"Common sense" is neither

Damon Linker has a nifty little piece in The New Republic about the notion of "common sense," and the part it has played in American politics. He writes:
The United States is a nation founded on an egalitarian creed—on the supposedly self-evident (commonsensical?) truths that all men are created equal and that all legitimate government is based on the consent of the governed. In such a nation, public appeals to authority would be much less persuasive than they had been throughout most of human history. Tradition, the divine right of kings, the will of God as interpreted by his designated clerical representatives—in America none of these authorities would benefit from the deference they have typically enjoyed in other times and places. Add in the ever-increasing social pluralism of modern life, and it becomes perfectly understandable why political actors and commentators in the United States would seek to win public disputes by appeal to the only authority still available—the authority of the people and their common sense. Whether such appeals are coherent is another matter.
In a nutshell -- no. I will spare you a lengthy, misanthropic screed of what I think of common sense. I've already advocated for our black-robed masters to make our important decisions for us, so it's probably no surprise that I take a dim view of the belief that the organized mass of Americans (or, for that matter, anyone else) is particularly sensible. But Linker's piece makes a compelling case against appeals to common sense as the justification for actual policy decisions.

However, one bit is striking out of step with the article as a whole.
Such appeals are unlikely to succeed, at least at the national level—and not only because there simply are no longer enough culturally alienated white people in the United States to catapult a presidential candidate to victory. The deeper reason why the appeal to common sense is liable to become a dead end in the coming years is that research in numerous fields—including artificial intelligence (The Open Mind Common Sense Project, The Cyc Project), linguistics and cognitive science (Ray Jackendoff, Steven Pinker), and psychology (Jonathan Haidt)—has the potential to transform the way we think about common sense, and not in a way that is likely to vindicate the right-wing approach to the topic.

This is kind of baffling, in that he has spent the entire article demonstrating how the rhetorical trope of appealing to common sense is used as a counter to egg-headed things like linguistics and cognitive science. While Linker (and I) may find Steven Pinker's research fascinating, I think it will have precisely zero impact on the way "we" think about common sense. The very people who are most likely to be swayed by appeals to their common-man, Joe Six-pack plain thinkin' are the least likely to find their pride in same transformed by research into artificial intelligence. If anything, being told by ivory-tower academic elite types that their "common sense" is merely another way of describing their biases will make them more inclined to cling to it as a rejoinder.

I still think the article is worth reading. But I think Linker is wrong when he predicts that academic research of any kind will have any change in the way populist rhetoric is styled. Anyone could have told him that. After all, it's just common sense.


  1. There's a quote by someone, I can't remember who, that common sense is too much of the former, not enough of the latter.

    And, however many twists and turns it may take, innovations in cog sci (inc. linguistics, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, etc.), do have a way of wending themselves into public consciousness.

  2. e.g., a century ago, almost no one thought there were non-conscious thoughts. Now everyone talks about non-conscious motivations (wrongly, but that's another issue).

  3. The Wisdom of Crowds. In general, I do trust the uncoerced choices of large numbers of people against the edicts of the elites. There simply aren't enough first-class minds in politics, and far too many third-rate meddlers with an ax to grind or a beak to wet. See Climategate for an example of Elites Gone Wild.

    It is common sense that common sense can fail, and that rational argument ought to guide common sense rather than the other way round. But some arguments, especially scientific ones, are now so esoteric that it is hard to evaulate them without highly specialized knowledge. Hence, common sense comes into play in deciding which authority to trust. In Climategate, the commonsense lesson is "trust Science, but don't trust scientists." This will apply when evaluating the public effect of results in cognitive science. In short, society should not fully accept remarkable discoveries until scentists have passed through the "consensus" phase. As you say, it is just common sense.