For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration
A Common World and A Common Sense

A Common World and A Common Sense

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I’ve been thinking about tables of late, literally and figuratively. Chiefly, what I’ve had in mind is the table as an emblem of hospitality, and, relatedly, as an example of the material infrastructure of our social lives, the stuff of life that sustains and mediates human relationships. As we think about the conditions of human flourishing, it’s important that we consider not only the ideas that shape our moral, political, and theological assumptions. We should consider as well the material structures of our experience, which often do more to shape our lives than most of us realize.

Thinking about the table has drawn me back to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, first published in 1958. This work is notable for Arendt’s discussion of the distinctions among, on the one hand, private, public, and social life, and, on the other, among the activities which Arendt calls labor, work, and action. I won’t take the time to explain all of those distinctions at great length here—it’s a dense book—except as they relate to Arendt’s use of the table as a recurring metaphor, a metaphor which will, I think, usefully illuminate aspects of our digitally mediated experience and certain of its characteristic disorders.

“To live together in the world,” Arendt wrote, “means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.”

Our life together in the world is built upon a world of things, which, like a table, gathers and distinguishes us. The point may at first seem somewhat trivial, until we do a little work to unpack the meaning that Arendt has given these terms.

“The term ‘public’ signifies the world itself,” she explains, “in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.” She goes on to clarify that the world is not simply synonymous with the earth, which she thinks of as related to our “organic life.” The world, in her sense, is related “to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together.” 

We might say that the world as she means it is more or less co-extensive with what the historian Thomas Hughes called the human-built world, it is our cultural habitat and also what I’m calling the material infrastructure that sustains it. In this light, then, the table is not simply a metaphor, it is a case in point, a microcosm of the larger social order, which itself takes shape around an array of material artifacts. 

This world of things turns out to have important psychological and epistemological functions in Arendt’s analysis, and this is were her line of thinking gets really interesting. We might say that Arendt takes the world of common things to be an epistemic backstop that keeps us from sliding into pure subjectivism, nihilism, or egoism. As we’ll see in a moment a world of common things grounds a common sense. 

So, for example, she writes, 

“The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves, and while the intimacy of a fully developed private life, such as had never been known before the rise of the modern age and the concomitant decline of the public realm, will always greatly intensify and enrich the whole scale of subjective emotions and private feelings, this intensification will always come to pass at the expense of the assurance of the reality of the world and men.”

This is quite a remarkable claim. The inverse correlation she posits between an intensification of subjective emotion and private feeling, on the one hand, and an assurance of the reality of the world on the other seems particularly striking given present concerns about the degree to which Americans appear to have not only conflicting beliefs, but to live in alternate realities. 

Elsewhere in The Human Condition she writes, “the existence of a public realm and the world's subsequent transformation into a community of things which gathers men together and relates them to each other depends entirely on permanence.”

Arendt’s insistence on a measure of permanence and stability across time naturally recalls to my mind Simone Weil’s discussion of a stable ground upon which a human life may be rooted. In The Need for Roots, Weil argued that rootedness was an essential human need and, she added, “a human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”

For Arendt the permanence of the world of things not only grounds our common experience of the world but also human identity. “The things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life,” Arendt wrote, “and their objectivity lies in the fact that … men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.”

But let’s come back for a moment to the epistemic implications of Arendt’s notion of a common world. 

Arendt argues that to live an “entirely private life means above all to be deprived of things essential to a truly human life.” She expands on this by explaining that it means one is “deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, to be deprived of an ‘objective’ relationship with them that comes from being related to and separated from them through the intermediary of a common world of things.” 

Here again is the notion of being gathered and separated but with an emphasis on an “objective” relationship with others. Of course, it is not the nature of reality itself that is at issue here. Rather, Arendt has in view our experience of reality, or, to put it another way, the measure of certainty we attain from knowing that we inhabit a shared reality with others. We see and hear and are seen and heard in turn, and somehow the intermediation of the common world of things is essential to this dynamic. This certainly does not at all preclude vigorous and intense disagreement about what is good, right, and just; but it does suggest that such debates can unfold meaningfully within shared horizons of the real. And this is what Arendt understands as “common sense,” which she calls “the sixth and highest sense.” Common sense was not just a set of mundane observations that are widely assumed to be true. Rather, it was common in the sense that it was the product of the senses working in tandem on a world held in common with others. 

“Only the experience of sharing a common human world with others who look at it from different perspectives,” she wrote, “can enable us to see reality in the round and to develop a shared common sense.” However, in the modern world, Arendt argued, common sense “became an inner faculty without any world relationship.”

“This sense now was called common,” she continues, “merely because it happened to be common to all. What men now have in common is not the world but the structure of their minds.” This is a critical point aptly stated. Moreover, she observes that “a noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility are therefore almost infallible signs of alienation from the world.” Again, she does not mean alienation from the earth, but alienation from a common world of human things that constitutes a public space of appearance within which a common sense can take hold and bind individuals to a commonly shared reality. 

Without a common and stable world of things to ground our experience with others, without the table around which we might gather, the mind is cut off from a common sense and set loose upon itself in ways that become self-destructive. 

Thus, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she also makes the following argument: 

Totalitarian propaganda can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity. Before the alternative of facing the anarchic growth and total arbitrariness of decay or bowing down before the most rigid, fantastically fictitious consistency of an ideology, the masses probably will always choose the latter and be ready to pay for it with individual sacrifices — and this not because they are stupid or wicked, but because in the general disaster this escape grants them a minimum of self-respect. [Emphasis mine.]

Only, along with “totalitarian propaganda” let us also include “conspiracy theories” and the relevance of this analysis will be all the more apparent. The loss of a common world and the common (or communal) sense it sustains engenders not only heightened subjectivity but also leaves individuals susceptible to propaganda and conspiracy theorizing. 

What especially interests me, however, is the degree to which our digital media environment differs from the older analog order of things, specifically with regard to its role in sustaining a common world and public life. I’m tempted to speak of this difference as a move from a material order to an immaterial order, but I realize that this is not quite right. After all, digital media is a thoroughly material reality built on tubes, cables, satellites, servers, and rare-earth metals mined at great human cost, none which are any less material in nature simply because they are ordinarily hidden from public view. 

Nonetheless, it is important to account for how digital media reconfigures the material infrastructure of social life such that the dynamics of human experience are also transformed. And a good deal of this transformation involves the scrambling of the relationship between bodily presence and action. What happens, for example, when large swaths of our social world no longer emerges within a world of things we simultaneously occupy. In other words, the question may be simply this: What are the consequences of a social life increasingly dependent on varieties of tele-presence? Which is to say, unmediated by a common world of present physical things.

Tele-, as you may remember from some long-ago middle school vocabulary lesson, is the Greek root that means far or distant and suggests operating at a distance. Consider three common words: telegraph, telephone, television—writing at a distance, voice at a distance, sight at a distance. All of these are varieties of telepresence, and, as the example of the telegraph suggests, telepresence is not uniquely tied to digital media. Digital media, however, has made it possible for telepresence to mark more and more of our experience. 

Early debates about the internet were sometimes framed by an opposition of digital activities to “real life.” It seems to me that we would have better spent our time had the question of telepresence framed our discussions. Regarding life online, “Is this real?” now seems to me to have been a far less interesting question to ask than “Where am I?” 

When we gather, as we so often do now, on a service like Zoom, where exactly are we? Where is the interaction happening? And, what difference does it make, say, that there is no here we can easily point to and much less is there a table? What sort of world is this that now harbors so much of our social and political life, and how might we distinguish it from the world of common things, which for Arendt was so important to meaningful public life?

It is clear that the digital realm lacks the permanence that Arendt thought was essential to a common world in which individuals could appear and be seen. Consequently, it fails to stabilize the self in the manner Arendt attributed to a common world of things. It also seems that Arendt’s fears about the epistemic consequences of the loss of a common world of things were well grounded. By abstracting our interactions into a placeless world of symbols, digital tools appear to undermine our capacity to experience a common world which generates a common sense. Increasingly, we come to feel that individuals are occupying altogether different realities.

There are, of course, many more questions to be asked about how digital tools transform human experience, but reckoning with the seeming worldlessness of the digital realm and its abstraction of experience from bodily presence may help us better understand some of the challenges we face as we seek to faithfully navigate this digital world together.

Michael Sacasas
Associate Director

Study Center Resources

This week, we especially want to draw your attention to our Zoom reading group on Monday, October 26th at 8:00 p.m. This will be our first discussion of Alan Jacobs’s The Year of Our Lord 1943. You can join the meeting with this link. The group is open to the public, so feel free to join in.

Recommended Reading

— Brazos Fellows hosted a discussion [video] with Alan Jacobs and others about Jacobs’s new book:

Our time is characterized by information overload, hot takes, and a preoccupation with the immediate. What’s more, there seems to be a growing consensus that history needs to be left behind—that the past has nothing to teach us. In this moment, why read old books? What, if anything, can we learn from the voices of the past?

Alan Jacobs, Elizabeth Corey, and Paul Gutacker discuss these questions in honor of the release of Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind.

— In “Democracy and the Nuclear Stalemate” at The New Atlantis, Taylor Dotson and Michael Bouchey tackle nuclear energy as a test case for the broader and vexing issues undermining the prospects of democratic governance in the face of large scale problems:

America’s nuclear energy situation is a microcosm of the nation’s broader political dysfunction. We are at an impasse, and the debate around nuclear energy is highly polarized, even contemptuous. This political deadlock ensures that a widely disliked status quo carries on unabated. Depending on one’s politics, Americans are left either with outdated reactors and an unrealized potential for a high-energy but climate-friendly society, or are stuck taking care of ticking time bombs churning out another two thousand tons of unmanageable radioactive waste every year.

If we cannot make headway on nuclear power — and do so democratically — there would seem to be little hope for similarly complex challenges: climate change, artificial intelligence, collapsing biodiversity, sending humans to Mars. We must end the nuclear stalemate. Whether we can is a crucial test for democracy, and for humanity.

For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration
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