[r-t] Of rules and disagreements

Don Morrison dfm at ringing.org
Tue Jul 22 15:54:30 UTC 2014

In thinking further about the disagreements folks have been having on
this list, I've come to believe the root cause of most of them is
simply the language in which proposed "rules" are being written. They
are written as if ringing were mathematics, which it is not; as in so
many other endeavors, mathematics is extraordinarily useful in
ringing, but it is a tool, not the sum total of ringing.

Much of mathematics has a arisen as an attempt to better understand
aspects of the real world, whatever that may be. An abstraction of
that real world is made that approximates a description of some part
of it, and lots of good stuff is worked out using just that
abstraction. But when the real world diverges from an abstract model
scientists recognize that their abstract models, however wonderful,
typically fail when you get to sufficiently bizarre edge cases, and
understand that their models have limitations. They do not assert that
reality is wrong, because it disagrees with their tidy models. The
aphorism in psychology is "the rat is always right".

Unfortunately many attempts to write rules around ringing lose sight
of this. Most practical ringing can be described quite tidily and
easily with a few definitions. The problem is when we write those in
such a way that there is an implication, whether intended or not, that
things failing to adhere to this model are somehow defective, less
satisfactory as ringing.

We should not write "rules" and "decisions"; those very names contain
the seeds of an unnecessarily prescriptive worldview. And they should
not be phrased in ways such as "a method is...", "a method can never
be....", "a peal must....", "conditions required for all..." or "there
are N types of method..." without one of those types being "anything

Instead write things like "The majority of methods rung heretofore
have had these properties..." or "Most peals are...". Describe what
ringers typically do. If we want to distinguish one kind of method
from a different kind, give the narrower, older category a
distinguishing adjective, a "common practice method" or "traditional
method" or whatever; don't restrict "method" to the narrow choice and
give the broader category a pejorative, modified name like "non-method

If the poll on lead non-divisibility were phrased "for most commonly
rung things, a lead is not divisible into two or more identical...." I
doubt there would have been any dispute. Recognize that we are
describing a human activity that can usually be modeled tidily, but
that there will be exceptions. Don't make the error of letting the
model-tail wag the activity-dog. Don't let the limitations of our own
imaginations limit what others can imagine and ring.

When someone does something that does not correspond to past practice,
describe it as "interesting or "different" or "new", or if you must as
"ugly" or "untidy" or "not to my taste"; but not as "wrong" or
"non-complying" or "not included in an analysis of what has been
rung". Even if you don't like something, don't pretend it doesn't

This corresponds closely to the situation in Western music. Most
composers today put a lot of effort into understanding harmony of the
"common practice era". This largely boils down to a bunch of rules,
though even in the 17th, 18th and 18th centuries few were followed
entirely without exception. Some of these composers still write music
that largely adheres to them; others instead in ways so antithetical
to past practice that you can't even rationally say whether the rules
apply or not as the building blocks aren't even there. Most of the
music most people perform and listen to today does still adhere to the
harmonic vocabulary of the common practice era, and many listeners and
performers have no interest in music that doesn't, which causes no
trouble, so long as they don't force their tastes on those who do like
more avant-garde things.

Quoting from the introduction to the first edition (1941) of Walter
Piston's textbook _Harmony_: "If we reflect that theory must follow
practice, rarely preceding it except by chance, we must realize that
musical theory is not a set of directions for composing music. It is
rather the collected and systematized deductions gathered by observing
the practice of composers over a long time, and it attempts to set
forth what is or has been their common practice. It tells not how
music will be written in the future, but how music has been written in
the past."

I fear we too often fall into the trap of adopting language that
tries, if only implicitly, to define, to circumscribe, what ringing is
and will be, when all we can really do is describe what ringing, so
far in its history, has been. We should be more careful.

Don Morrison <dfm at ringing.org>
"It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out
how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about
nature, nothing more."         -- Niels Bohr,
    quoted in Aage Peterson, _The Philosophy of Niels Bohr_

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