In This Review

Rules: A Short History of What We Live By
Rules: A Short History of What We Live By
By Lorraine Daston
Princeton University Press, 2022, 384 pp.

In this intimidatingly erudite tour de force, Daston offers a sweeping global history of the rise and evolution of rules in societies and civilizations. Most of what Daston uncovers is hidden in plain sight. Rules emerged and proliferated everywhere to support and constrain human activity, ranging from the simple (rules for driving, tipping in a restaurant, and when to leave a dinner party) to the intricate and world-spanning (rules for managing the global economy, fighting wars, and pursuing scientific research). Daston’s history suggests that rules have proliferated in the last two millennia, creating a “cat’s cradle of complexity almost as complex as culture itself.” She argues that since Greco-Roman antiquity, rules have taken three forms: tools of measurement and calculation, models or paradigms, and laws. Using these categories, the book ranges omnivorously across monastic orders, cookbooks, mechanical calculations, military manuals, and legal treaties. Daston traces an arc of development from the ancient era to modern times that moves from a world of high variability and unpredictability to a more predictable and knowable world. But there is no inexorable logic of modernity at work in the evolution of rules; in the past and the present, rules can be used both to liberate and to oppress.