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Common Sense: A Political History.

Common Sense: A Political History, by Sophia Rosenfeld. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2011. 337 pp. $29.95 US (cloth).

This sophisticated book examines the socially constructed relationship between the rhetoric of common sense as an imaginary populist attribute and the development of democracy. Rosenfeld's purpose is to determine if the ostensibly customary, instinctual judgment and knowledge of ordinary people is the source and lifeblood of modern self-government.

The notion of common sense worked its way through the intellectual and political ranks of eighteenth-century Aberdeen. Aberdonians James Beattie and Thomas Reid waged a philosophical campaign against David Hume's threats to dissolve religion and community with his claims that humankind could not acquire fixed truths in everyday life. To the contrary, Beattie and Reid attributed to all humans an "inherent, infallible capacity for judgment" (p. 62), which gave one a "true and secure knowledge" of God's revealed purposes for mankind (p. 68). This egalitarian instinct for truth discredited Hume's specious reasoning and reinforced the conviction that ordinary men, possessing sufficient common sense to understand life, could quite capably "rule themselves" (p. 88).

In contrast Amsterdam sustained a heterodox culture, where skeptics, deists and atheists issued seditious, anti-religious tracts to undermine and demystify customary sentiments, faiths, habits, and opinions. Radical writers such as Baron d'Holbach spread skepticism, doubt, moral relativity, and anti-authoritarianism, to subvert popular beliefs, especially religious convictions. He replaced a traditional French notion of ordinary good sense with a radical form, allegedly informed by the natural light of reason, that would create a new moral order based on sensation-based knowledge, materialism, and atheism. His campaign and concomitant efforts by Protestant writers to legitimate "nonexpert" challenges to prevailing authority, which Catholic counterattacks inadvertently made credible, contributed to an evolving "populist worldview" and its attendant political claims (p. 135).

Philadelphia newcomer Tom Paine drew up a short work in favour of independence entitled Common Sense (1776). Its sleight-of-hand appellation combined into one phrase, the collective wisdom of human communities, and the individualistic good sense of European radicals. Paine offered this seemingly self-contradictory duality as a compelling reason for every reader to adopt a radical, democratic "political sensibility" in support of independence (p. 138). He distanced himself from intellectual elites to played off undistinguished, ordinary people of common sense against the pretentious ruling orders. Establishing egalitarianism as the natural outcome of quotidian judgment, he paradoxically certified his role as a prophet who, at a crucial point in history, had exposed support of monarchy as a vast misjudgment, supposedly based on common sense. In fact such support denied what Paine affirmed: all people regardless of social standing had the will and judgment to role themselves, which legitimated an anti-aristocratic pragmatism that became a major prop for the populist rhetoric of modern politics.

Common sense played a different role in Paris after 1789. Initially it promised to be an ally of an unadulterated, clear-sighted democratic political vision infused with "enlightened revolutionary values" (p. 191). However, the Civil Constitution's clerical oath requirement alienated rural France and allowed counter-revolutionary writers to envision rustic peasants as the real people armed with the "practical consciousness" to oppose all forms of democratic government in favour of "hierarchy and established authority" (pp. 190,214). But it was Napoleon who disingenuously celebrated "unlimited popular sovereignty," while curtailing "individual liberty" and justifying his power (p. 220).

Rosenfeld concluded her study by examining common sense in the modern world. In the nineteenth century it was axiomatic that the people had a collective sense based on "common experiences and shared faculties." Leaders who listened to this aggregate knowledge arrived at "universally applicable solutions" to political difficulties, creating the definitive style of modern governance (p. 227). Coupled with a century-long expansion of the voting public, the people underwent a transformation from creatures manipulated by "political rhetoric" to collective and individual political actors (p. 229). This potent democratic illusion became the central tenet of the modern state, in its endless search for loyal adherents and social unity. The book ends with an analysis of Hanna Arendt's claim that modern totalitarian government had banished common sense and replaced it with "abstract logic" that imposed axiomatic beliefs on society with no regard for actual circumstances. She regarded the people's common sense as the "source and guarantee" of participatory politics (pp. 250, 254). Rosenfeld concluded that the belief that there is something called common sense made contemporary democracy an "informal regulatory system" that existed in tension with expert authorities and constitutional legalism (p. 256).

In this thoughtful study of Western political rhetoric, thought, and policies, Rosenfeld has established the political importance of the notion of common sense. Its evolution explains to me how we have travelled from fear of the masses to fear that the masses may one day discover that rhetorical and imaginative appeals to their quotidian good sense mask the public's political impotence in a world of pragmatic state policies founded on utilitarian reason. Does Rosenfeld believe that common sense is merely rhetoric that gives moral and intellectual credibility to one's claims? That was my question as I read this book, but perhaps in Kantian fashion it is what must be the case if the masses are to be constantly reassured that they have a role to play in modern government, even if their will is blunted at every turn by bureaucracies, legalism, and wealth.

James B. McSwain

Tuskegee University
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Author:McSwain, James B.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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