J'ai une plume

"Qui plume a, guerre a."

Month: September, 2012

‘Common sense’ is not the companion of the intellect, it is its opposite

One of the most corrosive forces in the world is what is generally referred to as ‘common sense’. Consider the situations in which common sense is usually invoked. One of the most obvious is when noting its absence in an individual when wishing to criticise or ridicule this individual for making what is considered a stupid mistake. “Just use your common sense” would not be heard from any but the worst of teachers since it betrays a refusal (or inability) to engage with and attempt to solve the problem our ‘idiot’ is facing. Common sense is treated as a clear, transparent quality (compare Descartes’ equally absurd ‘natural light’), so the order to “use your common sense” is completely meaningless; if some knowledge or insight were accessible to my ‘common sense’ then it would have been immediately available. The demand is actually no better than simply saying “do it better!” This is meaningless. The question you have failed to answer is how exactly I am to do it.

So much for practical reality. It is true that common sense is an annoyance in those situations, but it is in theoretical and intellectual contexts that it is more destructive. Kant characterises well those who would wear it like a talisman:

“They therefore came up with a more convenient way to be obstinate and defiant without any insight namely the appeal to common sense. It is in fact a great gift of heaven to possess straight (or as it has recently been called, ordinary) sense. But one must prove it by deeds, by the considered and rational things one thinks and says, not by appealing to it like an oracle.”

I would go further than Kant here and claim that ‘obstinacy’ very quickly becomes an understatement. Pressing the common sense beliefs of an interlocutor will very quickly provoke real anger or, more tellingly, perceivable panic – deeply held beliefs serve as a comforting companion, one not willingly surrendered. Here common sense plays the role of a (false) foundation to a set of beliefs. The first (and only) line of defence provided by “it’s just common sense” is sufficient in most normal arguments. Even when rejecting what you take to be common sense, most opponents will not continue in a direct attack but will instead attempt to show that the case in question is an exception to the common sense rule you are reliant on. Instinctively most people know that ordinary, pre-reflexive human stubbornness makes it futile to try to attack the beliefs which you hold based on ‘common sense’.

At this point one can almost hear the words ‘herd’ and ‘rabble’ being screeched amid Nietzsche’s cackles from beyond the grave.

The implications of this problem are broader than they may appear at first. Recall the old story of Wittgenstein asking a colleague why people used to assume that the Sun revolved around the Earth. His colleague replied that the answer was obvious: “it just looks as if the Sun is revolving around the Earth,” he said. Wittgenstein simply replied by asking what it would have looked like if the Earth was going around the Sun.

This is the status of the false seer of ‘common sense’. There is no part of common sense so ‘obvious’ that it does not deserve to be questioned. Sadly it also seems that there is no truth so sacred that it is incapable of being ridiculed or opposed by the non-thought of ‘common sense’.

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The enemy within and without

The process of ‘Othering’ is one which most people will be familiar with, even if they didn’t know there was a name for it. You (a culture, a society) treat a separate group as if they are, in their very essence, something different and threatening to you (your culture, your society) so that the only way to protect yourself is to keep as great a distance as possible between you and this Other while either fantasising about or actually bringing about a world where this Other no longer exists. This is a fairly old name for a practically primaeval phenomenon. Criteria for being an Other vary, but it is often based on an ethnic or religious difference. Crucially though, it is not the case that this group are ‘the same as us except for x‘ Rather, at the very basic level, to be a black/white/Jew/Muslim/Catholic/immigrant/gay is to be other than human (or on some theorists’ reckoning, to be unbearably human) so that your very presence creates a necessary fracture in the harmony of my (our) lifeworld.

The Frankfurt School and its sympathisers would see this as a symptom rather than the ailment itself. The falsity of the fascist wager becomes apparent in the underlying logic which makes inevitable this Othering. The pre-neoconservative thinker Carl Schmitt argued that an enemy image is necessary to create a harmonious society. ‘Society’ within the terms of his argument is only truly achieved when a nation is mobilised to a state of near-perpetual war – both internally and externally. The pairing is critical to maintaining the balance of power. Jews/Bolsheviks; counter-revolutionaries/capitalists; terrorists/enemies of freedom; thought-criminals/Eurasians (or Eastasians) – all these are examples of a comprehensive Schmittian pairing of internal and external enemy. The falsity I just mentioned exists in the notion that the ways of life of these various societies must be defended from the outsiders mentioned. On the contrary, the societies require these pairings to function at all. The only way to disguise the fact that it is not a harmonious society is to blame all the ills on some intrusive external agency which is apparently bent on taking away what little the citizens still have. The Other is a necessary structural component which does indeed betray illness, although the disorder exists at a much deeper level and Othering is merely a symptom of it.

None of this is particularly new or original. Othering, and labelling in general, is a lazy way to find a simple solution to deeper problems; idiotically simple when you consider those who engage in it seem to have intellects just capable of grunting out the inference “x happened, so somebody must be responsible for x” and so discount ideas, thoughts and more complex forms of causation as responsible for societal maladies – probably on the basis that none of these latter (unlike people) are the sorts of things which can be seen, heard, smelt or lynched. Even those who consider themselves progressive can all too easily fall into this trap. It is much easier to believe that the Illuminati are to blame for war, crime and injustice than to face the structural defects of society. The question is never ‘how can we get rid of these people who are secretly manipulating society to serve their own ends?’, but rather ‘how can we reconstruct society so that it would be impossible for anyone (secret society or otherwise) to have such unthinkable levels of power and privilege at the expense of other human beings?’ While not quite as insidious as the fascist’s Othering, the interpretation of events along the lines mentioned is similar in its intellectual laziness and cowardly unwillingness to confront the real problems.

“Evil resides in the very gaze which perceives Evil all around itself.” – Hegel.

Religion: Content, form and utopia

The sort of ‘postmodern’ acknowledgement of religious diversity and its attempt to nullify the potentially deadly consequences of the inherent disagreements seems to me to be completely backwards. The idea is that all the different faiths, especially the monotheisms, are really talking about the same things in different ways – that the content of their belief is fundamentally the same and it is the form this belief which differs. It is certainly a useful fiction for curbing the worst excesses of religious violence, but one is inclined to wonder whether it is applying a plaster where an amputation might be more prudent.

It should already give us pause for thought that what I am about to say next would outrage, or at least cause discomfort to, a great many tolerant, liberal people: the major monotheisms are not talking about the same thing and are, at their core, fundamentally irreconcilable. A world in which there was no friction between religions would be a world in which the constituent beliefs were empty or nearly so. They differ at the level of content.

On the other hand one can argue that the form of religious belief is indeed common. As I have indicated in an earlier post on David Hume, the usual form of religious belief is one whose primary feature is a willingness to take seriously ancient written testimony of miraculous events. The content of the belief will be dependent on which of the holy texts one chooses to take seriously. Although such experiments are obviously impossible, it would be very enlightening if one could go back in time and transfer one of the faithful at birth to a different family of a different religious confession and see if the form of belief would latch onto different contents in a different environment.

My mental response to the fact that the majority of people adopt the religion of their parents is one of bemusement.

Simon Blackburn has given a brief treatment of the status of religious belief. It may be the case that religious moderates do not treat their beliefs in the same way they treat other beliefs. At the most mild end they might be merely a set of useful stories which help ground a series of community traditions and practices and help keep families and societies cohesive. The fact remains though that there are a great many people who take every letter of a particular religious text as the literal word of God. I have a great deal of sympathy for these people since it cannot be denied that they have been brought up in an environment with these traditions and practices which tell them that ‘these stories are really, really true’ but then paradoxically expects them to return to their secular lives, rather than taking the logical step of treating their religion as the most important – perhaps the only important – thing in their life. If they are not ‘really, really true’ then the wrong thing is being preached.

The liberal postmodern wants to allow the flourishing of the moderates on the basis that they are looking at the same thing from different angles. A more appropriate analogy would be that they are looking in opposite directions from the same point. It is because of the wildly different contents of religious beliefs that a pluralistic harmony is impossible in a society which includes literalists of differing faiths. And it is because of the ambiguous approach of moderates to their ‘beliefs’ that such literalists are bound to emerge within multicultural nations. The liberal, postmodern vision turns out to be strikingly utopian.