Summary: "Common Sense" (from Local Knowledge) by Clifford Geertz


In the selections from this essay that I studied, Geertz develops a provocative new interpretation of the term "common sense." Rather than conceptualizing it as a collection of "immediate deliverances of experience," the author makes a strong case for examining common sense as an "organized body of considered thought" (75). As Geertz's clearest and most concise articulation of his viewpoint, this phrase deserves close inspection. The term "common sense," as constructed by the author, refers to a collection of ideas, loosely structured ("organized"), that demonstrate at least some small level of sophistication. The "body" of knowledge characterized as common sense has been evaluated over time and selectively assembled and reassembled to reflect changing values. The newness of Geertz's definition of the term derives from its significant contrast with traditional notions of common sense--the widespread belief that common sense consists of a broad set of universal truths, received and utilized uncritically by individuals who neither examine them nor attempt to fit them together into a comprehensive and programmatic system of thought.

The concept at the center of Geertz's argument, and in which his revision of the term "common sense" plays an indispensable role, is that common sense belongs with "myth, painting, epistemology" and other "cultural system[s]" (76). He asserts that "common sense" may in fact be something of a misnomer. What we believe are simple and largely unrelated truths deriving from our own personal experiences are in fact "historically constructed and…historically defined standards of judgment" (76). Geertz introduces the possibility that common sense is a cultural regime like any other, and consequently a product of historical and cultural specificities. "Common sense is not what the mind cleared of cant spontaneously apprehends," he claims, but rather "what the mind filled with [historical and cultural] presuppositions…concludes" (84).

It is interesting to note the absence of language as a consideration in Geertz's conception of the organized, self-critical nature of common sense. He characterizes common sense as "an interpretation of the immediacies of experience" (76), yet fails (in the selections I read) to take into account that this interpretation is expressed through language often rich with metaphors. A common experience such as romantic attraction, for example, might be expressed through the metaphor




(Love, an intangible object, becomes a container, a tangible object.)

In turn, the fact that two people "in love" often seem to build an invisible but nonetheless impenetrable wall around themselves, a self-containing social routine in which they seem to have words and thoughts only for each other in spite of the (intrusive) presence of the larger community, is seen as common sense. If language and common sense both structure reality, one wonders about the extent to which the former assists or undermines the cultural systematicity of the latter.

Geertz, Clifford. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 1983.


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