U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Almost Always Polemical": Common Sense, Mortimer Adler, and Late Twentieth-Century Liberalism (Part I)

In April of this year I wrote a post titled “Great Books Liberalism.” In that piece I cited Mortimer J. Adler’s 1970 book, The Time of Our Lives: The Ethics of Common Sense, as part of my larger effort to reveal the mid-century vital center-type liberalism that formed the politics of at least one prominent great books supporter. At the time I asked readers to momentarily set aside their doubts about the currency and viability of the phrase ‘common sense’—doubts I revealed that I shared. What I want to do now is fully engage those doubts, meaning in relation to philosophy, history, politics, and the great books idea. My hypothesis is that ‘common sense’ is one of those paradoxical, maddening, inadequate, and, sadly, indispensable tropes of any democratic culture. In other words, if you want to stir thinking and reflection into any pluralistic pot with democratic aspirations, ultimately you will likely have to reckon with either ‘common sense’ or a similar shorthand.

Why? Or, why do intellectual historians who write about the United States—aside from me—need to concern themselves with the fate, or movements, of ‘common sense’? I’m not sure I can answer this question to everyone’s satisfaction. But I can, for starters, relay something significant about the phrase from at least one other historian. Daniel Rodgers, in Age of Fracture, offers the following as a form of his book’s thesis (bolds mine):

“Most striking of all [from the 1970s to the present] was the range across which the intellectual assumptions that had defined the common sense of public intellectual life since the Second World War were challenged, dismantled, and formulated anew” (p. 2).

I think Rodgers meant, in this passage, the common sensibilities of post-war intellectuals rather than ‘common sense’ as it is used everyday. But let’s explore his usage further. Rodgers goes on to use the term in relation to public thought assumptions and movements in four other passages (bolds mine):

(a) Knowing “the pressures of society on the self was…to speak within the bounds of the prevailing common sense of the matter” (p. 5);
(b) “Certain game-theory set pieces—the free-rider problem, the prisoner’s dilemma, the tragedy of the commons—became fixtures of common sense” (p. 10);
(c) “As people tried to think their way through events and experiences using the shifting stock of categories at their disposal, the terrain of common sense shifted” (p. 12); and
(d) “[Reagan] claimed no special knowledge, no expertise, no special qualities of leadership beyond the embodiment of the public’s common sense” (p.33).

So Rodgers’s usage is mixed (i.e. who controls the meaning and usage of ‘common sense’—politicians? intellectuals? the public?). Even so, it’s clear that some understanding of ‘common sense’ is necessary to properly read his history of social, cultural, and intellectual fracture in the late twentieth century.

I listed the passages above according to page appearance, but the last, as a segue, touches on the political problem of ‘common sense’ most disliked by both the left, currently, and those who mistrust populism. Most late twentieth-century appeals to ‘common sense’ (May I drop the quotes now? Thanks!) have been by populist leaders, like Reagan, appealing to conservatives. In true Rodgers style, I looked for a way to search presidential speeches collectively for references to common sense and couldn’t find one (tried here). But I’d hazard a guess that the phrase appears more often in the public utterances of relatively “popular” two-term presidents like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Despite the singular (potential) link to Clinton and Democrats, I think that the party mostly likely to appeal to common sense is the one with demonstrated anti-intellectual rhetorical tendencies—namely, Republicans since the Progressive Era. In other words, those currently on the political left will probably have visceral reactions to common sense appeals. I say this, of course, with no sense of ironic cavil; my hunch is that only left-leaning academic political philosophers would be excessively annoyed with left-leaning populist candidates who utilized appeals to common sense.

Speaking of politics and intellectuals, Ben Alpers indirectly reflected on late twentieth-century political uses of common sense when, in January 2009, he wrote here about “White House Intellectuals” (with a follow-up here). In that first post Ben cited the appearance of Leo Strauss disciple Robert Goldwin as the Ford administration’s intellectual-in-residence. Here’s the provocative money quote from Goldwin on common sense (bolds mine):

“There is something fishy about the word ‘intellectual. …I think of ‘intellectuals’ as people who have a real distaste, sometimes even contempt, for the common sense approach, which is fundamentally the political approach.”

The quote literally drips with what Leon Kass (another Straussian) called the “wisdom of repugnance.” That aside, we see in Goldman a Republican administration purposely contrasting the “fishy” intellectual approach with the common sense way solving problems. Goldwin pretty clearly implies that intellectuals prefer top-down, pseudo-fascist bureaucratic means of problem solving, versus populist politicians who appeal to “the people” and seek to understand bottom-up majority opinion, if not the popular consensus. In sum, no Democrat would resort to common sense populism when an effete, eggheaded bureaucrat could get you to the desired end.

Rodgers history, my gloss, and Ben’s example, however, obscure the longer political and intellectual history of appeals to common sense. That lacuna is covered, somewhat, by a brand new book I indirectly referenced in my April post: Sophia Rosenfeld’s Common Sense: A Political History (Harvard Press, May 2011). Professor Rosenfeld is an historian of early modern Europe and the Atlantic world employed by the University of Virginia. Although I have put out an inter-library loan call for her book, my only access to it at this point is by way of (a) the publisher’s blurb and (b) a short write-up by Josh Rothman at the Boston Globe‘s “Brainiac” blog.

Assuming it is reasonably reflective of the product at hand, the press blurb tells us the following:

Common sense has always been a cornerstone of American politics. In 1776, Tom Paine’s vital pamphlet with that title sparked the American Revolution. And today, common sense—the wisdom of ordinary people, knowledge so self-evident that it is beyond debate—remains a powerful political ideal, utilized alike by George W. Bush’s aw-shucks articulations and Barack Obama’s down-to-earth reasonableness. But far from self-evident is where our faith in common sense comes from and how its populist logic has shaped modern democracy.

I’m struck by these key phrases and words: “always…a cornerstone,” “wisdom of ordinary people,” “self-evident,” “beyond debate,” and “faith.” Here’s the second paragraph from the blurb:

The story begins in the aftermath of England’s Glorious Revolution, when common sense first became a political ideal worth struggling over. Sophia Rosenfeld’s accessible and insightful account then wends its way across two continents and multiple centuries, revealing the remarkable individuals who appropriated the old, seemingly universal idea of common sense and the new strategic uses they made of it. Paine may have boasted that common sense is always on the side of the people and opposed to the rule of kings, but Rosenfeld demonstrates that common sense has been used to foster demagoguery and exclusivity as well as popular sovereignty. She provides a new account of the transatlantic Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions, and offers a fresh reading on what the eighteenth century bequeathed to the political ferment of our own time. Far from commonsensical, the history of common sense turns out to be rife with paradox and surprise.

More key ideas and points: “a political ideal,” used to “foster demagoguery…exclusivity…[and] popular sovereignty.”

Here’s what Rothman had to say about Rosenfeld’s book (bolds mine—aside: notice the similarities and differences with the blurb):

Common sense has a special place in modern politics. Politicians constantly appeal to it in their arguments, and they do so because democracy itself is founded on a faith in common sense. In 1776, for instance, Thomas Paine wrote, in his pamphlet Common Sense, that “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense” would suffice to place the rights of the people above the rights of the king. The king, and many others, disagreed; and yet today common sense seems, so to speak, self-evident.

The truth is, as usual, more complicated. …Common sense was invented by scientists, philosophers, and politicians. It only seems self-evident now because the idea of common sense presents itself as common-sensical, as though everyone, were he not disabused of the notion by experts, would know that he possessed it. Common sense is…a “slippery” idea — the kind of idea that covers its own tracks.

Rosenfeld’s account of common sense centers on the eighteenth century, when common sense and the scientific method both got their starts. Both ways of thinking about thinking [i.e. epistemology], she writes, began with “a Protestant emphasis on direct, experiential knowledge, simplicity, and the value of ‘ordinary life.'” Enlightenment thinkers, who championed reason over tradition and superstition, often cited something not unlike common sense as the quality that authorized them to set aside received ideas and come to their own conclusions. But that alliance was not to last. Science became increasingly specialized, and thinking, especially in print, more rigorous, complicated, and systematized.

Rosenfeld ties her story to a number of large historical developments throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Living in thriving, cosmopolitan cities gave ordinary people the sense that their (actually very local) intuitions might be universally true. Well-educated media types — think Thomas Paine — began presenting themselves as representatives of “the people,” in an effort to find a middle position in an economically stratified society. And people in authority, overwhelmed by an explosion of books and pamphlets, began using the idea of “common sense” to disqualify ideas they didn’t like as absurd or inappropriate. What emerges from this history is that, as Rosenfeld puts it, “common sense is almost never fully consensual;” instead, ideas about what’s common-sensical are “almost always polemical.”

What are we to take away from Rosenfeld’s history—assuming these passages above accurately reflect the contents of her book?

The political usage of common sense over time is clearly “rife with paradox” and inconsistencies. This is probably not surprising to most of us. Past and present politicians have a penchant for using words, terms, and phrases for personal gain—irrespective of truth, philosophy, and consistency. Nevertheless, Rothman reports Rosenfeld to argue that “democracy itself is founded on a faith in common sense.” This is probably disheartening to a significant number of intellectuals, but I think she’s right. I can’t decide, however, if this says more about the fragility of democracy or the tentative nature of knowledge. In either case, today’s usage of common sense is indeed “almost always political”—if mostly anchored in right-wing politics.

But, if we can set aside the uses and abuses of common sense by politicians, Rosenfeld also tells us that we should take seriously the intellectual foundations of common sense. …

Let me stop here, however, since this post is getting overly long. Next week I’ll try to connect those serious intellectual foundations with Mortimer Adler, the great books, and late twentieth-century liberalism. Stay tuned! – TL

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim–
    Do you know Clifford Geertz’s essay “Common Sense as a Cultural System”? I think it’s reprinted in _Local Knowledge_. It might be helpful in thinking about these issues.

    It’s frequently said that it was the adoption of Scottish moral philosophy in the colleges of the early republic that created an essentially conservative epistemology and social thought among educated elites. Scottish common sense (ala Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart, etc.) has often been viewed as a moderate stabilizing philosophy in contrast to the radicalism of the French Enlightenment. The title for Paine’s _Common Sense_ was, I believe, suggested to him by Benjamin Rush, who has studied philosophy and medicine in Scotland (at Edinburgh, I think). If you follow Gary Wills, Jefferson’s appeal to “self evident truth” in the Declaration of Independence, was similarly based on Scottish moral sense philosophy. See Terence Martin, _The Instructed Vision: Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and the Origins of American Fiction_ (1961). Sometimes common sense is more generally conflated with the moral sense, in which morality is viewed as rooted in a natural disposition common to all humans, which judges right and wrong immediately (as opposed to all systems based on rationalism or utilitarian arguments). The important figure here is Francis Hutcheson. The idea of a moral sense is essentially anti-intellectual; it rejects the idea that questions of right and wrong can be arrived at through study, education, clerical or biblical authority or rational means–instead it makes morality a matter of commonly attainable judgement or feeling. As much as this is a key Enlightenment idea, we might say that modern embrace of the natural pre-rational dispositions as the basis for authority and social order suggests that the Enlightenment itself is responsible for modern anti-intellectualism.

    The classical idea of the common sense was entirely different. Instead of referring to a sense shared by all people regardless of education, it referred to the faculty that united all of the disparate senses (seeing, hearing, touching, etc.).

  2. Dan,

    Thanks for the Geertz citation, which I’ve somehow missed or forgotten (being continually fed *The Interpretation of Culture* rather than *Local Knowledge*).

    I intended on getting into the classical vs. modern notions of common sense in my next post. Adler’s common sense project was clearly intended to unite the classical, Lockean, and Scottish projects. And this is connected to realism for Adler (though not strictly following early 20th century new realist models). I’ve been toying with the idea of renaming Adler’s project “public sense” in my MSS to capture the newness of his thinking, as well (a) avoid older common sense philosophy associations, (b) create an association with Lippmann’s public philosophy, and (c) avoid the pitfalls of a positing extensive shared assumptions of morality. Adler explains all of this in The Time of Our Lives (with no mention of Lippmann). The book also shows that Adler’s ethical/moral philosophy was intended to be both minimal and secular. My biggest point, coming next week, was that Adler—in my estimation—wanted his common sense project associated with mid-century liberalism (i.e. mixed economy, welfare state, robust progressive institutions, good government) rather than any conservative/libertarian reactionary movement (which is where “common sense” ended up, supposedly). – TL

  3. This brought to mind Gadamer’s lengthy discussion (if I recall correctly) of “sensus communis” in Truth and Method (1994 ed.).

    I’m happy to learn there’s no “bottom line” to the notion of common sense.

  4. Hi Tim,

    Your post also affords me the opportunity to clarify a common misunderstanding about common sense itself.

    In our everyday conversations, we say or hear someone say, “that person just does not have any common sense” or “that young woman really has a lot of common sense.” This use of the term, common sense, refers to the sound or unsound judgments or actions of particular individuals. However, this is not the same “sense” that is meant when it is used by philosophers. When philosophers use the compound “common sense,” the word common is used as “communal” meaning shared by all men everywhere at all times and places regardless of their backgrounds; the word sense is used as “experiences” and/or “opinions” commonly shared by mankind. I think it appropriate here to insert two quotes that should shed further light on this matter.

    The first quote is from Harvard University Professor George Santayana’s book, Skepticism and Animal Faith (1923): “I think that common sense, in a rough dogged way, is technically sounder than the special schools of philosophy, each of which squints and overlooks half the facts and half the difficulties in its eagerness to find in some detail the key to the whole. I am animated by distrust of all high guesses, and by sympathy with the old prejudices and workaday opinions of mankind: they are ill expressed, but they are well grounded.”

    The second quote is from Mortimer Adler’s book entitled, The Time of Our Lives (1970): “The distinctive method of philosophical inquiry involves reliance on the common experience of mankind, and an appeal to it as the test of the validity of philosophical theories, either about what is and happens in the world or about what men ought to seek and do. It also involves an assessment of the validity of commonsense answers to the kind of questions for answering for which common experience by itself is adequate, no additional empirical evidence or investigation being needed.

    Philosophy thus conceived is a development of the insights already possessed by the man of common sense in the light of common experience; it is a development that adds clarifying analytical distinctions, the precise definition of terms, the reinforcement of systematic reasoning, and the critical exploration of problems to which no satisfactory solution is yet available. The philosophical knowledge achieved by these additions confirms, even as it elaborates, the commonsense wisdom one need not be a philosopher to possess.

  5. @Patrick: Thanks for the Gadamer citation. I’ll find it.

    @Max: Thanks for dropping in at USIH. I intended on getting to your points about Adler in next week’s post. In the meantime, thanks for the Santayana quote.

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