The Everyday (Part 2)

Finally getting back to the idea of the 'everyday' (see a few posts ago for part 1).

Some ancient Greek philosophers made the point that we often use metaphors of depth and height when describing life and knowledge. So we say that profound knowledge is 'deep', or that we want to take a 'higher level' view of something. By contrast these philosophers said that all life takes place at the 'surface' of things, which you could interpret as being sort of half way between the depths and the heights, except they also went on to say that depth and height are merely effects rather than things in themselves. Like big and small, depth and height are entirely relative terms, they aren't absolutes -I might hire a hot air balloon and observe you from a few hundred metres up, and be higher than you, but I'm still a helluva lot lower than the view from the moon. And once you expand the viewpoint out to the universe itself, how could you ever define high and low or even up and down anyway, except relative to some particular point? Einstein's insight again.

So as I said in the last post about the everyday, your ordinary, everyday life is where it's all really happening. It's the most complex part of anybody's existence, and everything flows from there. All of the things you encounter there are of much greater complexity than any knowledge 'about' them that somebody might create. Playing with your kids on the swing set outside and mediating disputes over who gets pushed first is unimaginably complex, if you wanted to analyse it.

This is an interesting point for me because we do carry around this idea that everyday life is somehow more simple, and all of our knowledge and our more glamorous experiences (like travel, which I sunk the boot into last time) are more complex. What's more we think that our knowledge (in the scientific or formal sense) gets to the truth or essence of things, 'behind' appearances. So that our knowledge of the chemical make-up of an orange we might sit in the kitchen and eat is much more abstract and complex than our everyday knowledge like 'this is an orange, and this is how it smells, and this is how you peel it and eat it' etc.

But time and again we miss the fact that all formal knowledge is a vast simplification of the boring, everyday, ordinary experience. And this doesn't make knowledge reductionist unless you want to play the game of saying the knowledge somehow replaces the original experience. Knowledge is always added to experience it's not 'about' it. If I experiment on an orange using the chemist's arsenal of tools and theories, I'm not peeling away veils between us and the 'truth behind' the orange, I'm prodding and poking that orange and producing new, more controllable phenomena that express the relationship between the orange and the instruments and theories I'm interrogating it with.

If I smash a coconut with a hammer I'm not getting to the essence of coconut-ness, I'm discovering the very specific behaviours and properties that emerge when a hammer and a coconut meet, via me. If I smashed it with a rock or axe, or ran over it with a truck, I'd get different properties and behaviours - this process can go on indefinitely. Never will I be arriving at the essence of the coconut, even a bit at a time.

But to get back to the point of this. The way we conceptualise and discuss things in our everyday lives is the richest source of knowledge we have. And yet we would generally dismiss it as trivial or simple, and genuflect before scientists and doctors in particular, sitting with friends talking about the latest gene they've found to explain this behaviour or this disease, or some new research that 'explains' why this or that thing happens. We jump from one fad to the next in health science, and change our eating habits and our behaviours, and then moan because 'yesterday they said milk was bad for you, and today they say it's bad for you', and so on. Never realising why we're being pulled and pushed around like this, because we've surrendered the beautiful wisdom of the everyday to tiny networks of people prodding and poking it.

For example take all the people with 'bad backs'. As David Gorman always says, there's almost never anything bad about the back at all, the bad-ness is all in what the person is doing to it. Yet these folk trot off to the doctor, who will generally scan and prod and poke them, and possibly prescribe some steroids or other drugs for inflammation, maybe some physiotherapy and work-adjustments like ergonomic keyboards or chairs etc. Some researchers even devise theories about the fundamental weakness of the human back. Not one of these dunderheads ever returns to the everyday level and looks at what the person was really doing in the first place. Even the phsyios and occupational therapists who do make at least some attempt to get there look at the whole thing as if the person was some biomechanical robot violating certain laws of mechanics.

In practice the person isn't some collection of bones and muscles and organs and genes. They're in a rich, everyday context in which what's happening in their bodies is in no way separate to what they're thinking, looking at and otherwise doing, in everyday ways. So the person might be busy worrying about some other thing in their lives, while trying to sit and type at their desk, and this is causing them to tense up and is then magnifying all of the forces on their bodies. The real 'cause' of that bad back for them might be that worrying, and yet none of the doctors or other experts will likely ever look at that. Once you try to take knowledge abstracted form the real situation and 'apply' it back, you have everything completely backwards. All the sophistication of biology and medicine might be able to tell you marvellous things about why the back reacts the way it does, but none of it is even close to the complexity of the simple everyday statement of "I'm worrying about this other thing when I'm sitting at my desk".

Don't want to labour the point. But you can develop an ear for these simple-looking, everyday things we say. They're jewels - sophisticated and precise knowledge encompassing a range of things of unimaginable complexity. This is what 'common sense' is really all about, when understood properly - sense as 'meaning'. Common sense is the common meaning we have for things. Which is the everyday meaning. It's the most precise thing there is, anything that tries to replace it is a pretender.


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