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Americanism: Counterculture and Common Sense

Americanism: Counterculture And Common Sense

No matter whether the empirical structural analyses of “political life,” including the in-depth studies of individuals and groups, are intended to supplement, deepen, or confirm an understanding of the manifold mani­festations of the American zoon politikon in a quantitative-empirical di­mension, all — regardless of the differing conclusions drawn from the far-reaching sociopolitical changes in formal and informal government — are in agreement that the continuity of the political process, in the absence of intense polarization of society, allows the conclusion that a “basic con­sensus” exists. This cautious formulation results from a methodological premise that, though it can state a specific consensus, can reveal the consensus only in the guise of a quantifiable, that is, statisti­cally significant, formulation of explicit political principles in society.180

Beyond the methodological concretization of a symbol consensus, the behaviorist majority opinion also confirmed the indicators for its exis­tence into the 1960s. “As we have already seen,” Robert Dahl stated his position, “perhaps more than any other people in the world, Americans have been united in expressing faith in a democratic ideology, even if they often have not acted on what they claimed to believe. Since their ideology is a source of unity rather than cleavage, the moment in which to observe the American as an ideologist is not when he talks about domestic poli­tics, but when he talks about international politics, and especially when he talks about America in relation to the rest of the world.” Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril conclude their presentation of the “political beliefs of Americans” with a sense of satisfaction:

“Our study has shown that the underlying personal political credos of the majority of Americans have remained substantially intact at the ideological level. But the objective environment in which people live has obviously changed immeasurably . . . . Our study has revealed the amazing elasticity of the American experiment and the rather rapid devising and acceptance of practical programs of action to accommodate both the continuing and the emerging needs and aspirations of the nation’s citizens. Because of these, practical adaptations to emerging situations, the majority of the American people have never become so dissatisfied with their political ide­ology as to feel intensely and continuously frustrated.”181

The Liberal Tradition

In The Political Culture of the United States, Donald J. Devine made a secondary analysis of the opinion polls of the last thirty-five years (1935-1970) in an attempt to provide empirical-quantitative documen­tation for Louis Hartz’s thesis of the continuity of the liberal tradition, which Devine equates with the political culture of the United States. Devine takes his point of departure from the assumption of “consensual political culture” that has existed essentially unchanged throughout American his­tory.”

In summary, the American political culture can be referred to as the liberal tradition. It is maintained that the values of Locke, Madison, and the other liberals of the seventeenth and eighteenth century represent essentially the same values which comprise the American political culture at the present.”182 Hartz’s thesis serves as a working hypothesis and is made operational with the help of the structural-functionalist concept of the political culture. “Each element of the system model will be investi­gated to test the extent to which the United States fulfills adherence to the liberal tradition. The data to be investigated will, hopefully, reveal the degree to which the tradition is shared as the American political cul­ture.” 183

In the course of making the thesis operational, of course, Hartz’s liberal tradition is considerably simplified, though not necessarily falsi­fied; the same is inevitably even more true for the heterogeneous material of the secondary analysis, which also forces the scholar to pose very simple questions. Even considering such basic methodological objections, Devine’s results remain remarkable:

“At the mass level, for both the masses and their major social groupings, the liberal tradition is supported as a consensual political culture. Although one could never, in some absolute sense, demonstrate the existence of the liberal tradition as the political culture of the United States, I will argue that the widespread agreement on political values reported above and the depth of support shown here represent a reasonable empirical demonstration of the de­scriptive hypothesis. Lockean liberalism may be used as an empirical description of the core of the member political culture of the United States.”184

At present the disorders of the 1970s probably present us merely with something like a blurred snapshot of unspecified processes of change; nevertheless, with all due caution we may look at the results and con­clude that the fields of consciousness, symbolism, and behavior of Ameri­canism is being restructured, though a secondary analysis of the data does not justify more than tentative statements about the content of the changes.

Technology vs. Counterculture?

As early as 1970 Philip Slater boldly diagnosed two separate cultures in the United States: “the opposition between the old scarcity-oriented technological culture that still predominates and the somewhat amorphous counterculture that is growing up to challenge it.” “So long as our society had a common point of moral references there was a tend­ency for conflicts to be resolved by compromise, and this compromise had a moral as well as a practical basis. Today this moral unity is gone, and the only basis for compromise is a practical one. Whenever moral sentiments are aroused, the opposing groups are pulled in opposite direc­tions, and mere experience is usually too weak a consideration to coun­teract this divergence.”185

But like other thinkers of the counterculture of the sixties and seventies, such as Theodore Roszak and Charles Reich, Slater saw himself as part of the changing America; this function weakens his analysis. On the other hand, the protracted process of self-doubt in the minds of sensitive observers during the 1960s actually grew into the phenomenon of a mass rebellion against the dominant symbols of society that, unlike similar movements of the 1930s, seriously aimed at escape from the context of founding and order: the psychedelic sects, the God-is-dead movement, ecumenical underground churches, the women’s lib­eration movement, the black-power ideologies, the “lust of Apocalypse” (Mailer), the New Left — all these are factors in a far-reaching process of restructuring American consciousness; this attempt at renovation shut­tled between recourse to Continental European ideological traditions and tentative mystical attempts at breaking out.186

The first tendency applies to the Marxist-revolutionary components of American radicalism in the sixties. A stringent application of the Marxist categories of the critique of political economics revealed American society to be an all-encompassing and self-destructive arena of irrationality, which will of historical neces­sity perish in the contemporary process of world revolution.187 But when it becomes a matter of fixing the position of American society as a whole in the world-historical process and of determining unmistakably the so­cial substratum of a revolutionary movement within this society, recur­rence to classical Marxism invariably replicates the complex pattern of past heretical revisionism.

Herbert Marcuse’s search for the revolutionary subject is only one fa­mous example of such revisionist attempts. In this effort the United States, as the most advanced capitalist society, immediately regains the status of world-revolutionary avant-garde: “It is precisely the unprece­dented capacity of twentieth century capitalism which will generate the revolution of the twentieth century — a revolution, however, which will have a base, strategy, and direction quite different from its predecessors, especially the Russian Revolution.” This form of capitalism would bring about “the first truly world-historical revolution.” “The historical site of the revolution would be that stage of development on which the satisfac­tion of the basic needs creates needs that transcend the state-capitalist and state-socialist society.”188

Hebert Marcuse and the New Left

Marcuse once more links Marx’s Europe-centered apocalypse to capitalism to such an extent that it becomes easily reconcilable with the Americanism-conditioned apocalypse of domestic capitalism. This explains Marcuse’s popularity with the New Left. In its beginnings the common denominator of this revolutionary movement, regardless of its different social and organizational components, was shot through with a common critical sentiment of starting out and breaking out, which made eclectic use of all radical symbolisms, including the Marxist ones.

Until the movement splintered into a multiplicity of move­ments, each with its own reality image, it exhibited the typical traits of any political-spiritual revival. The Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society of 1962 gave evidence of the spiritual-political im­petus that, committed to the traditional form of consciousness, was in­tent on making it once again the principle of social order in a radical transformation of the structures of the existing social world.

It begins with a logical critique of the concretization of all social order through the principle of metrical reality and the functional reality assigned to it: “Hu­man brotherhood must be willed . . . as the most appropriate form of social relation.” A truly humane society will come into being only “when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things.” “Politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community, this being a necessary though not sufficient means of finding meaning in per­sonal life.” From this follows the objective of restoring the paradigmatic republic: “We seek the establishment of a democracy of individual par­ticipation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.”189

This original attempt at a radical reordering of society from an altered consciousness was reflected in the plurality of efforts at a spiritual-political revivalism that Roszak first described in detail in his The Making of the Counter Culture (1969). Using the concept of “counter culture,” he described the social substra­tum of resistance to the ultimate consolidation of a dictatorship of the technocratic principles of ordering (including the economism of the vari­ous Marxisms) as well as the environment in which tentative experimen­tation with indefinite alternatives exist.

As Philip Slater did before him, Charles Reich also dogmatizes the social environment and, with apocalyptic undertones, announces a unique revolution, the “greening of America.” Reich sees the heterogeneous components of the counterculture as the social genesis of a new con­sciousness — consciousness here representing the ideal type of a picture of reality encompassing the total existence of man. Reich’s “Conscious­ness III” successfully shakes the premises of the two socially prevalent types of consciousness of American society.

“Consciousness I” probably arose with the principle of nineteenth-century property individualism; “Consciousness II” is expressed in the principle of functional rationality. The “new consciousness is based on the present state of technology, and could not have arisen without it. And it represents a higher transcendent form of reason; no lesser form of consciousness could permit us to exist, given the present state of technology.” 190

Professor Reich continues:

“This transcendent reason has made its first appearance among the youth of America. It is the product of the contradictions, failures, and exigencies of the Corporate State itself . . . . It is now in the process of rapidly spreading to wider and wider segments of youth, and by degrees to older people, as they experience the recovery of the self that marks conversion to a different consciousness. The new consciousness is also in the process of revolution­izing the structure of our society. It does not accomplish this by direct political means, but by changing culture and the quality of individual lives, which in turn change politics and ultimately structure.”191

Reich proclaims:

“There is a revolution coming. It will not be like the revolutions of the past . . . . It promises a higher reason, a more human community, and a new liberated individual. Its ultimate creation will be a new and enduring wholeness and beauty—a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature and to the land.”192

The abolition of the corporate state—the embodiment of all experi­ence of deficiency in the contemporary American crisis—through a “revolution by consciousness” à la Reich was the main theme of the new political revivalism. Reich’s impressionistic phenomenology of the social field of “Consciousness III” fed on the countercultural life-styles, including music, fashion, and the like. Manfred Henningsen quite properly ob­jected that these countercultural movements all too frequently and all too quickly deviated into the apolitical-privatistic area of existential diver­tissements.193 Reich by no means proves that the factors of the counter­culture do indeed signify a socially relevant reversal in the spirit of “Con­sciousness III”— that is, restoration of the person-centered experience of order.

Regardless of the question whether the described social phe­nomena actually are in the nature of such a revolution of consciousness, however, it should be noted that Reich’s concept of the “Greening of America” expresses the specific American understanding of revolution: Reich develops the program of a spiritual-political reformation move­ment in the tradition of revolutionary revivalism: “this new age is not a repudiation of, but fulfillment of, the American dream.”194

“The new age of man can take the best from the ages which preceded it. From the pre-industrial age it can take the integration and balance of life, the sense of God in everything. From the industrial era it can take tech­nology and the steady rise to a higher level of life. From its own age it can take the control and use of technology, and the way of life of satisfaction, community and love, a way of life that aspires higher and higher, without forgetting its human source . . . it will not only release but augment and inspire, and make that the chief end of society. And it will do so within a society that makes the Judeo-Christian ethic not merely an ignored com­mand, but a realistic way of life.”195

This theme of a spiritual-political awakening may correctly be under­stood as part of the tradition of American self-consciousness. “The new consciousness . . . seeks restoration of the non-material elements of man’s existence, the elements like the natural environment and the spiritual that were passed by in the rush of material development. It seeks to transcend science and technology, to restore them to their proper place as tools of man rather than as the determinants of man’s existence. It is by no means anti-technological . . . . It makes the wholly rational assertion that ma­chines should not do the bidding of man, of man who knows and respects his own nature and the natural order of which he is a part.”196

Jean-Francois Revel: Counterculture as Central

In the European view of Jean-François Revel, a Frenchman, this mo­ment of revivalist “hope of philosophy” vanishes, though like Reich, he is convinced of an American revolution sui generis. “The revolution of the twentieth century will take place in the United States. It is only there that it can happen. And it has already begun. Whether or not that revo­lution spreads to the rest of the world depends on whether it succeeds first in America.” This American revolution is of quite a different sort than the “museumlike reconstruction of the revolutions of the nineteenth century.”197

Like Reich, Revel sees in the countersociety of the counter­culture, “which has nothing marginal about it,” a “revolutionary galaxy, marked by a configuration of appearances which all point to the break­through of a homo novus.” 198 A new man such as the counterculture anticipates, however, can of necessity be realized only in the context of the pragmatic reality of an industrialized civilization.

Economic pros­perity and constant growth, technological expertise and a high level of basic research are among the premises of this revolution, as are the countercultural aspects of cultural futurism, affirmation of personal freedom and equality, rejection of authoritarian controls, and an increase in cre­ative initiatives in every field, especially in the “‘value free’ areas: art, life-style, forms of sensibility, diversity in the coexistence of numerous supplementary and alternative subcultures.”199

Peter Berger: Counterculture as Parasitic

It seems questionable, however, whether the basic premise of these suggestions — a newly achieved balance of material and functional re­ality — shaped the countercultural attitude to the extent assumed by these writers. Otherwise Peter Berger would be correct when, analyzing the youth culture and the counterculture as expressions of demodernizing consciousness, he sees them only as a rejection of the functional ratio­nality of technology and bureaucracy.

Berger correctly demonstrates that the radical elimination of the mental and symbolic structures that are inherent in bureaucratic and technological processes destroys the prag­matic basis of modern social existence itself: “our analysis suggests that the demodernization, at least in its more radical manifestations, is faced with the very definite limits in any such projects. These limits are imposed institutionally by the simple fact that short of unspeakable catastrophe, contemporary society cannot divest itself of its technological or bureau­cratic structures in toto.”200 These limits “may be shifting but are none­theless quite firm . . . grounded in the necessity of maintaining the fun­damental technological and bureaucratic machineries of the society.”201

For this reason Berger foresees the creation merely of socio-economically dependent — parasitical — countercultural enclaves that, given continuing economic growth, may in the future be able to institutionalize symbolic counterworlds within specific social spheres, such as the educational sys­tem. Such enclaves would serve, not as alternatives to the dominant social field of consciousness, but as a coexisting social field, one unable to sup­port organized society.

Berger’s objection correctly touches on the real problems of counter­cultural behavior patterns, though even in these “a rumor of angels” can be heard: “some have entertained angels unawares,” Berger elsewhere quotes Hebrews 13:2. Finally, “openness to the signs of transcendence, the new vision in appropriate situations”202 also characterizes the begin­nings of a spiritual-political revival, at least in the analytic understanding of Reich and Roszak.

Beyond this, in my opinion, Berger overlooks the crucial point: Although the pragmatic reason of the ends-means ratio­nality of technology and bureaucracy determines modern industrial soci­ety to such an extent that in fact its destruction through the demodernizing consciousness would endanger social existence on the pragmatic level, it is nevertheless no substitute for noetic-substantial reason in the person-centered sense and the rational action associated with it in the area of material psychic and social order.

Beneath American Spiritual and Political Revivalism

Theodore Roszak’s “true post-industrialism” at­tempts to open itself to this dimension:

“Politics of our time must reopen the metaphysical issues which science and sound logic have for the last two centuries been pleased to regard as closed. For to expound upon social priorities of the quality of life without con­fronting those issues is the very folly of alienation. It is … the half person prescribing the whole person’s needs. But it is experience that must re­open those issues, not academic discourse. We must learn once more to discriminate experimentally between realities, telling the greater from the lesser. If there is to be a next politics, it will be a religious politics . . . religion in the oldest, most universal sense: which is vision born of tran­scendent knowledge.”203

Although Roszak’s revivalist enthusiasm is not without its gnostic-eschatological traces, it nevertheless exhibits a theoretical striving for extradogmatic and predogmatic reality that, having sought in vain for Louis Hartz’s “hope of philosophy” in the sterility of university departments of philosophy and the social sciences, has shifted to the divisions of religion, literature, and history.

In the search for a postindustrial paradigm of social order, the “hope of philosophy” often overlaps with the broad stream of reforming criti­cism of the institutional ramifications of society: the power apparatus of the nation, states, and localities; federalism; the educational establish­ment; the mass communication media; and the conditions of production. Scholars in every field, politicians, foundations, and the like, following the pragmatic reform movement, have insisted on resolving the crisis through an institutional arrangement.204

This effort is very clearly based on that belief in institutions we have examined in the self-understanding of John Adams, the Founding Father. This is as true for the “new politics” of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who wishes to restore the intentions of the fathers in a “constitutional presidency cleansed of Watergate,” as it is for James McGregor Burns, who wants to cure the current crisis with the medicines of 1776 or 1789: “to rediscover our overarching values, to recommit ourselves to them, to restructure our institutions to fulfill them, and to support and sustain leaders who will serve them. Who will emerge as the Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, or Madison of our time?”205  Theodore Lowi’s response is equally anti-federalist-republican in that for him, this cult of the leader is merely the expression of contemporary institutional atrophy; his antidote is the restoration of the “rule of law” in a reform program of “juridical democracy.”

In their most significant moments, the outlined changes in America’s self-understanding during the 1960s and 1970s are indebted to spiritual-political revivalism. Although this revivalism left unmistakable traces on the outward appearance of society, it was not able to break-up the con­tinuity of the sensus communis, as the successful countermovement of the other tradition of spiritual-political individualism in the 1980s once again proved. As ever, the American political process finds its intellectual and cul­tural frame of reference in the civil theology of Americanism, whose sym­bolic modes present historical structural change with its own peculiar sociocultural form in that they prescribe their political agenda according to the respective changes. Looking back upon the past decades, these circumstances, though they already had been noted previously, were picked up again by several authors: Schlesinger speaks about “the cycles of American politics: Let us define the cycle as a continuing shift in na­tional evolvement, between public purpose and private interest.”206

The civil-theological origins of these swings of the pendulum in American politics become apparent in Schlesinger’s description of these “cyclical alternation of public purpose and private interest: . . . in the American republic conservativism and reform, capitalism and democracy, private interest and public purpose, join to define the political tradition. The two jostling strains in American thought agree more than they disagree. Both are committed to individual liberty, the constitutional state and the rule of law. Both have their reciprocal functions in preserving the body politic. Both have their roles in the dialectic of public policy.”207

Whereas Schles­inger postulates a thirty-year cycle — that is, not differentiating between large or small swings — Samuel. P. Huntington works out those civil-theological turning points that are the object of our study: “American society seems to evolve through periods of creedal passion and creedal passivity.” This process articulates the tension between the aspirations of the identity-giving American creed and societal reality; in each case, it expresses the crisis in which Americanism finds itself:

“The 1960s thus had much in common with other periods of creedal pas­sion, when the values of the American Creed had been invoked to challenge established institutions and existing practices — periods such as the Revo­lutionary era of the 1770s and 1780s, the Jacksonian Age of the 1780s and 1830s, and the Populist Progressive years of the 1890s and 1900s. In a sense, the gap between ideal and institution condemn Americans to coexist with a peculiar form of cognitive dissonance. At times, the dissonance is latent; at other times, when creedal passion runs high, it is brutally manifest, and at such times, the promise of American politics becomes its central agony.”208

Restoring the Republic to First Principles

Creedal passion is a civil-theological way of recourse to the original source of ordering at the founding; it is the response to politics inspired by cynicism, self-satisfaction, and hypocrisy, and its objective is to try to restore the “paradigmatic republic.” “Creedal passion periods,” as Samuel P.Huntington summarizes his findings, “involve intense efforts by large numbers of Americans to return to first principles. They are characterized by a distinctive type of political cleavage, major efforts at reform, and significant shifts in alignments between political institutions and social forces.”209

W. G. McLoughlin goes one step further, defining the periods of creedal passion as phases of the “Great Awakening and revivals,” which form the basis for the historical development of American self-understanding:

“Great Awakenings (and the revivals are part of them) are the results . . . of critical disjunctions in our self-understanding. They are not brief outbursts of mass emotionalism by one group or another but profound cultural transformations affecting all Americans and ex­tending over a generation or more. Awakenings begin in periods of cul­tural distortion and grave personal stress, when we lose faith in the le­gitimacy of our norms, the viability of our institutions, and the authority of our leaders in church and state.”210

The great awakenings are move­ments of revitalizing American self-understanding, recovering the sense of American existence, redefining political and social goals, and recon­structing the institutions. According to McLoughlin, the five great awak­enings in America — from the Puritan awakening in the seventeenth cen­tury, whose City Upon the Hill gave America’s self-interpretation its “cultural core,” through the first Great Awakening from 1730 to 1760, from which the Republic was born, through the Great Awakenings of 1800 to 1830 as well as 1890 to 1920, to the fourth Great Awakening of the 1960s and 1970s — warded off the recurring ideological and social crises in a “process of reorientation and redefinition of the core of beliefs and values that has enabled us to emerge from each crisis with renewed self-confidence as a people.”211 Thus, McLoughlin, as a radical Protes­tant civil theologist, ascribes contemporary spiritual-political revivalism to its Puritan origins: “Americans, in their cultural mythology, are God’s chosen, leading the world to perfection. Every awakening has revived, revitalized, and redefined that cultural core.”212

American Exceptionalism and the Founders

Despite all differences in analytic details, the historian, the political scientist, and the historian of religion agree that the American process of civilization must be viewed on the basis of the self-understanding preva­lent in American society, that is, Americanism. However, each in his own way sees that the diversity of forms prevalent in American symbolism developed historically from the civil-theological tradition.

This tradition is the frame of reference for the value-giving ordering experience, which, altogether, forms the basis of the common substance of American poli­tics. It is in this context that these interpreters once again discover “American exceptionalism.” In Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s opinion, “one signal advantage over most nations” is the valid standards of the Founding Fathers, incorporated in the American creed, “by which to set our course and judge our performance,” so that the “American experiment” may reach its destiny beyond the flux of events.213

Huntington puts it more precisely: The problems of the twentieth cen­tury affect only the incidental elements of American exceptionalism — those of power, wealth, and security; they do not touch upon:

“the his­torically most exceptional aspect of the United States: The United States has no meaning, no identity, no political culture or even history apart from its ideals of liberty and democracy and the continuing efforts of Americans to realize those ideals. Every society has its own distinctive form of tension that characterizes its existence as a society. The tension between liberal ideal and institutional reality is America’s distinguishing cleavage . . . . If that tension disappears, the United States, as we have known it, will no longer exist.”214

The crisis of Americanism in the twen­tieth century is supposed to be mastered through a historical retrospec­tive by pointing out the historical ordering function of civil theology, without, however, going beyond the semantic influence of the civil-theological discourse. Yet this confirms the view that, throughout their history, Americans have not identified with the American nation on the level of power and dominion, economics and society; rather, such iden­tification attained plausibility through their consciousness and symbols: “the changes in the regime could hardly have been greater if we had a violent revolution,” Elmer Eric Schattschneider correctly observes.215 A radically Phenomenological description by fixing each piece of social reality in time would demonstrate an enormous discrepancy between the America of Jackson and that of Nixon.

The Constitution of 1789 is valid today, not because the constitutional reality has not altered in the past hundred years or because the document can still meet all the needs of the adequate organization of government — it probably never could — but because it maintained the stability of the social field of consciousness, nourished since the founding and expressed in Americanism, and because it allowed the individual American to experience in his consciousness the radical changes in the government and its underlying socioeconomic structures on a person-peripheral level — that is, not as a substantial change in his status of homo Americanus. The social and political change initiated by the mental resources of Americanism is experienced as a con­tinuum that threatens to rupture only when the order of consciousness itself disintegrates. But this would mean quite simply the dissolution of the common sense of American society.216

Americanism and Common Sense

We have already encountered common sense as the symbol of American self-understanding. This historic state of affairs, given a theoretical turn, brings us closer to the problem, repeatedly referred to above, of the re­ality content or rationality of Americanism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines common sense as “an internal sense which was regarded as the common bond or centre of the five senses”; as “the general sense of mankind, or of a community”; and as “ordinary, normal, or average understanding (without this a man is fool­ish or insane).”217 But common sense as “the logic of inquiry which is derived altogether from experience and from reflection upon it”218 — that is, the judgmental and behavioral attitude of a man formed by rea­son — has first and foremost become an element of Anglo-Saxon self-interpretation. To acquire this, the American has traded a self-evidence that cut him off from his spiritual roots in philosophic meditation.

Com­mon sense here is no more than a code for the complex process by which a specific form of classical politics was established in the Anglo-Saxon culture area from the commonwealth’s-men of the seventeenth century to the Scottish school of philosophy of the eighteenth century.219 It is therefore not surprising that the lexical definition of common sense is synony­mous with Thomas Reid’s “philosophy of common sense.” Beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, this philosophy of common sense rebelled in the name of humanity against a dominant “philosophy” that it identified as Humean skepticism, against the dena­turing of reason and its deflection into the reflex of emotional life or the structural principle of logic, against the destruction of the general world of commonsense experience necessary to allow the meaningfulness of ex­istence.

Against this philosophy Reid declared, “I despise philosophy and renounce its guidance; let my soul dwell with common sense.”220 First of all, common sense explicates our primary experience of the intersubjective everyday world by grasping its reality in structures of type, in “principles . . . which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them.”221 Common sense “knows” what it is that is to be taken as origi­nal, both in action and in thought.222 But it is absurd to speak of an antinomy between common sense and ratio, for it is only the intersubjec­tivity of the everyday world that establishes common sense as that “de­gree of reason” found “in the greater part of mankind”: “It is this degree that entitles them to the denomination of reasonable creatures.”223

Such a degree of reason is necessary “to our being subjects of law and govern­ment, capable of managing our own affairs, and answerable for our con­duct to others; this is called common sense, because it is common sense to all men with whom we can transact business or call to account for their conduct.”224 This function or this branch of reason can be acquired and become habitual, allowing us “to draw conclusions that are not self-evident from those that are.”225 “This is reasoning or dianoia” — that is, the dianoetic or discursive function of the ratio — commented upon by William Hamilton, the editor of Reid’s works.226

Aristotelian Common Sense Must Be Renewed

But what is crucial is that self-evidence does not hang in the air but is disclosed by that function or that degree of the ratio that allows man to share in the divine; this function is “to judge of things self-evident.” It is “the province, and the sole prov­ince, of common sense, it coincides with reason in its whole extent,”227 and is “purely the gift of Heaven. And where Heaven has not given it, no education can supply the want.” The “noetic function”228 of common sense is here explicitly identified with the nous.229

This reformulation of the Aristotelian paradigm of man’s rational nature justifies in some sense William Hamilton’s claim “that the doctrine of Common Sense . . . is the one catholic and perennial philosophy” and “that this is too the name under which that doctrine has for two thousand years been most familiarly known, at least, in the western world.”230 It seems to me admissible to say that in self-evident common sense of Anglo-Saxon self-consciousness, including its special form of Americanism, Aristotelian rationality was sufficiently creative to prevail in the modern conflict “of ideology against the Mediterranean mind”231 expressed in that rebellion which, according to Camus, is the action of educated man aware of his own rights.232

Along with the discovery of a nature common to mankind, Aristote­lian rationality also conferred on self-evident common sense the “mea­sure and the limit which are the very principles of this nature.”233 Ac­cording to Camus, “The rebel is a man who is on the point of accepting or rejecting the sacred and determined on laying claim to a human situ­ation in which all the answers are human — in other words, formulated in reasonable terms.”234 Reason then feeds on understanding or nous, so that the rebellion “aspires to the relative and . . . promises an assured dignity coupled with relative justice,”235 creating a solidarity of hu­manity.

Aristotle’s philia politike, freed of all socially conditioned limi­tations, establishes within this solidarity a society of the free and equal that alone has the power to confer on modern times the legitimacy they demand. George Bancroft, for his part, explicitly reclaimed this substan­tial commonsense reason for the experiment of the American polity:

“Reason exists within every breast. I mean not that faculty which de­duces inferences from the experiences of the senses, but that higher faculty, which from the infinite treasures of its own consciousness, originates truth, and assents to it by the force of intuitive evidence; that faculty which raises us beyond the control of time and space, and gives us faith in things eternal and invisible.”236

This common sense, which in its concrete American manifestation ab­sorbed diverse Christian-Protestant and Puritanical-apocalyptic elements and was inevitably marked by the specific social experience of colonial existence, was the state of mind of the homines politici of the founding, creating for it a social field in the civil theology of the new nation.

But since even the Founding Fathers already understood that the “original truths and first principles” of ethics and politics were the “natu­ral and unsophisticated dictates of the common sense”237 — that is, they allowed its theoretical preconditions in the effort of noesis to fall below the threshold of consciousness — recurrence itself is in danger of being wrecked on the attitude of common sense if the behavior and decision-making pattern ingrained in this attitude is no longer a match for the challenge of an altered historical situation because this requires a new typology of social action. This demand is radical because it compels meditation to go back beyond the principle of self-evidence to the noetic origin of the order of consciousness.



177. Ibid., 308.

178. Hartz et al., Founding of New Societies, 23, 122.

179. The theoretical problems of such attempts were discussed earlier, and this is not the place to examine the inherent methodological questions of statistical measurements, any more than the subliminal predetermination of results through unreflective research paradigms, such as “democratic personality” and “liberal-conservative continuum,” which in themselves could only come into being in the context of Americanism. Besides the major voting studies of P. F. Lazarsfeld et al., The People’s Choice (New York, 1968); Bernard Berelson, P. F. Lazarsfeld, and W. N. McPhee, Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign (Chicago, 1954); A. Campbell et al., The American Voter (New York, 1960); and A. Campbell et al., The Voter Decides (Evanston, Ill., 1954), we should here take into account as well attempts at more encompassing empirical evidence of United States political life: R. E. Lane, Political Life (Glencoe, Ill., 1959); R. E. Lane, Political Ideology (New York, 1961); V. O. Key, Jr., Public Opinion and American Democracy (New York, 1961); V. O. Key, Jr., The Responsible Electorate (Cambridge, Mass., 1966); R. S. Erikson and N. R. Luttbeg, American Public Opinion: Its Origins, Content, and Impact (New York, 1973).

180. See Key, Public Opinion, 27-50. Erikson and Luttbeg, American Public Opinion, draw conclusions from the fact that a range of “terminal values” raised in a sample of adults in Florida in 1969 provides no evidence of agreement but rather hints at wide differences in American “values.” “Thus a value consensus is clearly absent” (113). The mischief, of course, lies in the authors’ honest belief that a series of eighteen so-called values (from world peace to fun) allows statements about consensus in society. Key’s thinking on this point is more cautious:

“Whatever the characteristics of popular attitude that permit gov­ernments to operate as if a basic consensus existed, they do not seem to consist of ideas that amount to a consensus on political fundamentals unless we mean by that phrase nothing more than a popular recognition of the legitimacy of the regime” (50).

For more recent methodological discussion, see A. R. Wilcox, ed., Public Opinion and Political Attitudes (New York, 1974), and S. Welch and J. Comer, eds., Public Opinion: Its Formation, Mea­surement, and Impact (Palo Alto, Calif., 1975).

181. R. Dahl, Democracy in the United States (Chicago, 1972), 333. Compare also R. Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago, 1956); L. A. Free and H. Cantril, The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion (New York, 1968), 176, 178.

182. D. J. Devine, The Political Culture of the United States (Boston, 1972), 65.

183. Ibid., 65.

184. Ibid., 286.

185. Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness (Boston, 1970), 97-98.

186. See H. von Borch, “Leiden am Imperium,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, no. 126 (May 18-19, 1968); D. Salomon, ed., LSD (New York, 1966); T.J.J. Altizer, ed., Toward a New Christianity (New York, 1967); W. A. Beardslee, ed., America and the Future of Theology (Philadelphia, 1967); S. Carmichael and C. V. Hamilton, Black Power (New York, 1967); P. Jacobs and S. Landau, eds., The New Radicals (New York, 1967); J. A. Newfield, Prophetic Minority (New York, 1967); N. Mailer, The Armies of the Night (New York, 1968); P. Baran and P. M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capitalism (New York, 1966).

187. This form of classical Marxism is best expressed in Baran and Sweezy, Monopoly Capitalism, and in P. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth (New York, 1951). The position is polemically presented in the anthology edited by T. Christoffel et al., Up Against the American Myth (New York, 1970).

188. H. Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston, 1972), 8, 16, 26.

189. Students for a Democratic Society, “The Port Huron Statement,” in Jacobs and Landau, eds., The New Radicals, 153.

190. C. Reich, The Greening of America (New York, 1970), 13.

191. Ibid.

192. Ibid., 1.

193. M. Henningsen, Der Fall Amerika (Munich, 1974), 253.

194. Reich, The Greening of America, 261.

195. Ibid., 287.

196. Ibid., 259.

197. J.-F. Revel, Without Marx and Jesus (Garden City, NY, 1970), 11.

198. Ibid., 112.

199. Ibid., 139.

200. P. L. Berger et al., The Homeless Mind (Harmondsworth, Eng.), 191-93.

201. Ibid., 198.

202. Ibid., 134.

203. T. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends (New York, 1973), 420-21.

204. Among the wealth of the relevant literature, exemplary contributions are the report of the Committee on Political Parties of the American Political Science Association, Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System (N.p., 1950); J. M. Burns, The Deadlock of De­mocracy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1963); J. M. Burns, Uncommon Sense (New York, 1972); A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Crisis of Confidence (Boston,1969); A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency (Boston, 1973); Lowi, The End of Liberalism; T. J. Lowi, The Politics of Disorder (New York, 1971).

205. Burns, Uncommon Sense, 181.

206. A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Cycles of American History (Boston, 1986), 27.

207. Ibid., 7.

208. S.P. Huntington, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (Cambridge, MA,1981), 4.

209. Ibid., 129.

210. G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakening and Reform: An Essay on Religious and Social Change in America, 1607-1977 (Chicago, 1980), 2.

211. Ibid., xv.

212. Ibid., 19.

213. Ibid., A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Cycles of American History, 21.

114. Huntington, American Politics, 260-61.

115. E. E. Schattschneider, The Semisovereign People (New York, 1960), viii.

216. This retreat of common sense, which now allows only a pluralism of private worlds, is a characteristic of modernity, according to Arendt, The Human Condition, 272ff.

217. Shorter Oxford Dictionary, 351.

218. S. Hook, Common Sense and the Fifth Amendment (Chicago, 1957), 15.

219. See Robbins, Eighteenth-Century Commonwealth Man; Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.

220. Reid, Works, I, 147. Compare L. Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eigh­teenth Century (New York, 1962), 49ff.

221. Reid, Works, I, 108.

222. Funke, Gewohnheit (Bonn, 1961), 387. The author concentrates almost entirely on the epistemological aspect of common sense. A substantial contribution is made by Henningsen, “Wirklichkeit des Common Sense.” Further important insights into the prob­lem of common sense are contained in B. J. Lonergan, Insight (London, 1963), 173-242, 289-99, and others.

223. Reid, Works, I, 425.

224. Ibid,, 422.

225. Ibid., 425.

226. Ibid., 11, 791.

227. Ibid., I, 425.

228. Ibid., II, 791.

229. Ibid., I, 550.

230. Ibid., II, 757. The essay by Reid’s editor, William Hamilton, “On the Philosophy of Common Sense,” in Reid, Works, II, 742—803. Voegelin, Anamnesis, 352, should be amended to note that at least Reid and Hamilton were aware of noetic experience as a precondition for common sense.

231. A. Camus, The Rebel, trans. A. Bower (New York, 1956), 199.

232. Ibid., 20.

233. Ibid., 294.

234. Ibid., 21.

235. Ibid., 290.

236. Bancroft, “The Office of the People in Art, Government, and Religion, 1835,” in Literary and Historical Miscellanies, 409.

237. Federalist No. 31.


This excerpt is from Americanism: Revolutionary Order and Societal Self-Interpretation in the American Republic (Louisiana State University Press, 1999). The earlier excerpts an be found in “The Genesis of Civil Theology: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three, “Americanism and Progressivsim” and “Post-War Americanism.”

Jürgen GebhardtJürgen Gebhardt

Jürgen Gebhardt

Jürgen Gebhardt is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Emeritus Professor at the Insitute for Political Science at the University of Erlangen-Nürenberg. He is the author and editor of several books, including Political Cultures and the Culture of Politics: A Transatlantic Perspective (Universitaetsverlag Winter, 2010).

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