Thursday, June 30, 2016

What is Common Sense?

Someone posted an online article about an armed civilian who took down a robber at a convenience store.  It happened somewhere, sometime.  A friend who favors unregulated guns wondered why news media don’t report more incidents like this.  After all, they prove to him that a well armed citizenry helps make everyone safer.  I said they’re not reported on because they don’t happen very often, which led another acquaintance to suggest maybe I haven’t looked hard enough for stories that only make the local press because… .  You can see where this conversation was headed.  To get there a little quicker, I stood forth for common sense gun regulation.

That opened up the whole question of what common sense is, with my interlocutors claiming that whatever common sense people once had, they have it no longer.  I’m not entirely sure what they meant by that, but suspect that, in the context of the conversation, it had to do with the erosion of what they believe commonly held standards of proper social and community behavior used to be.  I have to guess at that because the conversation ended. 

So, common sense, what is it?  “That kid has no common sense!”  “Liberals wouldn’t know common sense if it hit them on the head!”  “If conservatives had an ounce of common sense they wouldn’t be so pigheaded!”  “Used to be that people had common sense; now they don’t!”  What does any of that mean?  Philosophers have pondered the question for at least 2,000 years, but let’s face it, philosophers are not known for having a lot of common sense, and most of what they have to say is undecipherable by the common man or woman.  I’m not sure they’re of much help.

The Shorter OED offers four meanings of common sense.  One: an internal sense which is regarded as the bond or center of the five senses.   It is what all other senses hold in common.  I suppose a common man or woman might say it was what they feel in their gut or heart that makes sense to them.  Two: the ordinary, normal, or average understanding about something without which a person would be thought foolish or insane.  Three: the general sense of humanity, or of a community, about what is good, sound, practical, and generally sagacious.   Four: philosophically, the nature of primary truths.  There are those philosophers again.  I think we can dispense with number four.

It’s a start.  What is common has to be ordinary and broadly shared, we can at least agree on that.  Using the OED as a prompt, it seems to me that one kind of common sense is that which we hold in common among our own tribe, and that can be easily communicated across cultures and languages to other tribes.  For instance, common sense says that thing is a chair, and that a chair is normally used to sit in.  We can all agree on that as a practical matter.  Moreover, there is little doubt that our common sense understanding of what a chair is can be communicated across cultures and languages with relative ease.  On the other hand, something like chopsticks might be more difficult to explain as eating utensils, but not insurmountably so.  It’s just common sense. 

It’s just common sense to know what standards of thought and behavior establish the boundaries of what is acceptable in one’s culture.  Everyone knows that.  Except that the standards are never fixed.  They are always changing, sometimes in predictable ways, but often not.  The way things used to be seems the right way because the way things are going is uncertain.  How are we to know what is acceptable and what is not if the standards keep changing.  It was bad enough when they changed slowly from generation to generation, but now they seem to change almost daily, and we don’t like it.  Where did all the common sense go?  Sometimes nostalgia gets confused for common sense.  It isn’t.  It’s just nostalgia, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not common sense.


Maybe common sense is the ability make decisions accommodating facts and circumstances that make up the reality of the situation while anticipating consequences.  I can go with that.  Common sense solutions to problems affecting the common good might then be the product of reasonable persons, who have common sense, arguing out an agreement between them in a civil manner.  That sounds like common sense to me.  I think I’ll stick with it.



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