Bounded Rationality and the History of Knowledge

A Frontier in the History of Knowledge

In September 2021, Peter Burke gave a talk at Lund University in which he spoke about the challenges that historians of knowledge face as we attempt to understand not only what was known in the past, but what people did with their knowledge. One approach to this puzzle, he suggested, lies in studying decision-making. If we assume that people have at least some control over their actions, then decisions are among the most significant, and common, situations in which what we know interacts with what we do. Decision-making is, thus, not only a proper subject for political or economic historians but also for historians of knowledge. If we are to pursue this insight, we must either develop tools of our own for studying decision-making, or borrow existing tools from adjacent disciplines. Considering the tools available for investigating these subjects, Burke said, he was most attracted to bounded rationality. But what is bounded rationality, and how can we apply it to our research?

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Explain Yourself: Visual Communication in Early Modern Printed Calendars

Bottom rows of the calendar showing the symbols and the user's handwriting.

There is a curious subgenre of printed calendars in early modern Europe called Bauernkalender. Bauer in German refers to a farmer or peasant, so we might literally translate the name of this genre as “farmers’ calendars” or “peasant calendars.” That is not to say they are in any way simple. You know one when you see it because they are all highly iconographic, largely replacing text with image. In fact, the submission of text to image is so severe as to render an individual edition nearly incomprehensible to any reader without a specific kind of tacit cultural knowledge. Therefore, Bauernkalender demonstrate the potentially unsteady relationship between a material text and its ostensibly intended audience. Bauernkalender are not unique in this manner—among almanac calendars, or among any printed editions for that matter—but they are unusual.

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Public and Scientific Uncertainty in the Time of COVID-19

As historian of science Lorraine Daston recently remarked, COVID-19 has thrown us back into a state of “ground-zero empiricism.” The manifold manifestations of COVID-19 and the many unknowns involved are provoking scientific speculation that is often based on nothing more than chance observations and personal anecdotes. The radical uncertainty of the current situation, writes Daston, has catapulted us back to the seventeenth century, with almost everything up for grabs, “just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies—and everyone else—circa 1660.”1

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More than a Manual: Early-Modern Mathematical Instrument Books

In Elizabethan London, one of the more surprising things a wealthy owner of a beautifully illustrated folio volume could do was to take a sharp knife and cut it to pieces. John Blagrave’s 1585 Mathematical Jewel, in fact, demands nothing less.1 This work, which introduced an elaborate instrument of Blagrave’s design for performing astronomical calculations, included woodcuts that were specifically provided in order to be cut out and used as surrogates for the brass original:

get very fine pastboord made of purpose, and then spred your paste very fine thereon, & quickly laying on this picture & clappe it streight into a presse before it bee thorowe wette with the paste (fol. ¶6v)

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Reading and (Re-)​Classifying Canonical Instructions of the Past: Commentaries on ‘The Nine Chapters on Mathematical Procedures’ from the 3rd to the 13th Centuries

The earliest extant Chinese mathematical writings include two types of components of particular interest for our discussion on manuals and handbooks. On the one hand, there are mathematical problems that often evoke tasks carried out by officials working in the imperial bureaucracy. On the other hand, there are mathematical “procedures,” or “algorithms” in today’s parlance, to solve such problems. This description fits most of the mathematical books composed in China until the seventh century.

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The Manual as Artifact: On Artists’ Manuals and Craftsmen’s Handbooks

On November 4, 1646, Sir Theodore de Mayerne (1573–1655), first physician to Charles I and the English Aristocracy, decided to spend his day away from his demanding patients and to devote his attention to the vibrant world of colors. He took a good handful of bilberries and carefully inspected the color of their peel and pulp. He then cooked them following a recipe for making a “very beautiful and very oriental” colorant for writing and limning. The recipe he followed has survived as part of an extensive manuscript collection dated to the first half of the seventeenth century.

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Popular and Specialist Artisanal Knowledge in China, Mid-Thirteenth to Early Twentieth Centuries

In premodern China, the population was roughly divided according to professions into four groups: literati, farmers, artisans, and merchants. During this period, artisanal knowledge was mainly transmitted in person. Most Chinese artisans were not as literate as their European counterparts, if literate at all, and written texts played a minor role in the transmission of their specialized knowledge.1 The master of a workshop taught the apprentices how to perform bodily actions by working alongside them and only transmitted written knowledge with brief and codified texts. Sometimes craft recipes were not even written down; they were memorized by masters and transferred verbally to designated successors in the craft.2

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Learning to Demonstrate the Spirit in English Practical Divinity

In 1646, the English polymath John Wilkins (1614–1672) published his popular guidebook for preaching, Ecclesiastes, but it was not the first “Discourse Concerning the Art of Preaching” with that name. Over a century earlier, in 1535, the renowned humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) wrote a treatise with the same title in hopes of reforming a clergy whose faults he had spent his career caricaturing and condemning. Erasmus’s own title referred further back still, evoking the book of the Bible in which a “preacher” (rendered from the Latin ecclesiastes) offers advice for good living in a fallen world.

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The Text as Fieldwork: The Book of Nature in Early Modern Japan

In early modern Japan, the study of nature, known at the time as honzōgaku, was primarily a bookish enterprise. The work of scholars who studied rocks and minerals, herbs and plants, flowers and trees, insects and fish, birds and animals—or, as they collectively called them, “myriads of things” (banbutsu) or “herbs-trees-birds-beasts-insects-fish-metals-jewels-grounds-stones” (sōmokukinjūchūgyokingyokudoseki)—began and ended with books. Canonical encyclopedias like Li Shizhen’s Bencao gangmu (Honzō kōmoku in Japanese editions) and Kaibara Ekiken’s Yamato honzō served not only as foundations of scholars’ research and repositories of institutional knowledge but also as the ultimate source of legitimation for their claims on nomenclature, taxonomy, morphology, and aspect as well as for the pharmacological, gastronomical, agricultural, and aesthetic use of plants and animals.

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