Death by common sense

An inquiry into the absurdity of sense-making

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There are a few fairly innocuous words in the English dictionary that I find painfully cringeworthy and “common-sense” is one of them. Its etymology dates back to the late 14th century originating from the Latin phrase, sensus communis - an internal mental power to unite the impressions conveyed by the five physical senses. The concept presupposes that civilisations develop an ordinary understanding of the world and those who are not privy to its workings are foolish or insane. So in other words, if you lack common sense, you are operating outside the margins of rationality, entrapped in a spiralling world of chaos and half-truths.

Centuries of evolution have, today, bequeathed us such a powerful illusion - there are certain facets of reality that are regarded as common sense. We continue to believe that there are fundamental types of knowledge immune to contradiction or challenge. This idea however is absurd no matter how you look at it. Because like most things, common sense is a cultural and social construct. It comprises useful and useless labels, models and concepts that we use to understand reality, rather than some objective state of affairs.

But the delusion that there are certain irrefutable bullet-proof values and ideas is further complicated by the current uncertain world we find ourselves living in. You see, now more than ever, ‘common sense’ has understandably become a source of solace. It implies some degree of control over our lives - that if we act in relation to a certain pre-ordained picture of reality, our safety and comfort is assured, to an extent. The world’s myriad of existential threats are, for the time being at least, contained.

However, as much as science has continuously prided itself on fact-based inquiry, human knowledge is really a set of successive approximations. There are all sorts of things that we’ve gotten horrendously wrong, and all sorts of mind-boggling things we can’t even fathom that will be the established fact in a century or two.

Yet, we see nations, institutions and individuals continually paddle the virtues of common sense, valorising specific ideas/ideologies as fact without ever accommodating room for contrarian viewpoints. A shrewd politician for example would appeal to your ‘common sense’ because he/she knows that the mere utterance of the phrase implies a truth value. It would be inconceivable for any rational being to act against the grain of common sense because, to do so comes with certain perceived (or actual) social compromise. Social stigmatisation being one of those compromises.

There is a constant churn of theories and postulations of what ‘common sense’ should actually look like, each driven by an implicit agenda, harmless or otherwise. Ultimately, common sense is a seedbed of so many of our social, political and civilizational biases. It has blinded us to reality again and again in a ceaseless cycle.

So how then do we navigate these murky waters of imposed ‘truths’? How do we summon a countercultural force so incisive that it dismantles the very foundations of blind ideological beliefs and practices?

Art is our saving grace

Art (and writing) play an important role in showcasing the inconsistencies and fissures in our perception and understanding of reality - the fragility of thoughts and ideas and its propensity to change at any second in any circumstance. In other words art has the ability to shatter the much heralded illusion that there are certain axiomatic ‘life truths’.

In the words of acclaimed British writer, Jeanette Winterson, “art pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.” This function of art as a force of wakefulness is invaluable at times of incomprehensible oppression, under regimes built on ideologies of mass coercion under the guise of common sense.

Art tells stories. It evokes our common humanity in relatable ways even if the lives it talks about contrast with our own. Perhaps most importantly, art stimulates our imagination and refines our sympathies, building our capacity for independent moral judgement outside the artificial boundaries of common sense.

The overlaps between art and the human condition (of sorrow and joy, pain and comfort) mean that you cannot simply fossilise it; its impact thrives across generations, untethered by the aging embrace of time.

Somerset Maugham’s stunning novel, “Of Human Bondage”, a work of art in its own right, exemplifies this perfectly. The main character, Philip Carrey, (who was born with a clubfoot and a taciturn temperament), manages to defy and reinforce various stereotypical common sense assumptions we have about living with a disability. Being inside Philip's head and watching the ramifications of his decisions as he grows into a man, is at times harrowing; other times, vitalizing: it conjures up many emotions: the reader receives a full and enriching experience of a life truly lived.

But ultimately, Maugham’s book reaffirms that there are no fundamental rules in life and life in itself has no overarching meaning. It consists of an eclectic mix of pain and joy – and these ought to be accepted and celebrated equally as part of the tapestry of life. There is a hardened resilience from Maugham not to pay homage to any ‘common sense’ beliefs of what a particular type of life should bring.

So art, like that of Maugham’s novel, carries an imbued sense of non-apologetic confidence to question the frames of reference we use to define common sense.

In the case of books and writing, the pieces of work that I find compelling are usually the ones that acknowledge a deeper and more chaotically ordered reality beyond human perception. Whilst a society should rightly aspire towards stability, the true artist knows that the commonsensical qualities we cherish and take for granted often conceal a messy unfinished patchwork of half-truths and lies, which are an inextricable part of life.

Common sense has a role to play in providing reality with a level of completeness and certainty but every now and again we need to drive to the heart of perceived ‘logic’ and expose the questions it hides. And art, through its piercing gaze into the inner sanctum of our lived experience, provides the perfect outlet, lest a death by common sense.

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