Toward a Genealogy of the “Society of the Shocked”

Chronicle from Belarus
Authors:
Tatiana Shchyttsova

The notion of common sense has a complicated history, ranging from, on one side, its philosophical elaboration as a basic aspect of human nature to its reduction to a plain equation with basic consciousness. In the former case, common sense means an intuitive understanding of proper relations among people and between human beings and objects in the world, along with an ability to make judgements based on intuitive ideas about what is “just.” The English term connotes an ability to understand the world common to or shared by all people. The Russian language, in turn, emphasizes the “soundness” of the sense. In this respect, the relation of common sense to the surrounding society cannot be reduced, even if—as happened in Belarus—radical doubts begin to arise about whether society as a whole ceases to function according to common, sound principles. 

The events of August 9–11 led to a catastrophic shock to the “sound” foundations of Belarusian society. Common sense, which is the product of a complex interweaving of national mentality and the social contract, was fractured. Our common ground disappeared from underneath us. At the same time, our unreflective belief that certain things that simply contradict “sound” human judgement could not happen, much less become “normal,” collapsed; for example, the open killing and torture “without trial and investigation” by representatives of government agencies. No matter how naïve this belief was, it depended on the common sense that defined contemporary Belarusians as a concrete social and historical community. 

Common sense is, on the one hand, an enduring concept, preserved over the centuries, and on the other hand, a delicate social fabric that was split apart at the seams over the course of a few hours, when society was brought face-to-face with the Unthinkable. Subsequent events fit the historical, semantic meaning of common sense astonishingly well. This can shed light on the question of how a society can “pull together” anew after a traumatic shock that shattered belief in common sense. On what basis could the “Society of the Shocked” reconstitute itself? 

In the history of European thought, the idea common sense traces its origin to the Latin term sensus communis, which was systematically elaborated by philosophers from the time of the Roman Stoics all the way to Kant. In the 20th century, Kant’s treatment of sensus communis was brought up to date by Arendt. Examining this term allows us to do the same thing that events in Belarus forced upon us. It focuses our attention on the fact that the word sense/sensushas two connotations: that of meaning and of sensation. Sensus communis is above all a social sense, a sensation that connects an individual with others and has to do with how events are perceived. The emphasis on sensation does not cancel out the aspect of meaning, but rather demonstrates its rootedness in perception. The adjective “common” itself has two dimensions: it denotes a certain sense common to all of humanity, on the one hand, and a feeling of community, on the other. The latter is possible only on the basis of the former. The Stoics’ proposed moral characterization of sensus communis as a feeling of community was ultimately based on an Aristotelian concept of the koine aesthesis, according to which the human capacity for understanding is based on the synthesis of various sensory data into a single experience (“On the Soul”). Koine aesthesis is that common feeling, which unites all other senses into a wholistic sensory perception of the world. 

This philosophical archaeology of the concept of common sense, which led us to koine aesthesis, is a reflection of the fact that the origins of common sense are to be found in the general experience of sensory perception. These excursions into historical semantics turn out to be a step-by-step exposition of all levels of experience that constitute common sense. Its complex basic composition helps us to understand the tectonic shocks experienced by Belarusian society. Having been destabilized and disoriented on the level of sound/common sense, our civil society was able to renew itself—and unite itself—through its commonality of experience, through its common sense. Having experienced a traumatic shock, we reintegrated ourselves into a new social community on the basis of a common moral feeling, which includes a sense of community and a desire for the common good. 

At its core, the Belarusian Revolution is the collapse and reconstruction of common sense. This is a reconstruction during which the common moral feeling must become the foundation for the confirmation of common sense in our country. 

Russian Version (PDF format) is here.

First published on koine.community.

Tatiana Shchyttsova – philosopher, Professor at the Department of Social Science, Head of the Center for Research of Intersubjectivity and Interpersonal Communication at the European Humanities University (Vilnius, Lithuania), editor-in-chief of the Journal for Philosophy and Cultural Studies TOPOS.