Not So Common Sense - Sense Week


By Timothy Dillon

Common sense is “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way.” At least that is what the Cambridge Dictionary tells us. This is a bit verbose; is there a common sense way to shorten it?

Google tells us that common sense is “good sense and sound judgment in practical matters.” That definition is much more concise, but provides no mention of living a good life. Is common sense the key to a good life? I doubt it. Furthermore, if these are the two definitions of common sense, how many people come to mind that exemplify either of these? Is there anyway to clarify such a vague concept?

The statue of Thomas Paine dominates Thetford, Norfolk and commemorates his life in the town as a young man. Photo by Bruce Porteous.

The prevailing power that the phrase “common sense” maintains comes from its use historically. The phrase itself has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and has been used by many great minds to strengthen their positions. A few weeks ago marked the 237th anniversary since Thomas Paine challenged the British crown in his pivotal work, Common Sense. While this pamphlet had less to do with sound judgment in practical matters and more to do with a call to arms, Paine wrote under the assumption that men ought be free.

A thought that is relatively conventional today, considered “common sense,” but was not always regarded as such. Nor was this concept fully embraced even 100 years later, in the throes of the Civil War. With this in mind, common sense must reasonably considered an evolving form of knowledge, which is hardly common until long after the point where it would be truly useful.

“Common sense is neither common nor sense,” argues Dr. Jim Taylor, in Psychology Today. He feels common sense is borderline fictitious, and that what people assume is common sense is usually nonsense that they have rationalized to themselves. It gets worse. Taylor goes on to suggest that it is really more of a conspiracy. Common sense is little more that a way to placate those who do not exercise the same common sense as us.

“Why would you do THAT, when common sense dictates THIS?!” For Taylor, common sense is actually a way of controlling the zeitgeist, as well as people’s positions in life; keep the smart, smart and the stupid, stupid. While Taylor views common sense as a plague in our intellectual development, he still gives credence to living more intelligently, arguing for a more practical way of addressing the world and thinking “openly,” essentially scientifically.

Could this be our new common sense? People postulating theories, then testing those theories, recording outcomes that can be reproduced by anyone? No; this is not the answer, not because it isn’t a good way to think, but because it involves doing, and common sense is typically regarded as attainable mindset, not a process.

One part of common sense fundamental to our understanding of it is the practice of it, or lack thereof. People’s minds are amazing machines that translate a ton of information into accessible knowledge. We are given deductive reasoning, which allows cognitive recognition of patterns. So the question becomes, even if someone has common sense, does that mean they will put it into common practice?

Wiefling Consulting is just like numerous other business consulting firms. They offer fixes and strategies to better realize the potential of your business or product. In addition, there is also this article, which aims to show how to live with common sense. Wiefling uses the example of obesity, how it is possible for so many to become and remain obese in the light of so much information about healthy living. They recognize a disconnect between thought and action that needs to be reconciled.

This resolve involves approaching situations with doubt in order to implement deductive reasoning followed by decisive action to eliminate “circular thinking”. On paper, this seems to make a lot of sense, and fits our definition for making a clearer life, but it fails to give us a better understanding of what common sense is. How are we expected to live with this common sense if we are forced to be introspective about every decision and wrestle with the possible outcomes? It seems exhausting and not at all intuitive, which is what I always assumed common sense was: intuitional knowledge. This line of thinking seems to be fairly aligned with the approach Dr. Taylor endorses, perhaps they are onto something.

Consider this TED Talk:

Jonathan Drori attempts to explain how people learn and what misconceptions actually make way into our minds, thus forming our individual perceptions of common sense.

“Children get their ideas not from teachers as teachers often think, but actually from common sense, from experiencing the world around them. From all the things that go on between them and their peers and their parents. Experience,” he says, demonstrating how our individual common sense can distort over time.

However, the basis of what he refers to as common sense, is just empirical reasoning. Is that it? Common sense being basic empirical decision making actually makes a lot of sense to me. It does not require any questions, no self imposed inquiry, and no questioning of bias. Too good to be true? You bet.

Where this proposition wavers is in people’s abilities to discern truth. How can we make sound empirical arguments if we cannot figure out what is fact from fiction? The American Pragmatists dealt with this philosophical question as the basis for their school of philosophy. Charles Peirce, regarded as the father of pragmaticism, wrote a wonderful essay that could not have a more misleading title: How to Make Our Ideas Clear. This essay offers practical ways of approaching ideas so that our intuition will seek to identify logic, patterns, and thus truth. The essay takes several good reads, probably with a piece of paper and a pencil, but afterward, I bet you will see things a bit more clearly. Have we found common sense yet? My common sense says no.

Perhaps it is time to give up. There is no common sense, or rather, it is an oppressive phrase used by self-righteous people to validate their personal convictions. Is it really all that bad? Are we worse off?

What I’ve discovered is really more of a mass misconception. So much, historically, of what we have considered to be common sense, is just the status quo knowledge of the time. Common sense has been used as a fallacy of argument. For evidence of this, just watch any of C-SPAN from the last twenty years. Further, how much can we say about common sense when it is so often not common practice, like the obese person who consumes far more energy than they utilize?

Practically speaking, true common sense is more akin to the inquisitive nature of a child who approaches new scenarios with skepticism and curiosity. We lose this as we age and accept truths that may or may not stand the test of time. Maybe this is our answer; we have a common sense of the world when we grow up that is slowly replaced with more complex ideas, which supersede our original way of thinking. We then label this new knowledge as common sense, but it could not be further from it. I guess Descartes said it best.

“Common sense is the most widely shared commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it.”

If you care to weigh in on the not so common sense, feel free to visit these discussions on the TED website: