By Ray Jones
It’s often claimed during discussion and arguments that something or other is common sense. Sometimes as a last resort when backed into a corner but sometimes in all seriousness as a triumphant coup to end debate.
But what is common sense? A dictionary definition says it’s “Sound and prudent judgement based on a simple perception of the situation or facts” which seems reasonable but leaves much unclear. What is “sound and prudent”? What is “a simple perception”?
Perhaps we can assume that sound and prudent means something like “what most people would think sound and prudent” or “what a wise person would think”. Which when you consider it are not necessarily the same thing at all and anyway, do we know what most people think or which wise person is being referred to? If we do know what most people think (eg: via a poll) or which wise person is referred to does it follow they are right? Majorities are not always right and wise people are sometimes wrong.
The second part of the definition is perhaps even more difficult. Does “a simple perception” mean a perception by someone who is simple (in a good way or a bad way)? or a perception which is not complex or scientific – why should this be better or worse?
Is common sense merely the view of “the man on the Clapham omnibus” (as philosophers use to say in less PC times)? British academic philosophers, often wandering in obscure unrealistic thought, are sometimes reproached by their rivals with the cry that have gone too far from ordinary language, too far from how the people in the street think. The response may be, “So what?” but it often makes them stop and reconsider.
It is sometimes amazing what philosophers believe the average person thinks or may think. Bishop George Berkeley (1685 - 1753) seems to have genuinely believed that they would easily agree with him that no solid matter existed in the world, only spirits and their ideas and that this did not seriously conflict with their everyday outlook and conduct.
In spite of some philosophers people have generally believed in the material world. But having said that they have very often believed in gods, spirits and ghosts as well.
Many things considered common sense in the past are generally thought just wrong now. For example for centuries it was taken for granted in the West that the Sun and planets circled the Earth and that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Our everyday experiences and perceptions appeared to prove this – and it said so in the Bible.
It was not until there were technological advances and social changes that this belief was undermined, eventually rejected and a replaced by a new common sense.
The idea of a Sun-centred universe in the West came from Copernicus (1473 – 1543) but not published by him until just before his death. He was reluctant to publish because he feared being laughed at and persecuted by the Catholic Church – both fears were realistic. It was not until many years later, when feudalism had decayed still more and science had advanced, that the theory became generally accepted.
The common sense of the day, the one that dominates, comes from the ruling class, the class that controls the means of production and exchange. It is propagated through their control of education, communication and religion and changes as that class changes in the development of society.
But it changes more profoundly when the old society breaks down entirely and a revolution produces a new ruling class. Because in class societies the oppressed classes produce their own common sense which often conflicts with that of the ruling class and after a revolution will replace much of it.
Different ways of making a living, different relationships with the means of production, can produce these different ways of looking at things.
Owners of industry will foist some ideas of common sense on their employees but not all their ideas and not all employees. “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” is a phrase often used by both capitalists and workers but what is meant by “fair” can be quite different because of their different and conflicting stand points. As the old society goes into crisis these conflicts become more serious, they are part and parcel of the leap from one type of society to another – of a social revolution.
Common sense then can be progressive or reactionary or neutral. There is no simple single common sense. As we always have to ask, “Democracy for whom?” we have to ask, “Common sense for whom and in whose interests?”