[NB] Experience-first language

A long time ago now, I was discussing an article by Toshihiko Izutsu with a group of friends. I can’t recall the specific article at this remove (it was one found in Creation and the Timeless Order of Things), but it was one of his discussions of mystical experiences in Sufi literature. Over the course of the article, he made the comparison between descriptions of musical experience and descriptions of mystical experiences, highlighting how they are both resistant to direct description.

A couple of the people in the group were musicologists and expressed their frustration about that. “Look, we describe musical experience all the time. It’s called sheet music.” I was a little taken aback because, well, since when did reading sheet music amount to a thorough description of a musical experience? The sheet music, at best, provides us with the architecture to help repeat a musical experience (which is, by the way, amazing when you think about it).

Even if we take for granted that there are musical geniuses who can orchestrate such experiences through their imagination in reference to sheet music, it is only through the concrete transmission of that onto sheet music that they are able to open the door toward others participating in that.

I was a little startled by how they took for granted sheet music’s as a representation. They were historically- and culturally-minded musicologists and knew that the sheet music they used was a relatively modern innovation, one that developed through a series of standardizations that both shaped, and were shaped by, early modern European musical tastes. It was itself a compromise between experience and communication.

My instinct, counter to these musicologists, is to push in the opposite direction. Whereas they wanted to assert that a sufficiently sophisticated musical vocabulary could well represent musical experience, I wanted to assert that there is no vocabulary sufficient to experience generally.

I think, too, this was Izutsu’s point. What he wanted to highlight was that mystical experience began with a profound encounter that revealed the disparity between our vocabulary for describing the world and our capacities to experience the world. In other words, he didn’t cite musical experience because it was exceptional, but because it was exemplary. Unless, apparently, you are a musicologist.

This has always sat well with my reading of Thomas Kuhn’s account of science in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn, before getting into the hubbub about paradigms, points out that you can’t learn science from a book. Good scientists don’t read a lot to do experiments, they do a lot of experiments. Experimentation is a skill, one that you have to learn in the context of the research you are doing. Until you have spent a few hundred hours in the lab (whether that lab is a scratchpad for running equations, a room full of chemical apparatus, a body on a slab, recording results from a radio telescope, etc.), you just aren’t going to be good at doing science.

That learning curve is, in part, also about learning how to record those results in a manner that you can share with others. Like the sheet of music, it is a tool that both makes science possible and shapes the direction science takes. This is where we find the paradigm proper, not in some airy cosmological account of how things are, but in a system of practices that become increasingly invisible to you the better you are at using them.

The ability to interface with those systems of practice easily is one of the key features of expertise in any field, but it is important to highlight that, like my musicologist friends of many years back, with that expertise comes a certain kind of blindness. Behind each of those techniques are decisions as to what is valuable and important for the practice.

Those value decisions start to become invisible, too, in ways that alienate the expert from a more complex network of experiential possibility. It is amazing what we can do technically, but it can sometimes strand us in dead ends, where the technique and its habits become less and less suited to a concrete situation. The application of such abstracted techniques can quickly turn into a sort of mutilation, as when a doctor subjects a patient to extreme medical procedures with little hope of success because it’s just what a doctor does, or when well-meaning scientists ‘modernize’ traditional agriculture in entirely unsustainable, resource-intensive, ways.

Follow out the comparison. Like musical practices, spiritual practices are not exceptional in this regard. What we find in a spiritual practice are practices. They are complex patterns of habit, developed out of experience. They are forms of notation that both make certain forms of experience possible while foreclosing on others. The names of gods and spirits are much like the names of planets or atomic particles, they define something that exists but also a certain way of existing in regards to them that makes certain experiences of them possible. At their healthiest, they also contain within them compressed and almost invisible practices that orchestrate all that.

So I said “makes certain experiences of them possible.” There is more to it than that. Working out in a certain way makes a certain kind of body and certain kind of kinaesthetic experience possible, but it also tends to make those experiences more common, making it easier and sensible to keep engaging in that manner of working out. Spiritual practices don’t just make certain experiences possible, they generate certain experiences by transforming the world into which the practice projects itself.

Talking between people with different practices is thereby difficult, because for the conversation to make sense, everyone involved has to take some time to grasp the practical world into which the practices project themselves. You need people involved who are aware of the way their practices construct and interface with the world and appreciate how others might do so differently. If you can’t do that, then you increase the chances that anything you exchange will be used in a fashion that mutilates.

(Which is different than what I am doing here. Many people with the means of having a practical exchange don’t need to possess this vocabulary of practice. They just need to be able to appreciate the worldliness of the exchange, have a rich sense of the context through which the transmissions would have to move and a know-how to adjust them accordingly. They need to be the sort, too, who can abandon an adopted practice easily because it doesn’t work in the new context.)

This sort of exchange is slow, time-consuming, and often frustrating. It is likely to be temporary, too, because the people who undertake the work will not be the same people who support and practice it once a transmission is complete. Nor is that transmission always peaceable or kind. Some transmissions occur under great duress, where rivalry as much as communitas guides the participants, where theft plays as much a role as gift.

I had a recent exchange with Jesse Hathaway over on Facebook around a related aspect of this: citation (in this case around the concept of geneivat da’at, the theft of understanding, i.e., the deception involved in plagiarism, hiding your sources). You cite sources because it is through that citation that you can return and revivify that connection over the course of that technique’s life in its new context.

Citation is also the royal road to ethical thought, because through an encounter with a technique’s source, we are better able to make judgments about the values they embody, were meant to embody, and could embody. They allow us to consider the ethos of the world from which they came and the ethos of the world in which we live, asserting one against the other according to our conscience.

(Speaking of citation, and of showing some of my own pragmatic roots, does anyone still read R. M. Hare’s The Language of Morals? It’s good stuff on precisely the necessary flexibility of ethical language.)

This is me talking about appropriation again, by the way. Cultural sensitivity is essential to proper appropriation, but it is not so much a matter of being sensitive to the feelings of specific individuals (though we should be sensitive to people because, you know, don’t be jerks, but like Alexandra says, that seems like the given not the conclusion) as of being alert to the way in which the appropriated practice operates in different cultural contexts.

It’s also really useful to talk about appropriation’s problems not strictly as a matter of whether someone is ‘entitled’ to use a term, but to noting how fraught it can be to adopt terms from practices with which you have limited experience. Epistemically fraught, precarious, not necessarily wrong or inappropriate (though possibly those, too). It opens the way for a rupture between words and meaning, words and values, where those values and meanings are anchored in the practical lifeworld (and, therefore, communities) that gave birth to them.

And this is true not just of spiritual practices, but for scientific, literary, and social ones, too.

Because I love the poem dearly, because it comes to mind easily in these discussions, an excerpt from William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”:

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

It’s hard, I wish I were better at cleaving to the injunction here, but I’m working still. But appreciate that the darkness around us is deep, that our winding ways through it are obscure even in easy times. These do not seem like easy times.

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11 thoughts on “[NB] Experience-first language

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  3. Alexandra

    “It’s also really useful to talk about appropriation’s problems not strictly as a matter of whether someone is ‘entitled’ to use a term, but to noting how fraught it can be to adopt terms from practices with which you have limited experience. Epistemically fraught, precarious, not necessarily wrong or inappropriate (though possibly those, too). It opens the way for a rupture between words and meaning, words and values, where those values and meanings are anchored in the practical lifeworld (and, therefore, communities) that gave birth to them.”

    Yes! True, and beautifully said.

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