1. Commonsense, power, and hegemony

Accounting for commonsense is somewhat tricky since its sedimentation and construction occurs at the level, not of discursive rules, but of assumptions, habits, and dispositions. But, since this social background of norms shapes the meanings within which our lives are formed, it is also the central site in which our local interactions and contexts are tied to broader structures, practices, and sanctions. Collins, for example, argues that a “system of commonsense ideas” operates to structure and provide meaningful background to social processes in favor of those who are privileged from the point of view of social power.1 If, with Sewell, we accept that social structures are recursive, then whilst commonsense structures often look to be entrenched, natural, and objective, they result from a matrix of processes and power relationships that require ongoing maintenance through material and normative force.2 In Collins’ example:

Whether the inner-city public schools that many Black girls attend, the low-paid jobs in the rapidly growing service sector that young Black women are increasingly forced to take, the culture of the social welfare bureaucracy that makes Black mothers and children wait for hours, or the “mummified” work assigned to Black women professionals, the goal is the same—creating quiet, orderly, docile, and disciplined populations of Black women.3

There is a nexus here, involving the construction of commonsense as a domain of power, which is also involved in recursive feedback loops across organizational structures, material and economic constraints, and in complex and multiple ways. Considering such examples requires understanding past actions of governance (both local and national), mediatization, cultural norms, economic and housing deprivation of inner-city, and so on. Some of these structural processes are reinforced by legal systems, whilst some are reinforced almost by habit, but it is the confluence of these processes that, understood as normatively structuring the contours of people’s lives, may be understood as fields of power that both constrain and enable behavior.4 Our everyday practices are continually involved in the production and reproduction of those structures, and in acting according to accepted norms of the communities in which we live we reinforce processes that contribute to the existing landscape of power.5

By approaching these structures through the notion of commonsense, we can foreground a number of interrelated issues regarding the role of rendering such commonsense explicit, particularly given a philosophical and political tendency to either deride or hypostatize commonsense. According to advocates of deliberative democracy such as Habermas, for example, the legitimacy of political decisions requires that they are the “outcome of deliberation about ends among free, equal, and rational agents”.6 Resultantly, any failure of deliberation to achieve democratic consensus is put down to failed communication, rather than having to do with incommensurable differences. Errors of reasoning are put down to the distortion of communication with each other, and the inability to adhere to normative criteria that would enable rational agreement.7 So, for example, in Bohman’s attempt to deal with these issues, he argues that deliberations may go awry when ideologies interfere with the participants involved.8 Such ideologies may, for example, cohere with current hegemonic interests, thus going uncriticized whilst also containing bias and misunderstanding. Legitimacy for political decisions, then, would require us to render ideology explicit as “false” belief, to be released from it. However, Habermasian deliberation requires us to already be free from such ideology, whilst also providing no traction upon how we may free ourselves from it.9

The above picture of the relationship between commonsense and social structures complicates this further. Commonsense is not the sort of thing that can be discursively elaborated, being composed of dispositions that are open-ended, differential responses to each other and to contexts, emotions, and embodied actions. Its polyvocality deflects criticism, which has led many to foreground the situated and specific “here and now” as an unanalyzable foundation of practices, as in Rorty’s ethnocentrism.10 But, the imbrication of power and commonsense renders this problematically conservative where “meanings are so embedded that representational and institutionalized power is invisible”.11 Such “hegemony colonizes consciousness”,12 so foreclosing our ability to reconstruct, or renegotiate, commonsense, particularly insofar as hegemony is understood to embed a specific constellation of power across the social field. But, how, then, could it be possible to begin “crafting counter-hegemonic knowledge that fosters changed consciousness”,13 when agents find themselves to be embedded in, and to further embed, forms of power that disenable them from exactly that? Neither discursive explicitation and reasoning, nor understanding commonsense as an unanalyzable set of practices, would seem to do the job. So, what sort of capacities would be required to craft counter-hegemonic strategies?

Prince-electors in deliberation, Codex Balduineum, Mid-1300s.

2. Reasoning as interactional practice

Let us consider how norms are instituted to better understand the construction of commonsense. Perhaps the best-known account of commonsense is in Wittgenstein’s notion of forms of life, which is often used as a means of considering practices of living together, our ethical commitments to each other, and the basis of our language games.14 According to Wittgenstein, in order for agreement in opinions (his terminology), we first require that there exists a “common form of life” in which we are “mutually attuned” with each other—which, as Mouffe points out, does not require procedural rules.15 Such forms of life have often been understood as an unanalyzable set of practices, which absolves from responsibility any judgments made on that basis.16 Others, however, have used the notion to demonstrate that regulism (the idea that norms can be grounded in explicit rules) yields to a vicious regress. Famously, Wittgenstein argues that the regress shows “that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘obeying the rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases”.17 More recently, Brandom interprets Wittgenstein’s conclusion as motivating a pragmatic approach to rules: “[T]here is a need for a pragmatist conception of norms—a notion of primitive correctnesses of performance implicit in practice that precede and are presupposed by their explicit formulation in rules and principles”.18 Brandom’s solution to the regress of explicit rules is to look for rules that are implicit in our practices. For Brandom, norms of reasoning are “instituted” through social practices in which certain rules of reasoning that are implicit in those practices may be made explicit through their public expression in language games.

Brandom argues not just against regulism, but also against regularism, which in this case would say that implicit rules could simply be read-off from regularities in practice. One problem with regularism is that we could force a finite set of practices to conform to several distinct rules, and for any “deviant” form of practice, it can be made to cohere with some rule or other. As such, any attempt to distinguish between correct and incorrect practices would seem to quickly break down, and the idea that we could read off a set of rules from practice would seem to end-up with our writing-away all those occasions in which we do not reason according to the norms that are supposedly implicit in our behavior. Brandom attempts to deal with this sort of problem by arguing that social norms can be identified by the way we sanction each other in ordinary linguistic practice, by judging each other’s utterances to be correct or incorrect. But, as Brandom notes, sanctioning cannot itself be a matter of regularity, or disposition, since that would simply reintroduce the problem of regularist gerrymandering at the level of sanctions, rather than the level of first-order practices. As such, according to Brandom, sanctions must themselves be normative, so we have “norms all the way down”.19 That is, Brandom effectively postulates the existence of proprieties of practice as normatively primitive, and argues that these determine our abilities to evaluate and sanction each other. Thus, whether or not this avoids the problems of regulism and regularism, is now reliant upon giving a decent account of this activity of sanctioning that is thoroughly intersubjective.

According to Brandom, what is required to say something, rather than merely do something, is for an agent to both be able to have the algorithmic ability to elaborate practices to employ a vocabulary and to have “scorekeeping” abilities, where agents keep track of each other’s commitments and entitlements, where commitments are sentences to which an agent is committed (though perhaps unknowingly as consequence of other commitments), and entitlements are sentences to which an agent is justified after having defended them successfully.20 In the latter, however, we are being asked to think of norms not as emerging from reciprocal interrelations and interactions between agents, but through a kind of checking-mechanism in the form of a detached observer. It is at this level of the community of scorekeepers that meanings are determined, and also norms instituted. As Habermas points out, on Brandom’s view, the assessment of utterances is made, not by “an addressee who is expected to give the speaker an answer”,21 rather a community plays an authoritative role in considering what our utterances mean, and also which reasons are taken to be correct or incorrect: “what is correct is determined according to what the community of those who have command of the language hold to be correct”.22 Sanctioning practices are, therefore, inextricably related to the social attitudes defined on the basis of membership in a specific community, where membership in a community may also be understood to be normatively defined by means of those practices. This is both worryingly conservative, and asymmetric from the point of view of agents’ ability to disagree and dissent from communal practices and sanctions. Indeed, if we say that meaning is determined by a set of specific inferences, and that those inferences must be at least substantially similar in order for communication to be possible, then not only would agents dissenting from some of those inferences not be able to communicate about the same thing, they may be accused of not even deploying the same concepts.23

So, Brandom fails to provide an account of intersubjective norms, and, in the process illuminates the inherent conservatism of social norms insofar as their construction is obfuscated. There is reason to think, however, that the coordination of linguistic interaction exists as a kind of shared understanding between agents without requiring objective scaffolding, or implicit rules.24 In distinction with dominant analytical philosophy of language, linguistic interaction may be understood in terms of non-intentional coordination and underlying cooperative activities. For example, Gregoromichelaki and Kempson provide evidence and argument to the effect that communication does not require the manipulation of propositional intentions, since agents often express “incomplete” thoughts without planning or aim regarding what they intend to say, “expecting feedback to fully ground the significance of their utterance, to fully specify their intentions”.25 Moreover, this kind of coordination between agents is often sub-personal, involving mechanisms by which agents synchronize together prior to the level of communicative intention. In making utterances in interaction, we may “start off without fixed intentions, contribute without completing any fixed propositional content, and rely on others to complete the initiated structure, and so on”.26 As such, it is argued that meaning should be understood by means of intentionally underspecified—yet incrementally goal-directed—dialogue.

By thinking of interaction as a form of action coordination, it is possible to see how our dispositions to make assessments of each other’s actions may refer to each other, and are therefore also involved in the reinforcing and construction of meaningful dialogue. This can be understood in terms of our practical attitudes, which are just dispositions of differential response and interaction with certain patterns of stimuli, where these are typically low-level mechanistic processes that require neither implicit rule-like norms, nor explicit rationalization.27 So, for example, our linguistic expressions, which are mutually and incrementally forged into meaningful statements through our ongoing conversations, are subject to feedback mechanisms determining appropriateness of response at a sub-intentional level. It is through the interaction of our practical attitudes with each other in continuous feedback and adjustment that normative assessments become themselves instituted and also implicated within those very mechanisms. Our linguistic dispositions (and broader embodied practices), therefore signal and shape the appropriateness of each other’s responses, and so our talk about meaning, or about the norms shaping our interaction, may also be understood to exhibit dispositions that become implicated in the feedback mechanism insofar as it affects those meanings or norms. Norms, therefore, become sedimented through our interactions, and the cases in which explicit normative talk is required to keep our interactions coherent with each other are decreased over time by the convergence of our practices. As Kiesselbach puts it, this gives us a way of understanding “normative talk as essentially calibrational”.28

It is, moreover, through understanding the interactional nature of dialogue and the institution of norms as consisting of primarily sub-intentional processes, that we can understand the role that our embodied actions, feelings, and habits play in the coordination and socialization of our dispositions. In other words, norms are just the regularities produced by adjustment and correcting mechanisms of feedback internal to interactions with each other, where these lead to the reinforcing of stabilities in those interactions, and their recognition as being appropriate or inappropriate. Interactions give rise to norms when the relevant interactional activities reinforce certain patterns of behavior as acceptable, or unacceptable, in social practices through recursively acting upon those underlying patterns. This can be understood in terms of recursive feedback loops that are generated through the interactions between patterns of behavior, and so are apiece with the mechanisms that also generate patterns of behavior, through mechanisms of differential response. As such, behavior that can be understood in terms of norms is the same-in-kind with pattern-governed behavior. In many ways, this is similar to the account given by Sellars, though the distinction made there is between pattern-governed behavior and rule-governed behavior, whereas the structure of norms here is not characterizable in terms of a system of rules, particularly since it is primarily concerned with lower-level, and often sub-sentential mechanisms.29 Still, the potential for algorithmic decomposability of such mechanisms into patterns of activity, where that activity is understood in terms of interactive and auto-reinforcing dispositions, allows for an account of the explanation of the intersubjective basis of norms without thereby eliminating, or reducing, them in the process.30

Rather than think about norms in terms of rules against which our practices can be judged, perhaps we should consider there to be a plurality of practices, of forms of interaction, and of distinct contexts, in which the norms of our language are felt, reinforced, and revised. In most communication, there is a continuous adjustment of phonological, gestural, lexical, and grammatical features.31 These primary feedback and adjustment mechanisms shape the forms that norms will take, and are already shaped by the structure of our relationships. Normative statements are then employed as part of mechanisms to repair conversations and to sanction certain practices, where the practices of repair and sanctioning are also implicated in feedback mechanisms that further embed those norms in our practical attitudes.32 If the processes and mechanisms of coordination and feedback go on smoothly, such normative language is not required to keep the interaction going. The use of normative vocabulary, then, would seem to come into play when agents are required to conceptualize interactional performances in which there is a need to engage in explicit deliberation, or to repair a conversation using explicit sanctions.33 This means that extricating rationality from social norms in this context is both impossible, and wrongheaded.34

Screenshot of FKA twigs’s “How’s That” (2013), video by Jesse Kanda. All rights reserved.

3. Re-engineering commonsense

We now have a decent account of the construction of intersubjective norms, such that it underwrites the account of commonsense discussed above. Moreover, this normative space is clearly distinct from both a “masking” ideology and a set of unanalyzable practices. Furthermore, the above allows us to understand how intersubjective norms become sedimented in a relational field that is sculpted by power. This does not require communal stability to underwrite communication, rather, feedback and adjustment institutes and sediments norms across intersecting linguistic interactions without clear-cut boundaries. As such, we can understand the practices of interaction to inculcate norms, not through a process of explicitation, nor by explicit communal sanctioning, but often through the conglomerate pressure of a wider communal practice against the potential validation of divergent practices. Norms thereby generatively constrain and enable, and are therefore consistent with Foucault’s later analysis of power as “a mode of action which does not act directly and immediately on others,” which “consists in guiding the possibility of conduct.”35 In other words, power can be understood as a “system of differentiations” and a “system of differentials,” in which “a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up.”36 This “field” is constituted of “channels,” such that the possibility for action and interaction are shaped, not through a system of causal determination, but through the sculpting of the landscape, or complex structures, in which we are situated.37 So, the structure of norms, and the ways in which they become sedimented with relative stability through these mechanisms may be understood to be shaped by power where divergence of practice from that normative structure is subject to sanctions to “bring it back in line.” These dispositions, are, moreover, “looped-in” to material processes and social structures and institutions, so further embedding this field of power, stabilizing norms, and making certain claims and reasons more difficult to accept or deny.38

Norms, therefore, emerge from, yet also exert significant pressure on, social and material structures. The conservative nature of normative practice is endemic to Brandom’s approach. Here, however, whilst our ability to diverge from accepted usage comes with a cost, the process of explicitly reasoning and considering our norms and the way in which they are sculpted is made possible by the fact that there are no precise normative rules (implicit or explicit) to which we may appeal to adjudicate those activities in the first place. Furthermore, whilst Brandom’s account relies upon communal stability and the normative constraints of group membership in which a system of norms becomes visible to that community, this approach suggests that it is not possible for a group to become explicitly aware of a system of norms that is being reinforced across that community. Indeed, by embedding the account in a radical intersubjectivity, we need not rely upon a notion of a stable “community,” preferring instead to think of relatively stable norms, across which there are multiple and intersecting relationships and interactions. As such, the “harmonious” nature of much linguistic interaction may be understood to be an effect of the sedimentation of norms through the sanctioning of linguistic practice, and, therefore, of the embedding of specific forms of structural power.

In these settings, whilst it is certainly the case that there are relative points of equilibrium maintained through reinforcement and feedback through adjustment, calibration, and sanctioning (where required), even the activity of sanctioning would give rise to the possibility of resculpting local norms by explicitly reconstructing those norms in our interactions. This is because, unlike the effectively third-person standpoint of sanctioning practices required by Brandom, for us, the practice of sanctioning is “brought into the loop,” so the sanctioning agent is equally implicated in their own practice of sanctioning. In this way, rather than understand sanctioning as simply reinforcing equilibrium, we may rather think of sanctioning as making available normative-talk for the reconstruction of differential patterns of linguistic activity. Since these activities cannot be forestalled by a precise set of rules (implicit or explicit), the interactions always have potential to construct new forms of activity that begin to construct new norms of practice. But note that this is neither a matter of ideology critique, nor of making explicit, since reasons, here, are emergent from interactions, rather than constitutive of speech-acts in the sense understood by Brandom. That is, reasons should not be thought of as driving communication, but rather as “discursive constructs,” which allow for explicit deliberation, particularly when the coordination of underlying dialogue breaks down.39 So, interactions are the foundation through which reasons may be constructed a posteriori, since we cannot determine in advance of the interaction, either what counts as a reason, or the meaning of expressions involved. On this, radically interactional, approach, we think of the construction of reasons over the course of a linguistic interaction through the coordinated relationship between agents who are directly involved in that interaction. All reasons, in this sense, are “joint reasons” in that they are the result of a process of joint articulation that is not reducible to, nor derivable from, facts about the individuals involved in the interaction.40 Moreover, the norms structuring our reasoning together, and through which the meaning of terms is constructed, are always possibly modifiable, and indeed are constantly modified simply by the practices of interaction.

What is currently commonsense is a functional, usually invisible, means by which the “naturalization of the present”41 masks the ability to consider the social world beyond its current stratification. But, no structure of norms, nor the system of power in which they are embedded, is determined. Systems of commonsense are never static, rather they require constant reinforcing and reforging, and so there are dynamic tendencies for their modification in every situation, however sealed-off they appear. The conglomeration of these tendencies form resources that may be deployed to construct new forms of commonsense. The above account provides us a means to understand the way in which such commonsense is constructed through complex and intersecting material processes, whilst also having the capacity to re-engineer those very processes.42 We can engage this capacity to re­-engineer commonsense, therefore, as a collective endeavor in which the current landscape of norms and power is shifted and oriented towards constructing alternative structures in which structural injustices are recalibrated, and the asymmetry of social resources redistributed. This, as is clear, requires us also to pay attention to the strategic reconstruction of our institutions and material processes to better scaffold and stabilize new norms, and practices, across our interactions. Since our dispositions are not determined by rules, but rather are tendencies that are shaped under social pressures, it is possible to reshape these so to build new forms of commonsense, and new visions of a world to become “naturalized”.43 What this means, in practice, is that by actively renegotiating sanctions, and so modifying the norms of our interactions, it is possible to also reform the landscape of power. This is to understand such practices in attempt to reconfigure structural power as a practice of freedom, within, rather than from, power.44

The author wishes to thank Alex Williams and Inigo Wilkins for their insightful comments on a previous draft of this paper.