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What is Common Sense?

Updated on August 13, 2014

Do you have Common Sense?

Common sense, in philosophy, is a mental faculty or an attitude. The term has had different meanings in different periods.

The key doctrine in the philosophy of the 17th-century English thinker John Locke was his belief that all knowledge is derived from sensation. He maintained, for example, that the mind of a new-born baby is a blank tablet on which, in later years, sense-experience prints ideas. At first sight, this seems simple common sense.

It is impossible, for instance, to know what 'red' means before having the sensation of red, and a child blind from birth will never know it. But Locke went much further than this. According to him, it is impossible to be ever directly aware of a real external object, such as an apple. All one is aware of is a bundle of sensations, or simple ideas, of roundness, redness, sweetness and so on, from which is formed the complex idea of an apple.

However, since the apple is never actually perceived, how can the person seeing it be certain that the apple exists?

Image by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Locke answered such speculation by saying that something must cause ideas, and that obviously what causes them are real material things existing independently of us. Although these real things are not exactly as we perceive them - they do not really have color, taste or scent, for these are secondary qualities, dependent on the observer - they do have the primary qualities of shape, size, solidity and motion, qualities which exist in them independently of any outside observer.

Ancient Philosophy

In Greek and Roman philosophy, "common sense" is that which is common to all the senses or the ideas common to all men. According to Aristotle's psychology, the common sense is a general centralizing faculty by means of which one apprehends the "common sensibles" - motion, rest, figure, magnitude, number, and unity. These qualities are not known through anyone of the five special senses.

Also, since the "togetherness" of the special sense qualities in an object is not discerned by the special senses singly, it is necessary to postulate a common sense that enables one to perceive that a certain color, taste, and sound are all present in the same object at once. In Stoic philosophy, the view that all rational minds (pneumata) are emanations of an identical rational world-stuff (pneuma) entailed the further view that all rational minds have innately certain notions in common; hence what is common sense to all men may be presumed to be true.

Early Modern Philosophy

These notions, or "innate ideas," came under attack in the 17th century by John Locke, who maintained that men are not born with any ideas at all, that the mind at birth is a "blank tablet," and that our ideas result from sensory experiences and combinations of these. Locke's insight led to the empirical movement, which sought to base all knowledge on experience, and which in the 18th century culminated in George Berkeley's denial of material substance and in David Hume's thoroughgoing skepticism regarding the certainty of empirical knowledge.

These consequences, distasteful to some, stimulated a counter movement, the so-called Scottish school of common sense philosophy, led by Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart, and James Beattie. Reid urged against Locke that the mind is congenitally furnished with some ideas, whose presence may be certified by introspection. These are the same for the deepest thinker and the simplest man, and they a re not the product, but the prior condition, of experience. Sensations are not the objects of knowledge but are "signs" that unmistakably point to the existence of a real self, and of real objects to which our thoughts correspond, in a real world whose existence cannot be doubted. The outcome of this movement was a rejection of philosophy as such, or a reduction of philosophical problems to psychological ones.

Contemporary Philosophy

In 19th and 20th century thought, common sense sometimes denotes a naive view of reality as contrasted with a scientific view. It also may denote a set of attitudes and assumptions presumed to be held by plain men who are untutored in a conscious philosophy.

As such, common sense has been defended by such thinkers as John Dewey; George Santayana, who claimed that "common sense, in a rough and dogged way, is technically sounder than the schools of philosophy"; and particularly by George Edward Moore. Moore argued that certain statements about the existence and behavior of one's body and of things and other minds in one's environment are everywhere and always understood. The fact that we know these things is proof that they are true; indeed, no other proof can be given that does not beg the question. The skeptic can have no reason for doubting them, and what is not doubted in common life ought not to be doubted by philosophers.

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Do you see yourself as having common sense?

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