Chapter 3

What do I Know?  Critically Evaluating Subjectivity, Culture, & common sense


1. We do not see the world clearly, and we do not completely understand what we see.  Our mind is not a “mirror of nature,” as many early theologians, philosophers, and scientists assumed (Abrams, 1953; Rorty, 1979; Polanyi, 1964).  Human consciousness is not a passive receptor of experience, like a mirror simply reflecting an image of the real world.  Instead our consciousness is like a lamp shining on the real world, but coloring what we see with the light of our own unique vision.  Our consciousness actively engages with experience through our perceptual process in order to create knowledge, meaning, and values.  Our brain connects the "fragments of knowledge" we experience into a coherent narrative.  We understand our experience through our meanings and values, thereby, making our knowledge useful (Kahneman, 2011, p. 75).  Consciousness also colors our experience with emotion, which helps us remember important events and give them meaning (Pinker, 1997).  Our perception does not directly reflect the reality of the world we experience.  Instead, we see a subjective world that is mediated by our biological brain and also by our culture

2. We all inherit ways of thinking and acting that are particular to our unique social context.  We call these ways of thinking and acting culture.  We mimic the actions and beliefs of the individuals who shape us, such as our parents, peers, teachers, priests.  Culture also includes larger social institutions that mold our behavior, such as families, schools, churches, organizations, and governments.  Culture entails the language we speak, the customs we practice, and the beliefs we think are true (Geertz, 1973/2000; 1983/2000).  All of this makes up our "social heritage" (D'Andrade, 2002, p. 223).  Culture is a tool.  It is a large assembly of "technological and social innovations" (Pinker, 2002, p. 65-66), which fosters our development as human beings, gives us meaningful lives, and helps us survive (Nussbaum, 1997). 

3. While we are born into a culture, we have the power to accept and reject the various sub-cultures to which we are exposed.  We can shape our own individual identity and character.  Social scientists call this phenomenon subjectivity.  Our subjectivity is our own unique identity and personal world view.  But we are influenced by others in our culture, and since we seek to be like our friends and family, our subjectivity will be very similar to those around us.  We use our subjectivity to understand our world, create knowledge, and communicate with others. Our subjectivity co-creates experience with the objective world and our minds create what has been called "subjective realism" (Flanagan, 2011, p. 66).  The phenomena we see and experience (Kant, 1781/1994, p. 48) is real to us.  It appears real, although it might not be objectively real; therefore, other people might not be able to verify what we see and believe. 

4. While subjectivity enables us to live a rich and meaningful life, it can also cause many problems.  Our brain can often misperceive the objective world, and these misperceptions can lead us to make bad decisions (Kahneman, 2011; Thaler & Sunstein, 2008).  For instance, we might hear a noise at night and believe there is a burglar in our house.  We might see a weird flying shape in the sky and believe it to be a UFO.  We might see a political protester burn a flag and believe the act to be unpatriotic.  We might see a soldier step on a Qur'an and believe the act to be sacrilegious and an affront against our God.  The conclusions reached in each of these examples may or may not be objectively true, but every example is subjectively true: the individual believed the phenomenon to be true as he or she experienced it.  In each case the culture of the individual shapes perception, which leads the individual to classify experience in a particular way.  Prior belief in house burglars, UFOs, a patriotic ideal, or a religious code would lead an individual to classify new experience with these frames of reference.  This process of framing is all part of a normal functioning brain. 

5. Outside of subjective framing, our brains can also malfunction or become damaged.  Such malfunctioning can lead to false perceptions that can exacerbate the problem of subjectivity.  The brain perceives a phenomenon that seems very real, but which is a product of the brain itself and does not objectively exist in the real world.  Such malfunctioning might include color blindness, schizophrenia, or autism. It could include deliberate malfunctioning, such as taking mind altering drugs.  It could also include being manipulated to believe a false memory, but really all our memories falsify reality even when the brain is working properly.  We all tend to believe that our unique subjective vision represents the objective world as it really exists.  But, in fact, the phenomenon we see is more of a product of our own brain rather than the objective world we partially (and imperfectly) perceive or remember. Even when it's fully functional, our biological brain does not work very well.  It is, as behavioral economist Dan Ariely (2008) points out, "predictably irrational" (p. xx).  We often make "naive, random" decisions based on "gut feelings," which can be "self destructive" (pp. 45, 53, 166), and even the brains of experts and scientists fall prey to these same flaws (p. 197).  We are all, as one reporter explained, "confident idiots."  Dan Ariely (2008) concluded his bestselling book on the brain by saying, "We are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend.  We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver's seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the directions our life takes but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires - with how we view ourselves - than with reality" (p. 321).

Manoogian III, as cited in Buster Benson (2016) You are almost definitely not living in reality

You Are Almost Definitely Not Living In Reality


6. The flawed process of subjective belief gets augmented and further distorted by our culture.  Particular individual beliefs become shared by a large group of people, and thereby, they become the orthodox or official beliefs of that group or culture.  Anthropologists and political scientists call orthodox beliefs "ideology" (Geertz, 1973/2000; Eagleton, 1991) or "common sense" (Geertz, 1983/2000).  Anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1983/2000) explained common sense as a widely shared "cultural system" (p. 76) that everyone accepts as "normal" and "natural" (p. 81).  It is a collection of minds shaped by the same "presuppositions" (p. 84), which when heard over and over again become true by a default mechanism in our brain (Kahneman, 2011, p. 62). 

7. Culture often acts like a "rubber stamp," which is "inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history" – all imprinting our plastic minds with common sense truths that we passively accept (Bernays, 1928/2005, p. 48).  The early 20th century intellectual Walter Lippmann (1922/1997) explained, "For the most part we do not first see, and then define.  We define first and then see.  In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture" (pp. 54-55).  Thus, common sense is "what anyone clothed and in his right mind knows" (Geertz, 1983/2000, p. 75) because he or she has heard it proclaimed and seen it as truth so many times before.

8. But common sense varies between different cultures, a fact which causes a lot of conflict when different cultures come into contact with each other.  What seems “normal” or acceptable common sense in one culture can be labeled outrageous by another culture.  Just think, for a moment, about how you instinctively view cannibals.  Most, if not everyone, in our culture would say cannibalism is disgusting and immoral because it violates our common sense values of life and liberty.  But how do you think cannibals view you?  Likewise, think about the horrible atrocities committed by the Nazis in the early 20th century. The Nazi regime created a program to systematically brutalize and murder Jews, Communists, homosexuals, and other undesirable groups of people who were deemed inferior by the standards of common sense.  Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the Gestapo secret police, explained, “In my work for the Fuhrer and the nation I do what my conscience tells me is right and what is common sense” (as cited in Kihlstrom, 2013, p. 11).  Most people do not think about the values and behaviors considered common sense by their culture – they just do what everyone else is doing, even if that includes exterminating another group of human beings.   

9.  But we can learn to question our culture, and we deliberately chose to accept or reject what we are told by others.  In her memoir, Tara Westover (2018) recounted how she was brought up in a small community in the woods of Idaho.  She was told to never question her parents and to do whatever they asked her to do.  She was prohibited from going to school or even going to the doctor.  She explained, "My life was narrated for me by others.  Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute.  It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs" (p. 197).  But eventually she left her family and went to college (even though she had never been to school before and she only had the basic skills of reading and writing).  While she was in college, Westover (2018) learned about the world outside of her small community where she grew up, and this new information challenged the way she saw her world and herself: "Something had shifted...I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, myself.  I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant" (p. 180).   Eventually, Westover (2018) rejected the way of life she was forced to lead as a child in order to choose a new way of life, which included going to Europe to earn her PhD and then later becoming Dr. Tara Westover, a college professor.

10. But unlike Dr. Westover (2018), many people never become fully aware of traditions, let alone question or reject them.  Be definition, common sense is "fiction accepted without question" (Lippmann, 1922/1997, p. 80).  Common sense is declared "self-evident truth" because everyone already knows that it is supposedly true, as Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.  Common sense cultural fictions are very important to our psychological and social well-being.  Common sense is the glue that makes society work.  The historian Edmund S. Morgan (1988) explained, "fictions are necessary, because we cannot live without them... [they] make our world conform more closely to what we want it to be... The fiction takes command and reshapes reality" (p. 14).  While the subjective magic of fiction can be denigrated by outsiders as mere myth-making, all human beings have their own ideologies and need their myths in order to survive. 

11. And when our experience doesn't fit our ideology or common sense, then most people disregard or "disguise" the facts (Geertz, 1983/2000, p. 82) so as to reaffirm what they already believe.  Most people are detached from the reality of the objective world.  Instead, they rest serenely in their own subjective illusions - safe in the self evident truth of common sense.  As PR man Edward L. Bernays (1923/2011) explained, it is the culturally programmed mind of the average person that "is the greatest barrier between him and the facts" (p. 133).

12. We can never escape our subjectivity, nor can we wholly eradicate the cultural influences that have shaped us since we were born.  The 16th century British philosopher Francis Bacon called such subjective and cultural phenomena "idols" (Gaukroger, 2001, p. 120).  He saw human subjectivity as "a corrupt and ill-ordered predisposition of mind" (as cited in Klein, 2003).  Bacon believed, as have many scientists since, that we can destroy and abolish these "idols" so as to see the world with pristine and unencumbered eyes – as through "clear glass" (as cited in Klein, 2003).  But this belief is a lie.  Complete objectivity is a "false ideal" (Polanyi, 1962, p. 18).  We can never escape Plato's (1997) epistemological cave

13. We cannot "command" our nature nor the objective world.  Our minds can never be "thoroughly freed and cleansed" (as cited in Klein, 2003).  As the English philosopher David Hume (1888/1739) famously put it, "We have, therefore, no choice left but betwixt a false reason and none at all" (p. 268).  The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1957/1844) later agreed: "We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors" (p. 269).  Our perceptual tools are naturally flawed.

14. But Bacon, Hume, and Emerson admitted that our subjectivity was not a prison, as Plato once thought.  As part of the natural world, we were still uniquely situated and endowed with an inborn capacity to know the objective world, however flawed that knowledge may be.  Bacon said that we can "interpret" ourselves and the natural world, but this ability is grounded by the constraints of the physical world, including the limits of our own biological brain, which "must be obeyed" (Bacon as cited in Gay, 1995, p. 312).  As reflective and critical beings, we can become more aware of how our biology, subjectivity, and culture influence our perception and behavior.  We can also become more aware of how our biology, subjectivity, and culture can be influenced and modified, in turn, how they can be changed, not commanded.  Our ability to alter ourselves and our environment produces the conditions of true freedom and moral responsibility (Dennett, 2003, pp. 1, 162). 


References & Further Reading


Abrams, M. H.  (1953).  The mirror and the lamp: Romantic theory and the critical tradition.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

And man made life.  (2010, May 22).  The Economist.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from

Akerlof, G. A., & Shiller, R. J.  (2015).  Phishing for phools: The economics of manipulation and deception.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ariely, D.  (2008).  Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions.  New York: Harper Perennial.

Aristotle.  (1995).  Rhetoric.  In Jonathan Barnes (Ed.), The complete works of Aristotle: The revised Oxford translation, Vol 2.  (pp. 2152-2269).  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Baskin, P.  (2012, Oct 1).  Misconduct, not error, found behind most journal retractions.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from  

Beach, J. M.  (2012).  Kenneth Burke: A sociology of knowledge: Dramatism, ideology and rhetoric.  Austin, TX: West by Southwest Press.  

Berlin, I. (2000).  Historical inevitability, In The proper study of mankind.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bernays, E. L.  (2011).  Crystallizing public opinion.  Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing.  (Original work published 1923)

Bernays, E. L.  (2005).  Propaganda.  Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing.  (Original work published 1928)

Bloor, D.  (1991).  Knowledge and social imagery.  2nd ed.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bly, R. W.  (2005).  The copywriter’s handbook: A step-by-step guide to writing copy that sells.  3rd ed.  New York: Owl Books.

Burke, K.  (1969).  A rhetoric of motives.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (Original work published 1950)

Burke, K.  (1973).  The philosophy of literary form.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (Original work published 1941)

Chang, K.  (2012, Sept 24).  Bias persists for women of science, a study finds.  The New York Times.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from

Cole, J. R.  (2009).  The great American university: Its rise to preeminence, its indispensable national role, and why it must be protected.  New York: Public Affairs.

Crawford, M. B.  (2009).  Shop class as soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work.  New York: Penguin.

D'Andrade, R.  (2002).  Cultural Darwinism and language.  American Anthropologist 104(1): 223-232.

Deeds, not words.  (2012, Sept 15).  The Economist.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from

Demos, J.  (2008).  The enemy within: 2,000 years of witch-hunting in the western world.  New York: Viking.

Dennett, D. C.  (2003).  Freedom evolves.  New York: Viking.

Deutsch, D.  (1997). The fabric of reality: The science of parallel universes - and its implications.  New York: Allen Lane.

Diamond, J., & Robinson, J. A. (Eds.).  (2010).  Natural experiments of history.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dunning, D.  (2014, Oct 27).  We are all confident idiots.  Pacific Standard: The Science of Society.  Retrieved Nov 2 2014 from

Eagleton, T.  (1991).  Ideology: An introduction.  London: Verso.

Emerson, R. W. (1957).  Experience.  In Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.  (Original work published 1844)

Ewen, S.  (1996).  PR! A social history of spin.  New York: Basic Books.

Experimental psychology: The roar of the crowd.  (2012, May 26).  The Economist. Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from

Feyerabend, P.  (2010).  Against method.  4th ed.  London: Verso.  (Original work published 1975)

Finkbeiner, A.  (2006).  The Jasons: The secret history of science's postwar elite.  New York: Viking.

Flanagan, O.  (2007).  The really hard problem: Meaning in a material world.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Flanagan, O.  (2011).  The Bodhisattva's brain: Buddhism naturalized.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Frank, T.  (2000).  One market under God: Extreme capitalism, market populism, and the end of economic democracy.  New York: Anchor Books.

Frankfurt, H. G. (2005).  On bullshit.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Freedman, D. H.  (2010, Nov).  Lies, damned lies, and medical science.  The Atlantic.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from

Galbraith, J. K.  (2001).  The concept of the conventional wisdom.  In The essential Galbraith.  New York: Mariner Books.

Galileo.  (1957).  The assayer.  In Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (pp. 217-280).  New York: Anchor Books.  (Original work published 1623)

Gaukroger, S.  (2001).  Francis Bacon and the transformation of early-modern philosophy.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Gay, P.  (1995).  The enlightenment: The rise of modern paganism. New York: W. W. Norton.

Geertz, C.  (2000).  Ideology as a cultural system.  In The interpretation of cultures.  New York: Basic Books.  (Original work published 1973) 

Geertz, C.  (2000).  Common sense as a cultural system.  In Local Knowledge.  New York: Basic Books.  (Original work published 1983)

Gray, J.  (1995).  Enlightenment's Wake.  London: Routledge.

Greene, J. D.  (2002).  The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad truth about morality and what to do about it.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Princeton University, Princeton.

Gross, C. (2012, Jan 9/16).  Disgrace.  The Nation.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from

Hammersley, M., & Atkinson, P.  (2003).  Ethnography: Principles in practice.  2nd ed.  London: Routledge.  

Huff, D. (1993).  How to lie with statistics.  New York: WW Norton & Company.

Hume, D. (1888).  Treatise of human nature.  Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.  (Original work published 1739)

Igo, S. E.  (2007).  The averaged American: Surveys, citizens, and the making of a mass public.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Isaacson, W.  (2007).  Einstein: His life and universe.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

Jacoby, S.  (2009).  The age of American unreason.  Revised Edition.  New York: Vintage.

Journalistic deficit disorder.  (2012, Sept 22).  The Economist.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from

Judson, H. F.  (2004).  The great betrayal: Fraud in science.  New York: Harcourt.

Kahneman, D.  (2011).  Thinking, fast and slow.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kant, I.  (1994).  Critique of pure reason.  London: Everyman's Library. (Original work published 1781)

Kihlstrom, J. F.  (2013, Spring).  Threats to reason in moral judgment.  The Hedgehog Review, 15(1), 8-18.

Kirsch, I.  (2010).  The emperor's new drugs: Exploding the antidepressant myth. New York: Basic Books.

Klee, R.  (1999). Introduction.  In R. Klee (Ed.), Scientific inquiry: Readings in the philosophy of science (pp. 1-4)Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Klein, J.  (2003).  Francis Bacon.  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from entries/francis-bacon/

Kuhn, T.  (1996).  The structure of scientific revolutions. 3rd ed.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Levitt, S. D., & Dubner, S. J.  (2009).  Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything.  New York: Harper Perennial.

Lindblom, C. E.  (1990).  Inquiry and change: The troubled attempt to understand and shape society.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lindblom, C. E., & Cohen, D. K.  (1979). Usable knowledge: Social science and social problem solving.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lindley, D.  (2008).  Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the struggle for the soul of science.  New York: Anchor Books.

Lindstrom, M.  (2011).  Brandwashed: Tricks companies use to manipulate our minds and persuade us to buy.  New York: Crown.

Lindstrom, M.  (2010).  Buyology: Truth and lies about why we buy.  New York: Crown.

Lippmann, W.  (1997).  Public opinion.  New York: Free Press.  (Original work published 1922)

Malkiel, B. G.  (2012).  A random walk down wall street: The time-tested strategy for successful investing.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Mayr, E. (1997).  This is biology: The science of the living world.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mearsheimer, J. J. (2011).  Why leaders lie: The truth about lying in international politics.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Morgan, E. S.  (1988).  Inventing the people: The rise of popular sovereignty in England and America.  New York: W. W. Norton.

Moss, M.  (2013, Feb 20).  The extraordinary science of addictive junk food.  The New York Times, Retrieved Feb 21 from

Norman Borlaug.  (2009, 19 Sept).  The Economist. Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from

Nussbaum, M. C. (1997).  Cultivating humanity: A classical defense of reform in liberal education.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M.  (2010).  Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming.  New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Packard, V.  (2007).  The hidden persuaders.  Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing.  (Original work published 1957)

Pinker, S.  (1997).  How the mind works.  New York: W. W. Norton.

Pinker, S.  (2002).  The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Penguin.

Plato.  (1997).  Republic.  In J. M. Cooper (Ed.), Plato: Complete works (pp. 971-1223).  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Polanyi, M.  (1962).  Personal knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Polanyi, M.  (1964).  Science, faith and society: A searching examination of the meaning and nature of scientific inquiry.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Popkin, S. L.  (1994).  The reasoning voter: Communication and persuasion in presidential campaigns.  2nd ed.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Popper, K.  (2002). The logic of scientific discovery.  London: Routledge.  (Original work published 1959)

Popper, K.  (1979).  Objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach.  Revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reitman, J. (Director & Writer).  (2005).  Thank you for smoking.  United States: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Rorty, R.  (1979).  Philosophy and the mirror of nature.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Sachs, J. D.  (2011).  The price of civilization: Reawakening American virtue and prosperity.  New York: Random House.

Sagan, K.  (1996).  The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Random House.

Sen, A. (2009).  The idea of justice.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shapin, S.  (2010). Never pure: Historical studies of science as if it was produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Shenkman, R.  (2008).  Just how stupid are we? Facing the truth about the American voter.  New York: Basic Books.

Solow, R. M.  (1997).  How did economics get that way and what way did it get?  In T. Bender & C. E. Schorske (Eds.), American academic culture in transformation (pp. 57-76). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Taubes, G.  (2007).  Good calories, bad calories.  New York: Anchor. 

Thaler, R. H.  (2015).  Misbehaving: The making of behavioral economics.  New York, W. W. Norton.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008).  Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  

The death of facts in an age of truthiness.  (2012, April 29).  National Public Radio.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from 

Toulmin, S.  (1958).  The uses of argument.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Toulmin, S. (1961).  Foresight and understanding: An inquiry into the aims of science.  New York: Harper.

Toulmin, S.  (2001).  Return to reason.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Toulmin, S., Rieke, R., & Janik, A.  (1979).  An introduction to reasoning.  New York: Macmillan.

Tye, L.  (1998).  The father of spin: Edward L. Bernays & the birth of public relations.  New York: Crown.

Watters, E.  (2013, March/April).  We aren’t the world.  Pacific Standard, 46-53.

Westover, T.  (2018)  Educated: A memoir.  New York: Random House.

Wheelan, C.  (2013).  Naked statistics: Stripping the dread from the data.  New York: W. W. Norton.

Zimmer, C.  (2012, April 16).  A sharp rise in retractions prompts calls for reform.  The New York Times.  Retrieved     Dec. 3, 2012, from



To cite this chapter in a reference page using APA:

Beach, J. M.  (2013).  Title of chapter.  In 21st century literacy: Constructing & debating knowledge.  Retrieved date from


To cite this chapter in an in-text citation using APA:

(Beach, 2013, ch 3, para. #).



© J. M. Beach 2013, Revised 2016