The Rise of Common-Sense Conservatism: A Review

The Rise of Common-Sense Conservatism: The American Right and the Reinvention of the Scottish Enlightenment by Antti Lepistö (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2021), 288 pages, $40 (Paperback)

Antti Lepistös The Rise of Common-Sense Conservatism is a fascinating and well-written intellectual history of the American Right. Lepistö brings a scholarly touch to the development of the neoconservative political philosophy and uses this to help explain the recent rise of populism. He grounds all of this history in the Scottish Enlightenment and the appeal to common sense, or a moral sense, or moral sentiment. The elevation of the common human to the standard of near infallibility with respect to right and wrong serves as the epistemology of this influential political movement.

The introduction begins with Irving Kristol’s editorial work in the 1970s through the late 1990s. Kristol pondered the loss of common sense and the war for the soul of America. The idea was that the culture wars of the 1960s had fractured America. The meaning of “Americanness,” as well as contentious debates about education, family values, entertainment, race, crime, and poverty, left the impression that there was a dissolution of the American aspiration. There seemed to be no basis for unity by which to solve these difficult debates.

The solution for neoconservatives was to embrace a populist epistemology. This was both an engagement with, and a reinvention of, eighteenth-century thinkers like Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Thomas Reid. Their appeal to moral sense, or the “moral sentiments,” or “common sense,” seemed to provide the basis for the unity needed to resolve the debates mentioned above. By appealing to what is common for all humans there would be a foundation to proceed in addressing the problems of the culture wars. Lepistö says that anyone “looking back on the past half century of American experience, will surely be struck by [this] phenomenon. . . . It is a tyranny exercised by academic, quasi-academic and pseudo-academic ideas over the common sense embodied in the practical reason of traditional wisdom” (2). So there is a movement from lofty academic goals of truth, beauty, and goodness studied in the great books to an appeal to populism.

As Lepistö moves from thinker to thinker, deftly identifying the belief system used by each and how it finds its roots in eighteenth-century thought, we start to see why an appeal to common sense cannot provide the basis for unity. What counts as one person’s common sense is viewed as uncommon sense to another. The common sense of a group is little more than an ad populum appeal. And Groups can, of course, be wrong. When this happens, it can be that case that a specialist who has dedicated time for careful study arises to help correct the error. Or alternatively, aJeremiah may emerge, who must not simply tell a group they are mistaken but call them to repent of sin before God. But experts and prophets can both be seen to go against the common sense of the groups from which they arise.

What this exposed is a problem at the heart of the Enlightenment project. On the one hand, the Enlightenment is forged out of the Wars of Religion and correctly sees the need for unity based on the universal. The fear of devolving into religious wars or the superstition of the medieval period is still a significant motivating factor in political and public discourse. The Enlightenment’s solution is multifaceted but generally finds its solution in the universality of the secular. The idea is that we can all agree on our material needs and sort out conflicts over such, but questions about religion and the non-material are personal and cannot be universal or the basis for our life together.

For the purposes of thinking about common sense, this raises two problems. One is projecting what I (or my familiar group) take to be common sense onto the rest of the world. Then this gives rise to the second problem which is projecting voluntarism onto groups who do or think otherwise: “They know what they are doing is wrong but they do it anyway.” The problem is one of the will, not unbelief. This takes what I (or my group) believe as the norm for everyone else. But this is precisely what is up for debate. Simply beginning the question about what counts as common sense, or shifting the problem to the will, is no solution at all.

One nuance for the Christian thinker, and what shaped the Scottish Enlightenment, is the doctrine of the Fall. The Common Sense Philosopher might say: “everyone was created with the right moral sense but the fall has distorted this”. Interestingly, this provides a conflicting solution. On the one hand, it asserts that everyone already knows what is right because they were created that way. But then on the other hand, it says that if you present this to a person who rejects it this is because they are fallen and won’t listen to you. This is again voluntarism and a focus on the will rather than unbelief. How do we know this story about creation and the Fall is true? It may indeed be true, but how do you know in a non-question begging manner?

The problem instead seems to be one of unbelief: people do not know what they should know. This is culpable ignorance. They may have been told about someone’s opinions of good and evil in Sunday School. But this hardly counts as knowing good and evil. And they may have studied truth, beauty, and goodness without ever coming to know any of them. Ever studying but never coming to a knowledge of the truth. It seems that this is the opposite problem to that proposed by the common sense advocates. Far from knowing what they should know but struggling to do it, humanity is lost in a darkened mind not knowing what they can and should know about God and good and evil. Their wisdom is foolishness. We can end up with a dichotomy of the fideist asserting opinions about God and the skeptic doubting these and neither having knowledge.

This does cut across a popular instance of appealing to common sense among the Reformed who say “everyone knows God deep down.” Just like the Common Sense Philosopher says everyone has a moral sense, so too these say everyone has a sensus divinitatis. Current popularizers of this belief like Alvin Plantinga find it in thinkers like Thomas Reid. The idea is that the problem with the countercultural movement of the 1960s is that while they have the sensus divinitatis, it is damaged by the Fall and their lives reflect this. How would we know if this account of the sensus divinitatis is correct? What the counterculture did was offer alternative beliefs about reality. Perhaps those are the correct way to understand the world. Interacting with persons simply on the basis of their will is dehumanizing. We should be able to interact with their beliefs and not merely assert our own or rely on unsound arguments that end up being circular.

While the neoconservative appeal to common sense seeks to give meaning to the American culture wars it leaves big assumptions unanswered. At crucial points, it asserts what must be proven. This book provides a wonderful opportunity to question these assumptions afresh. How do we know God the Creator? What is unbelief? What is our highest good as humans? Lepistö’s intellectual history gives us a look at an influential political movement in American history by connecting it to these kinds of questions and is worth reading.

Dr. Owen Anderson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. He has published seven books including The Declaration of Independence and God (2015) and The Natural Moral Law (2013) with Cambridge University Press. You can visit his website here.


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