common sense

Common sense is getting a bad press. There are those who say we don't need experts; what we need is good old common sense. But these people - right-wing populist politicians mainly - are giving common sense a bad name. Suddenly all sorts of self-interestedness and wilful ignorance get proffered as examples of it. The basic form of such right-wing populism has it that knowledge about facts can be gained by simple intuition. Just learn to see aright, listen to your basic intuition, drop the self-deceptions of the liberal elite, and correctly align yourself again with the true nature of the world.

In response to their calumnies it's tempting for liberal elites to stress the essential value of experts. When dealing with a problem what we need to do is, allegedly, to listen to what well-educated experts have to say about it. They are the ones who know, and they know what to do because of their expertise in the various social, psychological and biological sciences. Because of their non-common-sense knowledge.

I want to take a stand against this. Yes, of course, it's absurd to think that you can figure out what is happening to something like the climate without listening to scientists. No amount of common sense can solve that kind of problem for you. Empiricism is needed when we have to do with empirical problems. But much of what we need to understand in life has little to do with empiricism. If you like, knowledge - whether gained through science or through simple intuition - is not what we need. What we need is not knowledge but goodness, honesty, care. Our problems are, often enough, not empirical, or not simply empirical - instead they concern matters of the heart. Here, what counts as open mindedness, as closed heartedness, as defensive, as a realistic spirit, is not something to be resolved by appeal to science or special or intuitive knowledge. For what we are really talking about is the character of the eye which sees any of the deliverances of the sciences and any of the facts of everyday life. Shine a light on the scientific findings or the everyday phenomena as bright as you like; if someone yet has their eyes closed - because they have their heart closed - then we will get nowhere. For what is at stake is in any case often or not not the obtaining of the facts but their human significance.

What I am claiming is that liberal elites and reactionary rednecks both share an overvaluation of empirical knowledge in their political reasoning. The right-wing populist makes a dumb appeal to a putative cognitive intuition; the liberal elite substitutes calculation and knowing for love. What we need is something we might instead call 'ethics' - which involves no specialist knowledge or reasoning, but instead a willingness to navigate the terrain of the human heart. We do have it immanent within us, this common sense, and it's part of our common humanity. Yet we may fail to listen to it, and what's happening here is not that we've failed to grasp a fact, but rather than we've become blinded by self-interest and stunted by our defences. It might be our common humanity, but a lot stands in its way. Empirical ignorance, however - whether a failure of empirical intuition or of expert knowing - is not the problem.


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