Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Common Sense: Its Uses, Misuses, and Pitfalls

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Common Sense: Its Uses, Misuses, and Pitfalls

Article excerpt

Common sense is a widely acknowledged human mental faculty. In this paper, I hope to shed light on the phenomenon, not as a rigorously and narrowly defined one, but rather on what we recognize in day-to-day life, and refer to in common parlance, as "common sense". I will argue that, rather than being a unitary mental faculty, common sense is a collection of disparate modes of thinking, usually partial or rudimentary in quality, which provide a kind of mental "short cut" from observation to action; that the fantasied valorization of common sense means that it can be a powerful element in interpersonal discourse, and, in particular, that it often is in psychoanalytic discourse; and that, in such discourse, commonsensical statements are accompanied by what I will call "the feeling of common sense", a shared affect between two individuals which is rooted in early object relational foundations of thinking. Commonsensical modes of thinking are an inevitable part of most thought and discourse, and productive thinking usually involves the mutually enriching back-and-forth between commonsensical and other, more complex, modes of thought.

Because of these qualities of the kinds of thinking we recognize as "common sense" and the fantasies and affects that are associated with them, statements in the analytic session, or even extended pieces of the psychoanalytic discourse, which feel like common sense, may have many functions in the analytic process; some facilitate movement and growth, while others serve primarily as resistance: still others may be at the root of painful impasses and stalemates.

I would emphasize here that I am not trying to describe a single specific form of thinking called "common sense", or to introduce such a form of thinking as a new concept in the psychoanalytic lexicon. Rather, I am focusing on a clinical phenomenon which is characterized by a particular intersubjective experience between patient and analyst which I call "the feeling of common sense", and which is associated with, and may be evoked by, many different kinds of thought, whose qualities I will try to characterize. I believe a better understanding of the underlying fantasy structure of "the feeling of common sense", as well as of the organization of the kinds of thought which may evoke this feeling, can be clinically useful to the analyst, not primarily as phenomena to be interpreted, but rather to increase the analyst's awareness of countertransferences, of resistances, counter-resistances, or bastions, ultimately allowing the analyst to interpret other specific mental contents that the feeling of common sense, and the discourse that evokes it, may mask. Further, it may enable the analyst to make more deliberate use of commonsensical communications in ways so as to bolster interpretation and facilitate working through.

A clinical moment

Some time ago, a patient of mine began a session by asking me to suggest a therapist for her husband. I had known the patient, Mrs. N., for many years; she had been in analysis four times a week for seven years, and returned from time to time at moments of crisis or transition for periods of once or twice-weekly psychotherapy. A businesswoman who prided herself on being hardheaded and practical, Mrs. N. had returned to treatment this time after a number of years because of growing frustration in her marriage. Her husband, J., had achieved some measure of critical success in his career in the arts but was unreliable as a breadwinner. He was somewhat of a dreamer and had little interest in practical matters. He suffered from periodic depressions; a previous treatment in which J. and his analyst, Dr. X., had passionately explored J.'s inner life while the symptoms he had presented with became worse and worse, had ended badly. After briefly explaining to me why her husband wanted to resume treatment and how she had convinced him not to return to Dr. X, Mrs. N. looked at me with a rueful and conspiratorial smile. …

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