purpose of all this fine work: to use history, as she puts it, to “make common cause with philosophy” so as to “unsettle present certainties and thereby enlarge our sense of the thinkable”.

Jonathan Ree‘s books include Witcraft2019, and A Schoolmaster’s War2020

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