common sense: gossiping around the village pump

The decline of common sense and why we might wish to revive it….

A truly surprising paradox is implied in all this. Prideful thought and common sense stand at opposite poles, yet the poles turn out to be the very reverse of what they seem at first glance. It is vaunting private thought, the thought of singular people, that usually ends in a cut and dry syllogism, and it is plodding, worldly common sense that leads to mysteries beyond rational solution.

Frank Finlay as Sancho Panza. —The Adventures of Don Quixote
Play of the Month 7 January 1973 (Season 8, Episode 5)
Directed by Alvin Rakoff
Writer: Hugh Whitemore (screenplay), Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (novel), J.M.Cohen (translation)
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No one has rendered this paradox more beautifully than Cervantes. His Don Quixote represnts all that is noble and silly in vaunting singular pride and in a life bravely lived according to one’s stock of notions. Quixote himself adheres to a quite systematic, if comical, ideology- the rules and principles of chivalric romance. At the end of his long adventure in the chivalric system, however, Quixote takes to his bed with a common-sense proverb on his lips.

“There are no birds this year in last year’s nests,” he wearily reminds his faithful companion. It is Sancho Panza, who represents all that is earthbound and commonsensical, who begs Quixote with tears in his eyes to get out of bed and go roving once more. So reason, the product of one man’s communion with himself, ends with a bump on the solid earth, while common sense, the product of humankind gossiping around the village pump, points the way to unfathomable depths.


David Bordwell: (see link at end)…More important, we can embrace common sense at a meta-level. Recognizing that it is in play in narrative comprehension makes it something we need to analyze. We can understand filmic understanding better if we recognize what’s intuitively obvious, and then go on to ask what in the film, and in our psychological and social make-up, makes something obvious. And those factors may not be obvious in themselves. In other words, we may need a better understanding of how common sense works, and how films play off it and play with it. That understanding may in turn oblige us to accept empirical experiment, evolutionary thinking, and neurological research—all of which most literary humanists find worrisome.

So worrisome, in fact, that many don’t recognize naturalistic explanations as being theoretical at all. For them, the only theories that exist are Big Theories, and so efforts like the one I just mentioned are condemned as expressing a disdain for or suspicion of theorizing tout court. But that objection, feeble to start with, was blocked back in 1996 by the opening sentences Noël Carroll and I wrote in our Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies:

Our title risks misleading you. Is this book about the end of film theory? No. It’s about the end of Theory, and what can and should come after.

That introduction and many of the pieces included in the volume float arguments for theorizing as an activity that asks researchable questions and comes up with more or less plau

e answers—some commonsensical, some not, and some probing what counts as common sense.

Ironically, just as filmic interpretation is amenable to task analysis from a cognitive standpoint, a surprising amount of Grand Theory seems to me to rely on the sort of folk-psychological schemas and shortcuts that we find in ordinary life. But that’s a whole other essay. Read More:

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