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.