Saturday, 13 April 2013

Common Sense

This is largely in reply to a comment on an earlier post which referred to how all sorts of people (i.e. including ordinary people) are capable of great philosophical insights.

Absolutely. You don't have to be a Professor of Philosophy to be a philosopher. As I mentioned earlier, I've been philosophizing my entire life, and only just recently started to study Philosophy "properly".

The question is, would it have benefitted me to have begun this study sooner? And, to be fair, is it of any real use now? It's all very well to enjoy it, but is there any real value, either to me or to anyone else?

It would appear that the value of Philosophy as a discipline lies in sharing it. It's a sort of positive infection really, transmitted person to person, causing them to think differently, and then passing it on.

And we do all this all of the time, without opening a book. Plenty of wise people have done it, over the course of human history, who never heard of Philosophy, never read a book, never knew Socrates existed, didn't think they were doing anything more than thinking, speaking, and passing it on. Maybe they had a wise person in their life, maybe they just sat on a riverbank and cogitated.

For me, if I had started studying as a teenager, would I be in a different place now? Would I have been wiser, would my life have taken a different course? Would it have been better, or worse? Would I have loved the study so much that I decided to become a philosopher?

Or would my lack of life experience have prevented me from appreciating it, so that I dismissed or forgot everything I was taught. Would it have had any value at all?

Why is it, in fact, that some young people are able to benefit from an early introduction to formal philosophy, some not, some follow it up, some don't, and some go on to become great philosophers, while others relegate what they learned to useful trivia for pub quizzes.

Could it be that when the student is ready, the teacher appears?

Among the many objections to the study of Philosophy, is the idea that really, all you need is common sense.

I refer you again to the idea I began with here, that any ordinary person can come up with the same idea as a great and wise teacher.

Earlier this week, in a blog on covering women's bodies, I asserted that our judgement of what is common sense is largely due to what we are used to.

Today I finished a wonderful book, by Guy Deutscher, about how language affects our perception. If you are interested in ideas like this I highly recommend it, it's called "Through the Language Glass".

The author, a highly respected linguist and academic, said:

".....ultimately, what common sense finds natural is what it is familiar with"

After a lifetime of formal study he arrived at the same conclusion as I did. I'm sure we're not alone here either. I'm certain that there are yak herders in Mongolia who've decided the same thing.

In fact, I'm suggesting that it's common sense to realize the limitations of common sense. I certainly didn't need to study philosophy to figure that out, because I've been saying it for years.

The other thing that we've all heard, of course, is that common sense isn't quite as common as it ought to be, but if it's just based on cultural norms anyway, I'm not sure how useful it is.

I've seen it abused plenty of times. If I had a penny for everytime I've heard a totally idiotic idea justified as being common sense, I'd be able to afford a philosophy degree.........

(Descartes was wrong)


  1. People with common sense never recognize what a valuable and rare commodity it is.These days in my professional life I use the fancier more professional sounding term "critical thinking" or if I am in a real mood "She is a global thinker". Whatever way you slice the cake I mean "common sense". People can be taught the hard skills. With enough study people can learn anything. Common sense is a soft skill. You have it or you don't. All the world thinks they have it but half the world damned well doesn't have it.

    1. HALF?

      I want to think most people are basically sensible, but I keep being proven otherwise.

  2. I believe many problems in this world could have been solved if people just stepped back and looked at the situation without all their own prejudices and bias, and refusing to go with what everyone else said was "right".

    "It seemed like a good idea at the time" is heard far too often.

    1. The problem is they don't think they have any prejudices and biases.

  3. I may be wrong, but as far as I'm concerned, the main thing I have learned from the Philosophy course so far is who said what first.