What Is Common Sense?

To what purpose is it for philosophy to decide against common sense in this or any other matter? The belief of a material world is older, and of more authority, than any principles of philosophy. It declines the tribunal of reason, and laughs at the artillery of the logician.

- Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg looks at an unexpected philosophical subject - the philosophy of common sense. In the first century BC the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero claimed “There is no statement so absurd that no philosopher will make it”. Indeed, in the history of Western thought, philosophers have rarely been credited with having much common sense. In the 17th century Francis Bacon made a similar point when he wrote “Philosophers make imaginary laws for imaginary commonwealths, and their discourses are as the stars, which give little light because they are so high”. Samuel Johnson picked up the theme with characteristic pugnacity in 1751 declaring that “the public would suffer less present inconvenience from the banishment of philosophers than from the extinction of any common trade.” Philosophers, it seems, are as distinct from the common man as philosophy is from common sense. But as Samuel Johnson scribbled his pithy knockdown in the Rambler magazine, the greatest philosophers in Britain were locked in a dispute about the very thing he denied them: Common Sense. It was a dispute about the nature of knowledge and the individuality of man, from which we derive the idea of common sense today. The chief antagonists were a minister of the Scottish Church, Thomas Reid, and the bon-viveur darling of the Edinburg chattering classes, David Hume. It's a journey that also takes in Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, John Locke and some of the most profound questions about human knowledge we are capable of asking.

Listen to the In Our Time episode on Common Sense Philosophy

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

We think we know what common sense is, and whatever it is, that we have it. But some people don’t have much, and those who do would be hard-pressed to define it. Bishop Berkeley said in his Philosophical Commentaries (no.751) that he aimed “to be eternally banishing Metaphisics & recalling Men to Common Sense.” But Berkeley’s way of recalling us to common sense was to argue that there are no physical objects, only God and ideas, which seems the very opposite of common sense; Thomas Reid, the protagonist of my story, called it ‘metaphysical lunacy’...

Continue reading Toni Vogel Carey's article: The Life and Death of Common Sense

Further Reading

Scottish Common Sense Realism, also known as the Scottish School of Common Sense, is a school of philosophy that originated in the ideas of Scottish philosophers Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson, James Beattie, and Dugald Stewart during the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment. Reid emphasized man's innate ability to perceive common ideas and that this process is inherent in and interdependent with judgement. Common sense therefore, is the foundation of philosophical inquiry. Though best remembered for its opposition to the pervasive philosophy of David Hume, Scottish Common Sense philosophy is influential and evident in the works of Thomas Jefferson and late 18th century American politics...

Continue reading the Wikipedia article on Scottish Common Sense Realism

Bonus Webcomic

Logical - xkcd

Related Topics

If you’re interested in common sense realism, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

 Intuition | Knowledge | Skepticism

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