Sunday, February 04, 2007

Sense and Gnosense

Karl Augustus Menninger (July 22, 1893 - July 18, 1990) was an American psychiatrist and a member of the famous Menninger family of psychiatrists who founded the Menninger Foundation and the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, is to the general public an obscure thinker today who was in his day significant as a public intellectual. There's the problem: that a man who influenced society deeply a mere 50 years ago is now more or less forgotten as a force in public opinion making but who is still influential -- because he is forgotten. The lessons taught by Menniger are now more or less irrefutable, right or wrong, because his theses are not accessible to the lay person to consciously critique, laying buried in obscurity, foundational nevertheless, and dangerous due to the hidden influence that lingers, influence like a leeching poison that sickens, like miasmas, like night-gasses. Menninger wrote in condemnation of "common sense," and now common sense is considered to be the approach of philistines and the great falsely conscious, the proles, the Rightwing Religious Bigots who are not sophisticated enough to grasp the gnostic Truths of the elite. Menniger is one man who destroyed the validity of common sense in the minds of the masses, and now those who have learned his lessons have forgotten where such and idea came from, assuming that "they have always believed...." Not to gratuitously trash Menninger, the point is to point out here that many of our common assumptions are foundational not because they are intelligent, reasonable and true but simply because the originators are obscure and unexamined because they are culturally subterranean. When we can't see the foundations of our assumptions we can't critique our supports properly.

Menninger was a prolific writer. Among his books were The Human Mind (1930), which brought psychoanalytic understanding to the lay public, Man Against Himself (1938), in which he explored self-destructiveness (and made a compelling case for the validity of Freud's death instinct), Love Against Hate (1992), which examined the human capacity to overcome self-destructiveness, and his magnum opus, The Vital Balance (1963). He was also intensely interested in the penal system, and in his book The Crime of Punishment, he suggested that many convicted criminals needed treatment rather than punishment (1968). His volume, Theory of Psychoanalytic Technique, was one of the few books to examine the theoretical underpinnings for the analyst's interventions.

Menninger spent his life as a champion of the under-dog. He was a crusader for a variety of causes, including the American Indian, nuclear nonproliferation, neglected and abused children, and penal reform. In 1981 he received the Medal of Freedom, the United States's highest civilian honor, from President Jimmy Carter.


"The theoretical underpinnings" are of concern to all of us, and that so in view of our assumptions, that "We have always believed...." Our theoretical underpinnings are usually completely and utterly unknown to us, being the underpinnings we build our assumptions atop, not knowing how shaky and perhaps how rotten they are. Karl Menninger condemned mere "common sense," and our public intellectuals today, not knowing or perhaps having forgotten where this thesis originated, assume they have always despised mere common sense, all right-thinking people knowing it is essential to delve down to the theoretical underpinnings of ideology, regardless of how little they see of it once there in a Gnostic fog. Hubris and ignorance replace common sense in favor of gnostic moralisms and self-righteousness and murder by socialism. All this because once a man told the smart that common sense is beneath them; and the smart were impressed enough to abandon it in favor of mystic awareness of the cosmic truths known only to them. Not no dog-kickers them, the smart took up the theoretical underpinnings and ran with them into the mists of the unknowable in pursuit of glory and utopia and feel-good. I can't count so high as to number the dead I've witnessed due to the lack of common sense emanating from our public intellectuals. We must excavate our intellectual foundations. We must be archaeologists of our public intellectual culture. We cannot assume any longer that the Gnostics know anything of value. We have to rip up the planks of desolate edifices to examine why we live atop such a crumbling culture. Menninger and thousands like him lay at the bottom of our ill. We have to expose these men and women to the light of conscious analysis, opening up our own assumed "theoretical underpinnings" so we can resume the natural position of mere common sense.

To know is delight.

To know why is divine.

To know that common sense is common sense is just normal. To miss that is too usual. We have to point out the reality and benefit of common sense to those, our Gnostic superiour intellectuals. And we have to show them why they assume the idiot "theoretical underpinnings" they live for. Then we move on. Common sense dictates it.


Charles Henry said...

Dag, for some reason this was a very thought-provoking post for me. I wrestled with the jumbled half-thoughts it prompted last night, and I’d like to test my (unfortunately lengthy) conclusions against your experience, if you don’t mind.

What is the most common of common sense?
That the highest virtue is to be good;
That this is the hardest thing to become.

That we become good by doing good;
That this is the hardest thing we can do.

That in the long term this struggle is worth the humiliating effort we suffer through in the short term by our action-by-action, choice-by-choice attempts to succeed at it (humiliating because of how often we fall short of our aim).

That this is an achievement we can approach, but never reach; there will always be room for improvement.
Accepting this truth leaves us to somehow reconcile a lifelong journey along two unsatisfying paths: trying yet failing, or simply not trying at all.

And common sense tells us that the lesser of these two evils is to try to be good and hope to succeed, despite all the evidence our five senses may declare will make that a thin hope indeed.

Furthermore, common sense lets us come to terms with the fact that as individuals we are not likely to progress as successfully as we would were we to connect our attempts with that of others; making it a “common” struggle is the likeliest way to ensure common progress. The more common we can make it, the closer we may hope to be able to progress towards the goal of being good. The more broadly we can test, measure, and judge, the more likely progress will occur.

Finally, because it is so hard, and so likely to end up wrong more times than right, therefore the most humiliating way to live, that engaging in this struggle is probably going to be the last thing anybody will ever want to do. This is why it is such an essential saving grace in our wiring, to have the value of being good as “common” sense, common to all human beings.

Rebelling against this common sense, or denigrating its sensibility and commonality, is to look for the easy way out. To live by the motto that being good is not the highest virtue, or that there is no such thing as virtue, or no such thing as good, condemns man to live life as an animal, since animals are not wired to acknowledge the existence of the pieces of this non-corporeal jigsaw puzzle. After all, nature defines “good” as that which survives… and the number of orchestral symphonies written, or charities established, doesn’t weigh into that equation.

The eternal battle has been between those seeing the human species as animal, excused from pursuing the struggle to be good, and those who see humans as above the animal, yet remaining so only through constant struggle, just as we struggle to triumph over gravity, however temporary and compromised such victory may be.

The most appreciable success is to rise, the most common failing is to fall. Those who would describe failing as winning, or falling as rising, lie to themselves in order to avoid the humiliating truth: being excused from a struggle or expected to participate in a struggle, involves someone or something beyond the individual, doing the excusing and doing the expecting. Replacing this "other" with oneself, is the ultimate in short-term thinking, short-term living, and short-term acting.

And living only for ourselves, for the present moment, goes against common sense.

truepeers said...

I hope I can jump in... Gnostics, unless they are totally blinkered or vicious, usually do end up completely humiliated by the failure of their magic or ideology to transform reality. I did. So, even if they are denying something in an attempt to stave off this inevitable humiliation, in an ever more desperate attempt to prove that they, the great scientist-individual, have found the magic key that will open all or many doors, there is nonetheless something about the truth they do sincerely-desperately seek (but can't directly find) or the reality of which they inevitably are a part that gets us all in the end.

Overcoming that humiliation takes more than common sense: it takes a hard-won faith in what lies behind common sense, veiled to simple reason. (However, if you never fall away from common sense in the first place, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe".) I don't think we are individually "wired" to be interested in the good. It - and the common sense to which it becomes attached - is only something given in our collective situation that we recognize in good faith, or not. It's not in us - pace the Gnostic individualist - it's among us.

dag said...

I used the example of Karl Menninger to put across the idea that common sense is lost to the average intellectual due to the loss of the ideological basis of the argument. 'Who's ever heard of Menninger?' was the point of it, meaning that what so many assume to be valid is nonsense unexamined only because it's not even known it could be anything but eternal. Menninger is just one of many half-forgotten thinkers who contribute to our "common wisdom," wisdom that is not wisdom at all but mere writing by clever fools. The danger of it is that the author is forgotten by those with no sense of history, who think that yesterday was long ago, that tradition is what happens today if one calls it so. If we don't know that there was a starting point of our common assumptions, then we won't think them worth looking into, seeing them as obvious, as eternal truths that only a cranky "Rightwing religious bigot" like me would harp about. (Yes, someone wrote that of me some years back at Jihad Watch, and I laugh about it to this day.)

I write of common sense in the sense of: "Don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining." I hasten to add that I also write of Hume's observations of the impossibility of causality as common sense. It's not one or the other. But the one must come before the sophisticated other; and in an intellectual world of dhimmitude and Left fascism we are lost to the most basic forms of common sense, like the excuses we hear from those who claim this or that conspiracy is rersponsible for-- you pick. Menninger's denial of common sense isn't sophisticated but is sophistic, gnostic, if you rather. Until we return to the most basic honesty of not outright lying, then we are pissed on.

I hope that our meetings each Thurdsday evening will bring out people who are honest and willing to voice in pubic thaeir honesty in a common sense fashion. The last thing we need is more fools with a deep grasp of the "ideological underpinnings" of this or that conspiracy, especially when we could be faced with more than piss but a shower of blood and bones.

Both comments above show us how one can take this argument to levels of interest that are rewarding and remarkable. I am blessed in knowing such people. There must be others who could join us for this common sense approach to discussing our world. I'll take this opportunity to once again invite the community of honest men and women to join us at the library atrium on Thursday evening at Blenz coffee bar. We talk. We listen. I learn and I am blessed by it.

Humility? What a great thing it is that I learn. Come and teach me more.

Anonymous said...

I’ll declare my skepticism regarding ‘common sense.’ Sometimes barely conscious mass consensus or intuition is likely to be wrong. Of course, I’ve always been skeptical of any argument that claims to elevate to good sense of The Common Man, The People, The Toiling Masses, or whatever collectivity the potential demagogue refers to.

Now that I’ve placed my gnostic/dhimmi/left/fascist (did I get them all?) cards on the table, I want to respond to one specific claim by CH. That being that the highest virtue is to be good. I would suggest you separate the two concepts. Goodness is implicitly bound up with notions of Christian compassion. Forgiveness, humility, unconditional love, etc. Virtue implies something different. Honour, bravery, loyalty, foresight, perhaps cunning. As a neighbor, one should aspire to goodness. As a statesmen, one should aspire to virtue. It would be altogether counter-productive to a nation to have a ‘good’ leader; one who refrains from striking back, who gives without reciprocity, who forgives upon request.

truepeers said...

Interesting discussion of common sense in the comments section, here.

dag said...

From the blog Peers links to above:

On March 6th, 2004 Mysterious Stranger says:

"[W]e shouldn't confuse common sense with popular opinion. It is better, I think, to understand it in the way Aquinas and the phenomenologists do: as the fundamental awareness of the reality in which we all find ourselves."

That is to the point and sense.

I deleted the rest of my comment. It had something to do with down-grading my offer of coffeee to a cup of tepid tea.

Deleted again.

Damn. Common sense prevailed.

Charles Henry said...

Anon, I’ll respectfully disagree with some of your points. I will accept your distinction between “virtue” and “good”, and appreciate the clarification. I used “virtue” in an attempt at a more eloquent statement of “of all the good stuff there may be, the best one of all is to be good”.

However, I read into your distinction a helpful division, if it allows us to classify attributes having to do with the material world, to be called virtues; and those attributes more attuned to unseen things, to be called goodness. Of the two, I still think the more valuable are the ones having to do with non-material ideas, rather than those associated purely with the physical. They involve that much more effort to sustain, precisely because they involve things not seen, and so to succeed in upholding them is therefore the result of a more challenging struggle.

On the matter of your description of “goodness” in action, I don’t think I can agree with the portrait you paint of someone struggling to live up to the judeo-christian notions of goodness. When I abandoned the faith of my youth, it was because I didn’t see the book of instructions as offering common sense guidelines for living in the real world… it seemed like senseless advice to not take proper measures to protect oneself, to seemingly glorify not protecting others who are helpless without our protection, leaving oneself constantly open to being cheated and taken advantage of, and then not fighting back after being fleeced… none of that seemed sensible, so I turned my back on the whole thing.

In recent years I found my way back to the Book with the idea that the lessons within it must be based on common sense; surely if everything was a creation, it wouldn’t operate senselessly. If advice in the book seemed senseless, I felt it must be because I was taking something literally when it would be more sensible to approach it figuratively, or as a principle not a rule.
Nowadays I’m more likely to interpret advice to, for instance, turn the other cheek when I’m slapped, as an admonition to not become as bad as those who hurt you while you find a way to protect yourself. To me that is sensible. And challenges us to find a way to adapt to life's changing situations without straying from a path of "goodness". If stray we must, we can at least find our way back on the path, through redemption and atonement. When we fall off, we can climb back on.

I agree with you when you condemn a leader who would refrain from ever striking back, who gives without reciprocity, who forgives upon request… if his restraint caused innocent fellow countrymen to be victimized without end, if his giving meant rewarding bad (and especially parasitic) behavior, and if his forgiveness prevented a wrongdoer from atoning for their trespass (justice to the cruel being cruelty to the just). To me, there is a context to all three of those examples: it is not “what it is”, but “how it is what it is”. The restraint, the giving, the forgiving, all are to be circumstantial, existing as principles, rather than as absolute rules, and needing a struggle to be practiced appropriately.

In other words, I don't think a leader applying the advice in the ways you suggest, is being good at all... because he's not acting upon common sense.

dag said...

My exasperatioin stems from a seeming automatic response of contraditiction to anything simply for its own sake in support of ones pose of critical superiourity, the every thing I argue against in the post above. Common sense dictates that some obviious truths are obvious, that some statements do not rerquire deeep critical analysis, andd that some things should simply be left alone as better than picked at for superfluous non-reasons. The intellectual should know when a statement is self-contained and when it's controversial. But we witness too often a fetish of analysis of the obvious and the given, postions in the biological life of Humanity that too many rerfuse to accept as given, that stemming from the Gnostic view of a higher knowledge of reality that doesn't transcend naive realism but that merely slips into mystic phantasy and childish egoism. Sometimes a cigar is just a fucking cigar.

To try to raise the red herrings of what demagogues say to exhort the masses is to raise some pretty smelly fish from a shallow pond if one hopes to convince anyone the critic is a skeptic, perhaps some code word for critical intellectual in this context. The demagogue, if one has read the theses here with any discernment, is one von Herder would claim rerpresents the genius of the volk; but the common people and common sense only share the word common and little else[ hence, the logic of the complain is lost to reason, the common and the common not being the same to the critical thinker. Common sense should tell us so. And there's the problem with a culture that values smart over sensible, that prizes cleverness over sense. Sophists are laid low by gnostics, and evererywhere the reason of the dialectic is ignored in favor of fashion. This appears to my dull mind as a victory of the eunich in gaining admission to the Imperial Court.

Warm tea, no lemon.

dag said...
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dag said...
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dag said...

My computer was acting up so I removed two duplicate comments above.

Anonymous said...

CH: I appreciate the response. The ‘public’ application of Christian principles has always interested me, possibly because I’ve never been able to square two opposing (I note your disagreement on this point) ethical codes. If your re-lapsed Catholic (I assume) eyes can take it, Luther has some intriguing, though ultimately unsatisfying, thoughts on the public-private ethical divide. Concepts of Christian goodness are just not much of a guide for life in the public sphere. The pagan Romans had more wisdom in this realm.

Dag: First, I’m not contesting the ‘cigar-ness’ of a cigar. I’m stating my skepticism of Common Sense arguments in the political sphere. For example, Uri Avnery recently invoked Common Sense to buttress his theorizing on the alleged Israeli assassination of Arafat (,,2002298,00.html). Fair enough, the Israelis probably wanted him dead. Common Sense also tells us that he was an ill old man living in high stress conditions and thus might be susceptible to sickness. So, what does Common Sense really tell us? Pretty much whatever we want it to. It’s a throw-away term; too often a crutch for the lazy thinker (…not always. see: Thomas Paine). Second, much like populism and demagoguery, populism and appeals to Common Sense go together like peas-and-carrots.

bonsta looga said...

There is no one true religion, using the analogy of the spiritual journey; different modes of transport might be employed, some will be quicker than others. The fastest route might get you there sooner, but it might not be the best. The slower passage enables you to witness more.

truepeers said...


How do you know that? It sounds as if you have possession of some rational anthropology that already answers the question of faith for you, one that tells you what kind of faith is needed for living in this day and age. But how can we have such certain knowledge of faith outside of faith itself?

No one with a strong faith believes other than that they have found the faith best for them, however tolerant towards others this faith might be. That implies one believes one is in possession of a measure of truth, however incomplete, superior to the other possible faiths.