Common Sense Definition Essay Example

Eva Peterková

Peterková, E.: Thomas Reid and Notion of Common Sense. In: Ostium, roč. 11, 2015, č. 4.

Thomas Reid and Notion of Common Sense

The notion of common sense has been widely used in everyday speech and had its place within numerous philosophical doctrines in the past. One of the most comprehensive analysis of common sense was done by Thomas Reid. The problem is that Reid’s characteristics of common sense very often differ and that is why they are in most cases confusing. The aim of this paper is to organize Reid’s definitions of common sense and to show where we can find inconsistencies. Emphasis will be placed on distinction between common sense and principles of common sense and if Reid’s doctrine of common sense serves its purpose – to be an argument against the scepticism of David Hume.

Keywords: Common sense, Principles of common sense, Thomas Reid, Judgment, Self-evident propositions, Fundamental beliefs

Common sense is a notion which was interesting for many philosophers and many of them included it into their doctrines. But what is so interesting about it? Answer to this question is simple. A lot of people use this notion in everyday life. We use it when we talk to our friends, to our family or to our colleagues at work. But even though it is used so often it is very hard to give any definition of common sense. And what is more interesting also opinions of philosophers, on what common sense is, very often differ.Is the meaning of common sense just vague? Or is there any deeper problem in defining it? When we use common sense in ordinary life we all intuitively know what it means. But problem arises when common sense becomes some kind of philosophical tool.The focus of this paper is what has been meant by common sense in philosophy of Thomas Reid. This professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow gave us one of the most comprehensive analysis of common sense but also one of the most confusing analyses of common sense. My aim is to show where inconsistencies in his definitions are and to organize these definitions. At the very beginning I discuss general characteristics of common sense which can be found in Reid’s works and then, in chapter 3 and 4, I stress distinction between common sense (as an act) and principles of common sense (as a content of that act). These chapters also show friction between theory and practice in Reid’s definitions which will help us answer the question whether the doctrine of common sense can be a plausible argument against sceptical philosophy of David Hume.

General characteristic
At the very beginning it is very important to say that common sense was not for Thomas Reid any special sense like hearing or eyesight, but word “sense” meant a judgment or a belief. But what did Reid have in mind when he called it “common”? Is it judgment of ordinary people, or judgment which we have in common with other people? Is it a judgment which is so obvious that no sensible person would have doubted it? Or is there other kind of „commones” which Reid had in mind?

Thomas Reid, in answering this question, focused on several topics – existence of external world and other beings in it, our free will and our continual existence. People just take these things for granted and they do not doubt them. But some philosophers and especially philosophers of Reid’s times have put these topics under sceptical scrutiny.

Common sense thus became in Reid’s philosophy an argument against scepticism. But also some philosophers before Reid took common sense to be an argument against sceptical or unjust philosophy. Anthony Ashley Cooper known as Lord Shaftesbury for example wrote in his Essay Sensus Communis: “Common Sense, according to just Philosophy, judges of those Works which want the Justness of a Whole, and shew their Author, however curious and exact in Particulars, to be in the main a very Bungler”.[1]

The biggest bungler, especially to Thomas Reid, was David Hume, who was well known proponent of the “theory of ideas” and who took this theory to its consequences. Descartes, Berkeley, Locke and many others were also proponents. Every one of them held a different kind of this theory but the main and unifying point was that we cannot perceive things themselves but only ideas of these things.

Hume for example divided the content of the mind to ideas and impressions. So the only objects that we are able to examine are the objects of our mind. In other words, the only objects we are conscious of are impressions and ideas.[2] We rely on information which is provided by these mental entities.It means that we have no direct knowledge of external world and objects in it.

But why should we postulate such a difficult doctrine which has no evidence and cuts us off from the external world? And how should we fix the existence of the world which sceptical philosophers want to question?

Reid tried to do it by postulating principles of common sense. We can find a passage in Inquiry where Reid says that philosophy “has no other root but the principles of common sense; it grows out of them, and draws its nourishment from them; severed from this root, its honours wither, its sap is dried up, it dies and rots”.[3]

But the role of these principles in philosophy is not as evident as in ordinary life. Philosophers have very often doubted some principles of common sense in their reasoning (as Hume did) but if they doubted common sense in practice, they would be considered insane. So the authority of common sense shows itself especially in practice. Moreover, practice also shows some metaphysical and sceptical doctrines of philosophers to be useless. That is the reason why Reid argued against Hume – because Hume’s philosophy cannot be applied to practice.

Now we should go back and ask again, what did Reid have in mind by the term common sense? Reid himself gave us a lot of characteristics and he referred by this term to two quite different things. Firstly, he referred by term common sense to self-evident propositions. These propositions are so evident that no one would have doubted them. But secondly, Reid also referred by common sense to judgment, especially the degree of judgment which is common to adult men. Let’s start with the last one.

Common sense as a judgment
Some passages in the work Intellectual Powers quite clearly show that common sense is a judgment. Reid associates it with the fact that “good sense” means “good judgment” as well as “non-sense” means “no judgment”[4]. And this judgment, good judgment, is shared by all those who are adults and sane – that includes ordinary people, scientists, philosophers, etc.

But the English word judgment is ambiguous. When we say “judgment” we can mean an act and also we can mean the contents of that act. And it is not clear at all what Reid has in mind by this word.

Of course, when Reid talks about propositions or principles of common sense it is obvious that they have something to do with the content. The confusing parts start when Reid talks only about common sense. For example: “Common Sense is that degree of judgment which is common to men with whom we can converse and transact business”[5] or: “We ascribe to reason two offices, or two degrees. The first is to judge of things self-evident, the second to draw conclusions that are not self-evident from those that are. The first of these is the province, and the sole province of common sense”[6]

Common sense looks like an act in these passages. Reid calls it degree of judgment whose purpose is to judge self-evident things. The second reason, why we should consider common sense as a judgment, is that all operations of mind are acts in Reid’s philosophy.

When we look at Reid’s definition of judging, we find out that his definition is quite traditional. He talks about giving an assent to some proposition. This assent could be verbal or only mental. The important thing is, that we can find judging already in the operation of perception: “Seeing and hearing by philosophers are called senses, because we have ideas by them; by the vulgar they are called senses, because we judge by them“.[7]

Operation of perception has two main components in Reid’s philosophy. One of them is simple apprehension of things we perceive and second component is formation of belief in things we perceive. But where is the judgment? In the part, where Reid writes that we “judge by” our senses, he means that our judgment (our assent) is formed immediately and together with formation of our belief. Judgment in operation of perception looks like an automatic operation of giving an assent to that belief.

Even if common sense is a kind of judgment, we should not refer to any complex operation. This judgment is intuitive. In other words, it is not based on any argument but evidence of our judgment is clear. We can show it by an example: When I see a table in front of me, my belief, that it is really a table and that this table is in front of me right now, is formed immediately as well as my assent to this belief.

Principles of common sense
But principles of common sense are of different kind than act of judgment formation mentioned above. One of the basic definitions of these principles can be found in Inquiry “If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them; these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd“.[8]

The most important part in this quote is that we are not „able to give a reason for them“. As Nicholas Wolterstorff said, it means we hold them for no reason.[9] I think that Wolterstorff has a point. In our everyday life – when we perceive things, when we meet other people – we do not doubt that the things which we perceive are really the things we perceive, or that people, with whom we meet, are also beings with their minds, brains, thinking and mental life as we are. We pay no attention to these beliefs – we just take them for granted.

Reid talks about principles of common sense as about our fundamental beliefs on many places in his works. But as I tried to show in the last chapter, all operations of mind are acts in Reid’s philosophy, and some Reid’s passages take common sense to be an act of judgment/belief formation or the degree of reason which is “sole province of common sense”. Thus distinction between common sense and principles of common sense is, in my opinion, distinction between act and content of that act.

Reid presented a list of those propositions or principles[10] of common sense in his work Intellectual Powers.[11] He divided the principles into necessary and contingent. However, if we look at the actual list of contingent principles, we can find epistemological principles as well as metaphysical principles. It seems that it is impossible to present a uniform definition.

The main question in defining principles of common sense is why they are principles of common sense.[12] We can find at least three possible answers. They are principles of common sense because:

  1. they are necessarily true,
  2. they are self-evident,
  3. we believe them immediately.

There is a strong foundation for every of these three options in Reid’s works. For example the last option is certainly true. In Intellectual Powers we can find that the propositions of common sense are no sooner understood than they are believed. The judgment follows the apprehension of them necessarily”.[13]

Reid stressed that our belief is formed immediately and that this belief is not based on any other belief or beliefs. It means that our belief is non-inferential. But to say that principles of common sense are just sort of beliefs, which are formed immediately when we perceive, is very easy answer and Reid himself was talking about other definitions.

One of the most frequently mentioned characteristics of these principles is self-evidence which looks like foundationalism. We can see it, for example, in this passage: “…evidence of any proposition, either we find it self-evident, or it rests upon one or more propositions that support it…. It is evident that it must stop only when we come to propositions, which support all that are built upon them, but are themselves supported by none, that is, to self-evident propositions”.[14] But self-evident proposition is that one which “has the light of truth in itself, and has no occasion to borrow it from another”[15] in Reid’s philosophy.

Now it looks that the principles of common sense include each of those three points – we believe them immediately, they are self-evident and they are also true according to Reid.

Our former question was “Why are they principles of common sense?” I think we should reformulate it to a new question “What makes them principles of common sense for Reid?”

The first question searches for characteristics of these principles which makes them principles of common sense, but the second question searches for a role of these principles which makes them principles of common sense.

The main role of common sense was to be an argument against scepticism, Hume’s scepticism which questioned the existence of the external world and direct knowledge of objects in it.

As we said we have several groups of principles – two main groups are principles of necessary truths and principles of contingent truths. In necessary truths we can find some logical and mathematical axioms as well as political and moral principles. In contingent principles there are principles concerning operations of mind, like seeing, hearing, imagining, remembering etc. When we put it together with what has been said about their role, we will see that principles which Reid needed can be found among principles of contingent truths.

But why Reid gave us so many characteristics, and why he divided them into these two groups? Principles of necessary truths and principles of contingent truths have certainly different status in Reid’s philosophy.

For example when we look at necessary principles, we will see that Reid often talks about Aristotle and foundationalism in connection with them. Necessary truths are for Reid first principles of science and that is why all science should be based on these principles. So they figure as axioms (in mathematics, logic, ethics, politics etc.) Reid also tells us, that in most cases we are convinced of their truth. That is why they are called necessary truths.

But Reid would like to convince us, by calling them all principles of common sense, that contingent principles have the same status. But contingent principles are of a different kind because we are not convinced of their truth in most cases.

What is special about these contingent principles is that they are somehow evident immediately in practice. They are beliefs which we take for granted in everyday life. We are, and we must be, led by them, otherwise we would be considered insane. This is the biggest authority of the principles of common sense. And that is also the biggest difference between necessary and contingent principles. But if their purpose is to be an argument against Hume, who wanted to build new science of man, we need contingent principles to be first principles of science, or first principles which we must take before we start our scientific reasoning. But contingent principles do not fulfil these requirements. We do not build our reasoning on them. We often do not pay any attention to them.

The distinction could be led also this way: If we doubt any mathematical axiom, we would be considered by others that we did mistake, if we doubt any moral or political “axiom” they will try to convince us by an argument that we are also mistaken. It is all related to theory. But if we doubt any contingent principle in practice, it would be problem of different kind. I think this passage from Intellectual powers shows exactly the problem:

“Thus, if any man were found of so strange a turn as not to believe his own eyes; to put no trust in his senses, nor have the least regard to their testimony; would any man think it worth while to reason gravely with such a person, and, by argument, to convince him of his error? Surely no wise man would”[16]

What can we infer from what has been said? Firstly I pointed out the difference between common sense and principles of common sense. Common sense seems like an act of judging, which is common to all adult sensible people. It is an automatic operation of “giving an assent” to a belief. This “giving an assent” has its origin in the operation of perception because formation of a belief is one of the components of the operation of perception.

Belief is always, according to Reid, expressed by a proposition or statement in language. And principles of common sense, instead of common sense as an act of judging, are self-evident propositions, i.e. the embodiment of fundamental beliefs which are evident to every sensible person. These principles are universal in a certain way.

Of course, there can be a lot of things which could be evident to us but they would not be evident to anyone else. And there can also be a lot of evident things to many people which do not belong to principles of common sense. That is why Reid divided these principles into two main groups – into necessary principles and into contingent principles. But both groups have different status. I tried to show that the main role of common sense and principles of common sense should have been an argument against Hume’s scepticism about external world and beings in it. Contingent principles, which are also taken for granted in everyday life, serve best to this purpose. But Hume also did not question these principles in practice but only in theoretical reasoning. And here is the biggest problem for contingent principles – even though Reid tried to convince us that contingent principles must be taken every time we start our reasoning, these principles do not fulfil these requirements. We take them for granted in our practice but they do not figure as axioms in our reasoning.

R e f e r e n c e s
COOPER, A. A.: Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. KLEIN, L. E. (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University press 1999.
FRASER, C., Thomas Reid. Edinburhg: Opliphant Anderson 1898.
KEMP, C., The Innateness Charge: Conception and Belief for Reid and Hume, in: Reid Studies: An International Review of Scottish Philosophy, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2000, pp. 43-54.
HUME, D.: A Treatise of Human Nature. New York: Dutton 1974.
KUEHN, M., Scottish Common Sense in Germany. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press 1987.
LEHRER, K., Reid, Hume and Common Sense, in: Reid Studies: An International Review of Scottish Philosophy, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1998, pp. 15-25.
NICHOLS, R., Thomas Reids Theory of Perception. Oxford: Clarendon Press 2007.
REID, T.: An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense: A Critical Edition. Brookes, D. (ed.), Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press 2003.
REID, T.: Essays on the Active Powers of Man: A Critical Edition. Haakonssen, K. – Harris, J. A. (eds.), Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2010.
REID, T.: Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man: A Critical Edition. Brookes. D. (ed.), Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2002.
VAN CLEVE, J.: Reid on the First Principles of Contingent Truths. In: Reid Studies: An International Review of Scottish Philosophy, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1999, pp. 3-30.
WOLTERSTORFF, N., Reid on Common Sense. In: CUNEO, T. – WOUDENBERG, R. V. (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006, pp. 77-100.

N o t e s
[1] COOPER, A. A.: Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. KLEIN, L. E. (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University press 1999, p. 67.
[2] HUME, D.: A Treatise of Human Nature. New York: Dutton 1974, p. 11.
[3] REID, T.: An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense: A Critical Edition. Brookes, D. (ed.). Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press 2003, p. 19.
[4] REID, T.: Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man: A Critical Edition. Brookes, D. (ed.). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2002, p. 424.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., p. 433.
[7] Ibid., p. 424.
[8] REID, T.: An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense, p. 33.
[9] See WOLTERSTORFF, N.: Reid on common sense. In: CUNEO, T. – WOUDENBERG, R. v. (eds.): The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006, p. 85.
[10] Words proposition and principle are nearly synonymous in Reid’s works.
[11] See REID, T.: Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, pp. 470-490.
[12] Similar version of these three characteristics of common sense can be found in James Van Cleve paper: Reid on the First Principles of Contingent Truths. In: Reid Studies: An International Review of Scottish Philosophy, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1999, pp. 5-6.
[13] REID, T.: Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, p. 452.
[14] Ibid., pp. 454-455.
[15] Ibid., p. 452.
[16] Ibid., p. 39.

Mgr. Eva Peterková
Department of philosophy FF OU
Ostravská univerzita v Ostravě
Reální 5
701 03 Ostrava

“Practicing good sense and sound judgment in practical matters,” is the basic definition of common sense.

The commonness of common sense is often debated by those of us that are easily annoyed, and it is often considered lacking. Despite the many debates, does today’s society truly understand the term? Common sense is a necessary component to living a safe and satisfactory life, and it is, in fact, more than knowing the basic facts of life. Common sense is knowledge independent of specialized education, and it is often procured by using the five physical senses.

It can be reasonably expected of anyone to have common sense, as they are not expected to further their education in order to have it. Intelligence and common sense are, in fact, often confused; however, they are quite different. Life tends to be more easily understood by those with a decent balance of both because of the differences between the two. For example, intelligence is gained from furthering one’s education, such as attending college, self-educating, along with participating in other programs. Common sense, on the other hand, is learned throughout life and the mistakes one makes and acknowledges. It is because of this that no one is exempt from learning common sense, especially as one is not required to be affluent or intelligent. Common sense is something that people are taught by parents, friends, and themselves, and it's free. So long as people learn how to appreciate making lemonade from the lemons life gives them, they can obtain common sense; however, many people often refuse to acknowledge their mistakes, and, thus, learn nothing.

Human society has been equipped with five basic physical senses, those of touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight. These hyperactive senses allow humans to see the beautiful, dewy green grass laid before them in nature. Humans can hear the high-pitched melody of birds when the world is meant to awaken. They can smell the hot, humid summer rain that signals lazy days while reading by windows. They can feel the satiny softness of a newborn baby’s skin. These senses even allow humans to taste the love poured into home-cooked meals. The physical senses not only allow these sensations, but they also contribute to a human’s common sense. Because they can taste, touch, hear, see, and smell the world around them, they are able to sense when something is bad for their bodies, and so those with common sense gather that they should stay away from the source of that sensation. Originally, this was the definition of common sense; nevertheless, it has since evolved into something greater. The Greeks, who created the idea of common sense, knew that humans were able to practice sound judgment because they were able to learn from the world around them.

Common sense is necessary for everyday life, as without knowing the dangers of the world, humans would be even more ignorant than we already are and much more likely to put themselves in danger. This does not only include physical danger, but also psychological dangers, such as depression and anxiety. Without common sense, a person would be unaware of how to interact with people and what is and what isn’t acceptable, which could lead to harassment, such as bullying or being ignored. One cannot mature and grow into their personality without constantly learning, which is what common sense is for. One must understand that his or her view isn’t always correct or compatible with other views, and he or she must be able to accept this and continue with living life to their maximum potential. Common sense is the ability as a human to function around others, as well as the ability to protect ourselves from harmful aspects of life.

One could say that the amount of people with common sense in society is lacking; however, every human has some amount of common sense, as it is ingrained in his or her body and mind. The problem is how well humans utilize their common sense and how open they are to learning more. If a person is unwilling to understand that there will always be more to learn, that no one person could attain all the knowledge in the universe, then there will be no hope for said person to strengthen their own common sense. One is not required to continue an education, though it is recommended, in order to have common sense, as it is a part of a human’s body, and it is acquired by simply learning from mistakes and the environment. Common sense consists of much more than basic facts about life, though that is part of it, and it is independent of specialized knowledge. In order to live a satisfying life, one must use common sense, and he or she must continue to mature by watching the world around him or her and use whatever knowledge gained. Common sense is a simply beautiful aspect of such a beautifully complex world.

Check out this quiz to figure out just how much common sense you have and let me know in the comments!

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