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Response to Review of Common Sense: A Political History

Many thanks to Marion Ledwig – one of the world’s experts on common sense – for her generous and detailed review of Common Sense: A Political History. In it, she poses a number of interesting questions, and I will try to respond to a few of them here.

Does the fact that proverbs often contradict one another invalidate their connection to common sense?

To my mind, no. One of the points of the book is that the tenets of common sense – just like proverbs – frequently suggest mutually exclusive solutions or truths. And even when they don’t, they are always still open to multiple interpretations and multiple uses.

Was anti-American sentiment responsible for both the failure of French revolutionaries to capitalize on common sense in the manner of Tom Paine and the rightward turn of common sense after 1789?

To a degree, yes. Enthusiasm for the idea of the common sense of ‘the people’ as the source of revolutionary values was at its height during the first two years of the French Revolution, when excitement about the American example, as well as Anglophilia, was at its peak. But the subsequent adoption of common sense by French counter-revolutionaries (rather than radical democrats) can be better explained as an instance of the clever cooptation of the strategies of the left to new ends. Moreover, Marion Ledwig is correct that opponents of the Revolution looked backward too; I focus on the precedent set by anti-Enlightenment writers of the mid 18th century, but more could certainly be said (beyond Louise Marcil-Lacoste’s important Claude Buffier and Thomas Reid: Two Common-Sense Philosophers) about the role of the AbbĂ© Buffier in promoting an indigenous French Catholic tradition of thinking about common sense several decades earlier.

Was Kant really dead-set on restricting the purview of common sense, or the sensus communis, to the realm of aesthetics?

Obviously, this is a matter of interpretation, in part because Kant’s sentences on the subject are so opaque. In arriving at this point of view, I tried to read Kant very literally. And in fact, he does not ever explicitly tie common sense to political aims or social movements, even in the midst of the French Revolution. But it is also absolutely true that many great interpreters of Kant have, over the years, read these same words much more broadly, and this open-endedness has been highly productive both for political thought and for aesthetics ever since (as Marion Ledwig’s own work demonstrates). As I hope I make clear in my book, it is Kant’s thinking on this subject circa 1790 that provides the groundwork for Arendt, whose musings about the politics of common sense provide the starting point for my whole project.

Finally, what did Albert Einstein say about common sense?

Most famously, he (purportedly) said ‘Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18’. In the children’s book that I mention in my acknowledgements without naming (Rebecca Stead’s very popular When You Reach Me), one young character summarizes for another: ‘Einstein says common sense is just a habit of thought. It’s how we’re used to thinking about things, but a lot of time it just gets in the way of what’s true’. Einstein sounds not so different here from either the great radical Enlightenment thinker, Baron d’Holbach, or another great 20th-century aphorist, the writer Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote simply ‘the biography of common sense makes nasty reading’. And this is what has happened to common sense in the contemporary world: it has become the epistemological foundation of populism, a style of politics that pits perceived experts and elites – including scientists and artists of the avant-garde – against the collective masses. I hope Marion Ledwig is right that my analysis of this phenomenon will put common sense on the agenda of historians and political philosophers alike.