April 25, 2009

The Death of Thought: Common Sense

I have learned that to be right and useful, one must accept a continuing divergence between approved belief - what I have elsewhere called conventional wisdom - and the reality. And in the end, not surprisingly, it is the reality that counts.
-- John Kenneth Galbraith
"Common sense" is so called because it is (supposedly) truth that is known and accepted by most everyone. Common sense makes an appearance on both sides of the culture wars, but is most frequently cited by cultural conservatives in a bid for (or assumption of) populist acceptance. Wherever common sense appears, it must be resisted: common sense is the most virulent of anti-intellectualisms. Common sense is the death of rational thought.

Common sense is invoked to avoid thinking. Common sense is an intellectual shortcut: any "truth" it expounds is an unexamined truth, at least at the point it exists as common sense. The more one's moral and intellectual makeup depends on common sense, the less one is personally involved in the moral and intellectual process.

Ideally, we would develop morally and intellectually first from personal experience, and secondly from our interfaces with the ideas of others. It is important to understand that moral and intellectual development is a process - one would hope a never ending process - as opposed to a nirvana-esque state of enlightenment we hope to achieve. Every day we have experiences, and we struggle (one hopes it's a struggle, anyway) to put the experiences into the context of the moral and intellectual framework of our lives. We do the same with the ideas and values of others as we encounter them. These experiences and ideas are the things we "know" and the things we "believe". As we come to understand moral and intellectual development as a process, we continually question the things we "know" and "believe" in the context of new and ever-changing information. Our ideas and values are subject to constant and never-ending scrutiny. As unexamined "truth", common sense is the enemy of evolutionary thought. I'm not so naive as to believe that life completely innocent of assumption is possible; but the more life is examined, the more new truth comes into focus. This is the "truth process", an evolutionary process that we, as rational beings, owe allegiance.

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The truth process always requires new information to continue. Lack of new information leads to the end of the process. New information only arises in a break with the known: it is only at this break (Badiou's "event") we can re-contextualize our world, only at this break that we can examine what we know in a new light. A muscle develops by breaking through its sheathing in a continual process of injury and renewal; the intellect and its double, morality, develop in exactly the same way.

The truth process requires two seemingly contradictory things at the same time: fanatical devotion to what we know as well as the fanatical devotion to questioning what we know. All truth must be hard-earned in this way. Anything less than both a radical questioning and a radical allegiance undermines the truth process . . . throws it out of balance, if you will.

Common sense can take the form of radical allegiance, but it is never (as we've seen) a radical questioning. As surely as it is a way to avoid thinking, it is also a way to avoid the impact of the break, the catastrophe of the event. Common sense is the unbroken sheathing that imprisons and atrophies the muscle of the moral intellect.

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I've consciously dialed back my rhetoric for this little rant, lest it become political in nature. While it's true that conservatives most consistently evoke common sense (Galbraith's "conventional wisdom" is exactly the same thing), the intellectual poverty exists beyond party or philosophical allegiances . . . as surely as the concept of tax cuts as economic stimulus is ridiculous, so is the altruistic model of foreign aid. The curse of common sense exists anyplace where too many people hold too many unexamined truths, whatever those truths may be.



Matt said...

great post as usual. i had a psych professor in college who used to give a similar spiel. He (and you0 are right on the money.

"Common sense" is one of those red flag phrases for me - I'm instantly wary of anyone who uses it. Same with the word "agenda".

Anonymous said...

This is my first stop at your blog, Bill and this was a great first impression. Good stuff!