The battle over common sense is a central part of our political life.
And let this be our message - common sense for the common good.David Cameron, 24.4.11
When politicians try to win consent or mobilise support for their policies, they frequently assert that these are endorsed by 'hard-working families up and down the country'. Their policies cannot be impractical, unreasonable or extreme, they imply, because they are solidly in the groove of popular thinking - 'what everybody knows', takes-for-granted and agrees with - the folk wisdom of the age. This claim by the politicians, if correct, confers on their policies popular legitimacy.
In fact, what they are really doing is not just invoking popular opinion but shaping and influencing it so they can harness it in their favour. By asserting that popular opinion already agrees, they hope to produce agreement as an effect. This is the circular strategy of the self-fulfilling prophecy.
But what exactly is common sense? It is a form of 'everyday thinking' which offers us frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of the world. It is a form of popular, easily-available knowledge which contains no complicated ideas, requires no sophisticated argument and does not depend on deep thought or wide reading. It works intuitively, without forethought or reflection. It is pragmatic and empirical, giving the illusion of arising directly from experience, reflecting only the [End Page 8] realities of daily life and answering the needs of 'the common people' for practical guidance and advice.
It is not the property of the rich, the well-educated or the powerful, but is shared to some extent by everybody, regardless of class, status, creed, income or wealth. Typically, it expresses itself in the vernacular, the familiar language of the street, the home, the pub, the workplace and the terraces. The popularity and influence of the tabloid press - one of its main repositories - depends on how well it imitates, or better, ventriloquises the language and gnomic speech patterns of 'ordinary folk'. In the now-famous example, it must say not 'British Navy Sinks Argentinean Cruiser' but, simply, 'Gotcha'.
According to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political philosopher who has written perceptively on this subject, common sense 'is not critical and coherent but disjointed and episodic'.1 However, it does have a 'logic' and a history. It is always, Gramsci argues, 'a response to certain problems posed by reality which are quite specific and "original" in their relevance'. It draws on past ideas and traditions; but it also keeps evolving to give meaning to new developments, solve new problems, unravel new dilemmas. 'Common sense', as Gramsci argued, 'is not something rigid and immobile, but is continually transforming itself'.
It also has a content. It is a compendium of well-tried knowledge, customary beliefs, wise sayings, popular nostrums and prejudices, some of which - like 'a little of what you fancy does you good' - seem eminently sensible, others wildly inaccurate. Its virtue is that it is obvious. Its watchword is, 'Of course!'. It seems to be outside time. Indeed it may be persuasive precisely because we think of it as a product of Nature rather than of history.
Common sense tends to be socially conservative, leaning towards tradition (even if, as Eric Hobsbawm argued, much tradition was only 'invented' yesterday!). Its pace of change seems glacial. In fact, it is constantly being reconstructed and refashioned by external pressures and influences.
Common sense feels coherent. But Gramsci argues that, like the personality, it is 'strangely composite'. 'It contains Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history ... and intuitions of a future philosophy'. For these and other reasons, it is fundamentally contradictory. It tells not one narrative, but several conflicting 'stories' st itched together - while [End Page 9] failing to resolve the differences between them. Bits and pieces of ideas from many sources - what Gramsci calls 'stratified deposits' - have slowly set tled or sedimented, in truncated and simplified forms, into 'popular philosophy', without leaving behind an inventory of their sources. The Soundings Manifesto 'Framing Statement' argues that, for example...