Friday, September 14, 2007

Common Sense

First, I want to thank Dr. Thursday for that moving story yesterday. *sniff*

Secondly, picking up on the What's Wrong with the World discussion, I am wondering how to define "common sense".

I grew up with a mother who firmly and solidly believed in common sense; I know this because my lack of it was regularly the cause of her to say:
"Use your common sense!"
in a rather exasperated way.

I wasn't sure then just exactly what she meant. I *knew* I wasn't born with this "common sense", in my case, anyway, maybe I was unusual, I had to learn it. So, to me, it couldn't have been that "common".

I really didn't feel that I learned common sense until I began to read Chesterton. But I still have trouble defining it. Any suggestions?


  1. If I had time I would seek a better example, and one perhaps a little less thorny. But there is something useful here, because of the "larger" view GKC has of common sense:

    One very common form of Protestant or rationalist ignorance may be called the ignorance of what raw humanity is really like. Such men get into a small social circle, very modern and very narrow, whether it is called the Nordic race or the Rationalist Association. They have a number of ideas, some of them truisms, some of them very untrue, about liberty, about humanity, about the spread of knowledge. The point is that those ideas, whether true or untrue, are the very reverse of universal. They are not the sort of ideas that any large mass of mankind, in any age or country, may be assumed to have. They may in some cases be related to deeper realities; but most men would not even recognize them in the form in which these mere present them. There is probably, for instance, a fundamental assumption of human brotherhood that is common to all humanity. But what we call humanitarianism is not common to humanity. There is a certain recognition of reality and unreality which may be called common sense. But the scientific sense of the special value of truth is not generally regarded as common sense. It is silly to pretend that priests specially persecuted a naturalist, when the truth is that all the little boys would have persecuted him in any village in the world, merely because he was a lunatic with a butterfly-net. Public opinion, taken as a whole, is much more contemptuous of specialists and seekers after truth than the Church ever was. But these critics never can take public opinion as a whole. There are a great many examples of this truth; one is the case I have given, the absurd notion that a horde of heathen raiders out of the northern seas and forests, in the most ignorant epoch of history, were not likely to be at least as ignorant as anybody else. They were, of course, much more ignorant than anybody with the slightest social connection with the Catholic Church. Other examples may be found in the story of other religions. Great tracts of the globe, covered in theory by the other religions, are often covered in practice merely by certain human habits of fatalism or pessimism or some other human mood. Islam very largely stands for the fatalism. Buddhism very largely stands for the pessimism. Neither of them knows anything of either the Christian or the humanitarian sort of hope. But an even more convincing experience is to go out into the street, or into a tube or a tram, and talk to the actual cabmen, cooks and charwomen cut off from the Creed by the modern chaos. You will find that heathens are not happy, however Nordic. You will soon find that you do not need to go to Arabia for fatalism; or to the Thibetan desert for despair.
    [GKC, The Thing CW3:223-4]

    Just to explain the explanation:

    Father Brown's figure remained quite dark and still; but in that instant he had lost his head. His head was always most valuable when he had lost it. In such moments he put two and two together and made four million. Often the Catholic Church (which is wedded to common sense) did not approve of it. Often he did not approve of it himself. But it was real inspiration - important at rare crises - when whosoever shall lose his head the same shall save it. [GKC, "The Queer Feet" in The Innocence of Father Brown; cf. Mt 10:39]

    --Dr. Thursday

  2. Chesterton's usage of "common sense" is not the technical usage of philosophy, but a more, eh, "common" one. However, I think Aquinas's conception of common sense implies the later popular usage and the intuitive understanding which Chesterton has of the phenomenon. Aquinas held that the common sense was one of the internal powers belonging to our sense faculty (as distinct from the external five senses). They included, for example, memory. The "sensus communis" is, for Thomas, the ability to unite the data of the other senses to form one sense impression which is given to the intellect. When we see an apple pie and smell an apple pie, we know that the two experiences are linked: and it "makes sense" to presume that our senses are forming an accurate picture and that the way our interior senses have put them together is not confused or mistaken.

    Modern philosophy drove a wedge between the internal and external senses and begged all kinds of questions about how certain we could be of sensory input. Chesterton argues against this modern outlook with frequency and vehemence.

    I would say a good working definition of common sense is the ability a human being has to know that he or she has really perceived reality through a concrete encounter with input either from the senses or from the intellect. Many modern philosophers challenge this ability. They say that too much subjective difference is mixed up with any sort of experience an individual has, and so our ability to relate via universal truth and laws goes out the window. They argue that what you say you experience as "green" might, in fact, be completely different from my experience of "green" and that its just a question-begging arrangement of convenience that we speak about the same experience in the same way. Which is all rubbish. The fact is that the human person is able to encounter reality, and that the various sensory and intellectual data which we encounted can be united into a cohesive and intelligible concept by our common sense.

  3. Oh! Excellent! A real philosopher - at least a student thereof - who uses the word "rubbish" - against the philosophers!

    Yes, Joey - it is funny how quick they turn back into a simle old real-world kind of Thomistic view - as soon as it's time for their journal article to appear, their paycheck to be cashed, or when one asks for a signature on a dissertation. All those things are never soiled by their purely mind-based haze.

    And I thank you for assisting in straightening out this matter - at least starting to straighten it out. Computing is a stern task-master, and teaches one to be VERY careful in assigning ideas and symbols to real things, and it is very easy, even for very experienced workers, to forget to distinguish uses and variations.

    I think it is clear that Chesterton has a good handle on Common Sense... it may take some doctoral work to get to its fullest explication, in the classical manner - but the grand thing is that he teaches it as a real thing, something we have as a gift - indeed as a patrimony. We're the ones who are fools if we don't bother using such a powerful tool.

    We must go further into this matter....

    --Dr. Thursday


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