Common Enough Concepts

by johnmccreery

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?

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4 Comments to “Common Enough Concepts”

  1. John, thank you for taking my lazy shorthand comment and spinning it into gold.

    I think you explain why ‘common sense’ is so often missing in the post itself. I’m also reminded of Gramsci’s use of the term, which he contrasts with good sense and philosophy. He characterizes common sense as the odd collection of relics and kludges that get people through their days without ever being thought through or elaborated into any kind of coherent system. It’s usually ‘good enough’, but it’s certainly neither an actual common ground nor the forum for revisitation of fundamental assumptions.

  2. That “odd collection of relics and kludges” reminds me of Levi-Strauss’ use of bricolage to characterize the pre-scientific mode of thinking in which we all, not just primitives in the old, pejorative sense, participate.

  3. When my wife first explained the conflict between Chomskian linguists and cognitive linguists to me, I thought, “so what’s the big fight about? It seems like it wouldn’t take much to make the two sides compatible”. I had to understand a lot before I grasped how crucial the differences were.

  4. Good point. Separating the crucial differences from what Freud labeled the narcissism of small differences can take a lot of work. That said, your mention of Chomskian versus cognitive linguists reminds me of a talk I heard during a quarter substitute teaching at Berkeley back in 1972. The speaker was an historical linguist who proposed the following analogy.

    Chomsky, he said, envisions language as a brand-new erector set. Everything is shiny and new and all of the pieces are present. Actual languages are, he said, like old erector sets found in dusty attics. Many original pieces are missing. Others have been replaced by odd bits of bubble gum, rubber bands and paper clips. The manual has been lost. That image has proved unforgettable for me.

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