Common sense tends to be understood in a commonsensical way at least by those who appeal to it. We typically hear of common sense as what we have lost or what we need to resolve a conflict or dispute in a mature and reasonable way (“a common-sense approach”). Or, common sense is used to indicate the status of proposition as grounded in reality (“it is common sense that sex refers to biology”). Common sense can also be used to demarcate a class of subjects: those who have common sense, who are sensible and practical as well as reasonable, who hold onto reality. Common sense can thus also be used to demarcate a class of subjects who are deemed to lack it or to have lost it. Historically, common-sense has been defined against the absurd (Thomas Reid), scepticism (G.E. Moore) and most recently “the woke” (Michael Nazir-Ali and many, many others, writing right now!).
Across varied usages, the sense of common sense matters (1). Common sense can refer both to a sense of what is obvious and an assumption that this sense is shared. Take Stuart Hall’s (1977) description of “what passes as common sense feels as if it has always been there, the sedimented, bedrock, wisdom of ‘the race.’” Common sense can be a feeling of longevity, what hangs around or goes without saying. For Hall, following Gramsci, “Common sense is not coherent: it is usually ‘disjointed and episodic’, fragmentary and contradictory. Into it the traces and ‘stratified deposits’ of more coherent philosophical systems have sedimented over time without leaving any clear inventory.” That it is hard to give a history of common sense, to provide it with a clear inventory, is a sign of its historical effectiveness. Anthropologist Clifford Gertz (1975) describes common sense as having a recognizable “tone and temper.” He explains, “an air of ‘of-courseness,’ a sense of ‘it figures’ is cast over things –again, some selected, underscored things. They are depicted as inherent in the situation, intrinsic aspects of reality, the way things go.”
And so, the more you challenge “the way things go,” the more you know about common sense. As historian Sophia Rosenfeld notes, “Common sense really only comes out of the shadows and draws attention to itself at moments of perceived crisis or collapsing consensus.” Common sense points to a crisis, rather than resolving it. This is why I describe common sense as legacy project. A legacy can mean something that happened in the past or what the past leaves behind (as war leaves a legacy of suffering, for instance). Legacy can also be something transmitted by or received from our predecessors. Legacy becomes a project when what has been, or should be, received from our predecessors is understood as threatened in some way. It might be that legacy is always a project insofar as reception or transmission is never simple or straightforward or guaranteed.
By common sense as a legacy project, I am pointing to how common sense is used as a defence of social institutions and traditions. In the UK common sense is often spoken of as a national legacy, as what we have bequeathed from the past in the form of a faculty. In fact, during the COVID pandemic, government officials including the then prime-minister Boris Johnson regularly referred to “British common sense,” sometimes described as “good and old,” other times as “solid,” as what we should use in making judgements about what to do, whether to mask or not, where to go, where not to go, a rather convenient way, no doubt, of displacing responsibility from government to individual. This idea of “good old British common sense” is an old idea if not a good one. Sophia Rosenfeld comments, “By the 1720s, good old English or British common sense had become a recognisable entity.”
Appealing to common sense is thus often about appealing to those who assumed to have it and for whom some things should be just plain obvious (if this is a claim about reality, this “should” should show us that claims about reality are also often moral claims). But even if common sense is presented as a faculty of a subject, the literatures of common sense are full of objects. It might be obvious why this is the case. Those who defend common sense do so by exemplification; examples include human-made artefacts such as tables but also human bodies and their parts (2). The analytical philosopher G.E. Moore argued that he could not be more persuaded by sceptical questions about the existence of external reality than he could by common sense. And in defending common sense, he makes use of his own hand both in his paper “In Defence of Common Sense,” and then in a lecture, “Proof of An External World.” It is in the lecture that Moore’s hand acquires an exemplary status. He asks: how can you prove the existence of an external world? He answers his question by holding up his hand: “How? By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, ‘Here is one hand’, and adding, as I make a certain gesture with the left, ‘and here is another.’” The gesture is not just pointing to something (what should be obvious to someone with common sense), it is a refutation of something, or somebody, else. The hand provides evidence of the folly of scepticism. The hand, in other words, becomes a tool.
Note how “certain” is attached not to the object but the gesture. What the hand is doing is partly that, or how, we can make reference to it. I became interested in what Moore was doing with his hand after reading the foreword of a book on conservative common sense, written by the reverend, Michael Nazir-Ali. The book was produced by a new lobby group in the UK called the “Common Sense Group,” which now has over 50 conservative members, who describe themselves as “the institutional custodians of history and heritage.” There is nothing remarkable about this group. We have heard their stories before, they are old and worn, familiar from Brexit (and well before), stories of taking the nation back, taking back control, stories that are also fantasies of a nation that isn’t and a past that wasn’t. What interests me is how the “Common Sense Group” has made “common sense” part of a wider “anti-woke” conservative agenda.
How does Nazir-Ali define common sense? He writes that common sense:
came simply to mean good judgement which is not easily swayed by intellectual or cultural fads and takes a realistic view of ourselves and what is around us. In philosophy, this view was vigorously defended by the analytical philosopher, G. E. Moore, who held that when a philosophical view is in conflict with Common Sense, it is more likely that the view was in error rather than that Common Sense had gone astray. He gave the example of knowing that his hand existed and was his as being more certain than any sceptical attempts to show that such was not the case. Moore’s argument can, of course, be legitimately extended to our knowledge of our body as a whole and to the different parts of it and their purpose. It could also be extended to our knowledge of our relationships, their meaning and purpose and, indeed, to the social structures and institutions which provide coherence and stability to the social order.
Nazir-Ali makes use of Moore’s hand, moving from the philosopher’s certainty that “his hand existed and was his,” to his own certainty about the nature of bodies and their purposes, to social structures and institutions. The quality of certainty is thus moved from an object that appears to be near and proximate to what is more complex and distant (2). Common sense conservatism can then speak of the stability of social institutions insofar as they are extensions of “his hand,” or “my hand,” in other words, society matters as an extension of myself or even as his or my possession. This is how legacy is turned into, or treated as, reality. And, this is how reality itself is made a possession. Moore employs his hand as a defence against the sceptics. Nazir-Ali then reemploys Moore’s hand as a defence against “the woke.” Throughout the book there are multiple references to woke. It is the references to woke that are substantial.
The hand becomes not only what was there, or is there, but what could be lost, which is why that certain gesture is necessary, the hand as what is being handed down, from one philosopher to another, one generation to another.If it is the references to woke that have become substantial, the quality of substance is transferred to the hand, which is how the hand comes to matter more, the more it is missing.
Common sense conservatism becomes a story of a lost hand.
Another contributor to the book, Gareth Bacon writes:
Britain is under attack. Not in a physical sense, but in a philosophical, ideological and historical sense. Our heritage is under a direct assault – the very sense of what it is to be British has been called into question, institutions have been undermined, the reputation of key figures in our country’s history have been traduced. This gives huge power to activists and forces the leaders of organisations to fight endless fires of grievance, stifling freedom, embittering the workplace and sowing division.
A sense of what it is to be British is understood both in a positive sense and as a common sense. So many different actions are being named as assaults against this common sense – including complaints or grievances made within the workplace. In my book, Complaint! I did not use the language of “hegemonic complainers” because I was well aware how many complaints in the workplace are dismissed as if they derive from those who are either powerful or have a will to be so. The minimization of harm and inflation of power work together as if some make slights more than they are to make themselves bigger. “Hegemonic complaint” would, nevertheless, be a good description of what is going on in common sense conservatism. Hegemonic complaint functions as meta-complaint, a complaint about complaints, those minor grievances made by mischievous minorities. A meta-complaint might not register as a complaint, made without leaving a clear inventory, becoming common sense.
Bacon includes Black Lives Matter and Decolonizing the Curriculum as examples of assaults on the “philosophical, ideological and historical sense” of what it is to be British. He writes that these movements are “not motivated by positivity. Quite the reverse.” Positivity is tied to preservation. And this is why the judgement of negativity is more than a story of motivation. By locating negativity in the outsider, whether the killjoy or “the woke,” culture and history are not only stabilised, they are given a positive quality. Bacon adds, “words that have been universally understood for millennia, such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are now emotionally charged and dangerous.” Of course, this statement is not true, words change, language does; as we do. Questioning the meaning of words such as man or woman, trying to open them up, is treated as giving them a negative charge or even stopping people from using them. Another conversative politician (he has since become prime minister) stated, “We want to confront this left-handed culture that seems to want to cancel our history, our values, our women.” The argument that women are being cancelled expressed with that old sexist possessive (“our women”) draws loosely from the “gender critical” argument that the term gender has replaced sex. Perhaps we are supposed to treat sex like a statue, what you have to affirm as being there, what is supposed to stand up or to stand firm.
All you have to do to be heard as complaining, as damaging legacy, is not to affirm something. So, when students asked for more philosophies from outside the West to be taught, offering nuanced and careful critiques, they are represented as cancelling white philosophers; asking for more as stealing what is there or from who is there.
Note that the negativity belongs to the judgement not the action. The tagline for this blog is killing joy as a world-making project. I now have a chance to explain more what I mean by that. Killing joy becomes a world making project when we refused to be redirected by a negative judgement away from an action. Instead, we turn the judgement into a project. We keep it up, questioning, trying to widen range of texts being taught, widen the range of meanings, widen the terms we use for who we are, how we are, widening the routes into professions, widening the doors so more can enter. We keep doing this work even when those actions are judged as damaging.
And we will be judged so, as damaging.
Killjoy Commitment: When critique causes damage, we are willing to cause damage.
But we don’t even have to say anything, or do anything, to be the cause of damage.
Heidi Mirza, a woman of colour professor, describes a conversation at her inaugural lecture as professor ‘a white male professor leaned into me at the celebration drinks and whispered bitterly in my ear, “Well they are giving Chairs to anyone for anything these days”’ (2007). When a woman of colour becomes a chair, chairs lose their status and value. The value of some things is made dependent on the restriction of who can have them or be them. This is how a woman of colour professor becomes a damage to legacy. She becomes, we become, evidence of how some are losing their hand.
We are being told whose hand it is.
Those who are told it is not their hand, know whose hand it is.
I can tell you: we can tell you another story about hands.
We have heard how the hand of common-sense conservatism is extended as certainty from what is mine to social relationships and institutions. This extension is not simply an act of individual cognition, but an institutional mechanism. To have a place at the table, you are required to affirm something, its reality, value, its status as possession (3). I will be describing this requirement to affirm as “polishing the table.” To polish can mean to make something smooth and shiny by friction or coating, to see to one’s appearance, or to refine and improve. The word polish shares a root with the word polite. In UK, polishing is a national past-time. The history of the British empire is often told as a polite story of well-mannered colonisers. Those of us living and working in the UK whose families came from former British colonies are asked, nay required, to gloss over the violence of histories that led us to be here. And so, when our very arrival is understood as damage to legacy, we are tasked with repairing that damage.
I remember one time when I, as a junior lecturer designed a new course on race and colonialism. I was asked to attend the university committee. We are seated at a large rectangular table in the fanciest room in the fanciest building. I was the only brown person at that table. A professor from another department began to interrogate me, getting angrier as he went on. And he went on. I can’t remember everything he said. But the word in the course description that triggered his reaction was the relatively uneventful word “implicated.” That I had used that word was a sign, he said, that I thought that colonialism was a bad thing. He then gave me a lecture on how colonialism was a good thing, colonialism as modernity, that happy story of railways, language, and law, that is so familiar because we have heard it before. This is why in The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, I describe empire as world-polishing, we are required to tell the story of empire as a happy story, not only to remove violence, but to remove evidence of that removal.
Diversity too can be polish. A woman of colour academic describes, “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race, they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” I think back to how the professor heard a no in my use of the word “implicated.” You can just use words like race and you will be heard as saying no, as being negative, destructive, obstructive.
Polishing can mean more than smiling for their brochures; it can require using words that gloss over our experience.
We smile or vanish. We smile and vanish.
When we see through the polish, we see so much. I spoke to another woman of colour academic who talked to me about complaints she had about sexism and racism but did not make. In explaining to me why she did not make them, she offers a sharp description of the culture of her institution:
There’s an agreement between people not to rock the boat. People would talk about the institution as a kind of legacy project and would imply that you just didn’t understand how the institution was formed. The implication was that you have to be respectful of how this place was organised and what its traditions were essentially. And if you were not abiding by that it was because you had not been there for ten years.
The culture of her institution is that you don’t complain about the culture of the institution. Institutional culture can be what stops a complaint about institutional culture. To complain is thus to provide evidence that you have not been in an institution long enough to understand it, to respect it, how its organised, its traditions. The complainers would be those who have not yet internalized the norms of the institution, those for whom the project of the institution has not yet become their own. She did not complain but that was not because the project of the institution had become her own. She did not complain because, as one of two academics of colour in an otherwise all white department, she did not want to stand out any more than she already did. But because the problems she did not complain about did not go away, she decides to leave for another post. She submits a resignation letter, which took the form of a complaint about how racism and sexism were part of the institution. The other academic of colour resigned at the same time, “after we resigned, they said we were the wrong kind of people. This is the two-brown people in the department of around fifty people.” Being the wrong kind of people, not white, not right, is used to explain and dismiss that complaint. When complaints are dismissed as coming from people who are too new to abide by, or respect, an institutional legacy, some people will be dismissed as complainers no matter how long they have been in an institution.
You become a complainer by virtue of not reproducing an institutional legacy.
This expression “rocking the boat” came up often in my interviews, most often in the form of a warning. I spoke to a student who was involved in a collective complaint with other students about sexual harassment. She describes how she was warned, “I was repeatedly told that ‘rocking the boat’ or ‘making waves’ would affect my career in the future and that I would ruin the department for everyone else. I was told if I did put in a complaint, I would never be able to work in the university and that it was likely I wouldn’t get a job elsewhere.” Complaints are framed as how you would damage a department or institution as well as yourself, how you would deprive yourself of a career path. A well-used definition of common sense is sound and practical judgement.
Complaints are impractical. Complaints are made impractical.
It is made practical to affirm the institution.
Earlier, I suggested that common sense as a certainty about something, turns hands into tools: that certain gesture. The hand of common sense, that certain gesture, becomes the hand of correction, telling you don’t go that way, go this way, that this way is the right way, the way you need to go to get what you need. A warning not to complain is also a positive instruction: you are being what to do by being told what not to do. A hand comes up not just to say, no don’t do this, a hand can also be a yes, to correct as to redirect, that’s right.
To progress you have to say yes. I think of polishing as a yes, yes to the institution. To become professional is to polish yourself. Consider Edward Said’s (1993) description of the professionalism “not rocking the boat, not straying outside the accepted paradigms or limits, making yourself marketable and above all presentable.” To polish yourself is to be willing to polish the institution. I think of how when I disclosed what had been going on in my institution, the various enquiries into sexual harassment that had taken place, a colleague said that my action was “unprofessional,” because it caused “a fall-out which damages us all now and in the future.” We are learning what it means to be professional. To be professional is to be willing to keep the institution’s secrets, to protect the reputation of an institution. When we smile, what else vanishes?
Those who complain, who refuse to polish the picture or be the polish in the picture, give common sense a clear inventory.
Let me explain what I mean by returning to common sense conservatism. We could compare the book written by the Common-Sense Conservative Group, to the Sewell Report published in 2021, the UK government’s most report on race. The report declared that there was no evidence of institutional racism in the UK. It claims some ethnic groups do not well because they are too negative, they dwell on racism or are haunted by history. It even suggests we see the positives in slavery. Yes, it was a polished report.
It is important to note that the report was authored primarily by Black and Brown British people. Diversity becomes a door deal: the door is open to some of us on condition we shut that door right behind us. Shutting the door can mean shutting the door on others like us. Shutting the door can mean not even thinking of oneself as one of the others. And so, we learn: you are more likely not to be stopped by institutional racism if you deny it exists. You might even be promoted. And then your promotion can be used as evidence of what does not exist.
Polishing is tied to progression, the more you deny, the further you go. When polishing is tied to progression so much disappears, a disappearing, a clearing. We sometimes call that clearing “common sense.” By showing what has been made to disappear, we provide that common sense with its inventory.
- I began researching common sense some years ago, although I put the project on hold to write The Feminist Killjoy Handbook. You can see a description of the project here. Recently I was asked if I was going to continue sharing my work on my blog. I decided it was time to start sharing some ideas from my common-sense research. Future posts might include a critique of the idea of “biological sex” as common sense (extending some of the arguments from “Gender Critical as Gender Conservative”) as well as a discussion of racialised common sense. In the project I will be drawing especially on ethnomethodology and social phenomenology (in particular drawing on the work of Harold Garfinkel and Alfred Schutz). My hope is that interrogating common sense will provide a good way of diagnosing what is going on in contemporary “anti-woke” movements. For a lecture that draws on some of the material shared in this post see here.
- I will be considering the complexity of using the hand as a tool with reference to time and space (because after all, to readers of Moore, his hand is not now or near).
- I consider the “the table” as an object of common sense in the wider project, drawing on Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition as well as The Life of the Mind.
Bacon, Gareth. 2021. ‘What is Wokeism and How Can It be Defeated’, Common Sense Thinking for a Post-Liberal Age.
Geertz, Clifford. 1975. “Common sense as a Cultural System.” The Antioch Review, Vol. 33, No. 1.
Hall, Stuart. 1977. “Culture, the Media and the ‘Ideological Effect’”, in J. Curran, M. Gurevitch and J. Wollacott (eds), Mass Communication and Society, London: Edward Arnold,
Mirza, Heidi. 2017. “‘One in a Million’: A Journey of a Post-Colonial Woman of Colour in the White Academy.” In Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia, edited by Deborah Gabriel and Shirley Anne Tate. London: UCL Press.
Moore, G.E. 1925. “A Defense of Common Sense,” Contemporary British Philosophy (2nd series), ed. J. H. Muirhead.
Moore, G.E. 1939. “Proof on An External World.”
Nazir-Ali, Michael. 2021. Foreword. Common Sense Thinking for a Post-Liberal Age.
Rosenfeld, Sophia. 2011. Common Sense: A History. Harvard University Press.
Said, Edward. 1993. “Professionals and Amateurs.” Reith Lecture.