Friday, January 7, 2011

Where's the “Common” in “Common Sense”?

The german translation for “common sense” – “gesunder Menschenverstand” – always hits me a little harder than the english. Translated literally into english it reads as “healthy human understanding,” and presumably it is this literal translation that heightens my awareness of the term. If someone asks me in english why I have no common sense, I merely note that I have been insulted but never bother questioning my suggested insufficiency. It's the german that made me wonder what this turn of phrase was really loaded with.

A quick sweep of research will show various definitions of the term historically, and although there are often nuances in the definition of “sense,” ranging from “inner sense” to “empirical sense” and the suggestion that this is a form of “judgement” or even a sort of “intuition,” there's not much debate about “common.” But how does this “sense” get “common”?

In my essay “Dusting off Hegemony” I introduced some of the philosophy of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian communist who sought reasons to explain why the worker's revolution that Marx had predicted never took hold in Western Europe. I explained the Gramscian theory that a hegemony of the bourgeois class was kept intact through the use of ideologies. Those ideologies were accepted and adopted by the proletariat, according to Gramsci, thus stabilizing subordination to the ruling class. Ideologies, Gramsci further argued, were communicated to the masses on two distinct levels. One, a philosophical level, wherein specific positions were elaborated. The other level Gramsci called “common sense.” He defined “common sense” as a prevailing consciousness, an amalgam of ideas internalized by the population so that the ideals, standards and culture of the ruling class are seen as a natural given.

The formation of “common sense” is thus a tool of power. Ideological hegemony means that the majority of individuals accept the status quo in society as “common sense.” A crucial change is needed, therefore, in the consciousness of society, according to Gramsci, if any structural changes are to take place. Revolution will be short-lived unless ideological change accompanies structural change.

The first of many revolutions that I rally for, therefore, is the revolution of common sense. If we adopt the assumption that “common sense” is a tool of power, we will be a lot quicker to question if “common sense” is “good sense.”

And the next time someone accuses me of not having any common sense, I'll think of Gramsci and take it as a compliment.


In my next essay I'll be addressing the concept of contemporary reference systems and how they can work divisively in a society.


  1. My belief is that "common sense" is an intuition or opinion that is brought about with minimal education and applies regardless of cultural differences.

    It's common sense not to put your hand into a hot flame. All you need to know is that fire causes pain.

    It's a self-evident opinion based on minimal input.

    The minute you begin to talk about shaping or developing "common sense," it ceases to be "common sense" and becomes "education."

  2. Excellent input, Loudog! When I comb through your words, though, I note that in your first statement you say that "'common sense' is an intuition or opinion that is brought about with minimal education. " In your last statement you say, "The minute you begin to talk about shaping or developing 'common sense,' it ceases to be 'common sense' and becomes 'education.'"

    In essence you are saying that "common sense" is indeed produced by education and you are setting an arbitrary limit as to when "minimal education" becomes "shaped or developed education." It doesn't belong to a toddler's common sense at all not to put its hand into a hot flame. So although your example indeed applies regardless of cultural differences, we are quickly able to find a subgroup that deviates from this application.

    Most people, however, wouldn't shrink from saying that it is common sense to look both ways before crossing a street. The question is: for whom is it common sense. There are many "native" peoples in the world, for whom both streets and cars are foreign. And I've travelled to many countries where streets and cars are prevalent and dangerous, but the practice of looking both ways is not done at all and therefore doesn't belong to the local common sense.

    One source I read refers to "common sense" as embodying "elements from the Stone Age and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history at the local level and intuitions of a future philosophy which will be that of the human race united the world over." That certainly would take the definition a bit further than the cut-off point for your interpretation. But however "common sense" is defined we need to see that - to whatever degree - it is an amalgam of reference systems that we unknowingly adopt with a system of rules that we willingly follow.

    I neither advocate giving up good sense nor common sense, but strongly advise questioning both that which is put upon us as common sense and that which we might assume others to intrinsically know as being common sense.


    In a future essay I'll be addressing how our common sense can lead us astray. You'll like that, Loudog; it will be nice and controversial!

  3. If common sense is some sort of constellation of socially and biologically informed beliefs and judgments, then, as suggested, we may not be able to fully appreciate which aspects are cultural (provincial) and which aspects are genetic (universal) until we succeed in viewing our culture from the perspective of the "other".

  4. I would hesitate using words like "biological" and "genetic" here. And while we should aspire viewing our culture from the perspective of the "other," we cannot underestimate how entwined our common sense is with our beings. To question it is paramount. To divorce it is impossible. This is not fatalistic, but a reminder to never assume that we have a clear vision, no matter how engaged we may be.