Human Arenas

, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp 305–320 | Cite as

Common Sense, Language, and Semantic Primes: Liminal or Constant Concepts of Psychology?

  • Miika Vähämaa


Common sense, language, and semantic primes are linguistic and psychological elements that enable people to speak and to understand each other with ease. Ease and fluidity of interaction do not, however, arise on their own. On the contrary, if we lose common sense, commonly shared language and even some primitive basic components of language, such as semantic primes, we face disorderliness, chaos, and misunderstandings in small and large group interactions. Such a dystopian scenario sounds extreme, but this article presents an argument that we now witness increasing decay of both “common sense” and “common word meanings,” as our mass and social media practices change. Without the cultural psychological key notions of common sense and common word meanings, the necessary psychic unity decreases, as Jan Smedslund’s (1988) psychologic posits. I propose as an antidote to the observable disorderliness and the loss of “common meaning” a critical analysis of these core concepts and an increased effort to regenerate common meanings. While the media “narrow-cast” meanings to small groups of like-minded individuals, such like-mindedness is also at the heart of the process of making something “common,” in any sense. Thus, if we become good at reflecting and understanding fundamental semantic primes and basic psychological axioms of our language, we are also better equipped to consider unfamiliar word meanings with flexibility. This would enable new meanings in the social regulation of common language and interaction between people who otherwise “talk past one another.”


Common sense Psychological language Psychologic Semantic primes Synthetic thinking Media developments 


Various human arenas of regulation (religion, rituals, semiosis, constructing, killing, believing, and the like) seem transitional, or liminal, local, and idiosyncratic with regard to their cultural psychological meaning (De Luca Picione and Valsiner 2017). This paper considers the notions of common sense, shared language (commonly understandable word meanings), and semantic primes with regard to their ability to remain as cultural psychological constants or to appear as liminal, passing, transitional, notions of the day in psychological language.

Common sense, language (commonly understandable word meanings), and semantic primes are linguistic and cultural psychological key elements that enable people to speak and to understand each other with ease. Ease and fluidity of interaction do not, I argue, arise without a continuous and intentional effort. On the contrary, if we lose common sense, commonly shared language and even some primitive basic components of language, such as semantic primes, we face disorderliness, chaos, and misunderstandings in small and large group interactions (Smedslund 1988, 2008, 2012).

I argue, that we are now witnessing an increasing decay of both “common sense” and “common word meanings,” as our mass and social media practices change (Oeberst et al. 2016, p. 105–106). While the media in our postmodern Web 2.0 world “narrow-cast” meanings to small groups of like-minded individuals, word meanings become more and more idiosyncratic in these small groups and circles to describe what something means in these particular contexts (Baresch et al. 2011, p. 18; Flaherty 2011, p. 1302–1303). Interestingly, though, such like-mindedness is also at the heart of the process through which meanings can become “common,” in any sense. Thus, small groups have a crucial role not only as repositories of stagnant and repetitious meanings but as birthplaces of new common meanings.

The creation and continuation of common meanings is cogent, since without the cultural psychological key notions of common sense and common word meanings, the necessary psychic unity decreases, as Jan Smedslund’s (1988, 2008, 2012) psychologic posits. I discuss the emerging social problems and disparities that occur as a consequence to the loss of common meanings by drawing both on empirical and theoretical studies. As an antidote to the observable disorderliness and the loss of “common meaning,” I propose not only a critical analysis of the core concepts of common sense, language (commonly understandable word meanings), and semantic primes, but an increased effort to regenerate common meanings.

As a way to regenerate common meanings, and in like manner, common knowledge, I discuss synthetic thinking through which new meanings are created using imagination and language. Synthetic thinking is a type of creative thinking that allows multiple interpretations for the same object, at the same time and place. Synthetic thinking enables creative use of language and conversation. In such manner, synthetic thinking, accompanied with conversation, can generate new meanings in the social regulation of common language and interaction. Such effort, I posit, could help people to better understand each other and avoid “talking past one another.”

What remains puzzling throughout this paper is the claim that the notions of common sense, shared language (commonly understandable word meanings) and semantic primes are entirely, or, at least increasingly, transitory and liminal (e.g. Strauss 1989; Virilio 1997). If that is the case, how is it, then, that despite of the depicted rapid media and communication developments we continue to communicate in our quotidian lives and still manage to make sense of our casual, yet at times psychologically demanding, interactions?

The linguistic research of Wierzbicka (1996, 1999, 2001) and Goddard (1998), among others, provides a basis for an interesting answer. Their reductionist proposals and findings about a core of all human languages give some credence to the idea that the semantic primes may form the basis of a psychologically universal language which, in turn, could be presented through axioms and formal logic.

Jan Smedslund relies on constant and invariant core meanings of words and promotes the use of semantic primes as a basis in the formalized project of psychologic that depicts the common sense nature of psychological language and reasoning (Smedslund 1988, 2008, 2012). Claims regarding a universally applicable psychological conceptual language are bold. Would some rudimentary linguistic notions, such as semantic primes, capture, and store the complexity of our contemporary language, or in particular, psychological language that we use in interaction and reasoning?

Common Sense and Common Word Meanings as Premises of Communication

Semantic primes represent universally meaningful and abstract concepts of language that cannot be learned other than through experience, and which cannot be explained by referring to other words. Semantic primes are at the core of the general set of rules that govern the way sentences—or more generally—our languages are structured. Interestingly, such linguistic notions are gaining popularity among psychologists. The reason is that particularly the semantic primes may have some constant—potentially non-liminal—and psychologically relevant information about the ways in which both the psychologist and the laymen can reason universally and psychologically while the times, trends, and contexts keep changing (Smedslund 2008, 2012).

Linguist Anna Wierzbicka (1996, 1999, 2001) posits that all languages use similar types of semantic primes, a set of few primary words. Some authors claim that these primary words can form the basis for human reasoning and for psychological reasoning, too (Smedslund 2008, 2012). One example of a semantic prime, a basic notion at the core of the language’s structure, is the notion describing that something “is” or “exists.” Hence, the word “is” is a semantic prime that I will consider with a contemporary and well-known example. Other examples of semantic primes are, inter alia, some fundamental substantives such as “I,” “you,” “someone/person,” and “people” or mental predicates such as “think,” “know,” “want,” “feel,” “see,” and “hear” (see Smedslund 2012; Wierzbicka 1996). Through semantic primes, it is possible to find semantic equivalencies in languages all around the globe (Wierzbicka 1996, 1999, 2001).

In general terms, it is not hard to imagine that contemporary languages would have universal roots. Some of these roots are the semantic primes that in some manner provide, on their part, the elements of universal building blocks of language. After all, we do have common ancestors who were able to speak, regardless of the exact nature of such primary language, or Ur-sprache, which will likely forever remain as a mystery (Whitrow 1988). Yet, one might wonder, how could it be that semantic primes would, or any cultural and linguistic concepts, such as common sense, or language with its word meanings, truly provide us with persisting, non-liminal, psychological knowledge that makes sense across cultures?

Approach of Psychologic

All of the notions of common sense, language (commonly understandable word meanings), and semantic primes are woefully relevant to humans, especially with regard to regulating and organizing social interaction. They form the conceptual basis for psychologic. Therefore, as an analytical base, I use the conceptualizations of these notions, as they are presented in the non-empirical approach to psychological language in Jan Smedslund’s (1988, 1997, 2008, 2012) psychologic.

Psychologic presumes that we, as psychologists, thinkers and laymen, continue to express invariant—stagnant and permanent—elements of word meanings in our contemporary world (Smedslund 1988, 2012). Psychologic as a theory assumes that words have invariant core meanings for all competent users of a language. Some of such invariable elements in psychologic are the semantic primes. As Smedslund (2008, p. 160) summarizes:

There must be invariant components in word meaning in order to explain the usefulness of languages and their function in social life. If words were completely transparent, that is, their meanings completely determined by context, the orderliness of social life could not be explained. Part of the function of language is precisely to ensure communication with little contextual support.

While this statement outlines clearly the necessity of shared word meanings, some suspicion arises whether word meanings actually are such that “there must be” invariant components to them once this idea is reflected upon recent developments of the media. What we see happening in the mass and social media points to a trend where word meanings are increasingly filled with variable components, if not totally devoid of invariant components, or core, components. While this development is obvious, it seems that the premise of invariability of word meanings, in the sense that Smedslund (2008, p. 160) posits it, requires critical analysis. In the current postmodern era, as some have suggested, there appears to be a cultural trend where words only have particular meanings in particular contexts, and, hence, disorderliness, of social life seems to be occurring as a consequence (Baudrillard 1988; Virilio 1997).

How would a cultural psychologist continue to argue for the wholesale unquestionable continuity of invariability of word meanings, when a US president attempted to deflect prosecution for sexual misconduct by saying that whether he had had intercourse with a woman depended on “what ‘is’ is.” Through such events, the notion that there always are and will be constant word meanings and these meanings may not be liminal on some principal basis, including “semantic primes,” became questionable. Are there then, one should ask, words that all agents skilled in a language know ab initio—or are we entering a different type of semantic reality altogether? (Baudrillard 1988; Wierzbicka 1996, 1999, 2001).

In my view, as an initial answer, it can be reasonably claimed that “common sense” is a sum of multiple higher cultural psychological and societal functions; it is certainly goal-oriented and, therefore, to some extent “liminal” phenomenon in ordinary and extraordinary life conditions, such as the above description of an absurd use of language in the global communicative public sphere. The extraordinary, interestingly, may actually be more descriptive of our present general state concerning “common sense,” as I argue that idiosyncratic and group-based meanings are overriding common sense, or in a sense, are becoming the new “common” or rather “idiosyncratic sense” which may not fulfill the criteria of common in the past sense of the word.

Role of Lost Concepts

Yet, as a notion, common sense, with its related notion that some things can be universally understood, remains important, as it is something to reflect against, something to evaluate our habits of reasoning against, something to reflect the regulation of our practices against. In such a way, common sense and any familiar concepts, to that end, remain as objects of reflective imaginative process: as Gegenstand, a psychological counterforce to our intentions and thoughts to keep us thinking. As Luca Tateo (2018, p. 5) describes this phenomenon, such lost words, such as common sense in its past universal and obvious sense, continue carry significance, their meaning can remain if only just as something to make us re-evaluate, provide Gegenstand, to “stand against us” in a psychological and philosophical sense. As Tateo (2018, p. 5) describes such lost notions:

Their “reality” in psychological terms is undeniable, or, as Meinong says in an elegant and famous paradox: “there are objects of which is true that there are no such objects” (Meinong, 1960, p. 82). In other words, if one can think, feel or desire something, this “something” once invested with the intentionality of the agent becomes an “objective” (a psychological fact) that “always seems to require in turn an Object which has being” (Meinong, 1960, p. 85). “The crucial role in this transformation is the role of the agent: by acting upon things in nature, these become objects. These objects can resist our actions (stand against us = Gegen + stand), or can evade us” (Valsiner, 2014a, p. 153).

While the notion of common sense may have become problematic along with the general loss of invariant or universal components in word meanings, the notion of common sense is and remains at the core of psychologic as a theory (Smedslund 1988, 2012). As such, for our analytic purpose to consider common sense and common language, Smedlund’s theory is a sound and well-established basis for reflection. Common sense, as posited in Smedslund’s (1988) Psycho-Logic, provides the individual and groups with necessary psychological knowledge, enabling them to get along with each other and make enough sense of the social world to be able to get through at least the most basic psychological or everyday interactions with ease and fluidity (Smedslund 1988, 1997, 2008, 2012). Common sense is conceptualized in psychologic as a culture that is the collective source of knowledge and rationality. To view human rationality as a function of common sense highlights the fact that most of what people know is fundamentally social and acquired through socialization. That is what Dwyer (1990) calls sociability, the ability to get along with others.

Common sense, as the word itself suggests, is common in the sense that it is a sensibility acquired from the collective social world to which there is shared access. It is not a hermetic cognitive effort made in the isolation of an individual mind. People do not need a specialized skill to acquire common sense, they only need a common language, as both Smedslund (1988) and Habermas (1994, p. 116) suggest. To attain the ability of everyday reasoning, no formal training in formal reasoning is required.

Logical Nature of Language

To occur, however, common sense requires people to interact and talk with one another. The pathway of socialization, or sociability, takes people to common sense and is a premise for psychologic as well. Psychologic needs a shared language (including semantic primes) to apply as a non-empirical approach to psychology.

As a result of our ability to speak and understand language, we can generally hold that humans are logical to the extent that they can communicate and make sense of each other. Therefore, Smedslund pursues axiomatic psychological assumptions as derivatives of common culture, shared language, and its semantics and common sense (Smedslund 1988, p. 5, 1997, 2012, p. 295–297). A similar line of thought, regarding the interrelationship of language and common sense, is seen in Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action (Habermas 1984, p. 11). Yet, language and its ability to yield universal distinctions is increasingly problematic. In like manner, the same sort of diminishing universality is happening to common sense as the grand conceptual premise of shared language preluding all interpersonal communication and psychological language.

As empirical research shows, the major challenge to the claims that common sense, shared language (particularly word meanings), including semantic primes, will remain permanent, unchanged, to some extent invariable and constant notions, come from changes in the media practices—and, based on those changes, the ways in which we use language (Oeberst et al. 2016, p. 105–106). We are in a world in which Web 2.0 applications have become a primary source of news (Gottfried and Shearer 2016), and the primary social media app Facebook means that your friends choose your news (Baresch et al. 2011, p. 18; Flaherty 2011, p. 1302–1303).

The Disparities of Word Meanings: Challenges to Common Sense

Due to the high variability or word meanings, idiosyncratic expressions and closed or in-group communication and in-group meanings, we face new dilemmas. When we talk, especially about matters regarding our personal issues in psychological interpersonal communication, for instance in therapeutic sessions, hence in a specialized context, we cannot rely on derivatives of common culture, shared language, and its semantics and common sense (Smedslund 1988 p. 5, 1997, 2012, p. 295–297) or on the Habermasian notion of open and forthright persuasion (Habermas 1984, p. 11). My words may not mean what you think they mean, despite our earnest wish to communicate, even in a therapeutic situation in which there is an assumption of shared language in a matrix of common sense.

Both Smedslund and Habermas make assumptions for continuingly shared epistemic values and further claims about universally shared knowledge that assume that humans communicate using what Aristotle might have called a dialectical method suited to “those able to follow long reason.” But we rarely communicate like that anymore, and we may have lost the ability to do so. This is particularly the case in smaller groups, in interpersonal communication, where much of the communication is emotional and intended to sustain interpersonal relationships (Ellison et al. 2011). It is also there, in such intimate and smaller contexts, where emotional conflict due to misunderstandings easily arises.

Yet, even in small group settings, we aim to be logical in the sense of being coherent with our understanding of the world and how we imagine it exists for us as momentary conceptual frameworks. This is discussed in Psycho-Logic (1988) and recently rearticulated by Smedslund (2012). In the postmodern Web 2.0 world, the “momentary conceptual framework,” as phrased by Smedslund (2012, p. 295), is not only momentary but idiosyncratic, regardless of the psychological age of the subject, due to the developments of the Internet, communicative media, and the subsequent and dramatic increase in the circulation of group-produced knowledge (Oeberst et al. 2016, p. 105–106). The common aspects of shared language underlying the notion of common sense preluding the initiation of formal psychologic are simply less “common” today than at the initiation of psychologic as a theory. At the genesis of psychologic in 1988, many of the current trends of language use and multiple networks and reference groups per each individual would have been hard to imagine.

Interestingly, Jean Baudrillard (1988, p. 145) envisioned the main reasons of the foreseeable decay of common sense ahead of his time. At that time, in 1988 when Psycho-Logic was published, our contemporary communicative world of “hyper-reality” in which signs have become—at least to some extent—unhinged from any signified (Baudrillard 1988, p. 145) seemed like a fantastic science fiction realm and an unrealistic dystopia at best. Today, the traditional media (i.e., television, radio, newspapers, magazines) as well as social media (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit) “narrow-cast” to small groups of like-minded individuals. Since our local rhetoric is focused, understandably, on desirable actions and meanings that benefit our own groups and affiliations, we face a true “legitimation crisis” of word meanings in our societies and our world, not to forget the challenges of emotionally driven, smaller-group settings (Salter 2003).

Rapid Media Developments

The development of interactive web technologies has led to a massive increase in the circulation of group-produced and group-targeted knowledge (Oeberst et al. 2016, p. 105–106). Unlike knowledge production in wikis, where some sort of superuser moderates the product, unmoderated Web 2.0 platforms like Facebook and Twitter often produce “fake news.” Such material satisfies the Enlightenment universal regulatory practice of knowledge of “justified true belief,” one of the epistemic aspects of common sense of psychologic, only in that it is believed (Goldman 1999). This can be a serious matter, because some of this material can be psychologically and physically harmful, e.g., viewers of pro-anorexia web sites have worse outcomes for the disorder than do non-viewers (Bardone-Cone and Cass 2007, p. 541–542). In the USA, for instance, anti-vaccine web sites and related complaints have led 21 of 50 states to enact opt-out legislation such that, in those states, only 70% of children are now vaccinated (Bean 2011, p. 1874). Thus, Web 2.0, as part of its huge content and realm, has resulted in real public health challenges (Betsch et al. 2012, p. 3729).

Beliefs, even when they have no basis in fact, can have deleterious effects. To say that vaccines like the one for polio is a danger because “vaccines are biological poisons, harmful to health, and a contributing factor in childhood illness” (Kata 2010, p. 1711) is obviously untrue and tells us that communication across epistemic differences and across social psychological ingroups has become difficult (Bergin 2001; Tajfel 1982). What would be the common ground for reasoned arguments in such a debate? The question is easily set while the answers come only slowly upon reflection.

When such public outcomes of private communication are considered, we see that communication can be functional only because of “common sense”—the κοινὴ αἴσθησις of the ancient Greeks, even if only to a limited extent. As Habermas (1994, p. 116) and Smedslund (1988) argue, holding a shared language—a κοινὴ as held by the ancient Greek scholars—leads individuals to develop a common sense of meaning in the groups within which they communicate. Via this “sensus communis,” individuals can still operate with ease and fluidity in the symbolic realm. The notion of the “hermetic cognitive effort made in the isolation of a single mind,” as I have argued elsewhere (2015, p. 85), is specious. Our lives, with regard to language and knowledge, are fundamentally bound to social groups.

This fact has various consequences. For instance, already acquired schemata define what sorts of knowledge can be assimilated (Piaget 1972; Smedslund 2012, p. 296). But, on the other hand, once people decreasingly acquire information outside small groups, since there is no overarching common sense to which individuals would orient themselves to once “their friends select their news,” the ability to develop common sense decays. Thus, the ability to communicate reasonably both psychologically and epistemologically outside one’s familiar groups is significantly impaired.

The Disparities of Word Meanings: Challenges to Personal Well-being

As some authors argue, we are now entering an era of the sort envisioned by Strauss (1989, p. 93) and Baudrillard (1988) where the texts of the day have, in an important sense, ceased to signify. Naturally, as these are slowly-occurring conceptual developments, we continue to go about our quotidian lives as we do, even though truth in some common sense meaning may have vanished, even though 30% of the children in some schools are not vaccinated against polio—all of this implying the decay of what something “is” in some shared sense (Virilio 1997). Eventually, if no effort is given to regenerate common word meanings, serious health consequences may occur regarding the individual well-being—psychological and somatic (Phadke et al. 2016). Disruptions, thus, to common sense are causing direct consequences on our well-being regardless of the eventual meaning of the notion.

Upon examining these phenomena, one can reasonably ask whether or not we can reasonably now claim that invariant elements of language actually exist. To what extent do words have elements that do not require a specifically described context for the words them to be understood? Is the only available solution a type of hyper-specialized individual who is only able to understand and speak in some most specialized and technical language? How do we find common meaning despite the developments of different forms of mass and social media and their related language use practices? In a psychological and philosophical sense, these questions themselves provide answers. Paying attention to such developments and language use would of itself help a great deal to regenerate language and to maintain shared meanings. Linguistic research on the semantic primes and the formalized structure of languages in general, and with regard to specific questions, can offer other types of answers.

Invariant Elements of Words

One of the assumed goals of studying semantic primes is to discover, or rather to rediscover, the invariant elements in word meanings (e.g., Smedslund 2012; Wierzbicka 1996, 1999, 2001). The goal of such rediscovery of an already existing a priori and axiomatic psychological language could then potentially apply universally in actual conversations and reasoning. In this way, the study of the semantic primes studies simultaneously the general theory of psyche and its unity or universality in a cultural psychological sense. The discovery of semantic primes shows that communication has been goal-oriented (the primes are only learned through practice which is a goal-oriented effort toward a skill, including thinking) and will continue as goal-oriented human practice.

Therefore, we can argue that common meanings and language have some fundamental and constant basis to them. While this is true, I am inclined to think that word meanings at large and at the level of generating or regenerating elliptical, ephemeral and idiosyncratic meanings in small-group interpersonal communication is largely a liminal phenomenon—a phenomenon under continuous change. These types of meanings are difficult to study in a formalized manner, although upon reflection, their significance is apparent. Yet, it is the small-group communication that matters most with regard to our emotional well-being, our continued felt sense of being reasonable members of our communities and the continued felt sense of being understood by others (Vähämaa 2013a, p. 13–14).

This is not to say that semantic primes do not exist or would cease to exist in any time soon. Semantic primes as our core and most primitive vocabulary will be discoverable, even if languages change in time as they do, at the deep core of the formalized syntax of our natural languages. Neither do I mean that there is no more continuing relevance to have and to maintain invariant components in word meanings. It must be clear, I assume, for all readers of this text that there remains an always-extant and invariant corpus of word meanings; when that corpus of signifiers disintegrates, the semiotic realm itself will dissipate, with consequences we actually cannot imagine—since imagination itself exists in the semantic realm (Tateo 2015).

Yet, these invariant components remain invariant more than before in idiosyncratic or specialized settings—as in carefully curated articles like the one you just read, among sports team members or among groups of professionals. Simultaneously, invariant components of word meanings have become decreasingly universal in generally common, public sphere and non-particular settings. In the public sphere, mainly due to the specialized “narrow-casting” to their particular and self-selected audiences, the media also choose and determine—even if in synchrony with its audience—what is considered common and what something means. As the use of language and words will not cease, the meanings of words have become increasingly dependent of the social groups in which we interact, reflect, and, crucially, attain our well-being.

Semantic Primes: Future Potential for Rediscovering Common Language

Against the backdrop of these darkly colored schemes and the development of contemporary language use practices, the semantic primes have a continued relevance in improving communication. Semantic primes are also in the future, as argued, the types of primary words of our joint vocabulary (Wierzbicka 1996, 1999). While the discussed sex scandal exemplified that even semantic primes can become questionable, and then perhaps change, these primes have the ability to function as mirrors and fundaments, to provide something constant in our language even if only in the form of Gegenstand, as a constant psychological counterforce, to constant changes in word meanings (Tateo 2018).

Natural language, as the domain of semantic primes, has a structure that enables modeling semantic primes, and we have the skills and technology, if we so will, to reduce to core words even the most complex psychological sentences in a formal manner. As semantic primes do appear universally, their formal research continues yielding interesting results from the viewpoint of cultural psychology and reveals important and reason-based commonalities in our languages.

On the one hand, the increasing lack of invariant components of word meanings highlights the inability of the a priori, or reductionist, research approach to offer the now necessary informal and even superficial cultural knowledge to regenerate psychological language. Hardware may not do better here than software: everyday talk, its idioms, elliptical meanings, and playfulness may be the more relevant target of the cultural psychologist to understand the discontent and pure unhappiness we see as outcomes of some of the current Internet discourses as we seek like-minded groups for the better and worse (Bardone-Cone and Cass 2007, p. 541–542; Hewstone 1990).

On the other hand, the discovery of a potentially increasing body of semantic primes in different languages contributes significantly to the a priori cultural psychological knowledge. Such a formal project is an ambitious and specialized project that may not locate what makes something in psychology or culture constantly “common,” but it increases our ability to reflect the basis of our psychological language and the connection of that linguistic base to the fast-changing idiosyncrasies. These idiosyncrasies, in-group references, usage of idioms, playfulness, elliptical and emotional vividness, and ephemeral sayings are not easily found in psychology textbooks, as the everyday psychological language develops at a fast pace. Therefore, the “going back to basics” through semantic primes can be of meaningful help: semantic primes can provide a reflective mirror to the fast-paced changes in psychological language.

This might be particularly valuable if we believe that we actually now live, as Baudrillard (1988, p. 145) suggested, in an era of “hyper-reality,” in which signs have become unhinged from any signified; words and things are no longer connected, and words are defined only by other words and have no invariant components left as discussed by Resch (1992) and considered by Smedslund (1988, 2012) as a fundamentally impossible dystopia.

Yet, even in our era, the condition of a limited language having a defined and agreed-upon reference for meanings of its words is still possible. Consider that religious discourses, which persist across nations, contain symbolic catechisms in which the meaning of all the terms in the primary text is determined. Perhaps in some sense, our linguistic catechism may be found, to some limited extent, in semantic primes and within their connections to universally understandable sentences as the research unfolds. The points made thus far imply that epistemic agreements, agreements of what we regard as relevant, even as knowledge, are tightly connected to the notion of common sense. In my view, the notions of common sense and common knowledge are practically inseparable. Therefore, the last sections discuss the epistemic, knowledge or knowing-related, dimension of common language and common thoughts and their regeneration. Common sense, I posit, requires the felt sense of holding common knowledge.

To illustrate this epistemic viewpoint, I will next present a scenario of an imaginary prehistoric social interaction as an example of how the foundations of “common sense,” “common knowledge,” and “common language” can be regulated, and how such regulation may be necessary and even unavoidable in terms of social interaction. After these considerations, in the final section, I offer a view of synthetic thinking as a way to consider some of the constant elements of language we have discussed thus far while we simultaneously regenerate our word meanings using imagination.

Basics of Social Interaction and the Regulation of Common Sense: a Prehistoric Illustration

Groups are necessary to the formation of knowledge; humans do not form knowledge outside of social structures. In order for groups to exist, they must themselves have an epistemic structure. Some things must be regarded as knowledge that enable knowing and, therefore, communication (Vähämaa 2013a). Hence, the regulation of the group norms makes it so that it is necessary to regulate some sort of initial criteria of knowledge, too. As I have argued elsewhere (Vähämaa 2013b, p. 26):

Very much in the very same way as every written argument must start with a letter, must every group start with an epistemology—at least some sort of lay theory of understandable and nonsense sentences.

Following this train of thought, it is apparent that in order for any social group to exist there needs to be some sort of group-based epistemology—a primitive language with common sensibility enabling the group to agree upon things—right at the very genesis of a group. A nascent—or a newborn—social, group-generated, epistemology is largely based in our social needs and their fulfillments (Vähämaa 2015). In order to achieve any social ends or goals, to create common meaning, one needs paradoxically to have a group epistemology even before joining a group in order to start to generate knowledge through such group-based epistemology. My view on this paradox is the following: the history of man, or Homo sapiens, and language are equally long and, therefore, the genesis of the first group was simultaneously the genesis of first linguistic and epistemic agreements—the nascent group epistemologies.

To imagine how such an elementary level of epistemic praxis may evolve, we could think of two human beings meeting each other for the first time in prehistoric times in order to achieve some shared meanings, to communicate. As the natural history has it, people have throughout time formed groups and sought out other people to meet individual needs through collective action. Consequentially, as people group together, they at once have some common “language” or signaling system.

Groups Need an Epistemology

This type of a “cave man” epistemology may be a far-fetched example as such, but it does underline the reciprocity of groups and group-based ways of founding what is common sense or common knowledge. Or, in philosophical terminology, how an epistemology emerges. One cannot have one without the other. A group has an immediate set of some level of epistemic standards to enable exchange of sensible communication, and as the group evolves, it generates more knowledge about the world “out there.”

To look even further back, in the past eras before language as we now understand it, the items of perception—birds, trees, food and dwellings, as well as the presumable “fellow men” in the perceptible world—would have be given a set of meanings that are not merely based in perceptions but based in social meanings due to the social reciprocity the group members would have had (Vähämaa 2015). In contemporary cultural psychological research, this assumption is widely credited and conceptualized as a reciprocal presupposition between continuity and discontinuity in meaning-making processes (De Luca Picione and Freda 2014, 2016; Esposito et al. 2015; Freda 2011; Freda and Esposito 2017). Simply put, continuity means that the same old ideas are in some sense left behind as these ideas become told and circulated via new narrations.

The imaginary prehistoric men would not speak merely of “the big dwelling,” that exists (as a semantic prime) we would posit. They would speak of “the big dwelling where our leader, the boss, lives,” yielding immediately an expression with a social dimension. Here, we see a cultural psychological implication of an initial unity of psyche and language-based orderliness (Smedslund 2012; Vähämaa 2015, p. 54–56).

All of that, I presume, would result in an elementary “regulation” of knowledge that would enable both of our imaginary cave-dwellers to make observations of the world and, through dialog with the other group members, to develop social meanings—common sense—about the world. The imaginary Ur-sprache would, in its most primitive form, have to be social, since it would have to be a shared effort. The primary language, Ur-sprache, would be a rudimentary basis of a group epistemology as being simultaneously a set of shared and common meanings.

As distant as such an imaginary exercise may sound, it is a modified version of another well-known Western folkloric tale of the genesis of common meanings from the viewpoint of a group epistemology. The Christian Bible depicts how early people encountered animals and plants, and the like. In the process of observing them, the First Man (אדם) gave them names—the first pieces of shared knowledge of the world. Adam, as the religious legend has it, formed a knowledge connection, or a binary group epistemology, “with none other than God himself and communicated with God the names of various things he felt like sounded good to him (or, as Genesis 1:27 has it, them; the use of אדם there is plural)” (Vähämaa 2015, p. 56).

The important point, regardless of the actual historical development of early regulatory group epistemologies, persists. Groups arise to form meanings, and in the process, they form group-based epistemologies. No knowledge, thus, exists without groups and no groups exist without a reasonable degree of common sense.

To Imagine Things Anew: Synthetic Thinking and Regeneration of Common Meanings

If we take the above claims to be true, or plausible with regard their conceptual value, we are struck with the notion of common sense and the need for it, because we live and use language unavoidably in social groups. Here, the emphasis can be on the sense part of the notion, underlining our continuing ability to reason while common meanings may appear “lost” or at least laborious to find as “common” is now more scattered to different loci and hard to rediscover.

How do we, as laymen, thinkers and cultural psychologists, prepare ourselves for the presented disparities and discontents that relate to the challenges of common sense and language and, yet, depend on reasoned psychological thought and action? My answer goes as follows. In addition to seeking answers from a priori psychological knowledge, we must turn to synthetic thinking which relies on imagination as a resource to self-reflect, as a resource to attain new ideas and knowledge. Synthetic thinking allows us to change perspectives as it allows multiple meanings for the same object at the same time and place simultaneously (Harris 2000; Tateo 2015, 2016).

By synthetic thinking, I refer to a type of thinking where, in addition to a priori knowledge and known and easily inducible or deductible facts, one has to draw on not only facts present in the sentences at hand as in formal logic but to use and engage imagination as a relevant source of knowledge. Imagination, as a cultural psychological concept, is defined as “a fundamental higher psychological function that is devoted to the manipulation of complex wholes of iconic and linguistic signs”, following Luca Tateo’s definition (Tateo 2015, p. 146; see also Brinkmann 2015; Harris 2000).

A priori axiomatic and logical reasoning may prove to be insufficient in its ability to yield new and common word meanings just because it does not address directly the role of imaginative processes even though imagination has more open-ended possibilities and it allows co-existence of different meanings for the same objects. This view comes close to the ideas of Piaget (1972), as he assumed that while one may be “incorrect,” one is still always “logical” with regard to one’s own personal schemata of things and objects (see also Smedslund 2012).

The approach of psychologic, by itself, as a way to gain non-empirical psychological knowledge has granted us plenty of psychological knowledge. Thus, we cannot say that our difficulties in finding common meanings would be a result of lack of psychological knowledge per se. If anything, we know now more than before. In sum, we have an abundance of theoretically sound psychological knowledge embedded in our culture, stored in our books. Why, then, is there the felt need for non-axiomatic reasoning in similar non-empirical, reflective, fashion? In simple terms, we can see from the example below that we need to rely on imagination when we reflect on different scenarios, logical or not.

Synthetic Thinking: an Example

For instance, we could imagine notions of “panic” and “total control of panic”—when we think synthetically. The basic principle, as already implied, is that in synthetic thinking a layperson or a psychologist considers the same object as a different object at the same time and same place using imagination (Harris 2000; Tateo 2016, p. 437–440). A therapist will in a session—or a friend in a conversation—consider the verbalized or visualized object of thought of as two or more different things at the same time and at the same place and share it through conversation. Such act, the act of an expressed thought, cannot be true or false—since actions, by default, are validated rather by their functionality, not their epistemic truth-value (Kock 2009).

Here, we could imagine that an individual E considers, illogically, the s/he has “panic” and “total control of panic”—both at the same time and place. Such paradox can create a novel and non-logical thought for E that can be called having “mixed feelings” or it can produce a thought where panic and total control of panic mixed together gets a new meaning altogether. For instance, E could imagine or reflect on a thought where panic and total control of panic form a hybrid where the felt sense of panic and the felt sense of its total control co-exist.

Such hybrids are not only interesting products of psychological reflection but are important to consider if we want to find common meanings and functioning intersubjectivity once again (De Luca Picione et al. 2017). The individual who is psychologically functional generates hybrids which lead to new understandings and better behavioral outcomes; the individual who is not psychologically functional generates binary and oppositional thinking which lead to ‘stuckness,’ impaired behavioral outcomes, mental conundra, and the like. (De Luca Picione and Valsiner 2017)

Cultural psychologist Raffaele De Luca Picione posits, that if an individual truly attempts to talk with others about new creative ideas—to narrate such views to others—some existing semiotic borders have to be crossed between the old and the new, a future-oriented, idea (De Luca Picione 2015a, b). If we do not use language creatively and do not cross over semiotic borders, we remain stuck with repetitious narrations and can’t find new psychological meanings. As Raffaele De Luca Picione and Jaan Valsiner (2017, p. 541) say:

In fact, when the border becomes too rigid, we observe forms of repetition of the same narration, a saturation of sense-making processes and a sclerotization of relations based on opposition systems.

A synthetic idea like the hybrid described above overcomes this type of “saturation” and “sclerotization”—or, stuckness—and allows new meanings to emerge. Such newfound meanings are neither repetitive narrations nor are they entirely blurred by subjectivity in a manner that would make them incomprehensible to others (De Luca Picione and Valsiner 2017). A synthetic idea occurs when none of the imagined “objects” of thought are ignored or negated but they inspire a new idea: an interpretation, in our example a new interpretation of panic and its total control, of the verbalized or visualized object drawn from an imaginative process which allows such multiplicity and co-existence or co-genesis of projections. To enable such thinking to flourish requires considering both logic and imagination in psychological reasoning and reflection. Equally important is a congenial environment, an epistemic community, to exchange these newfound thoughts and ideas to regenerate common understanding, or, common sense.

An epistemic community, at its genesis, requires only two individuals to exist and to generate shared meanings and shared common sense. To conclude, I hold that if we simply become good at reflecting and understanding fundamental semantic primes and basic psychological axioms of our language, we are also better equipped to consider unfamiliar word meanings with flexibility and imagination. In this way, we would enable new meanings in the social regulation of common language, common sense and interaction between people who would otherwise “talk past one another.”


Synthetic thinking skills allow the cultural psychologist, the thinker and the laymen alike to draw on their imaginative processes and intuition and see the same object as different objects. This yields further new and novel ideas. Once these ideas are brought into conversations and interpersonal interactions, we acquire new synthetic knowledge expressed as newfound and shared meanings and regenerate at some level common sense. In the final analysis, there may not be other route than the route of small groups to maintain and regenerate common sense as the continuing principle—even if sometimes not achieved—of our interactions.

Knowledge gained in this way, knowledge in the sense of shared word meanings, enables intersubjectivity. Thus, it helps to see things as the other does. As cultural psychological research shows, our regulatory practices embedded in our culture, e.g. understanding, empathy, concern, control, regret, and the like, can be improved as we regain some of the lost psychic unity we can’t have without a sense that we have common meanings. Ideally speaking, regulation of meaning and interaction becomes easier, between friends and acquaintances and beyond our familiar groups even though there may not be common vocabulary to start up with.

Yet, the outlined concepts and their related challenges present aspects of our social realities and, therefore, the presented problems and some of the initiated solutions are neither ideal nor surreal. It is important to understand that the use or adaptation of language and knowledge, for instance, to come up with a novel thought and express it in a conversation, cannot be true or false as such. Actions, such as thinking and speaking, cannot be either true or false. Therefore, for us as cultural psychologists, thinkers and as laymen, it is important to encourage bold thinking, imagination and playfulness in our language use. It is equally relevant to constantly consider the more permanent, primary aspects and key notions of our language such as the reviewed semantic primes, common sense and the interesting changes in word meanings.



Inspirational thanks belong to Jan Smedslund for his long-lasting work on non-empirical psychology with its implications on common sense and semantic primes and to Mark D. West’s early and helpful and insightful comments on the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Politics, Media and Communication Faculty of Social Science and Open UniversityUniversity of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland

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