Quaker Universalist Conversations

Common Sense: A Political History – A Review by Larry Spears

Sophia Rosenfeld, Common Sense: A Political History  (Harvard University Press, 2011)

Is the Light in Quaker testimony the same as common sense?  Is common sense a universal of the human condition?  Is common sense reliable as a guide for human actions?  Is there agreement on what are the components of common sense?  These are questions that can provide uncomfortable help to Quakers in reflecting on the Light which functions as a parallel concept to common sense in the Quaker tradition

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_light).

Sophia Rosenfeld’s new book, Common Sense: A Political History begins to make the familiar idea of common sense seem strange by scrutinizing it and, thereby, the author helps our understanding of our past and our future political discourse. Common sense is a previously unexamined theme in intellectual history in the western tradition.  The term “common sense” seems so obvious and familiar that it is surprising that its lineage and history are generally unknown.  Rosenfeld traces the long lineage of common sense in Western thought.  Aristotle started the discussion by identifying common sense, but it was not until the 18th century that it became a political term.

For Quakers, this political analysis of common sense provides a tool for reflection on the analogous role of the Light in Quaker discernment.  The strength and weakness of the Quaker experience of the Light parallels the benefits and dangers of common sense in political life.  It is worth the time for Quakers to reflect on the Rosenfeld analysis of common sense for its application to the core Quaker Light.

Common sense, whatever its definition, may be a universal of human thought about politics and religion. Common sense reflects the collective wisdom of the community, which is, often harmfully, not clearly articulated.

This political book about the idea of common sense is divided into six parts corresponding cleverly to six geographical locations for the development of the political discourse of common sense.  Building on the Aristotelian tradition of common sense as the unifying human sense in managing any conflicting assessments of the five physical senses (touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell), the author identifies the Glorious Revolution of the 17th century in England as the occasion for the recovery of the more concrete idea of common sense in political discussion and the application of common sense to political discourse. In this time period, common sense became a primary justification for the wisdom of the common people in democracy.  Quakers should take note that this is the period and part of the intellectual environment of birth and development, of the people called Quakers and Quaker insights.

Common sense has a complex of meanings.  The dominant meaning of common sense changed over time.  It also is a slippery idea, which can also be equated with prejudice and habitual thinking whatever its merits.  Today, common sense is one of our most important political concepts and supports for democratic populism.  Common sense argues that the shared views that are innate in the constituent people offer a better guide and authority for political decisions than the wisdom of elites or the knowledge of experts.  It is a leveling concept and is contrasted with an aristocratic concept.

In the 18th century, the controversial polemicist Tom Paine made common sense a public term in his book of that name, Common Sense.  He positioned common sense in politics and linked it to democracy as a source of self-rule as contrasted with the traditional wisdom of experts, elites and upper classes.  Since then, many political leaders have effectively used common sense in appealing for democratic decisions.  More recently, candidate and President Ronald Reagan embraced or reappropriated Tom Paine’s idea of common sense to identify the reconstituted idea in a folksy way and a source of optimism for the future.

Common sense has its deficiencies.  The idea of common sense stands in tension with both representative democracy and acknowledgement of the role and value of experts and expertise.  Common sense has the effect of blocking new ideas and cutting off discussion.  Common sense encourages prejudiced solutions.  Common sense is inclined toward a view of simple formulations by common people as superior to complex, specialized and scientific solutions.  While common sense has the benefit of being easily communicated, it is not necessarily true.  To the extent that Quakers embrace common sense as a surrogate for spiritual discernment, they risk distraction and waywardness from the truth.

One of the main results of calling upon common sense as a sovereign and primary authority for truth is the injection of an unintended democratic ethos into the realm of public judgment.  There is a constant risk that this common sense experience can become the source of convictions that can put many beliefs beyond challenge and critical discussion.

For Quakers specifically, the author offers little praise and comfort in her political analysis.  Rosenfeld references Quakers in several places, primarily to show their irrelevance to common sense public discourse.  Yet, common sense is an important concept for Quakers.  Common sense is much like the Light in the experience of Quakers.

What is the relation of common sense to the experience and role of the Light that Quakers hold out along with reason and tradition, as a source of authority for spiritual life and action in relation to our neighbors?  Common sense evolved during the period of the rise and decline of Quakerism of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Is there a parallel danger in elevating common sense, the instinctive, collective, ordinary beliefs of people like Quakers, to a new high priority, rejecting the recognition of superior judgment to any one class, sex, leader, expertise, race, education or religion?  It may be more popular and comfortable, but is it wiser, more moral and durable for a sustainable world?

The justified fear of raising experience to the level of preeminent authority over the combination of tradition (including scripture) and reason is the threat that common sense poses for both religion and democratic community.  On the one hand, common sense was offered as a kind of social glue that can bind community together.  On the other hand, to the extent that religion had traditionally provided that social glue, common sense substituted and undermined that foundation.

This concern is paralleled in the Quaker experience of the Light. The justified fear of raising the experience of the Light to the level of preeminent authority over the combination of tradition (including scripture) and reason is the threat that testimony of the Light poses to both Quakers and community.  On the one hand, the Light was offered as a kind of social glue that can bind community together.  On the other hand, to the extent that the doctrines of Christian religion have traditionally provided that social glue, the Quakers’ Light substituted and undermined that foundation.

There is a risk that common sense becomes the endorsement of cheap cultural opinion as a substitute truth, providing license to short-circuit public debate on important public issues and providing for charismatic individuals to impose their subjective judgment on the multitude as common sense.  Likewise, there is a risk that the Quakers’ Light becomes the endorsement of conventional, cultural opinion as a substitute truth, providing license to short-circuit Meeting discernment processes on important issues and providing for charismatic individuals to impose their subjective judgment on the multitude as the leading.   By analogy, the Light can become the endorsement of commonly held views as truth, providing disruption to individual and community reflection and deliberation on the content of Quaker faith and the relationship of faith and practice.

Upon further historical analysis, it may become clear that Quakers struggled with the precursor idea of common sense in the 17th century before common sense was a common term and concept.  Quakers did not coin common sense as a cultural and political concept in the 18th Century as outlined in this book, but it may have been implicitly embraced and nurtured by Quakers in the 17th century in the form of the Light.

Quakers assert a common sense of truth and a single, universal reality.  Quakers realized that the promotion of common values and the very notion that there is something like a common sense of truth requires a communal dimension and process within the meeting of Friends.  Quakers innovated with the development of the institution of the Meeting as a forum for discernment of truth along with individual discernment.  In the contrast with institutionalism and expertise in the prevailing religion, Quakers asserted the more collective side of the religious coin, based on the egalitarian premise inclusive of all persons: that of God in every person.

Yet, this common sense of truth is elusive in our Quaker perception and it is hard to formulate the Light in words. Finding the vocabulary for communication about the Light is also part of the process of identifying common sense in understanding our shared experience.  Part of the resulting understanding of the common sense of truth enables us to use the common sense of truth to help us talk to each other.

This book’s analysis takes some 260 pages, with 60 pages of endnotes and a helpful index.  The book includes 14 pages of graphic representations of the evolution of the common sense concept in western political discourse.  The introduction provides the summary of the author’s conclusion.

This is an important book for thinking about our role as citizens in a democracy.  For Quakers, this book is a poke in the eye to bring our attention to more serious thought about the Light and its role in our lives of discernment, individually and collectively.

I may be wrong about the connection between the development of the idea of common sense in political discourse and the Light in Quaker experience.  John Updike once said that the trouble with writing book reviews is that it is almost impossible to avoid the tone of being wonderfully right.  But, in this case, I do not think so.

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