Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Common Sense

Originally posted on September 14, 2011

(I confess that what follows is perhaps more of my commentary than a good book review, but still I want to acknowledge Common Sense: A Political History, by Sophia Rosenfeld (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), is an excellent, scholarly review of the notion, especially as it has evolved in the last few hundred years.

I confess at the outset that what was evoked by this book was a mildly constructivist postmodernist viewpoint, so what I find is that the notion of common sense can be used as a rhetorical device that is close to the technique of “just plain folks” in propaganda. By marshaling a number of simplistic notions, an appeal to common sense becomes a device for supporting laws and programs advocated by either end of the political spectrum. Big Business can use and support mouthpieces in the media to claim that this or that policy will be good for the little guy—disguising the fact that sharing the proposed benefits—one for you, ten for me—they will benefit disproportionately while claiming to support the whole. The radical left can similarly call on “common sense” in the form of this or that seemingly- indisputable generality to support their agendas.

I was a little bothered by what seemed to me to be a lingering sense that truth does exist and can be worked out by intellectual analysis in the hands of an intellectual (philosophical) elite. The author cites some rather sophisticated scholars near the end, and I am loath to challenge her or these others directly—they all have good points. But my point—which it seems Ms Rosenfeld also makes, but perhaps not emphatically enough—is that the emergence of semantics as a study, a mixing of the emergence of depth psychology and media studies—in the last century leads inevitably to the triumph of something akin to Humpty Dumpty’s saying in Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Well, add a bit of “spin,” euphemism, rhetoric and there you have it!

I don’t think we can pin down any guaranteed avenue to truth. The closest we can get is to reveal all the tricks of the rhetorical trade, to teach kids in school that they are constantly being scammed by commercials, politicians, preachers, and others who would attract their dollars or votes or work. Manipulation—interpersonally, group, culturally—pervades. Becoming aware of this even as applied to what people say they are trying to protect—America, motherhood, apple pie, democracy, freedom, common sense, morality—all can be distorted. In Shakespeare’s words, “The Devil can quote scripture.” (Merchant of Venice).

I think we must own that any position we advocate is a product of both conscious and unconscious, rational and non-rational, individual and collective factors. There is no guarantee that we will be adjudged right in a century, nor that those who might judge us wrong will themselves be adjudged right in three centuries. It’s all a dialectical process of inconceivable complexity. Nevertheless, our responsibility as I see it is to engage and advocate with as much clarity and sincerity as we can. I think we need to dispute. I hope we can do so with kindness, but I don’t doubt that some friction, some conflict and bringing a fresh perspective is part of the game.

I’ve been reading another book about the Chinese empire and its gradual dissolution in the 19th century, the product in great part to the justification of excessive conservative-ism embedded in the unquestioned values of Confucianism. I confess now my belief that reliance on any authority or set of ideas that have been created in the past is an error, to be replaced by a creative process—a willingness to call into question what has been created before (though not necessarily to reject or discard it) and dare to consider new alternatives.

Back to the book—I would like to see more of a discussion of the role of propaganda, the appeal to the irrational, the essential pliability of the masses to clever rhetoric, often abetted by the power of the media. Thus any noble idea can be put into the service of wickedness.  Other than this minor quibble, Rosenfeld’s is a good book!

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