Center for Interdisziplinary Research

ZiF Workshop

Cases, Models, Rules: Thinking Concretely about the General

Date: 3. Juli 2015

Convenor: Lorraine Daston (Berlin, GER)

It is notoriously difficult to apply universals to particulars: whole domains of jurisprudence and philosophy are dedicated to this problem of figuring out how to apply the laws of man and nature; taxonomists (and social scientists) fret about how to classify individuals under broader rubrics; political pollsters and tax payers confront analogous challenges as they try to figure out the demographics of the electorate or whether this clause in the tax code applies to that case or not. Yet curiously, the cognitive challenges of proceeding in the opposite direction, what John Stuart Mill called induction from particulars to particulars (as opposed from particulars to universals) seem less formidable. The annals not only of law and medicine but also of ethics, economics, technology, and even mathematics are replete with examples of learning by example - or rather, from exempla. This workshop was devoted to the mechanics of thinking concretely about the general: how do case studies, models, examples, exceptions, and exempla work? And if they work so well, why do we also take the trouble to formulate general rules as well? In the spirit of the subject matter, each participant was asked to present an example from work-in-progress - of a case study, an exemplum, a model, a rule - and then reflect on how it has been used to get from the particular to a more general (if not the general) level of application. Readings from primary sources relevant to the examples presented (which included Aristotle's speculations on the generation of bees, medical cases in the Hippocratic treatise Epidemics, nineteenth-century French psychiatric case descriptions, Odysseus as a moral exemplum, and twentieth-century economic models). Presentations were brief (fifteen minutes) in order to allow as much time as possible for discussion.

Over-arching themes that emerged from the discussion included: how analogy can and cannot be used to generalize among cases (medicine and law proved to be particulary interesting examples of this kind of practical reason); how reasoning from models and cases differ from deduction; how cases can be assimilated to statistical approaches; and the contrast between rules (tentative, often with restricted jurisdiction) and laws (general, with aspirations to universal jurisdiction). The main result of the workshop was to break down the venerable philosophical categories of 'universals' and 'particulars' into a much more nuanced spectrum of epistemic genres: in place of universals, we discussed laws, rules, aphorisms, statistical generalizations, and models; in place of particulars, cases, examples, exempla, thought experiments, and exceptions.


Felix Brahm (Bielefeld, GER), Christina Brauner (Bielefeld, GER), Ulrike Davy (Bielefeld, GER), Angelika Epple (Bielefeld, GER), Antje Flüchter (Bielefeld, GER), Anne Friedrichs (Bielefeld, GER), Martina Kessel (Bielefeld, GER), Daryn Lehoux (Kingston, CAN), Mary Morgan (London, GBR), Susan Neiman (Potsdam, GER), Gianna Pomata (Baltimore, USA), Theodore Porter (Los Angeles, USA)

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