Paradoxes of Plain Thinking

A Review of Common Sense: A Political History by Sophia Rosenfeld

In: Historical Materialism
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Whatever common sense may be, it includes much else besides practically confirmed truisms. In Common Sense: A Political History, Sophia Rosenfeld describes the backstories of modern common sense, locating its origins in debates among small groups of professors, publishers and pamphleteers in several cities on both sides of the Atlantic during the Age of Revolutions. From the eighteenth century on, champions and enemies of the rising ‘middling’ classes have brandished common sense as an ‘unspectacular instrument’ of non-coercive regulation, to promote or oppose the sovereignty of ‘the people’ by hitching their conflicting claims to an unassailable guarantor of truth. After taking a beating in the first decades of the twentieth century, common sense has been resuscitated and reconstituted, to sell all manner of goods and policies. As a description of the roles that common sense has played in the modern phenomenon of populism, Rosenfeld’s book casts doubt on Hannah Arendt’s claim that common sense is what true democracy creates. At the same time, Common Sense: A Political History corroborates and fills out Antonio Gramsci’s account of good sense and politics.

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