Monday, April 23, 2012

Common Sense as a form of mysticism

The phrase "common sense" symbolizes various ideas. Some of those ideas are objective -- that is, formed logically from facts of reality -- and one of those ideas is mystical. Following are my first notes on "common sense."

ARISTOTLE'S USAGE. My secondary sources say an early usage of the term "common sense" appears in the writings of Aristotle (384-322 BCE). He wrote of  "common sensibles" in the human mind. This use of "common sense" refers to an ability of the mind to combine individual senses (such as sight, sound, smell). An example is sensing motion through our eyes and through our sense of touch. This "common sense" is a combining faculty. It is preliminary to -- and not a replacement for -- full, conscious, explicit reasoning.[1] It is not mystical.

2. LOCKE'S USAGE. In Book IV, Chapter XVIII, Paragraph 11, of his long treatise, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke (1632-1704) mentions "common Sense" (capitalizing the noun, in the style of his time):

For Men having been principled with an Opinion, that they must not consult Reason in the Things of Religion, however apparently contradictory to common Sense, and the very Principles of all their Knowledge, have let loose their Fancies, and natural Superstition ....[2]

3. AN OBJECTIVE MODERN USAGE?. Locke's use of "common sense" is the same as one of the modern usages of the term: a human ability available to all mentally and physically normal individuals, an ability to look at objects in front of one's eyes and make simple, but implicit logical connections or distinctions. What is an example of "common sense," in this meaning? Two water glasses having the same shape -- but one small and one much larger -- stand on a table. The larger one is filled with water, to the brim. It is common sense to know the water in the larger glass will overflow if poured completely into the empty smaller glass.

To the person who holds it, this knowledge seems to arise automatically from inside his mind. This person cannot immediately identify all the many facts and generalizations he has accumulated through a lifetime, facts and generalizations he has identified subconsciously. Because those facts and generalizations are held subconsciously they are not immediately available for identification, articulation, and testing. This common sense knowledge comes from and only applies to observable objects frequently encountered in one's culture. 

If John Locke in 1700 had been shown a notebook computer, no amount of "common sense" would have told him what it is and what it does. Likewise, common sense does not apply to abstract issues such as the objective basis for ethics; the origin of the stars; the validity of a theory of evolution; or the nature and desirability of capitalism.

"Common sense," in the meaning defined above -- simple but subconsciously formed and held inferences drawn about objects widely familiar in one's culture -- is, in a few characteristics, analogous to the formation and use of first-level concepts (such as "table" and "dog").[3] First, we can usually recognize a particular, directly perceptible object as a table or a dog, even though if we might have trouble offering a formal definition of either concept; the same observation holds for "common sense" solutions to problems in that we can immediately see them. Second, we form and use first-level concepts in a manner similar to accumulating and using common sense: from direct observation of perceptible objects in reality, supported by words, concepts, and propositions supplied by the dominant culture in which we live. Third, usually both defining first-level concepts and justifying our common sense conclusions are difficult. Both seem "obvious."

4. AYN RAND'S USAGE. Philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982) has succinctly characterized "common sense" in a way similar to the usages outlined above:

Common sense is a simple and non-self-conscious use of logic.[4]

That which today is called 'common sense' is the remnant of an Aristotelian influence.[5]

Americans are the most reality-oriented people on earth. Their outstanding characteristic is the childhood form of reasoning: common sense. It is their only protection. But common sense is not enough where theoretical knowledge is required: it can make simple, concrete-bound connections—it cannot integrate complex issues, or deal with wide abstractions, or forecast the future.[6]

The key points of her comments are that common sense can reasonably be expected or relied on in solving problems that are simple (involving one or two steps of reasoning), involve directly perceptible objects, and apply generalizations widely available in one's culture. No conclusion, I think, is "common sense" if it follows only from a chains of inferences or if it deals with abstractions from abstractions.[7]

5. A MODERN MYSTICAL USAGE. I personally have heard the term "common sense" used to name another notion: There are ideas -- usually judgments (propositions stating something about reality), not individual concepts -- that are already (or should be) embedded in the human mind.

Consider an example of this usage of the term "common sense." A legislator calls for a local government in the USA to require smoke-free homes for foster children.[8] The multiple issues involved -- Does "second-hand" cigarette smoke cause health problems? Should government require foster parents to avoid smoking around their foster children? Should government place orphaned or abandoned children in foster homes? -- do not involve directly perceptible objects alone, the thought process are long, and the context is technical (involving medical expertise and legal training, for example).

In my personal experience, an appeal to "common sense" that involves abstractions from abstractions and chains of exact reasoning is a false appeal to common sense.  Worse, if someone asks the person making the claim of "common sense" to spell out his reasoning, and the person making the claim denies the need to do so or is unable to do so while still maintaining his position, then the person making the claim is mystical. He is, in effect, claiming "knowledge" from some source other than reason.

CONCLUSION. Appealing to common sense is a form of mysticism when the claim is arbitrary, that is, when the "common sense" position has been challenged but the speaker cannot or will not articulate his position as a reasoned argument based on evidence and an explicit chain of inferences.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at

P. S. -- I should also mention Thomas Reid (1710-1796), the main founder of the movement called "Common Sense Realism" or "Scottish Common Sense Realism." I did not want to feature him above because I, so far, have seen no reason to think he contributed directly to our contemporary uses of the ideas named by the term "common sense." (I have so far read only secondary sources.) However, he and his followers might be worth further study if I need to look for the explicit philosophical roots, if any, of the modern idea of "common sense."

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, "Thomas Reid," says:

Reid is a staunch defender of “common sense”, or, as he sometimes puts it, the opinions of “the vulgar”. In fact, in almost every arena of philosophical inquiry, Reid's positions are in various ways tied up with his overall project of defending common sense. Common sense, for Reid, are those tenets that we cannot help but believe, given that we are constructed the way we are constructed.

If the secondary sources I have read are correct, Reid supported "common sense" epistemology as a way of countering skepticism arising from Locke, Hume, and others. The reason Reid opposed skepticism was that skepticism threatened religion. In sum, then, Reid apparently advocated a philosophy of common sense to protect religion. For this reason, common sense philosophy was very popular among some theologians. As a movement, it died quickly by around 1900.

Besides the SEP article on "Thomas Reid," see also the SEP article. "Scottish Philosophy in the 19th Century," for an intriguing look at the rapid rise and fall of a philosophical movement. Also, the Wikipedia article, "Common Sense Realism," as of April 23, 2012, offers useful bibliographic leads.

[1] G. E. R. Lloyd, Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1968, p. 194, briefly describes Aristotle's view of "common sensibles," as presented in Aristotle's On the Soul (titled De Anima in Latin and Peri Psuche in Greek), 418a20f. For a more recent, introductory discussion of Aristotle's psychology, that is, his theory of the structure and function of the mind, see: The bibliography for that essay includes references to specialized works on "common sense" in Aristotle's writings. [2] The mention of "common Sense" appears on p. 696 of John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, editor Peter H. Nidditch, 3rd edition, New York, Oxford University Press, 1975. If in ECHU Locke discussed "common sense" in some other meaning, as one secondary source claimed (without a citation), I am unable to find it. [3] As always, criticisms are welcome. For forming concepts and for the nature of first-level concepts: Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, second edition, pp. 13, 15-16, 49-50, 167-174, 180-181, and 204-215. [4] Ayn Rand, question period following the lecture, "The Philosophy of Objectivism" lecture series, Lecture 11. [5] Ayn Rand, "For the New Intellectual," For the New Intellectual, hb, p. 45, pb, p. 41. [6] Ayn Rand, “Don’t Let It Go," Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 211. [7] For abstractions from abstractions: Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, second edition, Chapter 3. [8] For an example claim -- at least by a headline writer -- that creating a new law is common sense:

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