‘Common sense’ is not the companion of the intellect, it is its opposite

by Jonasan

One of the most corrosive forces in the world is what is generally referred to as ‘common sense’. Consider the situations in which common sense is usually invoked. One of the most obvious is when noting its absence in an individual when wishing to criticise or ridicule this individual for making what is considered a stupid mistake. “Just use your common sense” would not be heard from any but the worst of teachers since it betrays a refusal (or inability) to engage with and attempt to solve the problem our ‘idiot’ is facing. Common sense is treated as a clear, transparent quality (compare Descartes’ equally absurd ‘natural light’), so the order to “use your common sense” is completely meaningless; if some knowledge or insight were accessible to my ‘common sense’ then it would have been immediately available. The demand is actually no better than simply saying “do it better!” This is meaningless. The question you have failed to answer is how exactly I am to do it.

So much for practical reality. It is true that common sense is an annoyance in those situations, but it is in theoretical and intellectual contexts that it is more destructive. Kant characterises well those who would wear it like a talisman:

“They therefore came up with a more convenient way to be obstinate and defiant without any insight namely the appeal to common sense. It is in fact a great gift of heaven to possess straight (or as it has recently been called, ordinary) sense. But one must prove it by deeds, by the considered and rational things one thinks and says, not by appealing to it like an oracle.”

I would go further than Kant here and claim that ‘obstinacy’ very quickly becomes an understatement. Pressing the common sense beliefs of an interlocutor will very quickly provoke real anger or, more tellingly, perceivable panic – deeply held beliefs serve as a comforting companion, one not willingly surrendered. Here common sense plays the role of a (false) foundation to a set of beliefs. The first (and only) line of defence provided by “it’s just common sense” is sufficient in most normal arguments. Even when rejecting what you take to be common sense, most opponents will not continue in a direct attack but will instead attempt to show that the case in question is an exception to the common sense rule you are reliant on. Instinctively most people know that ordinary, pre-reflexive human stubbornness makes it futile to try to attack the beliefs which you hold based on ‘common sense’.

At this point one can almost hear the words ‘herd’ and ‘rabble’ being screeched amid Nietzsche’s cackles from beyond the grave.

The implications of this problem are broader than they may appear at first. Recall the old story of Wittgenstein asking a colleague why people used to assume that the Sun revolved around the Earth. His colleague replied that the answer was obvious: “it just looks as if the Sun is revolving around the Earth,” he said. Wittgenstein simply replied by asking what it would have looked like if the Earth was going around the Sun.

This is the status of the false seer of ‘common sense’. There is no part of common sense so ‘obvious’ that it does not deserve to be questioned. Sadly it also seems that there is no truth so sacred that it is incapable of being ridiculed or opposed by the non-thought of ‘common sense’.