Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

Dear C,

I acknowledge I’m somewhat delayed in sending this dispatch. The overwhelm of slowly accumulating todos, the short dark days of winter, and general personal rhythms conspired to take me to a relatively disintegrated, contracted, place. I kept joking-but-not-joking that I’m “a human being, not a human doing”, quoting the guilty pleasure YouTuber you’ve been watching (with me complaining-but-not-complaining while I watch over your shoulder).

That tension, the desire to participate, to do things, to “be an engaged citizen”, to set goals and accomplish them, alongside the recognition that rest is important, and the more complex recognition that in fact all this “doing” may be accelerating us into our much-pronounced impending planetary doom, is I think one of the base generative tensions, a fundamental dualism whose ongoing agonistic conflict is never resolved but highly energized in a continual progress-generating mutual orbit.

I’ve been noting in our own explorations together, this dualism coming up in the form of “prescriptivism vs. descriptivism”, with us both alternating between embodying the different poles of this polarity. Let this dispatch be my attempt not to dissolve these debates, but rather to see them as interdependently co-arising.

Sometimes when we explore a meditation teaching, I’ll find myself in the prescriptivist role, trying to make sure we are disciplined, that we “do it correctly”. I’ll feel like the “bad cop” when encouraging stillness as you change your posture saying “I was just listening to my body and I don’t like the rigidity of these teachings saying to observe but not respond to the discomfort”. I’m concerned that by not following the teaching we won’t experience the wisdom embedded therein, you’re concerned (if I might speculate) that by becoming dogmatically attached to a teaching we can’t exercise discernment or adaptivity to our own contextual particularity.

Then in other conversations, the roles are flipped. I describe an interest in the collective presencing practices you’ve been engaging with, where as a group you speak spontaneously when moved in the service of a collective inquiry, but I note that “I would probably speak more quickly and excitedly, as that is often how I feel when an idea takes me over”, and you respond defensively that that would be “doing it wrong” and that I wouldn’t be respecting the intention or the container of that space. I, in turn (internally) felt hurt and defensive, and it wasn’t until later that I noticed the role reversal, and how here I was taking on the descriptivist role and you the prescriptivist one.

I chose the signifiers “prescriptivism vs descriptivism” intentionally, as I find the language connection illuminating. Language has rules, and if we completely threw them to the wind there would be no communication. Grammatical rules serve more than aesthetic purposes, e.g. plural agreement between subjects and verbs disambiguates which subject the verb refers to. But this prescriptivism must be held in tension with the descriptivism that allows language to evolve into its full global richness, to allow a “creole” to have the same status as the language from which it has branched (in fact from the moment of branching on we should not understand one as the “real” language and one as the branch, but as two branches from a common root). Thank goodness language has rules, or communication would be impossible. Thank goodness it has rebels or it would be dead.

A similar line of thinking illuminates generative tension in the simultaneous rigidity and fluidity of musical genre. Of the “visual grammar” of film. And, I think, the various spiritual traditions we’ve been flirting with. There is truth to the importance of focusing on the wisdoms of one lineage of teachings, which interlock in a path honed over millenia to, at the very least, guarantee the propagation of the lineage (empirically this must be so), but most likely also to allow the attainment of certain realizations or progressions. There is truth to the importance of not following one lineage, recognizing that it has in fact never been one lineage and that’s us back-projecting a clean story onto what was a messy unfolding of politics, cultural collision and appropriation, and shifting material contextual realities. As an aside: I went through a Wikipedia deep-dive on theocracies and the interplay of politics and religion, where these complexities become apparent, with Russia invading the Mount Athos monastic autonomous region in 1913 to intervene in a theological debate, China accused of intervening in the recognitions of reincarnations of the Dalai Lama , England’s church separating from the Pope so the king could date , clearly the descriptivism/prescriptivism orbit is happening at many fractal scales.

So where to go from here? I realize this meta-move of acknowledging the significance of both sides of a generative tension can seem like a cheat. An almost nihilistic move of “well actually” to win any particular prescriptivist/descriptivist debate by stepping outside the field of play entirely. I don’t have a full answer to that, but I do like the “Finite and Infinite Games” approach of recognizing that from within the infinite game one can still play finite games with committed gusto, but recognizing them as games. I will still encourage you not to shift your posture when we meditate, as you will encourage me to settle down and wait my term in presencing. The tension will go on propagating and shaping the unfurling of culture. But I’ll hope to play my various roles playfully, to try to dissolve my defensiveness when prescribed to, while still deepening into description. To dissolve my righteousness when prescribing to a describer, while still advocating for the wisdoms the prescriptions contain.

With love,