Common Sense, Science and Government, Part I

In the next set of posts, I draw on a lecture I gave to an undergraduate class on natural resource policy a few years ago to examine the relationship between common sense, science, and government. Revisiting this set of basic relationships will set a conceptual foundation for future posts on more specialized topics such as social construction and co-production.

Some decisions must be made and actions taken at a societal level, and such collective deciding and acting is part of what I mean when I use the word government (to distinguish from today’s popular usage of the word as a fixed institution). One thesis that I explore in this blog is that all government hinges on defining and manipulating relationships between people and nature [i]. This is a big claim, and in many cases might be difficult to demonstrate. For that reason, I begin with natural resources.

It seems to me that many people can easily imagine what good natural resource management might mean — clean and safe water, smog-free air, sustainable fisheries and forests, preventing soils from eroding away, preserving wild species from extinction, and so forth — which narrows the gap between common sense and good sense (more on that later) and makes for a good starting place.

As is often my wont, these posts will turn to food and agriculture for concrete case material to help illustrate the general points I would like to make. It might seem unusual to speak of food as a natural resource, but producing food involves the joining and utilization of many other natural resources – water, energy, land and soil, minerals for fertilization, ecosystems services like pollination, sunlight, and of course lots of hard work. Food may be the most complex and vital natural resource we have, which makes it a rich source of information for thinking about common sense, science, and government.

Common Sense and Government

The political theorist Antonio Gramsci, an Italian political activist in the years leading up to WWII who wrote his most famous works from prison after being arrested by the nascent fascist regime in Italy, turned to the concept of common sense to help explain how fascism could take root in a society. He defined it as:

“…the conception of the world which is uncritically absorbed by the various social and cultural environments in which the moral individuality of the average man is developed. Common sense is not a single unique conception, identical in time and space. It is the “folklore” of philosophy, and, like folklore, it takes countless different forms. Its most fundamental characteristic is that it is a conception which, even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential, in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is.”[ii].

Common sense incorporates all of those beliefs and assumptions that people do not actively question, yet upon which we all rely upon to guide most of our actions throughout each day. While we might aspire to always make what Gramsci terms ‘an intellectual choice’, to act rationally (first weighing costs and benefits) or ethically (following a set code of conduct), following what we might term good sense [iii], Gramsci points out that much of the time people instead draw upon prepackaged thoughts and beliefs. We act out of habit as much as we do out of thoughtfulness.

While in general common sense often approximates good sense, the two are only loosely coupled. Critical theorist Stuart Hall—drawing on the source material in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks—explains the relationship more fully:

“Why, then, is common sense so important? Because it is the terrain of conceptions and categories on which the practical consciousness of the masses of the people is actually formed. It is the already formed and “taken for granted” terrain, on which more coherent ideologies and philosophies must contend for mastery; the ground which new conceptions of the world must take into account, contest and transform, if they are to shape the conceptions of the world of the masses and in that way become historically effective. ‘Every philosophical current leaves behind a sediment of ’common sense’; this is the document of its historical effectiveness. Common sense is not rigid and immobile but is continually transforming itself, enriching itself with scientific ideas and with philosophical opinions which have entered ordinary life. Common sense creates the folklore of the future, that is as a relatively rigid phase of popular knowledge at a given place and time’ (PN, p. 362)” (emphasis added). [iv].

Today, our society often looks to inductive science for an external reference of good sense against which to weigh our common sense. Science, we think, ought to provide objective evidence for how we should act individually and as a society. But science must work with the pre-existing terrain of common sense which is messy, slow-to-change, nebulous and carries with it the baggage of other external referents for good sense—such as religious doctrines, moral reasoning, and logical deduction—that have come before. And science itself emerges from people who themselves live within the encompassing medium of common sense.[v]

And yet we must rely upon common sense, in general, since as a practical matter it just takes too much time and energy to rationally and ethically analyze every potential action (and analysis is never perfect in any case). Thus geographer David Harvey asserts, “We cannot understand anything other than ‘common sense’ conceptions of the world to regulate the conduct of daily life” [vi]. The word regulate here begins to imply a more-than-superficial connection between the ways in which individuals act in their private lives and the ways in which societies act collectively through government. Many people are familiar with the idea that government imposes restrictions upon the private lives on individuals. However, it is a two-way street: the form that government takes is shaped by the ways in which people lead their lives.

Modern government trends toward governing “with the grain”—its philosophy is to act less like a drill sergeant and more like the conductor of an orchestra, serving as a point of reference to guide everyone in playing the right part at the right time at the right tempo such that a harmonious whole emerges. Thus to govern today, to develop and put into action sensible policies, requires an intimate understanding of common sense, for the former can only be effective if it accommodates the latter. Every policy, every attempt at what we might call good sense, must be ‘refracted’ through the common sense ways in which people lead their day-to-day lives, like light filtering through a prism. Likewise for the study of government (or in my case, environmental governance), for as sociologist Mitchell Dean puts it

To analyse government is to analyse those practices that try to shape, sculpt, mobilize and work through the choices, desires, aspirations, needs, wants and lifestyles of individuals and groups. This is a perspective, then, that seeks to connect questions of government, politics and administration to the space of bodies, lives, selves and persons . [vii].

To the extent that to govern well also entails critical examination of the common sense of governing, which might be seen as an attempt to form a good sense of good government of common sense (too meta?), the ways in which we conceptualize government and its relation to both common sense and good sense (such as that offered by science) cannot be separated from the practice of government.

This is not just an academic point, but a practical lesson in government, as demonstrated in this discussion with a man who has a lot of personal experience wrestling with the relationship between common sense and sensible policy:

Chris Hughes (interviewer): Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve gone about intellectually preparing for your second term as president?

Barack Obama: I’m not sure it’s an intellectual exercise as much as it is reminding myself of why I ran for president and tapping into what I consider to be the innate common sense of the American people. The truth is that most of the big issues that are going to make a difference in the life of this country for the next thirty or forty years are complicated and require tough decisions, but are not rocket science…

So the question is not, Do we have policies that might work? It is, Can we mobilize the political will to act? And so, I’ve been spending a lot of time just thinking about how do I communicate more effectively with the American people? How do I try to bridge some of the divides that are longstanding in our culture? How do I project a sense of confidence in our future at a time when people are feeling anxious? They are more questions of values and emotions and tapping into people’s spirit.”

What the President acknowledges in this passage is the importance of knowing, intimately, the ordinary routines, values, and beliefs that real Americans use to get through each day—their common sense—and linking that grassroots sort of sense with the policy sort of sense that is concerned with the grand abstractions with which government concerns itself, such as the nation, the economy, the environment and ‘the general Welfare’ (to quote the preamble to the US Constitution). Thus his latter admission that his administration should focus on “spending a lot more time… in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington.”

Of course, as Gramsci wrote and Hall emphasized, common sense is both “fragmented” and “continually transforming”—it is by nature mercurial and inchoate, often at odds with itself and internally inconsistent. Policy, by contrast, is designed to impose coherence and stability upon the dynamic and changeable currents of common sense. So while sensible policy must respond to those currents, as I will discuss in the next post, it cannot rely entirely upon common sense to provide the signposts toward good sense.

Why do we eat what we eat?

To take a concrete example, consider recent public policies relating to food, such as recent ballot initiatives to ban large sugary soft drinks in some cities, laws to force labeling of GMO ingredients, or requirements for schools to offer more fruits and vegetables in cafeterias. These policies can only be effective if they can successfully build upon the existing foundation of common sense ways of eating—the collective habits that all of us together practice in our daily acts of munching, dining, snacking, lunching, and breaking fast.

But what would it take to understand the common sense of eating? We are, each of us every day, actively engaged in producing and reproducing common sense for diet. Consider why you eat what you eat. On the surface, it seems a simple matter to list out the reasons behind eating certain foods and not eating others. We might start listing off criteria: cost, taste, aesthetic appeal, freshness, convenience, accessibility, nutritional value, presence or absence of certain ingredients (e.g. vitamins or allergens), whether it is certified organic, fair trade, or local.  Clearly there are many characteristics we might look for in our food, but how do we know that the foods we are choosing among are any of these things?

Let’s think about that question for a minute. First we have our senses—we can taste, touch, smell, listen and look. These sensory perceptions give us direct information that helps us pick out our food. If an apple has mushy brown spots all over it, the tilapia smells extremely fishy, or the watermelon sloshes too much when shaken, then they’re probably bad.

In addition to our senses, we have many indirect means for learning about the food. In the moment, for example, we can read the product labeling. Labeling contains the abstracted information that travels along with the food and tells us about it. From as simple a bit of information as the price per pound and the weight of the food to as complex a bit of information as the percent of recommended daily value of sodium or the USDA organic label, the information accompanying the food itself strongly influences how we know if it is good to eat. It is hard to understate the importance of labeling today. Think of how often you look at the ingredients list, check the seals of certification for organic or kosher, review the allergen information, or consider the calories per serving before deciding to buy a given food item.

But what we can learn about food in the moment is only part of what informs our understanding of what is good to eat. We have past experience and familiarity to guide us as well. If I have eaten kumquats, Oreo cookies, fried okra, or raw cheese in the past and enjoyed them without any immediate problems arising, I’m more likely to try them again in the future. The more we eat a food, the more familiar we become with eating it. After a while, we don’t have to think about the individual food choices much at all: we can rely on past experience to hold true in the future. Since we are social beings, it’s not just our own experiences we draw upon. Chances are we eat a lot of the same things that the people close to us eat because we trust the judgments of those around us—parents, role models, friends, and so on.

This is where advertising and marketing enter the picture. These tactics strongly influence our sense of familiarity with certain foods, usually through the intermediary symbolism of the brand. Whether we acknowledge it or not, many of us have brand loyalties of one form or another that have nothing to do with our senses, labeling, what we have eaten frequently in the past, or what the people close to us eat. That’s the power of marketing.

Journalism can also affect our sense of familiarity with foods. Food sections in newspapers, blogs, TV programs, and so forth may all introduce us to new foods and bolster our confidence in foods we already know. News can also speak to our intellectual understanding of food. In recent memory, reports about the health effects of salt, high fructose corn syrup, or trans fatty acids have all been tremendously impactful on how people make eating choices, both individually and as a matter of public policy.

Which brings us to the role of science in defining which foods are good to eat and which are not. Increasingly, people take into consideration what the experts say when making eating choices. Nutritionists, dieticians, food scientists, doctors and their professional organizations and expert committees frequently enter the public limelight with a new finding, recommendation, or warning about food. These expert opinions, which speak for science, carry great weight in shaping our everyday understanding of what foods are good to eat (or not).

As you can see from this lengthy discussion, the sources of information that feed into any given eating decision are manifold. However, does each of us actually consider each of these factors and sources of information every single time we make a choice about what to eat? Of course not. The majority of the time, we choose by habit, “an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary” (or non-conscious). However, habit is not just an individual trait, but a collective trait. Habit can also mean “customary practice”, or just “custom”, as in the habit of shaking hands when meeting another person or saying “Hello” when answering the phone. Habits or customs are built on common sense, or collective bundlings of wisdom, values, and assumptions that people use to make everyday decisions about all sorts of things, like what to eat.

Wrapping Up

We’ve now covered some basic points on the relationship between common sense and good government. Before I continue the discussion in next couple of posts, which explore the relationship through examples from food and agriculture, I’d like to raise a question as food for thought: why govern?

Why do we elect people like the president, like our senators, representatives, governors, mayors, aldermen? Why do we employ tens of thousands of civil servants, bureaucrats, and other government workers? What is their purpose? What is the purpose of government?

Keep this in mind as we go through concrete cases in the next few posts. I’ll come back to this question at the end of this series.

[i] This thesis might be alternatively stated: government relies on establishing a dominant environmental frame that defines problems between people and nature, identifies acceptable solutions for dealing with those problems, and imagines the sort of futures which those solutions are supposed to attain.

[ii] Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Edited by Quintin Hoare. New York: International Publishers, 1972. p. 419.

[iii] The editor to the Prison Notebooks notes that “[Gramsci] uses the phrase ‘good sense’ to mean the practical, but not necessarily rational or scientific, attitude that in English is usually called common sense” (p. 322).

[iv] Hall, Stuart. “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10, no. 2 (June 1, 1986): 5–27. He cites Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, p. 362.

[v] Gramsci differentiated between organic philosophy, which belonged to all people, and what he called “the philosophy of the philosophers”, which he used to refer to the theories produced by elite thinkers to be imposed upon the unthinking masses. That sort of ‘philosophy’, although it might overlap with science (think of eugenics), did not equate to good sense. As the editor to Prison Notebooks explains, “The critique of ‘common sense’ and that of ‘the philosophy of the philosophers’ are therefore complementary aspects of a single ideological struggle” (p. 322). One of the refreshing aspects of Gramsci’s perspective is that he rejects both an anti-intellectual herd mentality and the rule of experts, preferring instead to promote the idea that all people are, or can be, intellectuals in their own way. Hall writes that, “[Gramsci] insists that everyone is a philosopher or an intellectual in so far as he/she thinks, since all thought, action and language is reflexive, contains a conscious line of moral conduct and thus sustains a particular conception of the world (though not everyone has the specialized function of ‘the intellectual’)” (ibid). Good sense is a publicly accessible good, which implies that the purpose of good government is neither to impose some pre-formed theory of what’s best for everyone [authoritarianism in the extreme] nor to stand back and let things take their course [laissez faire], but rather to help organize individual citizens’ own capacity for making and following good sense.

[vi] Harvey, David. Spaces of Global Capitalism. London; New York, NY: Verso, 2006. p. 84.

[vii] Dean, Mitchell. Governmentality : Power and Rule in Modern Society. London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE, 2009. p. 20.


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  1. Pingback: Common Sense, Science and Government Part II: A Case of Quinoa | Patrick F Baur

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