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Cultural Differences in the Reception of the Graeco-Roman Patrimony

Typically without realizing it, we speakers of English utilize utterly common phrases that are calques from Latin and Greek. Nothing is more emblematic of this phenomenon than the phrase common sense, whose origin (ca. 1525-35, according to the OED) is Latin sēnsus commūnis, itself a translation of Greek koinḕ aísthēsis (< Ancient Greek αἴσθησις ‘perception’ < αἰσθάνομαι [aisthanomai ‘I perceive’]). Among the modern European languages, this comes out as French sens commun [or colloquial bon sens].

Here are some meanings of the phrase from current online dictionaries:

I. sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence.
1. Perception from the senses, feeling, hearing, seeing
2. Perception by the intellect as well as the senses
3. That which is perceived: scent
4. Ability to perceive: discernment
5. Cognition or discernment of moral discernment in ethical matters

II. 1. An ‘internal’ sense which was regarded as the common bond or centre of the five senses, in which the various impressions received were reduced to the unity of a common consciousness. Obs.
2a. The endowment of natural intelligence possessed by rational beings; ordinary, normal or average understanding; the plain wisdom which is everyone’s inheritance. (This is ‘common sense’ at its minimum, without which one is foolish or insane.) b. More emphatically: Good sound practical sense; combined tact and readiness in dealing with the every-day affairs of life; general sagacity.
3. The general sense, feeling, or judgement of mankind, or of a community.
4. Philos. The faculty of primary truths; ‘the complement of those cognitions or convictions which we receive from nature; which all men therefore possess in common; and by which they test the truth of knowledge, and the morality of actions’ (Hamilton Reid’s Wks. II. 756). Philosophy of Common Sense: that philosophy which accepts as the ultimate criterion of truth the primary cognitions or beliefs of mankind; e.g. in the theory of perception, the universal belief in the existence of a material world. Applied to the Scottish school which arose in the 18th c. in opposition to the views of Berkeley and Hume.

III. 1: a sense believed to unite the sensations of all senses in a general sensation or perception
2: good sound ordinary sense: good judgment or prudence in estimating or managing affairs especially as free from emotional bias or intellectual subtlety or as not dependent on special or technical knowledge <too absurdly metaphysical for the ears of prudent common sense — P. E. More>
3a. among Cartesians :  something that is evident by the natural light of reason and hence common to all men b. (1): the intuitions that according to the school of Scottish philosophy are common to all mankind (2): the capacity for such intuitions c.: the unreflective opinions of ordinary men :  the ideas and conceptions natural to a man untrained in technical philosophy—used especially in epistemology.

In Russian, by contrast, the phrase comes out as здравый смысл, where the adjective corresponding to ‘common’ is здравый, whose primary meaning is ‘healthy’ (cf. the translation of L mens sana in corpore sano ‘a sound mind in a sound body’ as здоровый дух в здоровом теле, where the demotic [pleophonic] form of the root is utilized rather than the Church Slavonic form). What is interesting here is the substitution of the word meaning healthy, moreover in its Church Slavonic (= high style) hypostasis, for L commūnis ‘common’. Even allowing for connotative nuances of the Russian word (not just ‘healthy’ but ‘rational’ and ‘sane’), there is a world of difference between the meanings ‘common’ (English and French) and ‘healthy’. English ‘common’ shades into connotations that are hardly admirative, whereas Russian здравый never veers from its positive semantic core.

One would think that the upshot for the difference between the English and the Russian attitudes toward what constitutes something as basic in the cultural stock of meanings as the phrase common sense could not be more epitomical, viz. ‘a sense shared by the community’ vs. ‘a sense that is healthy/sane’. Alas and alack, no scrutiny of the modern history of the two nations––the Anglophone and the Russophone––can sustain any argument that would be grounded in this linguistic difference. So much for language as an index of virtue.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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