From Issue One
Common Sense has no editors and hence contains no editorial. Its aim is to challenge the division of labour in contemporary society according to which theoretical discussion is monopolised by universities and confined to the pages of trade-journals read by professional and academic elites.
The term “common sense” signifies: (i) shared or public sense, and (ii) the interplay of differing perspectives and theoretical views. These meanings imply one another. Both are undermined to the extent that a social division of labour prevails. For theory, the undermining of common sense means that philosophy becomes separated from empirical enquiry, to the impoverishment of both. The arid abstraction of analytical philosophy and the plodding boredom of positivism are the complementary results. For practice, the undermining of common sense means that political action is denied any space for self-reflection and so goes forward in terms which confirm the social status quo. Common sense admits of no fixed definition. No less elusive than it is intelligible, it exists only where criticism and self-criticism are the order of the theoretical and political day. A continuing development of critical theory is the only brief which the journal Common Sense holds.
From Issue Two
WHY COMMON SENSE?
In the 18th century, Scottish philosophy understood common sense to mean (a) public or shared sense (sensus communis) and also (b) an as-it-were “sixth” sense which establishes relations and distinctions between the data supplied by the other five. What is exciting in this philosophy is its thesis that these two meanings of common sense by no means exclude, but on the contrary imply, one another. On the one hand, I can achieve a coherent totalisation of my experience only in and through interaction with other people; and, on the other hand, it is only as a totalised (an autonomous) individual that I can authentically interact. Thus selfhood and society form a unity. So too do theory and practice, since I can theorise my experience truly only where social and practical conditions making for a free interaction obtain. Theorising, in short, both summons and presupposes what Hegel terms ‘mutual recognition': an interest in truth and in social emancipation go hand in hand.
For the Scottish philosophers, common sense enters crisis in a-society where a social division of labour exists. In the Hegelian and Marxian traditions, this becomes the thesis that truth can appear only once existing alienations have been set at naught. The journal Common Sense draws the conclusion: wherever it enters crisis, common sense can go forward only as critique.
In keeping with its inspiration, the procedures of Common Sense are wholly novel. Material submitted is photocopied, stapled and distributed on a non-profitmaking basis by a nonexisting editorial board. Only boring – which is to say unthinkingly conformist – material counts as non-commonsensical inasmuch as such material merely reproduces the categories which underwrite existing alienations, i.e., the existing order of social things.
In this way, the hegemony of the division of labour as between theory and practice, between readership and contributors and between contributors and editors is thrown to the winds. So too is the division of labour between academia and the outside world (a division which academia itself, like any closed monopoly or corporation, seeks always to keep in play). Thereby, through a detonation of existing boundaries, a space is cleared in which common sense in its two-fold meaning can authentically come to be.
Common Sense is thus as much an idea as a journal: start your own, on the same minimalist basis, and let discussion proliferate outwith the confines which orthodox academia, always respectful of authority, adopts as its favoured own.
From Issue Four
THE AIMS OF COMMON SENSE
Common Sense aims to challenge the division of labour in contemporary society according to which theoretical discussion is monopolised by universities and confined to the pages of trade-journals read by professional and academic elites . It is run on a co-operative basis and reproduces articles submitted to it in typescript form. The term “common sense” signifies : (i) shared or public sense and (ii) the interplay of differing perspectives and views. These meanings imply one another: both are undermined to the extent that a social division of labour prevails. For theory, the undermining of common sense means that philosophy becomes separated from empirical enquiry, to the impoverishment of both. The arid abstraction of analytical philosophy and the plodding boredom of positivism are the complementary results. For practice, the undermining of common sense means that political action is denied space for self-reflection and so goes forward in terms which confirm the social status quo. Common sense admits of no fixed definition . No less elusive than it is intelligible , it exists only where criticism and self-criticism are the order of the theoretical and political day. A continuing development of critical theory is the only brief which the journal Common Sense holds.
From Issue Five
The journal Common Sense exists as a relay station for the the exchange and dissemination of ideas. It is run on a co-operative and non-profitmaking basis. As a means of maintaining flexibility as to numbers of copies per issue, and of holding costs down, articles are reproduced in their original typescript. Common Sense is non-elitist, since anyone (or any group) with fairly modest financial resources can set up a journal along the same lines. Everything here is informal, and minimalist.
Why, as a title. ‘Common Sense’? In its usual ordinary-language meaning, the term ’common sense’ refers to that which appears obvious beyond question: “But it’s just common sense!”. According to a secondary conventional meaning, ‘common sense’ refers to a sense (a view, an understanding or outlook) which is ‘common’ inasmuch as it is widely agreed upon or shared. Our title draws upon the latter of these meanings, while at the same time qualifying it, and bears only an ironical relation to the first.
In classical thought, and more especially in Scottish eighteenth century philosophy, the term ‘common sense’ carried with it two connotations: (i) ‘common sense’ meant public of shared sense (the Latin ‘sensus comunis‘ being translated as ‘publick sense’ by Francis Hutcheson in 1728). And (ii) ‘common sense’ signified that sense, or capacity, which allows us to totalise or synthesise the data supplied by the five senses (sight, touch and so on) of a more familiar kind. (The conventional term ‘sixth sense‘, stripped of its mystical and spiritualistic suggestions, originates from the idea of a ‘common sense’ understood in this latter way). It is in this twofold philosophical sense of ‘common sense’ that our title is intended.
Why is the philosophical sense a two-fold one? Classical and Scottish thought was always alive to the circumstance that senses (i) and (ii) of ‘common sense’ are interdependent. On the one hand, a public or shared sense amounts to more than a contingently agreed upon consensus only when those who share it are individuals whose experience is totalising: in other words they must be individuals who are self-reflective and thereby autonomous and answerable for what they do and say. On the other hand (conversely), individuals who thus totalise their experiences can do so only through interaction with others: that is, they can achieve totalisation and autonomy only as members of an interactive – a social or ‘public’ world. Individuality is here social without remainder, as Marx signals in his construal of the ‘human essence’ as the ‘ensemble of the social relations’ and as Hegel also signals when he urges that self-consciousness (human self – aware subjectivity) exists ‘only in being recognised’. Hegel draws the conclusion of the interdependence of the two senses of common sense when he urges that it is only in a community of individuals who are mutually recognitive that truth can appear.
Having explained our title, it remains to justify it. The Scottish philosophers understood that common sense, in its two-fold meaning, enters crisis where ever (as in, according to their terminology, modern ‘commercial’ society) a social division of labour obtains. For then individuals become constrained to their role-definitions and functions: mutual recognition vanishes and, with it, autonomy; we can no longer see ourselves and our experience through others’ eyes. (Just as we can no longer see others’ experiences through our own eyes.) As in Burns, ‘seeing ourselves as others see us’ becomes less an actuality than a wish. In Hegel and Marx, the same theme is sounded under the heading of ‘alienation’. Marx perceptively connects alienation from our ‘species being’ (Gattungswesen)’ (that is, alienation from our capacity to be autonomous and self-determining) with alienation from others with whom we associate and interact. At one and the same stroke, the two senses of common sense are nullified or at least rendered problematic. Capitalism is that social form (or practical totality) wherein common sense (practice’s theoretical and self-reflective moment) enters crisis in an paradigmatic way.
That which enters crisis can exist only critically. In an alienated – a crisis ridden – social world, common sense can exist only as critique; common sense exists as critical theory in a society which threatens to erode its roots. Conversely. inasmuch as truth and autonomy are (as Hegel emphasised) interdependent, the project of a critical theory can exist only as the project of a renewed common sense. Something of this appears in Gramsci, who urged that ‘common sense’ (in the sense of commonly agreed-upon obviousness must be translated into critical ‘good sense’ (common sense in our title’s meaning), and that such a translation can be finally effected only when ‘universal subjectivity’ (Hegel’s ‘mutual recognition’) appears. To achieve this, common sense has to thematise the crisis of the social order which challenges it: the crisis of common sense is not merely its own crisis, but that of the social order wherein its project stands to be renewed. Critique and crisis (or ‘theory’ and ‘practice’) are no less interdepedent than are the two senses of common sense distinguished above. Epistemological crises are social crisis and vice versa. To paraphrase Wittgenstein: to imagine a critical form of language is to imagine – but we don’t have to imagine it – a crisis-ridden form of social life.
Hence, critique – the interrogation of existing circumstances – is the only brief which the journal Common Sense holds. In our initial publicity it was stated that, as a matter of editorial direction, ‘the only material to be excluded or anathematized is material which is boring’, ‘Boring’, here, has not just an aesthetic meaning. Rather, it refers to material which is uncritical in the sense of failing to place at issue the categories of the world it inhabits, i.e. the categories which proffer themselves as those of unselfreflective theorising whatever the topic of such theorising may be. Boring theory is theory which, lacking practical reflexivity, ‘recognises the world by means of different interpretation of it’, to quote once more Marx. The immodest goal of Common Sense is to place at issue anything and everything. Where enstrangement prevails, mutual recognition (the space of common sense) can exist, at most, only on the margins and in the interstices of a massified world. But crisis places the margins at the centre, and so this immodesty finds its justification.
Placing anything and everything at issue, Common Sense relates ironically to ‘common sense’ in the sense of received (or soi disant) obviousness. Projecting critical theory as common-sense- theory, Common Sense builds on but also qualifies ‘common sense’ in the sense of that mode of thinking which in an estranged world happens to be public or shared. In an estranged world a shared sense is an enstranged sense. However, at the same time estrangement (alienation) exists not as a seamless monolith but as the movement of contradiction. Every social world, says Hegel, ‘is not a dead essence but is actual and alive‘: this applies to alienated social worlds too.
Common Sense is the movement (the movement-towards-resolution) of the resulting contradiction. Common Sense is the centralisation of the margins, and the margins can be centeralised only as common sense.
The editors of Common Sense have no “power” – no apparatus of authority based on resources or professional prestige – and, in this regard, are non-existing. Our journal, which is as much an idea as a set of pages which can he physically held and turned, will have succeeded when a network of similarly-produced journals cover the land. Common Sense is an `invisible college’ devoted to the propagation of critical thought.
From Issue 10
Common Sense was first produced in Edinburgh in 1987. It offered a direct challenge to the theory production machines of specialised academic journals, and tried to move the articulation of intellectual work beyond the collapsing discipline of the universities. It was organised according to a minimalist production and editorial process which received contributions that could be photocopied and stapled together. It was reproduced in small numbers, distributed to friends, and sold at cost price in local bookshops and in a few outposts throughout the world. It maintained three interrelated commitments: to provide an open space wherein discussion could take place without regard to style or to the rigid classification of material into predefined subject areas; to articulate critical positions within the contemporary political climate; and to animate the hidden Scottish passion for general ideas. Within the context of the time, the formative impetus of Common Sense was a desire to juxtapose disparate work and to provide a continuously open space for a general critique of the societies in which we live.
For the first nine issues, the pages of Common Sense were filled with various attempts to address the issues of the day and with items that did not seek to be classified as one thing or another. Space was offered to ranters, to poets, to philosophers, to theorists, to musicians, to cartoonists, to artists, to students and teachers, to writers, and to whosoever could produce work that could be photocopied. However, times have now changed and the minimalist attitude to production has proved to be somewhat restrictive. Consequently, Common Sense has expanded to the form you see before you here. Nevertheless, the basic commitments of the journal remain as they were at its inauguration – to pose the continuous question of what the common sense of our age is, to articulate critical positions in the present, and to offer a space for those who have produced work that they feel should be disseminated but that would never be sanctioned by the dubious forces of the intellectual police.
Common Sense has not however been confined to the pages of a journal, and its various editors and contributors have done much more than produce words. All have experienced the massive changes that have characterised living in Scotland during the late 1980s, and all have been involved in one form or another with struggles against the creeping attempts of the British State to control and socialise its population into the so called “Thatcherite” management plan. In January 1989, Common Sense helped to organise a conference on the poll tax that deliberately refused to be drawn into party political or factionalised bickering, and that attempted to theorise the thing beyond the simplistic conventional wisdom of the “its unfair” argument. From this developed an increased awareness of the politics of debt enforcement in relation to the crisis of late twentieth century capitalism, and a realisation that resistance to the poll tax involves much more than criticism of the party of government and must also involve resistance to government and state. Questions were raised thereby in relation to the adequacy of traditional political theory and practice, to the status of the law, and to the supposed benefits of the capitalist social democratic state.
The experience of this conference fed into the pages of the journal as discussions about the relevance of Marx(ism) to the imposition of the poll tax, and it suffused the independent anti poll tax groups who were increasingly discovering that the enemy was not only the Westminster parliament but also – and more crucially – the Labour Party controlled local councils with their bully boys – Scotland’s very own unofficial riot police – the Militant Tendency. Common Sense moved with the common sense of the general revolt against the poll tax, and into the experience of autonomous resistance – frequently in direct opposition to Parties that offer themselves as representatives of the common cause, Common Sense has thus developed connections between radical philosophy, the critical or open tradition of Marx(ism), anarchism, innovative theory, autonomous activity, alternative forms of education, and good old-fashioned common sense.
The newly formed Common Sense now finds itself in a highly volatile and transitional period of historical movement. The Labour Party Mafia is preparing itself to continue where the Tories left off, and the Scottish National Party believes that the Westminster Parliament has just voted the poll tax out of existence. Meanwhile, under instruction from local government toadies, sheriff officers continue in their efforts to recuperate poll tax arrears as community resistance does its best to protect people. Local government generally is in a state of financial chaos, and the legitimacy of the British legal and justice systems daily becomes more obviously absurd. Moreover, in the aftermath of the so called Gulf War and with the breaking down of the boundary between East and West, masses of people seek work as capital attempts to produce larger more mobile markets, to assert itself in new areas of control, and to pay off its debts. The struggles within these movements will no doubt form the basis of the next century and set the terms of the common sense of tomorrow. The conditions of critical debate have already changed as new political positions become articulated within the demise of those nebulous entities that usually went by the names of Monetarism and The Cold War….
* * * * *
In this changing context, Common Sense is a form of words that needs to be clarified somewhat. It could easily signify anything from the conventional wisdom of the dying enterprise culture, to the pragmatic street wisdom of the many who have been excluded by its beneficiaries and who are thereby forced to struggle for basic human dignity. According to the Scottish Philosophical tradition, common sense has two major meanings: the psychological sixth sense that unites and distinguishes the perceptions of the other five; and the sensus communis or public sense that negotiates a shared sense of who and where we are, that maintains a sensible critique of the political world, and that animates the general feelings of a society. Common Sense thus recalls the notion of the Democratic Intellect according to which ideas are freely and generally available to all, and it resonates with a literary style of philosophical generalism that is utterly different from the dominant Anglo-Saxon and analytic traditions to which we have now become too accustomed in the educational institutions of the twentieth century, but which remains a powerful force at the margins of educational life and in the movements of Scottish culture more generally.
The producers of Common Sense remain committed to the journal’s original brief – to offer a venue for open discussion and to juxtapose written work without regard to style and without deferring to the restrictions of university based journals, and they hope to be able to articulate something of the common sense of the new age before us. Common Sense does not have any political programme nor does it wish to define what is political in advance. Nevertheless, we are keen to examine what is this thing called “common sense”, and we hope that you who read the journal will also make contributions whenever you feel the inclination. We feel that there is a certain imperative to think through the changes before us and to articulate new strategies before the issues that arise are hijacked by the Universities to be theorised into obscurity, or by Party machines to be practiced to death.
The producers of Common Sense will consider contributions From anywhere by anyone on any issue and in any form that can without difficulty be included in our new format – we are prepared to publish anything from recipes to meditations on truth. We will accept copy as typescript, camera ready artwork, photographs, and computer files (Apple or IBM stored on 3.5 inch floppies). We would like the journal to be as full as possible of disparate work, and we would like to keep contributions as short and up to the minute as possible. We would prefer that articles be no longer than 5000 words or so, although we will consider everything we receive and will begin to publish longer pieces as occasional pamphlets loosely organised according to themes or particular debates. In this turbulent world, it would be politically naive to uncritically publish everything we receive, but at the same time we have no access to hard and fast criteria of exclusion. These issues are themselves subject to vigorous debate amongst the producers of Common Sense. It is for you as potential contributors to judge on the basis of critical common sense what should be included in the pages before you now.
See also, Richard Gunn’s article Marxism and Common Sense in issue 11.