Common sense and culture

As already mentioned, culture can be taken as a social framework of this approach. Any culture is, to a large extent, an external expression of common sense, its formalisation within a particular community. Such cultural frameworks have had an important role throughout history in the preservation and homogenisation of societies. However, culture can also be restrictive and distorting. Common sense tends to be solidified and transmitted inertly by the culture it is embedded in. This solidification is often the reason why common sense in some cases appears to be in conflict with rationality and gives rise to superstitions.

Superstitions are often associated with spirituality, mysticism and the like, but this is mistaken. Even atheists can be superstitious (and, of course, spiritual people may not be). It is more likely that superstitions and other cultural idiosyncrasies originate in individual or group interpretations of personal experiences that in some instances become collective beliefs. This is why there are many superficial differences among cultures. For example, a black cat crossing one’s path is interpreted as good luck in one culture and bad luck in another. Both interpretations might have had local historical bases that were lost, while only the form (in this case an association between the colour of a cat and luck) has remained. In other words, something that perhaps made sense in certain circumstances may be perpetuated by culture even after it ceases to make sense.

Hostility towards homosexuality in many cultures, for instance, could have been, to some extent, justified in the past by fear of annihilation, when a culture was preserved in relatively small communities that needed to reproduce in order to secure their survival. After all, the Spartans (who won the war against the Athenians) seemed to disappear partly due to practically constitutionalised homosexuality that led to a decrease in their population. However, nowadays, when there is no danger that a national entity or culture may be extinguished because of lack of off-spring, there is no reason for such hostility. Yet, many cultures still harbour an antagonistic attitude towards homosexuality. Other sinister attitudes such as chauvinism, racism, xenophobia, sexism and so on, may also have been cultural distortions of certain social processes (e.g. the division of labour) that may have made sense at a particular historical moment. The same, of course, applies to epistemological issues: how reality is perceived and interpreted. It is not surprising then, that many misunderstandings and unnecessary frictions surface in a world with so many cultures. This is not to say that cultural differences should be disregarded but, especially in multicultural societies, a heavy reliance on culture can be divisive rather than unifying (leading, in some cases, to self-imposed ghettoisation).