Common Sense as a Cultural System: Post-Truth Part II
This is my second post in a series examining the phenomenon of “post-truth,” which I broadly interpret as the failure of reason and evidence to serve their traditional roles as the legitimate basis for democratic deliberation.
In Post-Truth and Unreason, we began looking at common sense, which is to say, beliefs that are taken to be perfectly obvious and self-evident.
Drawing from cognitive and developmental psychology, we found that when people deliberate, they relate to their ideas as open, fluid, and tentative. But once conclusions are reached, they are experienced as closed, fixed, and resistant to revision.
Judgments and conclusions are projected onto the external world in a process the psychologist Carol Fleisher Feldman calls “ontic dumping.” They then appear to be empirical facts about the world that are plainly evident for all to see.
Today I want to look more into the problem of common sense, which I very much believe to be at the heart of the intransigent failure of a large block of the American body politic to rationally analyze issues of vital public policy concern, such as global warming.
In short, common sense is where critical thinking stops. Facts that are “perfectly obvious” require no justification, and challenges to such beliefs are not perceived as rational debate, but as symptoms of the deficiencies of the person making the challenge.
The legendary anthropologist Clifford Geertz makes an in-depth analysis of apparently self-justifying truths in his important article Common Sense as a Cultural System. According to Geertz, the key distinguishing feature of common sense is its appearance as self-evident:
Common sense represents matters – that is, certain matters and not others – as being what they are in the simple nature of the case. An air of “of-courseness,” a sense of “it figures ” is cast over things – again, some selected, underscored things. They are depicted as inherent in the situation, intrinsic aspects of reality, the way things go.
Geertz’s central argument is that common sense judgments are not free from theoretical presuppositions or commitments, although they appear to be. Common sense therefore constitutes a cultural system, or part of an interlocked matrix of commitments, beliefs, and values that partly govern thought:
There are a number of reasons why treating common sense as a relatively organized body of considered thought, rather than just what anyone clothed and in his right mind knows, should lead on to some useful conclusions; but perhaps the most important is that it is an inherent characteristic of common-sense thought precisely to deny this and to affirm that its tenets are immediate deliverances of experience, not deliberated reflections upon it. Knowing that rain wets and that one ought to come in out of it, or that fire burns and one ought not to play with it (to stick to our own culture for the moment) are conflated into comprising one large realm of the given and undeniable, a catalog of in-the-grain-of-nature realities so peremptory as to force themselves upon any mind sufficiently unclouded to receive them. Yet this is clearly not so. No one, or no one functioning very well, doubts that rain wets; but there may be some people around who question the proposition that one ought to come in out of it, holding that it is good for one’s character to brave the elements – hatlessness is next to godliness. And the attractions of playing with fire often, with some people usually, override the full recognition of the pain that will result. Religion rests its case on revelation, science on method, ideology on moral passion; but common sense rests its on the assertion that it is not a case at all, just life in a nutshell. The world is its authority.
In order to be properly understood, the underlying theory must be teased out and subjected to critical scrutiny.
The analysis of common sense, as opposed to the exercise of it, must then begin by redrawing this erased distinction between the mere matter-of-fact apprehension of reality – or whatever it is you want to call what we apprehend merely and matter-of-factly – and down-to-earth, colloquial wisdom, judgments or assessments of it.
To summarize these points, contrary to the way things generally appear, the determinations of common-sense reasoning are not free from theoretical beliefs and commitments. They simply appear to the mind in such a way that the underlying theories that deliver their conclusions are masked from awareness. It is, therefore, all the more critical to draw out the theoretical presuppositions that underlie common sense conclusions, and subject them to critical scrutiny.
As Geertz put it:
This analytical dissolution of the unspoken premise from which common sense draws its authority – that it presents reality neat – is not intended to undermine that authority, but to relocate it. If common sense is as much an interpretation of the immediacies of experience, a gloss on them, as are myth, painting, epistemology, or whatever, then it is, like them, historically constructed and, like them, subjected to historically defined standards of judgment.
This analysis rather reminds me of an interesting essay by the German idealist philosopher Hegel, which was translated by Walter Kaufmann as Who Thinks Abstractly?.
In this short essay, Hegel considers the stereotype of philosophers which holds that they spend their days gazing at the clouds, occupied with abstract reflection, and they fail to see the reality right in front of their faces.
This represents a long-standing prejudice that intellectuals are less able to understand the basic lessons of experience than the common folk. One is reminded of the apocryphal story that Thales, the first Greek philosopher, went for a stroll, and, gazing at the stars, failed to see a well in his path and fell to his death.
Or, more to the point, we might think of criticisms directed at the so-called technocratic elites who develop policy on the basis of obscure, suspect theories, presumably coming to conclusions that no ordinary person would come to.
While there are any number of highly-trained imbeciles, I agree with Hegel’s argument that the conventional wisdom on abstract thinking gets the situation exactly wrong. It is precisely the failure to bring critical reasoning to bear that results in abstract thinking, properly understood as seeing reality only in terms of one’s ideas, and the concordant the failure to see the world in terms of its actual manifold character.
In his pointed example, Hegel considers how a murderer appears to the eyes of the public:
A murderer is led to the place of execution. For the common populace he is nothing but a murderer. Ladies perhaps remark that he is a strong, handsome, interesting man. The populace finds this remark terrible: What? A murderer handsome? How can one think so wickedly and call a murderer handsome; no doubt, you yourselves are something not much better! This is the corruption of morals that is prevalent in the upper classes, a priest may add, knowing the bottom of things and human hearts.
One who knows men traces the development of the criminal’s mind: he finds in his history, in his education, a bad family relationship between his father and mother, some tremendous harshness after this human being had done some minor wrong, so he became embittered against the social order — a first reaction to this that in effect expelled him and henceforth did not make it possible for him to preserve himself except through crime. — There may be people who will say when they hear such things: he wants to excuse this murderer! After all I remember how in my youth I heard a mayor lament that writers of books were going too far and sought to extirpate Christianity and righteousness altogether; somebody had written a defense of suicide; terrible, really too terrible! — Further questions revealed that The Sufferings of Werther were meant.
This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.
Two ideas are worthy of special attention – first, the “nothing but” of the second sentence. There is a mental act of doubling-down on what is taken to be the salient feature of moral judgment here, and a self-righteous exclusion of all other factors from consideration.
The second related point is that all other human essence in the victim is annulled. That is, it is “perfectly obvious” that a murderer is nothing but a murderer, and any further reasoning into the matter is mere equivocation and moral transgression.
In conclusion, I submit that a necessary condition for political sanity is a willingness to re-evaluate any position or belief whatsoever on the basis of new evidence or new ideas, ideally accompanied by an intentional strategy of constantly revisiting one’s own deeply-held beliefs and subjecting them to critical scrutiny.
Next time, we’ll have a look at how unreason and post-truth take shape as the political ideology of populism, drawing from the analysis of the Princeton historian Jan-Werner Müller.