Simple Facts and Plain Truths

David A. Bell

  • Common Sense: A Political History by Sophia Rosenfeld
    Harvard, 337 pp, £22.95, ISBN 0 674 05781 3

Readers of the LRB probably don’t have a lot of common sense: this, after all, is a journal of the ‘chattering classes’. Some of its contributors are Marxists, feminists and postmodern philosophers. Could anything be more at odds with the no-nonsense common sense of the ordinary man or woman?

We have become so accustomed to this usage that it is something of a shock to be reminded by Sophia Rosenfeld that ‘common sense’ once had a very different set of political connotations, and that 200 years ago asserting a belief in ordinary people’s common sense could see you branded as a radical democrat. In Common Sense, the 1776 pamphlet that made his reputation, Thomas Paine appealed over and over again to ‘simple facts’, ‘plain truth’ and the ‘simple voice of nature’ to justify America’s rebellion against Britain. As Rosenfeld notes, he also denounced ‘complexity or ambiguity in reasoning or expression as evidence of falsity or manipulation’, coming uncomfortably close to the present-day populists who mock economists and climate scientists for using long words. But in Paine’s case the invocation of common sense had a revolutionary rather than a reactionary moral: politics and government are not arcane mysteries that only the wisest and highest-born can engage in. They are within the capacities of ordinary, uneducated people, who therefore have the right to govern themselves. It is this belief which, in the 18th century, legitimated democracy and turned it from an abstract concept associated with Greek city-states into a desirable form of modern government.

As Rosenfeld observes in her provocative and wide-ranging book, the belief in the capacities of ordinary people – in the power of their common sense – had many roots. She discusses the tradition of English common law, which supposedly derived from the collective experience and wisdom of the community. She also alludes to the impact of Protestantism, with its ‘long … tradition of valuing simplicity and direct observation over elaborateness and higher reflection’. But for common sense to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the leaders of the American and French Revolutions, it also needed philosophical justification. Rosenfeld’s story is about this justification, and the intellectual background to Paine’s deceptively straightforward arguments. She shows how the concept actually worked in revolutionary politics in America and France, and briefly discusses its subsequent history, including its co-option by right-wing populists.

Rosenfeld argues, quite explicitly, that the Age of Reason was just as much the ‘age of common sense’, especially when it came to democratic politics. At this point it becomes hard to tar modern democracy, as so many critics have done, with the supposed original sin of intolerant Enlightenment rationalism. Rosenfeld contends that the intellectual currents which legitimated popular political participation were often harshly critical of what we now consider conventional Enlightenment ideas. At the same time her work points to modern democracy’s intrinsic intellectual fragility. Conservative populism, in her telling, is not some late capitalist corruption generated by consumerism and the mass media. It is democracy’s evil twin and perpetual temptation. She doesn’t always make these points quite as clearly as she might, or present enough evidence for them. Nonetheless, Common Sense: A Political History tells a compelling story.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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