Friday, April 15, 2011

Sophia Rosenfeld's "Common Sense: A Political History"

Sophia Rosenfeld is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia.
She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Common Sense: A Political History, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Common Sense: A Political History is devoted to proverbs—and old ones at that. You may be relieved to hear that this discussion is suitably pithy. It is over by page 100. But proverbs are actually a pretty good place to start looking if you are interested in thinking about common sense.

In principle, proverbs and sayings encapsulate the common wisdom of common people: A leopard can’t change its spots. Good fruits come from good harvests. These are the basic notions that all “sensible” people everywhere accept as self-evidently true. We often use a special tone of voice when stating them to suggest that we know that what we have just said is obvious, that no one is taking anyone else for a fool. Yet exploring the proverbs of the eighteenth century can also remind us how different common sense was in the past. Bad blood cannot lie? Maybe proverbs, or the wisdom behind them, isn’t so universal after all. Moreover, even when we still recognize their form, such sayings turn out to have been subject to a wide variety of interpretations and uses. Does a leopard can’t change its spots mean “accept people for who they are”? Or “race is destiny”? Many famous proverbs and dictums focus on common sense—and they generally remind us just how suspicious we should be about taking anything that presents itself as common or good sense at face value. As the deeply cynical Duke de la Rochefoucauld famously put it in one of his own maxims, found on page 99: We never find anyone to have good sense except those who agree with us.

That, in a nutshell, is also the message of this book. The advent of democracy has been largely premised on the idea that common sense solutions work best. But common sense has been put to multiple, contrary uses over the last three hundred years, especially when it comes to politics. Common Sense: A Political History is the first book to tell this story. With the resurgence of populism in contemporary American political life, it high time we reflected on our own, longstanding faith in the common sense of common sense.
Learn more about Common Sense: A Political History at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue