Beyond Reason – Part 4 (How Prescription Makes Us Wiser)
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
Years ago, a friend asked if I knew of any verses in the King James translation of the Bible that warned against gossiping. They asked me because I’d grown up in a Free Holiness church where only the King James translation was read. Yet I was surprised to learn the word gossip didn’t appear. Instead, the good King’s English used the word talebearer to signify one who engages in idle, possibly malicious talk.
Did You Hear What Happened to Gossip?
I later discovered this was because the King James Bible was written in 1611, and people did not come to use the word gossip as idle, possibly malicious talk until a few decades later. The word gossip was in use, it just had a different meaning (and spelling). Gossip comes from an Old English word: godsibb. A godsibb was a godfather or godmother who acted as a sponsor at a baptism who was close to the person being baptized and their family and friends. Since the word carried a sense of closeness to familiar acquaintances, it eventually began to be used more to describe close relations. That is, a godsibb was a close friend or neighbor.
By the 1560s, the century before the King James Bible was written, godsibb changed to gossip. By now, it was most commonly used to mean a woman’s female friends who were invited to be present at the birth of her child. Since there is much waiting involved in childbirth, a woman’s gossip would pass the time by talking about familiar matters—as women are wont to do. By the 1800s the word had more to do with the kind of talk women engage in when they gather into groups than it had to do with the reason they’d gathered in the first place. As such, gossip reached its present meaning: to talk about the affairs of others.
It’s no small wonder that the original meaning of the Old English word godsibb—that of a godfather/godmother who sponsored a person’s baptism and was close to their friends and family—fell out of use centuries ago. How likely would you need a word for that sort of thing in your vocabulary? Even those who practice faiths that call for baptismal sponsorship aren’t likely to do so in the same cultural context of someone who’s close-knit with your family, friends, and community. The nature of how we relate to one another has changed significantly since the Middle Ages.
And I suspect that if the word gossip still meant a group of women who got together and talked idly about other people it would be used with a bit more discretion—for those intending to be politically correct—and as social commentary on the characteristics of women—for those intending to be politically incorrect. In other words, gossip would be akin to a word like mansplaining—a word that’s understood to be a slander on a person’s sex and not human nature in general.
Who Assigns the Meaning of Words?
How then did we come by this modern understanding of the word gossip? How is it that the word describes common behaviors easily recognizable and understood that work in our current cultural context without carrying around the baggage of the meanings it held in the past? Was this the work of a savvy linguist? Did a group of cultural historians determine precisely when the old godfather/godmother meaning was no longer useful and opt for an upgraded meaning? Were health experts consulted on when it would no longer make sense to associate childbirth an advent attended exclusively by women? Did a central authority mandate these changes be made as we passed from one century to the next?
Of course not. The evolution of the word gossip, much like the evolution of almost all the words we know, was not directed by any one person at any one time for any one reason. It was the product of a slow, painful process that involved all English speakers in some respect, even though almost none of them were aware of the role they played. And what has resulted in this vast group effort is a language so complex, beautiful, descriptive, and fitting to the culture from which it derives that some even earn a PhD in the English language itself.
This phenomenon of spontaneous evolution is not limited to the language we speak. The laws that govern us, the family that begat us, the markets we buy and sell goods and services in, and even the traditions we inherited are all part of a vast group effort among many generations who contribute to these endeavors just as they go about their daily business, many of whom never give a thought to the matter.
Conservative thinkers have long observed how the laws of a free society can take on a life of their own. “Common law…do not, in detail, have their origin in a list that some person or persons sat down and ‘drew up’,” wrote Willmoore Kendall, “They have been hammered out in the courts of law over long centuries and reflect the accumulated experience of the English-speaking peoples with the vexed question of how to prevent miscarriages of justice.” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it this way, “The development of our law has gone on for nearly a thousand years, like the development of a planet, each generation taking the next step, mind, like matter, simply obeying a law of spontaneous growth.”
This is prescription in action. This is Burke’s notion that far more knowledge and invaluable wisdom are transmitted not by experts or sages but by the inherent value embedded in our culture, norms, and traditions. As Burke tells it, “The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it always acts rightly.” Prescription provides a path for ordinary, even foolish, people to craft a beautiful language, enact just laws, uphold moral and auspicious traditions, and produce vibrant markets.
This allegiance to prescription does not mean the conservative denies certain people have greater knowledge, skills, experience, or innate wisdom than most. Expertise is immensely valuable. But its value is of a very narrow sort. An expert in cabinetry can tell us all kinds of important and interesting things about cabinets. But it’s doubtful they’d know the precise cabinet in terms of size, quality, color, and various other features I happened to be looking for last Tuesday, nor could they have predicted where such a cabinet should be sent or how much I’d be willing to pay for one. And yet the free market provided to me precisely what I was after at a price both I and the cabinet maker found agreeable.
The ability of the free market to produce goods and services at prices people are willing to pay has long been observed by capitalists as yet another area where we are advantaged by people indirectly making a difference by behaving in their own interests. “Practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation,” wrote Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek.
How Prescription Transmits Knowledge
As complexity increases, so does the need for skills, knowledge, and experience to grapple with the complexity. Thus, we recognize that an expert, or someone with experience in the subject matter, or a person who just happens to be highly intelligent, is likely to do better against some average person in matters of complexity. But some complexities are so vast, or subject to change, or lacking in obtainable data, or of a certain nature that no individual (or even computer in certain instances) could ever hope to possess the knowledge or expertise required to navigate it. But the population at large—legions upon legions of those “average people”—coupled with the wisdom of our ancestors passed down through the generations, can produce a sort of brainpower strong enough to work through the complexities. Thomas Sowell explained it best:
“Any individual’s own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision-making, and often even for his own personal decisions. A complex society and its progress are therefore possible only because of numerous social arrangements which transmit and coordinate knowledge from a tremendous range of contemporaries, as well as from the even more vast number of those from generations past. Knowledge as conceived in the [conservative] vision is predominantly experience—transmitted socially in largely inarticulate forms, from prices which indicate costs, scarcities, and preferences, to traditions which evolve from the day-to-day experiences of millions in each generation, winnowing out in Darwinian competition what works from what does not work.”
Therefore, prescription greatly enhances our ability to navigate the complexities of an advanced society via two means: 1) rather than rely upon the brainpower of the few gifted and knowledgeable experts, we can instead transmit information over a highly sophisticated web of institutions, customs, and norms that involve all of us. And 2) rather than limit our knowledge to the generation that just happens to be standing around, we can instead learn from the past successes and failures of our ancestors by staying within these traditional institutions, customs, and norms. Sowell continues by stressing that in the conservative’s view “where knowledge was a multiplicity of experience too complex for explicit articulation, it was distilled over the generations in cultural processes and traits so deeply embedded as to be virtually unconscious reflexes—widely shared. This was, in Burke’s words, ‘wisdom without reflection.’”
Any culture comes prepackaged with all sorts of embedded wisdom. Sometimes this wisdom is traceable back to some moment or great moral teacher or movement that helps explain its practical use and value. Often it is not. Or at least it may not be evident without a great deal of “reflection”. “It is not simply that individuals rationally choose what works from what does not work,” explains Sowell, “but also—and more fundamentally—that the competition of institutions and whole societies leads to a general survival of more effective collections of cultural traits, even if neither the winners nor the losers rationally understand what was better or worse about one set or the other.”
I doubt most people know the etymology of gossip. Yet that does not prevent them from adding this word to their vocabulary. Most of us came by this word—like most words—completely ignorant to the mindboggling complexities and evolutions it went through to arrive at our doorstep free of charge. Would we be better off if we only spoke a language provided to us by “experts”? I doubt it.
What’s true for language applies just as strongly to politics. “The absence of clear guidance from the past is not a reason to rely on the unaided reason of the individual alone or to look to naked theory for standards,” warns Yuval Levin, “Instead, it is a reason to desire collective deliberation and collective action in politics.” Prescription is not universally accepted, just as it was contested in Burke’s day. In the final post in this series—Part 5—we’ll turn our attention to those who insisted all this foolishness about prescription was simply getting in the way of letting the true experts get things done.