Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 C - Common Sense


Common Sense: Assumptions or supposed facts that most non-philosophers accept as sensible, probably true, prudent to adopt, or supported by ordinary experience. Two examples are the existence of other people's experiences, their being like one's own experiences in similar circumstances, and the existence of an external reality all are part of.

There also is a Scottisch school of Common Sense Realism of the late 18th Century, that is associated with Reid and Stewart, who answered Hume's academic skepticism by insisting that concepts like 'reality', 'other minds', 'self', 'causation', 'laws of nature' and some others must be accepted as the best, or at least as tenable, hypotheses in preference to metaphysical assumptions that deny the mentioned concepts are valid or rationally tenable.

Apart from Common Sense Realism, appeals to Common Sense are often made in political or moral argumentation and in practical philosophical questions ("What should I do? What should I believe? What can I rely on?"), for various reasons, such as the desire to avoid philosophical or metaphysical speculations, to further science, or based on or involving the conviction, also associated with Edmund Burke and conservatism, that the ordinary moral, practical and theoretical notions of common people have been developed during ages and have been tested during ages, and therefore deserve a greater reliance or credibility than systems of speculative philosophy or theology.

There is rather a lot to be said for common sense realism and indeed also for common sense, but the problem is that for those who are not philosophically erudite this is mostly a prejudice, if a prudent one, whereas for those who are philosophically erudite Common Sense in either sense, to be philosophically plausible at all, requires a considerable amount of ingenious argument that does not belong to ordinary Common Sense at all.

Another problem, related to the one just stated, is that what counts as belonging to common sense may differ considerably with the times, the places, and the men making them then and there, and that, besides, even if two persons agree on rather a lot of common sensical assumptions, they may still disagree on rather a lot.

A good example of common sense in philosophy is from Boswell's Life of Dr. Johnson:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."

This also has been often instantiated as an unreasonable argument by Dr. Johnson, but that is a mistake: If Bishop Berkeley's terms, as he uses them, were common sense terms, as he often suggests, then it is hard to see why one could not walk through a wall or kick through a stone as easily as rip apart a mental image of them, in one's mind. The least that Dr. Johnson proved - or illustrated - is that Berkeley's ordinary sounding terms are used with extra-ordinary meanings, that have not been properly clarified by him, which is a reason to reject his system.

See also: Epistemology, Natural Realism, Philosophy, Natural Philosophy, Scepticism


Boswell, Edwards

 Original: Mar 19, 2012                                                Last edited: 19 March 2012.   Top