GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 11, 2009

Common Sense

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:10 pm

The originary hypothesis can yield for us a phenomenology and poetics of everyday life, and perhaps it can even do so in a manner respectful of reality, which is to say that doesn’t complain about the ways in which people don’t correspond to one or another “model” we have arbitrarily established for them.  Now, the sentence I just wrote is a manifestation of resentment (that doesn’t mean I’m taking it back!)—my description of my resentment would be that it is a counter-resentment to the resentment of elites bent on “improving” their fellow humans, i.e., making them more like the improver.  But, of course, we’d all like to say our resentments are mere “counter”-resentments, evening out the scales that have been placed out of balance by some previously manifested resentment.  And, fortunately, we can all say that, and we would all be right, because all resentments are countering another one, and resentment is nothing more than the imperative to even something out, to give something its “due.”  The sentence I just wrote, for example, is a resentful attempt to counter any resentment that claims to transcend resentment, and it anticipates its vulnerability to the same charge because, indeed, that charge will also always be both true and false:  Every resentment, insofar as it is given shape, does represent, in however small or imaginary a space, an infinitesimal balancing out that sustains some presence and to that extent can be shared and “transcendent.”


If we can speak of resentment as an “evening out,” creating “planes” along which other resentments can be lain, then we can also speak about “common sense” as a kind of calculus of resentment—each of us has to figure out ways of “fitting” our resentments within a present configuration that always threatens, however implicitly or distantly, to exclude our own.  One of the (in my view) great, and still neglected (toward what and whom is that resentment directed?), modern Western philosophies, is the “common sense” thinking founded by Thomas Reid and sustained and transmuted by American pragmatism (at least Peirce—who at times referred to pragmatism as “critical commonsensism”—and James), the ordinary language philosophy of Wittgenstein and Cavell, and the “personal knowledge” or “tacit dimension” of Michael Polanyi. Reid’s common sense philosophy was arguably the philosophical foundation for the Declaration of Independence’s assertion of “self-evident” truths, because that is, indeed, Reid’s central claim:  that our fundamental modes of experiential access to reality are grounded in axioms that cannot be denied, or even questioned, without thereby undermining the experiential basis we would need to question those axioms in the first place.  So, for example, one couldn’t deny that we can understand each other when we speak, because, before whom is that denial made?  Clearly someone assumed capable of understanding it.  And, even referring to the endless litany of actual misunderstandings assumes that we know what it would mean for us not to misunderstand each other.  We can understand such axiomatic access to reality (which Reid assumed couldn’t be explained, just accepted), which Eric Gans in Science and Faith refers to as “auto-probatory” (something which could not be said without having had the experience it refers to) in terms of the articulation of resentments embedded in language.  Indeed, resentment itself is the most immediate auto-probatory experience—everyone has experienced resentment, and everyone can acknowledge anyone else’s resentment (however odd the object of that resentment might appear) and to deny this would be to affirm it because denying one’s participation in the universal experience of resentment would be the most transparently resentful stance imaginable.


So, we can account for every scene in terms of the interactions between various calculi of resentment—I resent A because he got the job I wanted last year but B outwardly at least admires A (shares some of his resentments) and I can’t bear to have both B and A resenting me so I moderate my resentment toward A into a mild irony that can be recalibrated depending on the possibility of B no longer caring about maintaining appearances, or some C coming along who could absorb some of the resentment directed towards me, or who may take A’s job making it possible for my resentment towards A to be converted to a shared resentment towards C, etc.  Involved in all of this is a profound, and largely tacit, anthropological knowledge which manifests itself in all the maxims of everyday life that we all iterate constantly, and which are all pragmatic ways of measuring degrees and distinguishing modalities of resentment:  “give him an inch, he’ll take a mile,” “what goes around comes around,” etc.  Some of us, at least, resent the “clichés,” as there is always some felt sense that they conceal a more differentiated reality that we might attain privileged access to, and that is also true (and also very easily converted into a set of maxims/clichés), but I believe there are very few concrete interactions between individuals that don’t require the buffering mechanism of these anthropological maxims; or, in compensation, the creation of new ones. 


It is very important that resentment keep getting circulated like this because the alternative is the truly deadly resentment against reality as such that is characteristic of Gnosticism.  In more linguistic terms, we might see Gnosticism as an uncompromising abhorrence of maxims, of any sign that conceals or moderates rather than fully embodying the infinitely differentiated reality that we all intuit in our “best” or most “intense” moments.  This global resentment can’t be countered by more local ones—rather, it can only be dissolved by the most fundamental of all ostensive dispositions, gratitude.  A sheer gratitude for reality neutralizes resentment towards reality, and is therefore also a critical component of common sense.  The syntactic form that corresponds to the ostensive is, I would say, the exclamation:  “what a lovely day!” expresses that originary sense of gratitude as does “how awful!” because the latter expression equally presupposes some non-awful condition that allows us all to immediately recognize how awful the one indicated is.  And, of course, “thank you!” is an exemplary exclamation, one which simply does what it says, and does it only in that specific instance.  I wonder whether one might say that Gnostics are likely to find the exclamation (and above all thanking) especially obnoxious, in its call for immediate assent and suspension of any “critical” sense of, or suspicion towards reality.


If common sense is composed out of a symmetrical adjustment of resentments grounded in gratitude toward reality and manifested in maxims, then we can point to something universally “self-evident” in common sense.  Clearly, the arrangement and dispersal of resentments will vary from place to place and time to time, sometimes widely, sometimes so much so as to be incommensurable.  But we have and can devise maxims to account for these variations and to adjust for them, and this may be an expression of faith, but I am certain that anyone would be able to piece together a workable sense of a configuration of resentments bounded by gratitude wherever they go.  Anthropologists do it with “primitive” societies, and members of those societies are able to do it when they wind up in ours.  We can’t know in advance what will count as abuse or a violation of norms, but we know that something will; the same goes with expressions of affection, vows, promises, and so on. 


I am borrowing a bit from Hannah Arendt in this discussion, and one of Arendt’s concerns regarding common sense in the modern world was that it can be obliterated by ideology and, at the most extreme, totalitarianism—manifestations of that resentment toward reality I just associated with Gnosticism.  Common sense is strikingly unable to defend itself against charges that it is “naïve,” “irrational,” “hide-bound,” “unthinking,” “complacent,” and, of course, today all that also means “racist,” sexist,” “homophobic,” “fascist” and so on.  The only defense common sense has is that of the hedgehog, although in a somewhat (but not completely?) different context than that in which that creature stands in as a mascot for GA:  all common sense can do is roll itself up in a ball and let its needles protect it from the ideological foxes.  The “needles” are its maxims, and the most privileged and central of those maxims are what we call “principles.”


Here is Friedrich Hayek on principles:


“From the insight that the benefits of civilization rest on the use of more knowledge than can be used in any deliberately concerted effort, it follows that it is not in our power to build a desirable society by simply putting together the particular elements that by themselves appear desirable. Though probably all beneficial improvements must be piecemeal, if the separate steps are not guided by a body of coherent principles, the outcome is likely to be a suppression of individual freedom.

The reason for this is very simple though not generally understood. Since the value of freedom rests on the opportunities it provides for unforeseen and unpredictable actions, we will rarely know what we lose through a particular restriction of freedom. Any such restriction, any coercion other than the enforcement of general rules, will aim at the achievement of some foreseeable particular result, but what is prevented by it will usually not be known. The direct effects of any interference with the market order will be near and clearly visible in most cases, while the more indirect and remote effects will mostly be unknown and will therefore be disregarded. We shall never be aware of all the costs of achieving particular results by such interference.

And so, when we decide each issue solely on what appears to be its individual merits, we always overestimate the advantages of central direction. Our choice will regularly appear to be one between a certain known and tangible gain and the mere probability of the prevention of some unknown beneficial action by unknown persons. If the choice between freedom and coercion is thus treated as a matter of expediency, freedom is bound to be sacrificed in almost every instance. As in the particular instance we hardly ever know what would be the consequences of allowing people to make their own choice, to make the decision in each instance depending only on the foreseeable particular results must lead to the progressive destruction of freedom. There are probably few restrictions on freedom which could not be justified on the ground that we do not know the particular loss it will cause.

That freedom can be preserved only if it is treated as a supreme principle which must not be sacrificed for particular advantages was fully understood by the leading liberal thinkers of the nineteenth century, one of whom (B. Constant) described liberalism as “the system of principles.” Such also is the burden of the warnings concerning “What is Seen and What is Not Seen in Political Economy” (F. Bastiat) and of the “pragmatism that contrary to intentions of its representatives inexorably leads to socialism” (C. Menger).

All these warnings were, however, thrown to the wind, and the progressive discarding of principles and the increasing determination during the last hundred years to proceed pragmatically is one of the most important innovations in social and economic policy. That we should foreswear all principles of “isms” in order to achieve greater mastery over our fate is even now proclaimed as the new wisdom of our age. Applying to each task the “social techniques” most appropriate to its solution, unfettered by any dogmatic belief, seems to some the only manner of proceeding worthy of a rational and scientific age. “Ideologies,” i.e., sets of principles, have become generally as unpopular as they have always been with aspiring dictators such as Napoleon or Karl Marx, the two men who gave the word its modern derogatory meaning.

If I am not mistaken this fashionable contempt for “ideology,” or for all general principles or “isms,” is a characteristic attitude of the disillusioned socialists who, because they have been forced by the inherent contradictions of their own ideology to discard it, have concluded that all ideologies must be erroneous and that in order to be rational one must do without one. But to be guided only, as they imagine it to be possible, by explicit particular purposes which one consciously accepts, and to reject all general values whose conduciveness to particular desirable results cannot be demonstrated (or to be guided only by what Max Weber called “purposive rationality”) is an impossibility. Though admittedly, ideology is something which cannot be “proved” (or demonstrated to be true), it may well be something whose widespread acceptance is the indispensible condition for most of the particular things we strive for.

Those self-styled modern “realists” have only contempt for the old-fashioned reminder that if one starts unsystematically to interfere with the spontaneous order of the market there is no practicable halting point, and that it is therefore necessary to choose between alternative systems. They are pleased to think that by proceeding experimentally and therefore “scientifically” they will succeed in fitting together in piecemeal fashion a desirable order by choosing for each particular desired result what science shows them to be the most appropriate means of achieving it. “

I’ll just mention that the contempt for “ideology” here is for “ideology” in a different sense than that in which Arendt sees the danger for common sense—Arendt sees ideologies as “scientific,” totalizing explanations that claim to account for a guide all human affairs, and that mark those outside its terms as “retrograde” and ultimately superfluous.  Leaving that aside, the respective arguments of the two great anti-victimary thinkers converge.  Common sense can only protect itself by defending, “unreasonably,” its maxims:  “keep your nose out my business,” “live and let live,” and, more politically, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” to mention a few.  If you tell me that you need to mind my business, just this once, because there’s emergency, I might be able to see the immediate benefit or necessity, but I will never know what I have lost by letting you do so—I won’t know, first of all, what immediate solutions I might have improvised on my own and, more importantly, what capacities and possibilities I will have surrendered by losing the habit of minding my own business.  Similarly, we will never know what we have lost by letting our fear of unemployment or a credit freeze lead us to give politicians the right to determine terms of trade, to benefit one market competitor over others, to regulate the internal operations if businesses, and so on.

The relevance of this discussion to, say, the current health care debates, is obvious.  Sarah Palin’s warning about “death panels” was simply the stance of common sense:  if the state takes more control of health care, then the state will end up making more and more life and death decisions for us, to the point of determining whether saving or improving one’s life fits a cost-benefit analysis established by experts.  The defenders of Obamacare, meanwhile claim to be guided by “purposeful rationality,” and to “proceed experimentally” (if you don’t want the “public option,” we’ll try “co-ops”!), realizing, some consciously, others partially, others not at all, that the more the state interferes in the workings of a particular segment of the “spontaneous order of the market,” the more any future “problems” will automatically be framed so that only the state (and its experts) can have the “solutions.”  “Death panels” is just a common sense way of compressing this understanding into maxims—and I, for one, couldn’t care less what the Democratic legislators (or, really, some combination of their aides, lobbyists, assorted activist groups, etc.) really “meant” when they put a particular provision in the 1,000 page long bill (a provision that will, later on, be interpreted by one of their experts).  And we don’t know what innovations in the complex relations between patients/consumers, care givers, insurance companies, medical technology, etc., will not take place because of this dramatic shift towards central planning.

The survival of free citizens depends upon strict, unyielding, “dogmatic” adherence to the fundamental, common sense, maxims of a free society:  rewarding failure gets you more of it (no bailouts!); wealth results from production, not expenditure (no stimulus!); enemies are to be fought, allies supported (no appeasement!); rights are what you can do without government interference, not what the government gives you (health care is not a right!), and many more.  Notice how different these maxims are from, say “everyone should have health care” or “gay marriage is a right”—the maxims of freedom articulate power and accountability, the slogans of soft tyranny demand provisions and donations without recompense or corresponding responsibility.  Now, needless to say, our elected officials will very often go right ahead and do these things we insist they resist; occasionally, they will be right and responsible to do so (sometimes one really does have to allow for exceptions), and more than occasionally we will, “hypocritically,” re-elect them when they do so, whether they are right or not.  But none of that matters—politicians can corrupt themselves and our principles (they have risks and benefits to weigh, and we can’t expect them to have interests higher than their own professional survival, and when they do they also expect to take the hit for betraying principles in the name of our collective survival), and our principles will survive.  What our principles can’t survive is the failure of a solid majority of citizens to insist upon their application in undiluted form, spontaneously, reflexively, unambiguously and insistently.  And in that way, when our common sense enables us to see that their violation has been a bit more egregious than usual this time, so egregious that maybe common sense will no longer help us to navigate a new world of arbitrary regulations and authorities, that common sense can become revolutionary.

Common sense is the possession of the man in the middle—not the Big Man, with wealth or power, or those living on the margins of society.  The cultivation of common sense  requires you to confront limits regularly, but also that you have some capacity to shape and maneuver within those limits; it requires you to see the consequences of your actions, and not be able to project those consequences onto the “long term,” or lose them in the tangled webs of unintended consequences and intersecting intentions.  Maintaining your common sense when you get too high or too low calls for extra doses of discipline, and perhaps some continuity with a previous condition (such as friends and family who knew you when you were in the middle). 

In a less grave way then totalitarian rule, I wonder whether today’s victimary popular culture impairs common sense.  A critic whom I admire, James Bowman, writes often of the dominance of fantasy in today’s popular culture, and the way this dominance has seeped into public and political life.  Bowman finds it disturbing that even science fiction films like the recent Star Wars don’t feel obliged to play by the rules of the “reality” they construct for themselves; one might suggest that the Obama cult has been a result of this privileging of fantasy over reality.  The recent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama is an example, something I wouldn’t have accepted as a premise for a Saturday Night Live skit, and yet it happened—the award committee has made a lot of mistakes (and worse) before, but this must be the first time the award was granted based on what the committee imagines all of us are imagining the recipient might accomplish (and perhaps it’s the first time a President was ever elected on a similar basis). 

It is also fascinating how the new fragmented media environment allows for large groups of people to see those on the other side though hand-picked fragments aimed at reducing them to familiar stereotypes, but the enduring political and economic institutions serve as a check here.  Indeed, the widespread opposition to Obamacare, whatever it actually is, suggests to me that when it comes to your own private sphere of existence, the skepticism and shrewdness we associate with common sense is still intact.  Still, I can’t help but see some fragility here, simply due to repeated violations of the common sense maxims I mentioned earlier, over many decades by now—so that it actually makes sense to a lot of people to say that the government wasting a trillion dollars will return us to prosperity.  A new reality has been constructed through the articulation of the welfare-warfare-regulatory-media-academic state (even though I think a good bit of the warfare part was necessary), and one while can’t just say that it’s an artificial reality, it is predicated upon the possibility of deferring payment and consequences indefinitely.  A Ponzi scheme is also real for the people first in, who do get paid.  Popular culture erodes common sense by valorizing Ponzi-scheme models of reality, including the valorization of esthetically appealing and successful (i.e., unpunished) criminals.

Still, it seems to me commonsensical to insist upon the self-evidence of optimism.  No matter how much I despair, no matter how unlikely it seems that a disastrous course will be arrested, the very articulation of that despair (even just to oneself) implies the possibility that it will reverberate with another.  And if with another, why not yet another?  If I bewail the coming fall of this civilization, that very complaint, precisely to the extent that it is true and prophetic, implies that the principles of civilization need not disappear along with this particular one—human beings have suffered such catastrophes and recovered and renewed, and they might do so again.  If I am speaking, even if I disavow any communication with any of my contemporaries, I implicitly assert the possibility with some kindred spirits yet to be born, maybe centuries hence, maybe mediated by layers of interlocutors and interpreters who understood me only partially, but enough to pass my words along—and why should that communication be any less valuable?  To put it simply, putting forth a sign entails faith in someone receiving and disseminating it in turn.  Anyone without such minimal optimism (itself a form of “gratitude”) would not bother to speak at all, and anyone who does speak while denying that minimal optimism is to that degree dishonest—indeed, culpably ungrateful—in his or her speaking.



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