Common Sense: Myth or Reality?
I tend to believe that many of us, if not most of us, grew up hearing about something that others refer to as “common sense”. It was either something you had . . . or that you didn’t have. Moreover, even if you had it, it has seemed to always be something worthy of quantifying—that is, either you have much of it, a little of it, or enough to get you by. The problem is, of course, that like most terms that are overused without a certain amount of consideration and clarification, few of us have a thorough understanding of what this marvel, common sense, truly is.
So, what is common sense? Or is there really such a thing? Might it not be a myth—a term that someone invented long ago that has come to mean both everything and nothing at the same time? Could it possibly have anything to do with what we who are deeply philosophical individuals might call the “life of reason”?
Must one be logical in order to possess common sense? Or is common sense sometimes illogical? Well, one might think that George Santayana, author of the wondrous five-volume tome entitled, The Life of Reason, would be the person to turn to for our answer. After all, the first volume of Santayana’s epic manuscript is called Reason in Common Sense.
At one point in his book, he quite succinctly compares the ability to reason well with having the capacity to discern the causes that enable us to gain vision and thereby turn knowledge and motion into action. If we make use of Santayana’s theory, we are left with the idea that “common sense'” would have at least something to do with reaching a certain level of self-awareness. That level of self-awareness would give us the possibility of seeing our lives with boundless clarity.
But let us bring realism into the picture and see where we stand. If we are completely honest with ourselves, we will see that the day-to-day emotions we experience oftentimes obscure our ability to see things clearly. Although Santayana makes the somewhat didactic assertion, “No emotion can overwhelm the mind,” if you are anything like me, I would imagine that your mind has oftentimes felt overwhelmed by your emotions.
You may wonder whether or not this means you are more given to emotional responses and less inclined towards critical and reflective thinking. Actually, I have wondered the same thing about myself. Perhaps, questioning ourselves in this fashion might succeed in bringing about the very thing that we fear—impulsive behavior that we regret.
Let us imagine that we instilled within ourselves complete confidence in our ability to make the wisest choices in our lives. What if we gave ourselves credit for being wiser than we think we are? Usually, those of us who berate ourselves for not demonstrating what others call “common sense” have been told this by others in the past. Thus, our vision of ourselves is colored by pre-conceived ideas, judgments, and assumptions.
Moreover, what society tells us is part of authentic reality and thereby capable of being regarded as worthy of attention is oftentimes pure nonsense. Harry Frankfurt, never a philosopher to cover his true thoughts with a veneer of deceptive language or intricate rhetoric, wrote an insightful essay on this subject called “On Bullshit”. He paints a very convincing landscape of “bullshit” by suggesting that it is a worldwide epidemic, infiltrating culture and even the very air we breath with its nefarious influence. “We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is,” he says. Nevertheless he manages to make an effective case when it comes to convincing one that much of what passes for valuable information is, in fact, strictly (or, at least, primarily) bullshit.
To my thinking, it’s almost as if people are so eager to have information both to absorb and convey, that rather than leaving things unsaid, they resort to making up what is ridiculous, though oftentimes seemingly “fashionable” nonsense. By asserting this claim, I am leaving the way open to examine a possibility that I think is at least worthy of consideration. And that is this: if, indeed, the term “common sense” has lost all real meaning, perhaps what we should all strive for is uncommon sense. If the world around us isn’t sensible and is attempting to beguile us into buying into false truths and other preposterous illusions, we are nearly compelled to isolate our own thinking from the rest of the world’s so-called “common sense” and develop a type of sense all our own.
Uncommon sense is of course the very opposite of that which Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshit” in that it contains the substance that is lacking in that which is passing for (but really is not) common sense. Bernard Williams, in his book Truth and Truthfulness, asks us to entertain the supposition that there is what he terms the “party of common sense”. They are those who imagine that they have “rehabilitated” truth, yet who continue to talk in veiled language by which many of them assure us there really is no such thing as “truth” at all.
It has always astonished me to see how eager those who deceive themselves are to enlighten and educate those around them. It rather seems that the thicker the mask one wears, the more inclined one is to attribute mask-wearing to others. Similarly, the more nonsense one is making up oneself, the more likely it will be that one will regard what others say as nonsense, too.
Sometimes, an entire mode of behavior is rooted in nonsense. For instance, when we imagine ourselves to have more knowledge than we do or to know the answers to the questions that others are still attempting to figure out, what is this other than nonsense we’re telling ourselves in order to feed our vanity?
We humans are very vain creatures. And this, more than anything else, is why nonsense appeals to us so much. Even those of us who say we want to know the truth about ourselves, other people, and the world around us, oftentimes lapse into our own little private worlds of nonsense. We make up stories in our head to rationalize the choices we make or the behavior we engage in. Then we wonder later what we could possibly have been thinking of.
One can see why Frankfurt says that the “bullshit” that has spread through our culture did not merely come into being of its own accord. Rather, Frankfurt suggests, each of us contributes to the bullshit ourselves. For whether we actively participate in creating bullshit or not, if we are at any point taken in by the bullshit that others pass on to us, we have made a contribution to the universal quota.
So, how can we subtract from the nonsense (i.e., “bullshit”) rather than adding to it? Frankfurt is somewhat cynical about the possibility of our escaping from its mesmerizing pull. I daresay he would agree that the myth of common sense could very easily be the last thing that would save us. We are all shipwrecked on the island of bullshit. And little boats of what is supposedly common sense might sound like an ideal solution. But that which sounds ideal rarely is.
This is why I am tossing forth the theory that what we need is a beautiful ship of uncommon sense. For only the exceptional will deliver us from the ordinary. I do not think that merely looking inward will give this uncommon sense to us, either. Rather, I suspect that altering how we view the world around us may very well be the first step in the right direction.
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