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Common Sense and the sensus communis: anatomy of an American pressure cooker



The pressure of a fixed mass and fixed volume of a gas is directly proportional to the gas’s temperature.

This relationship is known as the Gay-Lussac’s Law and a pressure cooker is an example of the law in practice. Cooking under pressure creates the possibility of cooking with high temperature liquids because the boiling point of a liquid increases as its pressure increases. High pressure and high heat can result in delectable dishes.


Cooking under pressure can be also dangerous because as liquids change phase into gases their volume expands greatly. For example, at atmospheric pressure the volume of steam is about 1700 times greater than the volume of water. To prevent pressure cookers from becoming bombs, relief devices (pop safety valves) are employed that are capable of relieving all of the steam the vessel is capable of producing.

America the Beautiful Pressure Cooker

The political pressure cooker is beginning to heat up. The power brokers and institutions that drive the nation have arrived unannounced on the doorsteps of America like a gaggle of unwanted, high maintenance relatives that demand hospitality for an unforeseeable time and that won’t take no for answer. Furthermore, they’ve announced that more relatives are on the way. Whatever plans America’s householders had, they’ve just gone out the window, with their household budgie and the relatives’ cat in hot pursuit.

People are justifiably angry with this incursion. Their budgie might not have been much, but it was “their budgie”, nurtured from birth into what it had become. Justifiably angry householders are trying to work out why the relatives arrived on their doorsteps and why they brought their fucking cat.

Common Sense

Common sense, in everyday use, is thought of as something that everyone ought to know. Will Rogers notes the problem with this view.

I dont know why they call it common sense. If it was so common more people would have it. (h/t Tom in Paine)

Rogers knew, like most of us, that common sense notions have to be learned and, often, taught. For example, that most flames burn we can learn by experiencing being burnt. We learn morals by having our families and communities teach us, by calibration, how we ought to act.

Sometimes we encounter others that do not share our moral view. How ought we to treat those who do not share our common sense?

The sensus communis

Acknowledging that there are different ways of seeing a thing, broadly conceived, is a first step in allowing that some of those other ways of seeing might have legitimacy. This acknowledgment is embodied in the Roman notion of the sensus communis (there is more than one notion). In the Roman notion, common sense is seen as the sense of the commons, which means that the sensus communis encorporates every view on every thing that each member of the community holds. It is like the opposite of how we use common sense because our use means there is only one right way to view a thing. Their view is like a warehouse or a purse, where everyview is stored because it might become useful some day.

This Roman notion is conservative in bold letters. It is practical because it recognizes that the vast majority of us can see something the same way and be wrong. If everyone held only one view, then what options would we have if we find we’ve got it wrong? (Nature abhors monocultures, for the most part.) By conserving alternate views we have a ready set of options to try, if our accepted wisdom turns out to be unwise.

The sensus communis and the pressure cooker

How does this relate to the pressure cooker? Somehow the power brokers and institutions that drive the nation, through their understanding and manipulation of the relatives/variables in the formulae by which they mathematically model the world, got some things wrong. They sent these relatives to the nation’s doorsteps. The relatives are eating the householders out of the hold they have on the house. The householders want the power brokers and institutions to do their jobs and send the relatives on their way.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done because it’s difficult to sort out all of the causes of the problems and the likely solutions. It’s made worse by those who are trying to cover the tracks of the relatives on their way to the households. It’s made even worse by those who are trying to say that it’s the neighbors who are the problem, not the relatives.

All in all, there is a nation full of justifiably angry householders using their received wisdom to make sense of the information they are given, contrary interpretations abound, and the temperature and pressure are building as the opposing views run into each other at ever increasing pace while the larders getting smaller, and so on. What can be done to turn down the heat before the pop safety valve is tested and/or fails?

Pop Safety Quiz

Ralph B might say something like we ought to be ready to do more listening and less talking at. He’s right. Myiq might say we ought not to suffer fools lightly. He’s right. SoD might say we ought to stop mooning idiots. She’s right. Dakinikat, in her role as the Cajun Quincy of finance, will do the economic forensic work and reveal the culprits, and then say we ought to challenge our assumptions about what’s right. She’s right. Riverdaughter might say it’s time to unwind and tend to soothing thyself for a while. She’s right.

I think we are all right. Booman’s right. Cannon’s right. Lambert’s right. Jeralyn’s right. kevin k is r.. r.. right. Murphy is right. Paul Lukasiak is right. Lawnguylander is wrong.

We are also wrong because our remedies are unlikely to be suitable for each and every situation. That’s not a matter of fault; it’s simply a matter of fact because none of us has a God’s eye view. In other words, our degree of rightness and wrongness depends on the fit of our imperfect knowledge to the situation at hand.

That we are fallible should make us act with more humility, however, in the real world humility tends to suffer under power. This is one of the reasons I like to humble power. It’s why I’m often humbled. This said, it’s easy to misidentify the problem or choose the wrong solution. It is the human condition.

What should we do if the heat is too high and we’re overcooking the dish?

What ought we to do to lower the pressure? If you think lowering the pressure is what we ought to do, and you are not sure of how to act, then I recommend searching the sensus communis for whatever answers you think best explain the situation, especially those that appear to offer effective prescriptions. This said, to make a tasty dish out of the “goods” we’ve been given is going to take some heat and some pressure. If we can get the temperature and pressure right, hopefully we can create a dish that is suited for most diets and palates.

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18 Responses

  1. Steven, This is an excellent post. It shows great sensitivity, and one can see where you are going with it.

    While I very much like your closing sentence, “If we can get the temperature and pressure right, hopefully we can create a dish that is suited for most diets and palates,” I also think many times the best thing is simply a giant buffet.

  2. snk,

    TY. A buffet is like a cornucopian sensus communis and being of Scandanavian heritage (partially) I love a smorgasbord


  3. Beautiful post; I hope it will be widely read.
    People these days treat their opinions as though they are facts.

  4. I try to be openminded but not so openminded that my brains fall out. It’s like cooking sometimes, you put in a little of this and a little of that. Oft times, it’s delicious, but then again, sometimes it just stinks.

  5. C,

    A prof of mine says there is a difference between being open-minded and being empty-headed.

    Wisdom and discernment are interwoven.


  6. Buffets are bad for me; I have no control. But I like the thought and the look of it anyway.

    Part of the pressure regulation appears to boil around the race issue. We seem to have moved from “we want to go beyond this issue; we want to show our mutual acceptance and all created equal with certain inalienable rights side” to a wtf is this all you ever talk about ‘tude.

    This evening on Greta she had an interview with Tucker Carlson (of all people) and he talked about how during the campaign that people in tv and radio were getting constant emails and whisper campaign from Obama campaign operatives about the Clintons being racists. He said it was a constant slurring of the Clintons. That may be one of the few honest reports Tucker has ever given. But its just another testament to the political pressure that builds about the constant issue of race—like when do we get over this curse.

    • j,

      I wonder if he archived the e-mails. Cannonfire has proven the value of doing so, in our modern world of constantly revising histories.

  7. What would a buffet without racism look like?

    • The idea I think is not really about how we are looking at our problems, but rather how we are looking at our solutions or our paths thereto. (It should go without saying that racism is a problem not a solution, and no one here has posed it as a solution to anything.) One outcome does not fit all and that should be acceptable.

  8. j,

    It’s difficult to imagine now, but I suppose it would have been normal in humanity’s early years.


    • You think? Isn’t racism historically rampant? The Greek city states were not very accepting of each other. You think about the Anglos, the Saxons, the Vikings—Huns, Mongols, Tarters, Egyptians—-slavery was a common thing and sometimes based on defeat but wars often based on racial differences.

      I don’t know if there was some golden moment when human beings accepted one another despite racially distinguishing features? It seems like suspicion of differences and strangeness is very fundamental; a sort of survival skill in a time when survival was always at issue. It seems like racism raises its ugly head when survival is most at stake (think the years of the Great Depression and the rage of hangings of AAs; treatment of dustbowl refugees and, of course, Hitler). Then think now when people get thrown for an economic earthquake and unemployment beomes widespread.

      • j,

        If evolutionary theory is accepted, it might be that there was a pre-racial time. Given that evolution is about differences that make a difference, I don’t think it unreasonable to think that there was a time that pigment was not a relevant discernment criteria.

        Further, young children don’t tend to make the distinction until they are taught to.

        In terms of violence towards each other at the community vs. community level, my understanding is that archaeological evidence places the beginnings at about 6500 B.C. Given what we’ve found, which means we might be missing much, prior to 6500 we find settlements built in vulnerable, unfortified locations and metal technologies used for productive implements. Only after 6500 do we start to see axes designed for human hewing rather than tree chopping, the movement of villages to higher ground, and the use of fortifications.


  9. Does karma give wisdom a push?

  10. c,

    That’s dakinikat’s department.

    I don’t get deeper than karma running over dogma.


  11. Lay off the cat.

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