Category Archives: Posts

Rules: A Short History of What We Live By

A talk by Lorraine Daston

October 19, Sala degli Stemmi and online, Villa Salviati

In this talk, Professor Lorraine Daston presented her newest book, ‘Rules: A Short History of What We Live By’ (Princeton, 2022). This session was part of the Histories of Knowledge seminar, organised by Prof. Lauren Kassell and Prof. Nicolas Guilhot. It was also an opportunity for other EUI members to listen and ask questions to the most prominent historian of science of our time. 

Book abstract

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 organise the rites of life, from birth through death. We may chafe under the rules we have, and yearn for ones we do not, 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 do not, 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.

Rules: A Short History of What We Live By (The Lawrence Stone Lectures,  13): Daston, Lorraine: 9780691156989: Books

About the author: Professor Lorraine Daston is Director Emerita of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin, visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and a permanent fellow of the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study. 


Davide Martino (University of Cambridge)

The serie “Taliking About Science” of the EUI History of Science Working Group continues with a new presentation.

On Wednesday 16th June 2021, 15pm (CEST), Davide Martino (University of Cambridge) will present on the practical traditions of early modern hydraulic philosophy.  

‘Machina Augustana’ (Georg Loscher’s 1535 hydraulic machine at the Mauerberg, Augsburg).
Woodcut from G. Cardano, De subtilitate libri XXI (2nd edn; Basel: Ludovicus Lucius, 1554).
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (online).

In addition to physics, astronomy, and optics, Galileo and his disciples explored a wide variety of disciplines including hydraulics, the science of waters. The 1628 treatise by Benedetto Castelli, Della misura dell’acque correnti [Of the measure of running waters] has often been ‘considered to be the beginning of modern hydraulics’ (Drake 2008). Castelli, however, did not write in a void. Ancient Greek and Roman sources remained important reference points for him: he often dismissed the conclusions of one ancient authority only to endorse those of another. Furthermore, Castelli was indebted to the medieval tradition of hydraulic practice, which had introduced several machines unknown in antiquity. This paper will use a selection of late medieval and early modern machine books, both manuscript and printed, to illustrate this practical tradition, visually and technologically. By highlighting the continuities between these machine books and Castelli’s treatise, this paper will argue that the Galileans did not found a ‘new science’ of waters. Instead, they enriched, expanded, and reformed a large body of theoretical and practical knowledge which, by analogy with natural philosophy, ought to be known as hydraulic philosophy.

The seminar will be held in hybrid mode. Please register by contacting and

‘Thinking science at large’. Lecture by Philippe Descola, professor at the Collège de France. 04/05/2018

On friday 4th of may, at 11.00,  Prof. Philippe Descola, professor at the Collège de France, chair of Anthropology of Nature, will give a lecture entitled ‘Structuralism and Ontology: An Anthropological Journey’.

This encounter, part of our cycle of conferences ‘Thinking science at large’, will be a great opportunity to learn from this world-famous thinker. The morning lecture will be followed in the afternoon by a time of exchange with the researchers.

The and it would be possible for the researchers  to exchange with him during the afternoon. We are waiting for you.


‘Thinking sciences at large’: a new cycle of talks for 2018

Resuming the cycle of talks opened last year at the EUI by Pr. Stéphane Van Damme and the History of Science Working Group, we are pleased to present the program for this semesters’ “Thinking Science at Large – Towards a Connected History of Science”.

More details can be found on the EUI website.

This new cycle will open with Guillaume Lachenal (Paris-Diderot University) who will present on the 6th of February.

“Early Modern Collecting in Scandinavia” (22/11/17) – HoS’s first session for the new academic year !

For its first meeting of the new 2017-2018 academic year, the History of Science working group is proud to welcome Valdemar Grambye (visiting student, University of Southern Denmark). The session is organised in collaboration with the Intellectual History working group of the EUI, and will take place on November 22nd, 17.00, Sala degli Stemmi.
Valdemar will present his research project concerning the collections of private antiquarians between 1650 and 1750. By pointing to the networks to which these antiquarians belonged, he will claim that it is misleading to consider these antiquarians as amateurs working without systematic procedures. He will also say a few words on how his research relates to the history of science and the history of scholarship.
Come and join us !


Lists are often treated as a ‘matter-of-fact, unrhetorical, and innocent’ source by historians (Delbourgo & Müller-Wille 2012, 711). At the same time, they can be daunting to work with because of the sheer volume of information they contain: inventories and census data often run to many hundreds or even thousands of pages. Taking as our inspiration the 2012 special issue on “Listmania” in Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society, in the November meeting of the EUI History of Science Working Group, we explored some of the ways in which we might begin to tackle lists as a historical source.


EUI History of Science Working Group. Photo courtesy of Déborah Dubald @_dbrh_ 


Bringing Ethnographic Lists and Maps Together

At the outset of my research on ethnographic cartography in the Russian Empire, I was reluctant to focus too heavily on statistical data. Not only has this topic already been extensively researched, but I was also more interested in the spatial definition of ethnographic areas rather than the quantitative numeration the Empire’s inhabitants. However, as my research developed, I became increasingly aware that list-making was closely intertwined with map-making in fascinating ways.

Firstly, the data used to make ethnographic maps was taken from lists and tables compiled as a result of fieldwork expeditions, local censuses, and provincial statistical data books (памятная книжка). The job of the cartographers, who I was focusing on in my research, was to translate this statistical demographic data into a graphical and cartographical medium.

Secondly, on a deeper level, lists and maps have in common that they communicate information based on a two-dimensional spatial logic. In lists and tables, words, or numbers are placed on the page in vertical columns and horizontal rows. On maps, coordinate points are plotted along the x- and y- axes. So, in addition to studying the maps themselves, I became increasingly interested in thinking about the similarities between list-making and map-making as ways of communicating ideas about ethnographic classification.


Statistical Tables

Not all cartographers went on fieldwork expeditions themselves and most relied instead on statistical data gathered from other sources, such as the provincial statistical commissions. This data was presented and circulated in the form of tables, which generally followed a similar format: ethnographic groups were listed horizontally across the page as column headings and provinces, districts, or parishes (depending on the scale of the statistical study) were listed vertically down the page as row headings. The number of inhabitants pertaining to each ethnographic group was listed for each locality. In this way, an overview of the ethnographic composition of the population of all “European Russia” could be synthesised onto a single sheet of paper.


Petr Keppen, Ob” etnograficheskoi karte evropeiskoi rossii. (St Petersburg: Izdannoi imperatorskim” russkim” geograficheskim” obschestvom”, 1852). Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Finland, Helsinki.


Ethnographic Taxonomies

Ethnographers worked with the same statistical data tables, however they were more interested in schematising the information to say something about the relationships between the ethnographic groups lists in row or column headings. Curly brackets (or braces) were often used to indicate that groups were part of a single ethnographic “family”. This technique also allowed ethnographers to create hierarchies by portraying branches and nesting sub-groups.


Petr Keppen, Ob” etnograficheskoi karte evropeiskoi rossii. (St Petersburg: Izdannoi imperatorskim” russkim” geograficheskim” obschestvom”, 1852). Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Finland, Helsinki.


Legends: Another Kind of List?

Map legends often closely resembled taxonomic lists in the way that they arranged information about the ethnographic groups depicted in vertical columns. Some maps, such as Aleksandr Rittikh’s Ethnographic Map of European Russia (1875), even incorporated curly brackets into the legend to sort the ethnographic groups into “families”. Compiling a map legend, however, also took the taxonomisation process a step further by assigning a corresponding colour to each ethnographic group. Ethnographic groups perceived as being close kins to one another, were rendered in similar shades of a single colour. Differences between the various ethnographic families were emphasised using contrasting colours.


Aleksandr Rittikh, Etnograficheskaia karta evropeiskoi rossii. (St Petersburg, 1875). Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Finland, Helsinki


Lost (and Gained) in Translation

As in every translation process, some aspects of the statistical and ethnographic lists were “lost” in the transformation of the data into a cartographical medium. For example, ethnographic maps in the mid-nineteenth century mostly did not convey any information about the relative numbers of inhabitants belonging to each ethnographic group or population density. Moreover, itinerant or nomadic populations who had no sizeable or fixed area of permanent habitation often simply disappeared. Instead, these choropleth maps converted the information contained in each row of the data table into a flat, enclosed, and homogeneous block of colour.

At the same time, cartography was not simply a method for graphically visualising the information contained in a statistical list, but also played a significant role in shaping the ideas about population categorisation. As Georg von Mayr (1841-1925), a statistician and professor of statistics at the University of Munich, observed: ‘The map differs significantly from the diagram, in that it contains not merely a sensual illustration of the table provided as evidence, but also something new that the table cannot represent’ (Mayr 1874: 15). By using graphical techniques such as shading, lines and chromatics, maps could make powerful statements about the distribution and borders between ethnographic groups, as well as the nature of their relationship to one another.


Aleksandr Rittikh, Etnograficheskaia karta evropeiskoi rossii. (St Petersburg, 1875). Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Finland, Helsinki.

Thank you to Déborah Dubald for the opportunity to collaborate in putting together this session of the EUI History of Science Working Group and to think about my research from a new perspective.

Catherine Gibson

Researcher, European University Institute

For more information about Catherine’s current research on ethnographic maps, see


Delbourgo, James and Staffan Müller-Wille. “Introduction.” Isis 103:4 (2012), 710-715

Mayr, G. von. Gutachten über die Anwendung der graphischen und geographischen Methode in der Statistik. Munich: gedruckt bei J. Gotteswinter, 1874.

‘Chasing Unicorns and Amassing Rhinos to Think About the History of Knowledge’

Unicorn (Monoceros). Conrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium; liber primus, qui est de quadrupedibus viviparis, Zurich, 1551. retrieved from

Do not miss our next session on: 

‘Chasing Unicorns and Amassing Rhinos to Think About the History of Knowledge’
with Bruno A Martinho (HEC3) & Camille Sallé (HEC1)

Monday 5/12/2016, 17:00-19:00
Location: Sala dei Levrieri, Villa Salviati, European University Institute, Florence

How do historians of knowledge and science deal with materials? And what do materials do to the history of knowledge? Reversely, how are notions of science and knowledge approached by historians of material culture? This session will be centred on a case study presented by Bruno A. Martinho, and will aim at opening the discussion on these questions and some methodological issues encountered when approaching material culture. Especially, we will examine the extent to which those questions related to material culture and materiality can bring together and blur the lines between various fields of history. We will consider the possibility of thinking outside categories produced by material culturel/history of science approaches, as well as more powerful questionnaires obtained from crossed methodologies.