Don’t Be Fooled: A Philosophy of Common Sense, by Jan Bransen

Language is key to making sense of people, finds Martin Cohen, but beware words’ flexible meanings

August 17, 2017
Red tomatoes
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People are not rational animals, says Jan Bransen in this appropriately conversational little book, but talking animals, and language is the key to making sense of them. Consider how, for a talking animal, the social need for understanding becomes dominant too. Consider how, when you introduce yourself, the words illuminate one aspect but have the effect, “like a torch in the dark”, of deepening the surrounding darkness.

Jan Bransen has an unconventional style, telling little one-paragraph stories. There’s the tale of Dick waiting for Gabrielle to turn up for what he thinks is a romantic date – but what she thinks is just a friendly rendezvous. It illustrates for Bransen how expectations can influence how we process ambiguous information.

Another story concerns the unspoken expectations of a newly married couple, where the husband has been told that it is necessary to eat up all your wife’s cooking, while the wife has been advised that you must always ensure there is food left over after a meal. But there is little insight into why this story matters, other than a bland assertion that common sense offers a way out of the dilemma.

Indeed, if the literary style of the book is attractive, it sometimes seems to serve little purpose. Chapter one is entitled, confusingly, “Humaning on Endoxa”, for reasons I still haven’t worked out, even though Bransen later suggests that it was vicars who were the experts in “humaning” back in the 1960s and that we should definitely resist scientists taking over this role. At times the text becomes self-indulgent, with Bransen ruminating (surely only to himself) about how Katya, Nigak, Thebe and others should behave on the island of Endoxa.

It is in the later chapters that he seems to settle into his theme more confidently and offer more revealing insights. Here, too, he begins to throw doubt on common sense itself with a discussion of “response-dependent properties” – such as the colour red, which is really red only in the eye of the beholder. Such things depend on “response-dependent concepts”, which only emerge as part of a language community. It is language that makes tomatoes red, not physical laws, just as it is “the girls in the sports bar, rather than the mirror at home, that can show you your charm and charisma”.

But sometimes Bransen’s view of how language works seems simplistic and naive. He speaks of experts defining terms such as “autistic” and acting as “gatekeepers” – and not of words acquiring a range of meanings through common sense. He refers approvingly to Ludwig Wittgenstein but offers little exploration of his many metaphors for language, which include the idea that words do not have one use or one set meaning but rather are dynamic and ambiguous.

However, this elevation of one “expert” definition of language is central to Bransen’s enterprise, as he says it is through their control of words that experts control us. It is as if “we have handed over parts of our lives to other people”, he complains wistfully, as our concepts become too technical for us to make sense of them independently.

Martin Cohen is visiting research fellow in philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire. His book Paradigm Shift (2016) also discusses the nature of expert knowledge.

Don’t Be Fooled: A Philosophy of Common Sense
By Jan Bransen (translated by Fulco Teunissen and Kate Kirwin)
Routledge, 190pp, £85.00, £15.99 and £11.19 (e-book)
ISBN 9781138716735, 6773 and 9781315189208 (e-book)
Published 28 April 2017

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