Talking about Don’t Be Fooled

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Geplaatst door Routledge Philosophy and Religion op Woensdag 5 juli 2017

How to support common sense in Academia?

An important bit of insight in behavioural expertise is that it really requires a lot of experience. Practical wisdom, or phronesis, as Aristotle called it, is the kind of expertise – if you would call it that – that would contribute to the intellectual improvement of our capacity to live by enlightened normative expectations. There is not much need, nor is there much room for theory in the social and behavioural domain, if you think of theory as basically the development of abstract representational models of a certain region of reality. We do need theorizing, we do need the exploration of abstract analogies, of conceptual relations and implications; we do need thought experiments; we do need a lot of good thinking. But we shouldn’t think of theorizing as a kind of poiesis, a matter of producing something that would survive the activity. Theorizing is a matter of praxis, to use these Aristotelean notions.

Here is an analogy that might explain a lot: you can think of theorizing as similar to painting or similar to dancing. If it is like painting you will need to end the activity when you have your painting completed, when the end-product is realised. This kind of theorizing yields a theory, an abstract product with an existence of its own, most likely, nowadays, a model, perhaps a simulation model that can run on a computer. Theorizing that focusses on causal or mechanical regularities might take this form. Think of Newtonian theory, quantum theory, theories of thermodynamics, theories of micromolecular processes, etc.
But in the domain of social or behavioural phenomena, where obligations and entitlements play a major role, theorizing is a form of praxis. It looks like dancing, not like painting. If you have finished your dance, i.e. the activity of dancing, there is nothing left. There is no end-product. Theorizing in this area is the very activity of systematic thinking, of exploring conceptual relations, of developing arguments, of continuing the conversation, of deepening your understanding, of building experience; in short, of developing your common sense.

Theorizing in the social domain is a specific mode of social interaction. The idea that you can split research and application, that you can separate perception from action, that you can separate diagnosis from intervention, is in the social domain deeply mistaken. Applying a theory in the social domain is not what it is in the natural domain. Applying a theory is adding a move to the practice of theorizing. It is contributing to the further development of one another’s expectations, it is reinforcing specific normative expectations. That is what Ian Hacking is talking about when he talks about the looping effect. There is actually no theory to apply. There are many ways of theorizing, one way of which is a self-deceptive attempt to apply theory. This is self-deceptive because it mistakenly assumes that the social, behavioural domain is a domain that can be approached with merely causal expectations, as if the domain is a field that allows for predictions. That is deeply mistaken.

So bringing more common sense in the academic world will mainly have to focus on the social interactions that are themselves a crucial part of the practice of science, the practice of science communication and the practice of developing informed interfaces between human agents and the objects of their cognitive interests. In the behavioural and social domain, these interfaces are crucially linguistic in nature. So bringing more common sense in the academic world will be a matter of engaging in theorizing, understood along the analogy of dancing, not painting. It will be a matter of supporting the exploration of mutual understanding, between experts with different areas of specilasation, and thus between experts and laypeople.
Key to bringing more common sense in the academic world is acknowledging and appreciating that the majority of people populating Academia is uneducated in most fields. So, key to understanding Academia is to acknowledge that it consists by and large of mere laypeople, well-educated, but no experts, laypeople who cannot but build on trust.

Is common sense reactionary?

No, common sense is not reactionary. I argue in the book that the basic slogan “Automatic pilot if possible and investigative attitude if necessary” shows that the capacity for critical thinking is a crucial part of common sense. When I wrote the book it seemed the principal opponent of common sense was a scientistic kind of expert, but over the last year another kind of opponent is quickly on the rise in the media: the brash populist who wants to claim common sense for himself and who identifies it, thoughtlessly and mistakenly, with his own gut feeling. Life can be complicated and the automatic pilot that we develop over the years is therefore very welcome. It allows us to respond quickly, almost mindlessly, yet most of the time appropriately. That is not, however, a matter of an instinctive gut feeling, but a matter of extended learning processes. Our automatic pilot ordinarily produces educated responses. But on top of that the more important bit is added by the fundamental sensitivity to respond smartly and suitably to apparent frustrations of our expectations. This sensibility motivates us, if our common sense is well-developed, to switch to the investigative attitude. That attitude encourages us to be cautious of potential biases and it motivates us to honestly ask ourselves serious questions. I would argue that the absence of this attitude is one of the most striking indications of the lack of common sense in reactionary forms of populism. Populists typically do not ask themselves questions. They simply claim their own truth and accuse their favorite opponents of untrustworthiness. The common sense I describe in the book recommends a number of thoughtful replies to such intrusive and disrespectful forms of populism. Courageous accomodation is one of them: it enables you to transform your opponent into a more receptive fellow human being, someone inclined to explore with you shared areas of ambiguity.


The basic idea of ‘humaning’ is to draw the reader’s attention to an extremely interesting human capacity, namely that of relating meaningfully to one’s own activity. People live (verb) their life (noun); they account for what they do. I explain in the book how the fact that we are talking animals, i.e. that we have language, gave rise to this intruiging self-relation. This simple but also deep idea of ‘humaning’ has three important consequences: (1) human beings always live their life under the guidance of an idea of what it is to live a human life; (2) human beings can objectify their ideas about their life as much as they want but they can never fully objectify their activity of living their life; and (3) human beings share their individual lives in their common language, which opens up a common world. With respect to the relation between expertise and common sense the real import of ‘humaning’ is an observation about the division of intellectual labour. Divisions of labour are crucial for human beings, but each one of us has to live his own life. Living one’s life cannot be left over to other people. Even if it would be possible for experts to know much more than we about how we should live to have a happy and satisfying life, this would not help us unless we were able to appropriate their expertise and apply it on our own terms in our own lives. This means that expert knowledge about human life should be locally embedded, individually embodied and practically enacted. It should therefore be a matter of common sense. This metaphor may be useful: no matter how many technically advanced tools experts provide us with, it is fundamentally our own hand that we should be capable of knowing how to use well.