The Contradictions of Common Sense

Harvard University Press, 337 pages, $29.95, BY SUSAN DUNN

Common sense, Thomas Paine boasted in 1776, stood firmly on the side of the people. "There is something absurd," he wrote in Common Sense, his best-selling political pamphlet, "in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island." And it was "very ridiculous," he declared at the dawn of the American Revolution, for a hereditary monarch, a "youth of twenty-one (which hath often happened)," to rule over several million people, all older and wiser than himself.

Is common sense what common sense takes it to be -- the universal ability to make elementary judgments about everyday matters, based on real-world experience, leading to self-evident conclusions on which all sensible people can readily agree? Or is there more to it?

As Sophia Rosenfeld emphasizes in her illuminating new book, Common Sense: A Political History, the concept actually belongs to the realm of propaganda, power, and protest. Over the centuries, the appeal to the unerring, intuitive, and shared knowledge of average people has been the rhetorical tool of populist movements on the left as well as on the right. A claim to possess the common sense about a matter rarely ends a debate; more often it has acted as a pivot for violent disagreements as each side mobilizes its version of self-evident truth. But while common sense often plays a polarizing role in ideological debate, it may simultaneously be, as Rosenfeld writes, "the lifeblood of democracy." The idea of common sense can energize citizens, encourage their participation in political debate, and contribute to a rich, communal life.

Rosenfeld -- a professor of history at the University of Virginia and the author of A Revolution in Language, a study of 18th-century French political culture -- focuses mostly on the 18th-century origins of the idea of common sense in London, Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Philadelphia, and Paris. As she closely examines anonymous political pamphleteers, she mobilizes an array of philosophers -- from Shaftesbury to Kant and Hannah Arendt -- for their reflections and wisdom.

This is a scholarly work, but the diligent reader is rewarded with keen insights into how the belief in plain people's access to truth has contributed to demolishing established forms of authority -- whether law, tradition, or faith. Paine's Enlightenment idea of common sense implied a revolutionary, groundbreaking trust in the "people" and their capacity for self-rule. While he used the phrase "common sense" only three times in his famous pamphlet, he linked it to his democratic vision of politics. No matter how unconventional and hyperbolic his positions were, Paine insisted that he offered "nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments and common sense." His satirical and indignant "partisan manifesto," as Rosenfeld calls it, deployed common sense as a tactical weapon to attack the absurdity of monarchical authority, which he said rested on nothing more than custom and fear.

But while Paine tied common sense to self rule, what he provided, Rosenfeld explains, was less a vision of democracy than "a new political style." Rival notions of common sense followed quickly. Only a year after Paine published his pamphlet, the friend who had suggested the title Common Sense, the physician and revolutionary leader Benjamin Rush, decided that it was a mistake to conflate common sense with equality. The "natural distinctions of rank" that followed from the inevitable inequality of property, education, experience, and virtue, Rush held, corresponded more to the actual world than the abstraction of equality did.

On the other side of the Atlantic, men far more conservative than Rush invoked common sense to condemn democratizing trends. Reactionary counterrevolutionary leaders in France insisted that the revolution's crimes against the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Catholic Church lay not with the people but with the abstract theories of the revolution's radicals, who in the name of reason had transgressed every norm of common sense. To these nostalgic conservatives, common sense prescribed a return to the lost world of church, king, and traditional rural life. "Common sense," Rosenfeld notes, "became a key element of a populist style of conservatism that celebrated authoritarian governance alongside the traditional ways, values and language of ordinary people." But, as she points out, since this anti-democratic conservatism implied the unsuitability of ordinary people to make judgments about political life, the counterrevolutionary appeal to common sense made little sense.

Still another "populist strain," neither of the right nor of the left, evolved after the revolution. While embracing the revolutionary tenet of equality before the law and speaking in the people's name, Napoleon "rejected the direct involvement of ordinary people or even their representatives in the business of political judgment." Embodying a new kind of democratic despot, Napoleon mobilized the people in support of policies that disempowered them.

Fast-forward to the 20th century: Franklin Roosevelt believed that the essence of the New Deal -- his eclectic, experimental approach to solving the problems of the Great Depression -- reflected common sense. "It is common sense to take a method and try it," Roosevelt said in 1932. "If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

Four decades later, Gov. Ronald Reagan of California countered FDR's progressivism with his own brand of common sense, a philosophy of frugal, limited government. The machinery of state, according to Reagan, "could be operated efficiently by using the same common sense practiced in our everyday life, in our homes, in business and private affairs." In his farewell address to the nation in 1989, President Reagan celebrated his conservative doctrine as "the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense."

Today, Rosenfeld worries that common sense has "become increasingly the province of the right" and of conservatives like Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Glenn Beck. Their supporters, she notes, have even tried to appropriate Thomas Paine as a "sage of the right."

Ultimately, Rosenfeld is ambivalent about the value of the idea of common sense. On the positive side, she reminds us of Arendt's view that common sense is the bedrock of community and connection to others. "Common sense keeps people related to the real world," Rosenfeld explains. "It also keeps them related to one another. And it sets the parameters in which their public life can unfold."

But Rosenfeld also laments the degeneration of common sense into mindless slogans that can be used to sell cars and detergents. "Common sense has, by now," she remarks, "long existed as a fake normative criterion for making choices, whether the subject is soaps or candidates for office."

And so, while the idea of common sense can stimulate citizens' participation in healthy political debate, it can also block out new ideas, reinforce conformity, and replace debate with knee-jerk consensus. These are the two contradictory sides, she concludes, of common sense: "Common sense ultimately works to help us talk to each other but also to limit what we can hear and from whom." But, since the idea of common sense will be around as long as democratic self-rule survives, Rosenfeld offers a final cautionary suggestion in this thought-provoking book. "It is vital," she concludes, "that some individuals in the modern world consciously position themselves outside of the reigning common sense and keep a close eye on the complex and powerful work that it does."

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