Carl’s remark that complex realism seems a “common enough concept” has set me thinking. It could be taken to mean “nothing of interest here, let’s move on” or “can’t we just take this for granted.” These interpretations, however, leave me puzzled as to why the authors of The SAGE Handbook of Case-Based Methods, a volume over 500 pages in length, think it’s such a big deal. Then I think of a comment I just translated concerning an award-winning piece of Japanese ad copy:
The words are ordinary, but the way in which they are strung together captures the lightness and modernity of the product, which are instantly transmitted to the reader.
Ordinary words are strung together in a way that produces an “of course” moment in a reader. Then, depending on the reader and the conversation, the response can be “nothing of interest here,” “can’t we just take this for granted” or, alternatively, the effect of a Zen-like whack on the side of the head, “How did we ever forget that?” Given a reader come late to a puzzling conversation, it might be a sudden moment of clarity, “That’s what I’ve been looking for.”
To me the conversation is one in which, during my lifetime and particularly in anthropology, a debate has polarized advocates of science and humanities, positivism and hermeneutics, naturwissenschaft and geisteswissenschaft. One the one side are those who assert, in effect, there is nothing worth knowing but math and science. On the other are those who say, then what happens to art, ethics and emotion, the stuff that makes life worth living?
In that ancient past when I was an undergraduate, back in the 1960s, the positivists seemed to have the upper hand. We were taught to believe that clear thinking and rigorous experimentation would shortly produce definitive answers to how the world works and usher in a utopian future, envisioned along the lines of Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center. Then came Vietnam, Flower Power, the Civil Rights Movement and Feminism, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, instead of the end of history, radical critiques of the grand narratives of Science and Progress, unmasked as mystifications created by nasty old white men to keep women and the world’s colored masses in their improperly subservient places. The scientists continued to do science and technology continued to advance. Meanwhile, however, hermeneutics became the flavor of the day among the non-numerate literati, re-envisioned as interpretation and critique. Lacking, however, scriptures to serve as a touchstone for debate, hermeneutic understanding was increasingly reduced to opinions rooted in nothing more than, “I think,” a form of consumer behavior too often reduced to impulse purchase.
In this context, what seems to some of us to be mere common sense can again have something like revelatory impact. Note, for a moment, what complex realism proposes: There is a real world out there. We can only partially understand it; but we can improve our understandings. To do so, however, we need to revisit our fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality and see how they add up when confronted with relevant evidence. You say, “I think.” I say, “So what.” We need some common ground here. Common sense? It ought to be. Why is it so often missing?