Common Sense

Common Sense

Sophia Rosenfeld
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Common Sense
    Book Description:

    Common Sense reveals a political ideal so fundamental to American politics that we are unaware of its power and its myriad uses. Sophia Rosenfeld shows how common sense—the wisdom of ordinary people, self-evident truths—has been used to justify all political extremes, with a history that is anything but commonsensical.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06128-6
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Hot things can burn you. Two plus two make four. Seeing is believing. Blue is different from black. A leopard cannot change its spots. If I am writing these words, I exist.

    There are many reasons not to write a book about common sense, especially if you happen to be a historian. For one, common sense is, by definition, ahistorical terrain. In modern parlance, we sometimes use common sense to mean the basic human faculty that lets us make elemental judgments about everyday matters based on everyday, real-world experience (e.g., If you used your common sense, you would know the...

  4. CHAPTER 1 The Ghost of Common Sense London, 1688–1739
    (pp. 17-55)

    Our story begins with a disappearance of sorts. In 1736, in a popular farce entitled Pasquin, the great English playwright Henry Fielding announced the untimely end of one Queen Common Sense, the erstwhile ruler of the world. Her murder, as Fielding explained it, was the product of a conspiracy that went to the very heart of modern life: she had been done in by the combined forces of religion, medicine, and law. But in Fielding’s telling, this disappearance came with a twist. For common sense promised to haunt the future. In her new, apparitional form, she would—like many of...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Everyman’s Perception of the World Aberdeen, 1758–1770
    (pp. 56-89)

    A mere thirty-four years after Henry Fielding insisted that Queen Common Sense was already dead, an obscure Scottish university professor and former schoolteacher named James Beattie took on a job few would want. He set out from a remote corner of Scotland not simply to revive her sphere of influence but also to establish a list of the basic principles to which all must subscribe without giving them another thought. What were these principles? From the vantage point of twenty-first-century philosophy, the list is rather a hodgepodge: I exist. I am the same being today that I was yesterday—or...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Radical Uses of Bon Sens Amsterdam, 1760–1775
    (pp. 90-135)

    In 1773, an eight-volume, multiauthor, French-language Portable Library of Good Sense (La Bibliothèque du bon sens portatif) rolled off the press under a London imprint.¹ The collection never had much commercial success. Today these volumes of “sensible” writings are extremely rare and survive in only a small handful of scholarly libraries. (The one copy in the French National Library disappeared sometime before 1914.)

    Yet everything about the title of this collection suggests that it had the makings of a popular series in its moment. In the great age of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and compilations, the term bibliothèque indicated a comprehensive library’s...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Building a Common Sense Republic Philadelphia, 1776
    (pp. 136-180)

    In 1776, in the distant colonial outpost of Philadelphia, “common sense” became a call to arms. The basic story has, over the last 235 years, become something of a historical cliché. In January of that year, nine months after the first skirmishes of the Revolutionary War, debate on the streets of the main colonial cities of North America was not yet focused on breaking free from the British. Fear, combined with residual loyalty and affection for the mother country, mostly ruled out this kind of thinking. But behind closed doors, and within radical circles such as those frequented by the...

  8. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  9. CHAPTER 5 Making War on Revolutionary Reason Paris, 1790–1792
    (pp. 181-220)

    Lest we forget, however: common sense always belongs to the language of reaction, which is to say opposition. That means it can, in altered circumstances, be used equally well to push back against democratizing currents as to support them. Nowhere was this irony more evident than in the first years of the French Revolution, as the nation, and especially France’s largest city, hurtled toward the undoing of its centuries-old power structure. Surprisingly, the fate of the concept of common sense in Paris in the early 1790s was to be remade as a foundation for a political movement that hoped to...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Königsberg to New York The Fate of Common Sense in the Modern World
    (pp. 221-258)

    Just as the events of 1789 were unfolding in France, a well-known professor of logic and metaphysics at the University of Königsberg (today Kaliningrad) busied himself putting the finishing touches on his third magnum opus. That professor was Immanuel Kant. The book that appeared from a Berlin publishing house at Easter 1790 was his Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft). What linked this difficult philosophical tome with the distant rumblings of revolution was, in part, Kant’s effort to return the very old idea of sensus communis to the domain from which it had so egregiously escaped in recent years. Kant,...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 259-320)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 321-324)
  13. Index
    (pp. 325-337)