Gramsci vs. Kosso on Common Sense

9780521426824[1]In connection with a course I was taking I recently read Peter Kosso’s “Reading the Book of Nature: An introduction to the philosophy of science”. In it he is talking a bit about the relation between science and “common sense”.


There he describes common sense as “what we take to be responsible, justified knowledge in our day-to-day confrontations with the external world”, and describes it as ideas about the world we have that are experience-based. A difference from science would then be the stringency and the systematicness of the methods we use to explore our confrontations with the external world.


What Kosso says is not directly wrong, but I believe an important factor is missing in his description of common sense: society.


Inspired by Gramsci, I would rather say that common sense is a popular expression of the ideas that are hegemonic in a certain society. Hegemony would in a sense be society’s parallel to the paradigms Kuhn described in science. What is “common sense” will then change over time, it will differ geographically, between cultures and subcultures, and between social classes.


antonio-gramsci-red[1]As such common sense would arise not only from our individual observations and experiences, but also from others, and it is not hard to see how it could also be influenced by ideas with a relative spurious relation to “experiences with the external world”, like some forms religion. Groups who in society has the role of intellectuals like priests, teachers, journalists etc. might influence commonsensical ideas directly through their role, rather than people arriving to it through their own experiences.


So what is then the relationship between science and common sense? A common metaphor when it comes to science is to describe the testing of a theory through experiment as a theory’s “handshake with nature”. If we use the same metaphor, common sense might describe a theory’s “handshake with society”. The relationship between science and common sense would then depend on the “handshake between society and science”, thus completing the circle in a sense.


The form and strength of this final “handshake” will naturally vary greatly, but a boundary could be set. Science should give us an idea of how nature works if it is any good. A society with very erroneous ideas of how nature works would on average be in greater danger of not surviving than a society with better ideas of how nature works. There should thus be a limit to how bad common sense can be in relation to the natural world, and thus also a limit to how weak its “handshake” with science can be.


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