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The Political Meaning of Common Sense

Common Sense: A Political History. Sophia Rosenfeld. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.


Sophia Rosenfeld’s Common Sense aims to show the crucial but heretofore little noticed role of appeals to “the people’s common sense” in the development of modern democracy and democratic populism.  The evolution from monarchism or from mixed government of the British type to modern democratic politics of the type practiced in America was not a simple product of changes in political theory or the actions of rulers, though these played a part. It was the product above all of certain social developments and of a new kind of rhetoric explicitly claiming the mantle of “common sense” in order to win public opinion over to (usually partisan) political causes.

Rosenfeld does not provide a philosophical analysis of common sense. In fairness, she does not pretend to. She offers “A Political History,” and on the level of a history of a concept and its pragmatic political uses and consequences it succeeds brilliantly. On this level, the book is in fact definitive. Rosenfeld’s knowledge of relevant primary materials—books, pamphlets, periodicals, newspaper entries, etc.—is nothing short of astonishing and her account of the social and political context and pragmatic results thorough and perceptive.

Her political interpretation is fatally undermined, however, by the lack of philosophical analysis, by her failure to take seriously the opposing truth claims made and to penetrate to the deeper experiences the knowledge of which would let her judge authoritatively the merits of the arguments. Consequently she cannot discern fully what is at stake in the controversies over “common sense,” their full human significance. Worse, she fails to grasp one of the most basic concepts for common sense philosophy, the concept of self-evident truth. One of her stock criticisms, indeed a point of derision, is that so many people fail to see things supposedly self-evident. She seems to think a “self-evident truth” means a truth obvious to everyone. But every major thinker who has written on the subject—most notably, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Thomas Reid—specifically denied this. Self-evident truth is obvious only to those who have seen the evidence and observed it directly, without obstruction. That is, there are important preconditions for recognizing self-evident truths, and where those conditions are absent it is no surprise if the truths go unrecognized also. If Rosenfeld had gotten clear on this one point and considered its implications, it would have caused her to take the question of the truth of common sense more seriously and to weigh the political implications differently, or at the very least to have made her more cautious in her criticism.

The larger question of Rosenfeld’s study is, in her own words, “How—and with what lingering consequences—did common sense develop its special relationship in modern times with the kind of popular rule that we call democracy?” (3). She perceives that the road to contemporary political appeals to “the people” has been made ready in part by intellectuals’ and the commentariat’s appeals to common sense, to what all human beings or at least all people of good sense know (or should know) or more narrowly to the good sense of the respective communities in which their self-appointed spokesmen have operated. Study of this development has indeed been much neglected, as I have already suggested, and highlighting it serves to correct the impression political theorists sometimes give that modern politics emerged directly from the heads of great modern philosophers like Athena from the head of Zeus. In fact, the special concepts of Locke or Rousseau or Kant never had anything like the public resonance of good old “common sense.”

Rosenfeld properly defines “common sense” in its modern usage as having a twofold meaning: “we sometimes use common sense to mean the basic human faculty that lets us make elemental judgments about everyday matters based on everyday, real-world experience,” and “other times we mean the widely shared and seemingly self-evident conclusions drawn from this faculty, the truisms about which all sensible people agree without argument or even discussion” (1). She nicely identifies as well the typical political uses of common sense. Most basically, by establishing a firm epistemological foundation for political conviction the appeal to common sense could provide, it was hoped, “a minimal form of authority on which a common identity could be founded” (26). Such appeals are most self-consciously resorted to, of course, when a community’s sense of common identity and the common convictions which constitute that identity are breaking down or seem in danger of breaking down, and in this respect modern appeals to common sense are a clue to what is often called the “crisis of modernity,” a subject Rosenfeld might have probed more deeply.

The specific context of modern common sense rhetoric, Rosenfeld observes, has been the growth of cities and of modern means of communication, in particular newspapers and the periodical press, which made addressing the public much easier than in times past. Cities were the centers of communication, and Rosenfeld accordingly organizes her account chronologically around the cities in which common sense philosophizing and/or rhetoric most impressively occurred—London, Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Paris, Königsberg, and ultimately New York.

A key focal point of discussion was religion—its political relevance, its value to society, the conflicts surrounding it, and its present or potential corruption. Parallel concerns emerged later in relation to non-religious or anti-religious ideologies, notably the French Revolution’s cult of Reason and the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. One could say (though Rosenfeld does not say it) that crucial to the rise of modern “common sense” philosophy and rhetoric was the unraveling of Christianity in the West (at least in its old orthodox form) and the struggle to restore a stable sense of common meaning to fill the void.

The philosophical and popular history of “common sense” Rosenfeld provides is rich and complex, too intricate to summarize. I here select a few highlights that may serve to illuminate the essential problems. At the outset I observe that Rosenfeld’s evaluation would have benefitted from a more systematic consideration of the ancient conceptual background. She begins appropriately with Aristotle’s koine aesthesis or common sense, by which he meant the faculty enabling us to perceive objects known through the five senses as unified wholes, as things and not mere heaps of sensations. Rosenfeld stresses the historical shift in the meaning of the term from Aristotle’s notion to the modern concept defined above. What she does not notice is that Aristotle and other ancient thinkers addressed the substance of the modern idea under different headings and indeed took what moderns call common sense to be of the highest importance, so much so that John Dewey in the 20th century could describe the peripatetic philosophy as essentially a technical elaboration of common sense understanding.[1]

The capacity we call common sense was in fact for Aristotle the very essence of humanity. Human beings are rational animals. This emphatically did not mean for Aristotle that all human beings are capable of philosophy but precisely that they all have that common sense faculty. Moreover, Aristotle drew out the political implications with great precision. First, the basis of community is homonoia, likemindedness, specifically about what is good, just, and useful, i.e., about the characteristic concerns of specifically rational creatures. Man is a “political animal,” distinguished from other animals (which are after all capable of a certain level of communication) by the capacity for speech, meaning rational communication, meaning communication about what is good, what is just, and what is useful for achieving rationally determined ends.

Second, that all human beings have this capacity suggests for Aristotle that it is both desirable and just to have a popular element in government. The “average Joe” may not have the discriminating judgment necessary to lead the country, but he is perfectly capable of judging political results. If he is unemployed and hears that the larger economy is in bad shape, he knows well enough that government efforts to improve the economy are not working. Indeed, Aristotle suggests that ordinary people in the aggregate are actually better judges of political results than the elites because they experience the results more powerfully than elites do. It is desirable, then, to bring ordinary people into the political process because collectively they see some things more clearly than elites, and it is just to do so because they bear the brunt of government policies.

Common sense as rational faculty and common sense as sense of the community are thus both there already in Aristotle, though appearing under different names. I take the time to spell all this out because it shows that what is new about common sense in the modern context is not the idea of it but its self-conscious use in political rhetoric. In fact, one can easily overstate the newness of putatively commonsensical populist appeals. Socrates was constantly complaining, after all, about demagogues flattering the demos as knowing what is best for society, and in the end offending the demos is what got him killed. In fact democratic rhetoric and its uses and abuses were central preoccupations for many of Athens’ leading lights, from Pericles to Aristophanes to Aristotle. Again, the substantive as opposed to merely terminological philosophical context would have helped place “common sense” rhetoric historically.

Let us turn now to some highlights of Rosenfeld’s modern history. The struggle for identity in the face of wavering Christian faith, again, was the larger context. In London, the landmark philosophical expression of common sense was Lord Shaftesbury’s essay Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour, which recommended public debate and in particular public ridicule as tests to see whether truth claims really square with common sense. Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper) was concerned to expose impostures of intellectual and religious enthusiasms by showing their absurdity. It was to combat in particular religious “enthusiasm,” with all the bloody conflict it had wrought in the English and European religious wars, that writers like Edward Stillingfleet and John Tillotson tried to reinterpret Christianity on the model of natural religion, to establish a “reasonable Christianity” more in line (they thought) with common sense.

Among the most important early public champions of common sense were Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, whose serial the Spectator they presented as a place where readers could find commentary based on “right reason, and what all men should consent to” (31). Whigs like Addison and Steele contributed to a crystallization of England’s sense of itself as the home of liberty and common law, conceived as products and embodiments of impeccable English good sense. In other words, they tried to tie common sense rationality and the sense of the English community tightly together.

Common sense rhetoric, however, as Rosenfeld rightly points out, was as much a source (or perhaps rather a reflection) of division as of unity. English “country vs. court” literature (made famous to today’s scholars by Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution) pitted the common sense of the English countryside against the corrupt extravagance of the royal court. Whigs evoked the simple wisdom of the mythical “Ancient Constitution” of England as a standing rebuke to royal arrogance and duplicity. Latitudinarians, of course, appealed to the unspoiled good sense of the common man. Common sense, in short, became a weapon of dissent. But the Tory establishment fought fire with fire, identifying common sense with English royal and aristocratic traditions and accusing dissenters of undermining British unity, the supposed aim of common sense rhetoric, through demagoguery and what to the establishment amounted to class warfare.

The city historically most identified with common sense philosophizing is Aberdeen, Scotland, home of Thomas Reid and the Scottish Common Sense School. It is in Rosenfeld’s account of the Scottish Common Sensers that the strengths and weaknesses of her history are most starkly evident. She dwells at length on the popularizing work of James Beattie but gives short shrift to the work of Reid, arguably the greatest of the modern common sense philosophers. This certainly serves her aim of exposing the uses and effects of common sense rhetoric, but at the expense of clarifying the real philosophical and human problems at issue.

As Rosenfeld notes, a primary motivation for the rise of common sense philosophy in Scotland was to preserve Christianity and Christian-inspired morality against the tide of skepticism represented by David Hume and the moral relativism the Common Sense school thought was bound to result. Reid, a sometime Presbyterian minister as well as college professor, tended to de-emphasize the traditional preoccupations of Christian theology in favor of a more naturalistic understanding, but his powerful defense of human epistemological capacity provided a basis for distinguishing sound from spurious claims to common sense rationality. James Beattie was greatly inspired by Reid but was philosophically far less capable, and his somewhat crude populist rhetoric ultimately gave Scottish Common Sense a bad name in the wider philosophical world, eliciting a scathing rebuke from Immanuel Kant.

Beattie is without question a major figure in the development of common sense rhetoric in forging a more democratic public domain. But Rosenfeld’s inattention to Reid’s philosophical arguments prevents her from seeing the constructive potential of philosophically based common sense appeals. She asserts that such appeals always involve some degree of deception (154) and thus are always in some measure demagogic. She is right to point out the danger and gives some convincing examples of abuse. But is the possibility of founding a genuinely rational consensus through responsible common sense appeals really so far-fetched? Rosenfeld seems to think so because she seems to think truth can never really be known. In fact by all appearances she writes her history from the perspective of a skeptic and thus begs the question. Again, openness to the possibility that the truth of what is good for the community might be in some degree known and well enough articulated to a willing public to forge a basically rational consensus would have resulted in a different kind of history, one more alive to the human possibilities.

Developments after the Scottish moment make the human stakes and constructive or destructive uses of common sense rhetoric strikingly evident. If the human truths involved are not obvious to Rosenfeld from the debates themselves, they should be obvious from the empirical results, in particular in the American versus French revolutions and in resistance to or failure to resist the 20th-century totalitarian ideologies. One side in each case fought to preserve the residue of rationality in Western civilization while the other side sought to overturn it, with lasting consequences on both sides.

In the case of the American Revolution, the most direct popular appeal to common sense was of course made by Thomas Paine. Paine’s Common Sense is an interesting case in that it affirmed the rational residue of Anglo-American civilization while rejecting English and Western traditions. The paradox was not generally recognized until the publication of Paine’s Age of Reason, which was much more obviously in the deconstructionist spirit of the French Revolution and which caused the same Americans who had loved Paine for his first pamphlet to hate him for the second. To her great credit, Rosenfeld gives the best close reading of Paine’s Common Sense I have read and draws out very perceptively how Paine tapped into the intellectual and popular resonance of “common sense” in America, likely borrowing from Scottish Common Sense, with which the highly educated American founders were well acquainted; and at the same time how he turned the phrase into a radical tool, causing Americans for a time to forget how much of their common sense thinking they owed to the British. It was Paine more than anyone else who turned Americans from proudly identifying themselves as Englishmen celebrating English rights and liberties to seeing themselves as preserving American and ultimately human rights and liberties against British royal tyranny.

Paine captured the dynamics of common sense rhetoric precisely in his “Appendix” to Common Sense, added some time after original publication. (Rosenfeld does not mention the Appendix or its contents.) Though American resolve was at the moment “held together by an unexampled concurrence of sentiment,” this concurrence was “nevertheless subject to change, and…every secret enemy is endeavoring to dissolve” it. “The mind of the multitude,” he said, “is left at random, and seeing no fixed object before them, they pursue such as fancy or opinion starts.” “Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they [could] form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter.”

Paine here brings out something essential for the success of common sense rhetoric that Rosenfeld never really touches: it must appeal to something already there in the people, latent in the public consciousness, to be effective. Efforts to impose truth on a people who cannot see it may in fact be not only ineffective but destructive. One might argue that this is why the American Revolution ended in broad consensus about American principles while the French Revolution ended in the Reign of Terror: the human material in America was prepared for and thus capable of seeing the truth of the “self-evident truths” in the Declaration of Independence, while in France it was not. Liberty, equality, and fraternity were glittering abstractions in the French case; in America they were the living stuff of long tradition.

Rosenfeld’s account of French common sense theorizing makes clear its anti-civilizational thrust. The operative term for the French was bon sens. Rosenfeld expertly describes the key contributions of such figures as Condillac, Voltaire, Helvétius, and above all d’Holbach, but the posture of the French philosophes may be adequately illustrated by that of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau (to whom, curiously, Rosenfeld does not give much attention) picked up on the theme of the “noble savage” who, because he was uncorrupted by the artificial accretions of civilization, was better in touch with the clear dictates of common sense. (As Rosenfeld points out, the fullest development of the “noble savage” theme was made by Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de Lahontan.) Civilization was not, as Burke was later to suggest, a depository of wisdom but an obstacle to wisdom. The solution to modern problems was, as we say, to “get back to nature,” from which the artificialities of civilization had estranged us. The contrast to Aristotle could not be more stark: For Aristotle what came to be called civilization was a reflection of human nature; civilization as a differentiation of reason, of what reason recognizes as good for man, was the goal and completion of human nature. For Rousseau the only way to live well as a human being in the modern context was to forget about the fruits of civilization (and in particular of the Greco-Christian tradition) and let society be a raw, immediate creation of the general will.

Key to this project was forging a new sense of the French community on the basis of “true” bon sens. The French community had what Marx would later call a “false consciousness.” They were blinded by tradition to what was good to them. In short, they lacked good sense. So the philosophes did not appeal, as Paine and others had in the American case, to something already there in the people, but to something not in the people that needed to be deposited in them through reeducation. And what the people needed to get away from was precisely what the Americans and the Scottish Common Sensers wanted to affirm: the reason of Christianity. Christianity was in fact irrational and the primary source of all the irrationalities from which the French needed to free themselves.

Comparing the American and French cases helps to clear away some common misunderstandings about common sense and its political meaning. First, appeals to communal common sense, as Paine illustrated, do not necessarily entail supporting the status quo. Indeed it might mean the status quo needs to be reformed or overturned. On the need to overturn the status quo the American and French revolutionaries were agreed (thus the need for revolution), and they agreed on one of the things that needed to be overturned: the royal prerogative. As good Protestants Americans endorsed, too, the French philosophes’ desire to throw off “popish” authority and what Jefferson called “monkish superstition.” The difference was that unlike the Americans the French had no experience of democratic government either politically or ecclesiastically—the American colonists had been governing themselves by representative legislatures and practicing a highly decentralized, congregational style of Christianity for a full century and a half before the late British intrusions. If this was the right way to organize community, the French people had not been prepared for it.

Second, as the foregoing implies, the appeal to common sense may involve conflict in the short run to achieve a more rationally-based unity in the long run, and this will entail getting people to see the self-evident rightness of the political order called for by removing obstacles to their rational vision and pointing out to them facts and principles they’ve been overlooking. To the extent the putative facts are really there and the principles in fact self-evidently true, the people really could be said to have suffered previously from a kind of false consciousness and with the right kind of rhetorical education helped to overcome it.

But, like the experiential preparation, this “to the extent” is absolutely critical. For the change to be healthy and constructive, the claims made in the name of common sense have to be true. The human situation has to be accurately assessed, and the “good” things called for have really to be good for people. If one admits that the situation can be accurately assessed, and seen to be so by the population at large, and that what is really good for the population can be effectively pointed out to them, one de facto admits that there is such a thing as common sense rationality and that common sense rhetoric can be objectively beneficial as well as socially effective on the pragmatic level.

Third, the preparation of the people for this kind of salutary human progress therefore involves getting them in touch with certain rational experiences. If “common sense” rhetoric stays on the level of bare abstractions, the real truth of common sense claims will not be seen. Common sense rationality, if there is really anything to it, is a kind of seeing, and self-evident truth a kind of knowing by experience. Common sense rationality is emphatically not a product of logical reasoning, as common sense philosophers constantly stress, but a getting in touch with what can be known only by seeing the relevant facts and principles directly, by experiencing them in some way.

I leave aside here the tangled question of to what degree Christianity or democratic life and governance is genuinely rational by the standard of common sense. What does seem to be objectively knowable on a common sense level is whether the quality of a community and its order of power is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. This is nowhere more evident than in the case of 20th-century totalitarianism and its resisters. No decent person could see what totalitarianism was and say, “It is good.” No decent person could see totalitarianism and Western democracy juxtaposed, whatever Western democracy’s flaws, and fail to see that totalitarianism was qualitatively worse, much worse. If many Germans, Russians, and others failed to see the evil of totalitarianism it is because they were morally and intellectually deficient, not because the truth of the matter was unknowable. Rosenfeld presents Hannah Arendt as the great 20th-century champion of common sense against the totalitarian ideologies, but even here Rosenfeld seems unwilling to affirm the clear-cut rightness of Arendt’s common sense appeal. Throughout her book Rosenfeld treats common sense claims as mere claims and seems to assume that since common sense rhetoric is used in conflicting or opposing ways, because there is disagreement, the truth of the matter debated is unknowable.

No doubt like most contemporary historians Rosenfeld deliberately avoids making judgments about the truth of truth claims, taking the interpretive role of the historian to be limited to discerning historical causation, historical causation understood in the stripped-down sense of how one event instrumentally leads to another. What such historians do not seem to recognize is that they invariably end up making judgments about the plausibility of truth claims in spite of themselves, but because they are not self-aware of making such judgments, they lack a reliable criterion for distinguishing plausible from implausible; and even when they are right about what is plausible, their judgments do not penetrate to the real significance of true and false claims.

One great strength of Rosenfeld’s book is its implicit judgments about the limits of common sense as epistemic criterion and as a mode of social formation. What she misses is that these judgments about the limits of common sense are themselves common sense judgments capable of common assent by others—that is, her judgments are both expressions of common sense rationality and a basis on which a rational sense of at least the scholarly community might be formed. Concerning common sense as epistemic criterion, Rosenfeld is right to suggest that ordinary common sense—the level of rationality shared by all human beings—is inadequate for judging very complex matters. Understanding such matters requires a certain degree of sustained study and in some cases much greater than average intellectual capacity. She acknowledges this in passing during a quick note on Reid’s making the point. She is also right to notice the limits of common sense as a mode of social formation, both because appeals to common sense may be spurious or demagogic and because it is often very difficult to get an effective majority of people to see the wisdom of the appeals. (Plato recognized all these points long ago.) But all these points are compelling because they are obviously true, and Rosenfeld can know them to be true and we can recognize the truth of what she is saying only because both she and we have common sense.

Rosenfeld and her readers could recognize these points without any kind of serious philosophic analysis. The deepest point about the limits of common sense and common sense rhetoric, however, is something only philosophical analysis could make clear, and that is the point I keep hinting at about the substantial foundation of a people, the substance of a people that gives it the “quality” is has. Real common sense appeals—I mean those really rooted in common sense rationality—can only be effective if the people’s common sense is in healthy condition. A people might be alienated from common sense rationality because of some corruption. Eric Voegelin was at pains to show in his Hitler and the Germans, for instance, that the Germans (not all, but an effective majority) succumbed to Hitler’s perverse appeals because they were lacking certain qualities, a certain existential grounding, that would have made the Nazis’ moral outrages obvious and unacceptable.

What kind of grounding keeps people in touch with common sense rationality? Voegelin argued that it was a grounding in experiences of transcendence, such as those limned most impressively by Plato and the great Christian philosophers. These experiences were the essence of reason in the classic sense, awakenings to the highest realities in light of which the rest of experience could be understood. Voegelin suggested in his Anamnesis that common sense rationality on matters of justice and morality is a residue of reason in this classic sense.[2] Common sense rationality on this reading is clarity about what is good and what is right possible only in light of awareness of the highest good. If this is correct, common sense rhetoric could only be socially effective where the people have been spiritually conditioned by certain experiences of transcendence with which they have not entirely lost touch.

Were French revolutionaries and fascists and communists out of touch with transcendence in a way the American revolutionaries with their still vital Christian tradition were not? In the American context, were proponents of slavery similarly estranged, as Lincoln implied, from “the better angels of our nature”? These are questions too large to take up here. Suffice it to say that any adequate history of common sense must consider more deeply than Rosenfeld has the real human status of common sense rationality, the human good it may reveal, and the condition of a people that would make it receptive to genuine common sense appeals. That is, it would require doing history in a sense now not recognized by the academic history profession. Rosenfeld’s book contains essential materials for understanding the development both of modern philosophy and of modern democratic politics, and as such deserves to be widely read. But the book falls short of showing common sense’s real political significance.



[1] See Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 28-29.

[2] See Voegelin, Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, Trans. M. J. Hanak, ed. David Walsh (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 410-412.

Scott Segrest

Scott Segrest is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Citadel. He is author of America and the Political Philosophy of Common Sense (Missouri, 2009).

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