IN SEARCH OF COMMON SENSE
автор: Valentina Gueorguieva
заглавие: La connaissance de l’indéterminé,
Les Editions de la MSHS, Sofia, 2008, 398 pp.
Knowing exactly what you are saying when you use a particular word or expression is something very important not only in everyday but also in scientific communication. As early as the 1920s, Carnap and Co. noted that recognizing this is a matter of logico-philosophical maturity both for philosophy and for the particular sciences relying on philosophy. Today this question sets one of the main directions in the development of epistemology. This allows me to claim that Valentina Gueorguieva’s book La connaissance de l’indéterminé. Le sens commun dans la théorie de l’action is as topical as it is innovative on a global scale. Devoted to the history, meanings and uses of the phrase ‘common sense’, this book obliges us to bear it in mind at least in two respects: when we refer to common sense and when we speak of the construction of the conceptual apparatus of contemporary social sciences.
The author starts from the hypothesis that the need to communicate a feeling, intuition, individual view or other forms of non-scientific truth prompts people to establish a primary social relationship by seeking support in common sense. The question is: what exactly should be understood by ‘common sense’? Meticulously reviewing the history of the uses of this phrase, Valentina Gueorguieva arrives at the conclusion that its conceptualization is an urgent task. Considering that for centuries on end, it has expressed various notions of adequate intellectual and moral behaviour, today all the conditions are in place for turning it into an effective social scientific concept: philosophy has given up the privilege of exercising metaphysical control over the production of socially legitimate truths, ethics is ever more sensitive to the universally shared but indefinable motives of moral practices in the different societies, while sociology and anthropology have realized that the logic of our everyday life together as social agents has very little to do with syllogistic figures and propositional computations.
Valentina Gueorguieva reads the history of the uses of the phrase ‘common sense’ from an epistemological perspective. According to her, it has always expressed above all a kind of cognitive attitude towards reality. To outline its characteristics grosso modo, she analyzes the widely shared definition of knowledge (connaissance) as ‘true and justified belief’. The problem in this definition comes from the word ‘justified’ (justifiée): not every true belief needs justification. Here the author cites Russell who distinguishes two kinds of knowledge: knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. Known generally since the time of Leibniz, this distinction makes sense only insofar as it allows us to think of those two kinds of knowledge as correlatable moments of a single process. As Valentina Gueorguieva has perfectly grasped, Russell’s contribution to the general theory of knowledge is in advancing the foundationalist argument – namely, that all knowledge by description is based on knowledge by acquaintance. Put otherwise, getting acquainted with something, so to speak, at first sight, is the absolutely necessary first step in the process of getting to know it. But acquaintance itself neither can nor should be justified.
But how can we be sure that acquaintance at first sight points us in the right cognitive direction? According to Valentina Gueorguieva, two answers to this question can be found in the history of philosophy. The first is that our intuitions are confirmed or refuted by the accounts of others; the second, that there is a specific practical certainty that we see, feel and grasp things as they are. Those two answers are significantly close to the two main meanings of what has always been understood as ‘common sense’: (1) the totality of dominant notions in a particular society; (2) the ability to distinguish spontaneously between the true and the false and to act adequately in a particular situation. From this Valentina Gueorguieva draws a conclusion that is key to her study: common sense is less a set of prejudices and vulgar notions than a capacity to get to know what is scientifically and philosophically unknowable.
How is such knowledge possible? The history of this question is actually a history of the concepts of common sense. The reconstruction of this history is one of the greatest merits of the book under review. Not just because this reconstruction is very detailed but also because it ultimately arrives at a truly concrete (in the Hegelian sense of the word) concept of common sense. Its content is presented as a historically formed wealth of meanings.
Here are also the intermediate results of the said reconstruction which takes us through Aristotle, Descartes, Vico, Voltaire, Thomas Reid, Shaftesbury, Kant, Russell, Wittgenstein, Hannah Arendt, Gadamer, Rudolf Makkreel, Alfred Schütz, Harold Garfinkel, Aaron Cicourel, Donald Davidson, John Searle, and Michael Polanyi, among others: common sense is similar to what Aristotle conceived of as practical wisdom (phronesis), but is not identical with it because the ideal of common sense is not the virtuous life. Common sense operates similarly to reflective judgement as analyzed in Kant’s Critique of Judgement, but it is not the same as taste because it aims at achieving consensus whilst judgement of taste is not motivated by a conscious purpose. Common sense is also similar to practical sense as examined by a number of contemporary sociologists, anthropologists and ethnomethodologists, but it is not identical with it because it does not merely aim at a particular outcome but also strives towards practical approval of this outcome. There are similarities between common sense and Polanyi’s ‘tacit knowing’, but it is less corporal.
So, ultimately, what is common sense? Valentina Gueorguieva’s answer is that it unites within itself the sense for the peculiar, the intuition of the indeterminate, and the will for consensus. This is a concept that can certainly be effective in the field of contemporary social sciences.
Valentina Gueorguieva’s book is too serious to allow me to restrict myself to praise. To avoid nitpicking, I will refrain from pointing out some not particularly felicitous examples of knowledge by acquaintance given by the author, but I will be left with the feeling of an unclean scientific conscience if I spare her some critical notes of a historico-philosophical and conceptual nature.
Firstly, it is not clear why she has excluded the transcendental hypothesis about the nature of knowledge from her enquiry into the history of the philosophical approaches towards the problem of the source of legitimacy of the principles of cognition. All the more so considering that Kant is an important element of the study’s frame of reference. I think that an analysis of Kant’s idea of the structural unity of finite consciousnesses would have further elucidated the problem of the foundation of our true, but not subject to justification, beliefs.
Secondly, when discussing the grounds of sociological critique of classical philosophical views on human knowledge, Valentina Gueorguieva claims that authors like Marx and Durkheim broke with intellectualist epistemology which views individual consciousness as the sole and self-sufficient source of knowledge. It seems to me that there is some carelessness here: intellectualism stakes on the idea of universal human nature and assumes that individual consciousness is nothing other than a particular instance of human consciousness. Insofar as I can judge, it is precisely this type of universalism that Marx and Durkheim attacked with their theories of the socially-founded mechanisms of production of knowledge.
And thirdly, I cannot free myself from the impression that Valentina Gueorguieva accepts somewhat uncritically the basic postulates of the culturalist approach towards knowledge and science. According to her, ‘with the recognition of the fact that science is the work of humans, it became clear that knowledge is contextually determined’ (p. 19). Of course science is the work of humans! Failing to recognize this fact is simply silly. But how are we to explain another fact – namely, that the ontological pictures of the world built by the natural sciences usually turn out to be much longer-lasting than the societies in whose context they appeared for the first time? Is the postulate regarding the contextual determination of knowledge valid for mathematical truths and the laws of physics? Don’t we have here a logically unfounded extrapolation of conclusions regarding the character of social-scientific knowledge to knowledge in general?
As for the claim that today the theory of knowledge is part of the theory of culture, I will venture to call it into question by doubting the epistemological principles that give self-confidence to those who practice the culturalist approach. When speaking, for instance, of cultural differences, what is it that makes us certain that we are dealing with something obvious and self-evident? I am not inclined to deny that cultural differences are a fact of experience. But let us consider more carefully what is the fact and the experience in question. From a strictly scientific point of view, the existence of cultural differences is nothing more than a hypothesis. To prove it we must provide empirical evidence confirming the following assumptions that are implicit in it: (a) that what I perceive as different from my culture is also a culture; (b) that those who I perceive as carriers of a culture also perceive me as a carrier of a culture; (c) that my culture is also thought of in terms of difference by those whose culture I perceive as different; and (d) that what I perceive as their culture which is different from mine is also perceived by them as something that is theirs.
I do not rule out the possibility that all those assumptions may turn out to be empirically verified in a particular situation. But it would be naïve to rule out the possibility that one or more of them may not. In the second case, the hypothesis of the existence of ‘cultural differences’ will remain unproven. But this will by no means be ‘detrimental’ to cultural differences as something I have experienced. I will continue to believe in them. If I am intellectually honest, however, I will have to admit that they are ‘differences’ in the true sense of the word only when I am on my own (or in the company of my brothers and sisters by culture), facing something that does not fit into the patterns of perceiving reality which are part of my cultural background. In other words, cultural differences are a fact of individual experience. In a particular context, they may also be a figure of common sense. But they are still not (and I doubt they will ever become) a scientific truth. And so long as they continue to be a subject of cognitive interest I will find it difficult to agree that knowledge itself is determined by them. I will live with the justified and entirely true belief that the theory of knowledge has not only a past but also a present and a future beyond the theory of culture.
 Formulated in different ways, this claim is found several times in Valentina Gueorguieva’s book.
- Emil Grigorov
- Valentina Gueorguieva – La connaissance de l-indéterminé