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The Life & Death of Common Sense

An obituary by Toni Vogel Carey

We think we know what common sense is, and whatever it is, that we have it. But some people don’t have much, and those who do would be hard-pressed to define it. Bishop Berkeley said in his Philosophical Commentaries (no.751) that he aimed “to be eternally banishing Metaphisics &c & recalling Men to Common Sense.” But Berkeley’s way of recalling us to common sense was to argue that there are no physical objects, only God and ideas, which seems the very opposite of common sense; Thomas Reid, the protagonist of my story, called it ‘metaphysical lunacy’ (Works, ed. Hamilton, 1880, 1:127). It is also part of common sense to learn fast not to touch hot stoves, and the like. As Reid put it (183), “I resolve not to believe my senses. I break my nose against a post… I step into a dirty kennel; and after twenty such wise rational actions, I am taken up and clapped into a madhouse.”

1. The Birth

Common sense had two parents, appropriately enough, one Greek, one Roman. In Book 3 of De Anima Aristotle posited that in addition to the five basic senses there must be a sixth or common sense that can perceive what he called ‘common sensibles’ such as motion, number, shape, and size, which combine and/or go beyond what sight and smell can reveal. In a different vein, the Roman Stoic philosopher Cicero construed sensus communis as the shared, often unspoken values and beliefs of a community. This was the root of common law, on which British and then American law was based.

We hear little more until René Descartes, the so-called ‘father’ of modern philosophy, opened his Discourse on Method in 1637 with the notion of bon sens as the ability to do simple reasoning about practical everyday matters. Later in the century John Locke used the term ‘common sense’ with a similar meaning. In his 1709 book Sensus Communis, though, Locke’s pupil Lord Shaftesbury brought back the Stoic idea of an innate “sense of the publick weal and of the common interest.”

The influential and popular magazine The Spectator was launched in 1711 to “diffuse good Sense through the Bulk of a People.” At first that meant mostly people of good breeding, but soon it had more universal overtones. By the 1730s there was a publication titled Common Sense. And in Henry Fielding’s 1736 play ‘The Life and Death of Common Sense’, Queen Ignorance, assisted by the learned professions (law, medicine and religion), succeeds in murdering Queen Common Sense. The tug of war between ordinary wisdom and that of the learned was a persistent and prominent theme. But common sense was here to stay as a foundation of social and moral order. And it would soon become a school of philosophy.

2. Common Sense Comes of Age

The big surprise is where this occurred. At the turn of the eighteenth century Scotland was a remote backwater. But the Union with England Act of 1707 – the Act recently reaffirmed in the Scottish referendum of September 2014 – made it possible for Scotland to join the civilized world. Within thirty years Glasgow was a bustling commercial city; within fifty years Edinburgh surpassed Leiden as the premier medical school in the West.

Our tale, though, takes place not in Edinburgh or Glasgow, but in the even more remote town of Aberdeen. More specifically, it takes place in the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, launched in 1758 by Thomas Reid. This was the heyday of the learned society, and that in Aberdeen, nicknamed the Wise Club, was among the best. Several papers presented there became books that made their authors well known, and their discussions covered almost everything under the sun. Here is a smattering:

• How to structure education so as to best prepare for the different businesses of life?

• What is it that provokes laughter?

• Do animals have souls, and if so, how do they differ from those of humans?

• When is lime a proper manure?

• Is there reason to believe that friendships of this life might continue after death?

• Might hearing be improved by some device, as seeing is by glasses?

• Is slavery inconsistent with good government? (Most Scots opposed slavery.)

• Is it equitable that people be taxed proportionately and not equally?

In our age of narrow specialization, the question naturally arises whether these wide-ranging discussions could have been anything more than sophomoric bull sessions. But the Wise Club meant business. A penalty of half a crown was imposed for failing to deliver a paper without a good excuse. Members began preparing three years ahead of time for the Transit of Venus, due in June 1761. The far more prestigious Royal Society of London did not begin its preparations until a year before the transit, and then only when prodded to action by the French astronomer Delisle. So the Wise Club lived up to its name.

3. Common Sense vs. Skepticism

Reid’s primary purpose in spearheading the Wise Club, however, was not to discuss friendship in the afterlife. His mission was to discredit the philosophical skepticism of fellow Scot David Hume, whom he charged, quite accurately, with “shock[ing] the common sense of mankind,” and its religious sensibilities into the bargain. Hume gave subtle and powerful reasons to be skeptical about the foundations of morality, about the existence of God, even about the everyday connection of cause and effect. By contrast, Reid’s basic premise was simple: that reason has two functions, “to judge of things self-evident” and “to draw conclusions not self-evident from those that are;” and the former is “the sole province of common sense.” Reid called the skeptical philosophy “ridiculous, even to those who cannot detect the fallacy of it. It can have no other tendency than to show the acuteness of the sophist…making mankind Yahoos.” At one point he went so far as to declare, “I despise Philosophy, and renounce its guidance; let my soul dwell with Common Sense.” All he really meant by this, though, was that philosophers are no more qualified than anyone else to decide on the merits of common-sense propositions. They might still be better at drawing ‘conclusions not self-evident’ from those that are. And while Reid’s attack was heated, it was entirely friendly. He wrote a charming letter to Hume in 1763, saying in part, “A little philosophical society here… is much indebted to you for its entertainment… You are brought oftener than any other man to the bar, accused and defended with great zeal, but without bitterness. If you write no more… I am afraid we shall be at a loss for subjects.” (Reid, Works, ed. Hamilton, 1:92, 101, 425)

The most influential book to come out of the Wise Club, and the defining text of what became known as the Common Sense School, was Reid’s Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. It appeared in 1764, and the same year Reid was appointed to the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow, replacing Adam Smith, who soon began work on Wealth of Nations.

Today Hume is on every top-ten list of the most important philosophers in history, whereas Reid might not make the top fifty. Moreover, Hume’s fame rests very considerably on the skeptical questions he raised, questions only a philosopher would ask, since they make no difference at all in real life. Hume knew as much, of course, and said so. After “I play a game of backgammon [and] am merry with my friends,” he wrote in the Treatise on Human Nature (I.iv.7), “when I return to my skeptical speculations, they seem cold and ridiculous” – the same word Reid used to describe them. But Hume adds something that Reid seems to have missed: that the skeptic should be skeptical “of his philosophical doubts as well as of his philosophical conviction[s].” Hume’s underlying point is that we don’t know as much as we think we do, so a certain “caution and modesty,” as he put it in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (XII. iii), should accompany all our assertions.

4. Common Sense Goes to America

Reid’s philosophy of common sense crossed the Atlantic in 1768, if not before, with the Scottish Presbyterian pastor John Witherspoon, the newly appointed president of what is now Princeton University. Witherspoon was soon the most important educator in colonial America. And he promulgated “plain common sense,” as he liked to call it, in tracts and sermons to congregations and Sunday schools all over the budding nation, as well as at Princeton, where in addition to future President James Madison, he personally taught 13 future college presidents, 20 United States senators, 13 governors, and 3 Justices of the Supreme Court.

Even without Witherspoon common sense would have found a ready welcome in the new world, particularly in Philadelphia, where Benjamin Franklin personified this quality. Moreover, Franklin had broad and deep Scottish connections. His Proposal for the Education of Youth (1749) drew on the writings of two Aberdeen professors; and when he launched the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania), he picked William Smith of Aberdeen to run it. He visited Scotland twice, meeting all the most important figures there, and receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews in 1759 for his science of electricity; that is how he came to be called ‘Dr Franklin’.

Among the many letters of introduction Franklin wrote for people going abroad, or those coming to America, was one for Thomas Paine, who arrived in Philadelphia from England in 1774, at age 37 a bankrupt corset-maker with two failed marriages. Probably at Franklin’s suggestion, Paine was hired by Robert Aiken, publisher of the Pennsylvania Magazine, and a recent arrival from Aberdeen himself.

On January 10th 1776 Paine published a 58-page pamphlet, ‘Common Sense for eighteen pence’ that became the first instant American bestseller, and in just six months led directly to the Declaration of Independence. The title was actually not Paine’s idea, but that of the Philadelphia doctor Benjamin Rush, who had studied medicine at Edinburgh, and who wrote his own essay, ‘Thoughts on Common Sense’. Paine used the term only three times in the pamphlet, in addition to the title, although he later wrote newspaper pieces under the pen name ‘Common Sense’.

He died in obscurity, having accomplished one big thing: to convince even those to whom revolution seemed unthinkable – and they included many, if not most – that, hey, its just a matter of common sense!

The signing of the US Constitution

5. From Common Sense to Self-Rule

As I said, Reid’s position was that the first job of reason is “to judge of things self-evident;” and that raises the question of the origin of the term ‘self-evident’ in the Declaration of Independence. Originally the opening phrase read: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Then Jefferson or Franklin (it is not certain which) crossed out “sacred and undeniable” and wrote in “self-evident.” This significantly removed what had been a quasi-religious basis for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and replaced it with a quasi-logical basis, devoid of religious overtones.

Whoever inserted the term ‘self-evident’, Jefferson described the Declaration simply as “the common sense of the subject.” That is not because he was overly modest, but more nearly because as a student at William and Mary, his mentor had been William Small, a graduate of Marischal College in Aberdeen who, Jefferson said, “probably fixed the destinies of my life.”

Reid fused the concepts of common sense and self-evidence; Paine fused these concepts with self-rule. Reid’s common sense and Paine’s both carried intellectually anti-elitist implications. But for Reid common sense was essentially a conservative concept, whereas Paine made it the basis on which to “begin the world over again,” as he put it in the pamphlet. He used what everybody took for granted, to quote Sophia Rosenfeld, to make “unnatural, even laughable, what had seemed obvious,” and “natural what had been almost unthinkable.” Attacking Humean doubt was way too tame for Paine. He spiked Scottish common sense with French bon sens, a term coming into vogue with radical Continental thinkers, to form the linguistic yeast that fomented revolution in America.

Even bon sens was too tame to be the motto of the French Revolution. But the American Revolution was a lot more successful than the French one – precisely because it followed Reid rather than Robespierre. Paine’s intent was to persuade, to provide political validation, not the disinterested philosophical kind. In this he was astonishingly effective. But Franklin, with his canny, down-home style, was no less so. He had found that prefacing his views with phrases like “It appears to me” or “If I am not mistaken” enabled him to “persuade without seeming to persuade.” When the Continental Congress was set to vote on the American Constitution in September 1787, Franklin waited to have the last word. He said understatedly, “I consent, sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.” And he concluded: “I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me… doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.” Franklin carried the day in effect by using Humean “caution and modesty” and asking his colleagues to be a bit skeptical about their doubts. It was lost on Reid, but evidently not on Franklin, that Humean skepticism contains an essential common sense component.

6. Two Cheers for Common Sense

Reid’s philosophy of common sense dominated college curricula in America for nearly a century, not just in Princeton and Philadelphia, but at Harvard and Brown, and then at colleges to the west and south. As Harvard undergraduates, Emerson (1817-21) and Thoreau (1833-37) were schooled in this philosophy, and Emerson explicitly praised Reid and his disciple Dugald Stewart in an 1821 undergraduate prize essay.

Stewart was the last of the major Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, and became even better known. In 1820 former President John Adams wrote to former President Jefferson: “Was you ever acquainted with Dugald Stewart?…I think [he] has searched deeper and reasoned more correctly than Aristotle, Descartes, Locke…and even Reid.”

And Stewart thought Reid had so defeated Humean skepticism that unless some new argument were to appear in future, “it is not likely that the controversy will ever be renewed. The rubbish being now removed…” As it turned out, though, what was removed was not Humean skepticism, but the Scottish Common Sense school. Why did it rise so high? And why did it then fall so low?

It rose because there was a lot to like about this philosophy. As Henry May says in The Enlightenment in America (1976, 346) it was “moderate, practical, and easy to teach… never anti-scientific nor obscurantist, never cynical, and it opened no doors to intellectual or moral chaos.”

The big problem has always been to distinguish common sense from public opinion or majority rule. Reid himself asked, “Is truth to be determined by the most votes?” Even Paine warned that “common sense, as it becomes less vigilant, will tumble before ‘the mind of the multitude’.” A reversal of authority from the learned professional to the ordinary person can easily go too far. But Reid had many more defenders than detractors; and while common sense is not up to the job of defeating, or even addressing Humean doubt (as I argued in Philosophy Now back in 2002), you wouldn’t want to leave home without it.

7. The Death

William Ellery Channing at Harvard championed the common sense philosophy. Yet before his death in 1842 he was coming to think that perhaps “mid-eighteenth-century Edinburgh [and Aberdeen] could not solve the problems of mid-nineteenth-century America.” By the time Reid’s philosophy made its way to Baylor University in Texas in the mid-1860s, it was fast declining in the east. In 1874 James McCosh, a Scot who became president of Princeton University in 1868, exactly 100 years after Witherspoon, wrote a history of the Scottish philosophy, lest it vanish without a trace – like Brigadoon – which despite McCosh, is pretty much what transpired.

Thomas Reid
Thomas Reid

Reid’s influence resurfaced in the late nineteenth-century Pragmatism of Charles Peirce, who expressly compared his philosophy to Reid’s, calling it ‘critical common-sensism’. But Pragmatism is a complex philosophy, and its common sense element is less than obvious.

Next, common-sensism became identified with Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore (d. 1958), who cited Reid four times in a 1905 paper, ‘The Nature and Reality of Objects of Perception’. But he no longer did so by 1925, when he wrote ‘A Defense of Common Sense’ and declared “the ‘Common Sense view of the world’… in certain fundamental features wholly true.”

In 1951 Harvard president James Bryant Conant’s book Science and Common Sense came out; it never mentions Reid. Morton White’s 1978 Philosophy of the American Revolution contains a very long chapter attempting to determine the origin of the term ‘self-evident’ in the Declaration; it never mentions Reid. A more recent nail in the coffin is Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? This 2009 book, based on Sandel’s extremely popular Harvard course, instantly became the received word on the subject, which makes it particularly unfortunate that Sandel makes no mention of Reid or the common sense school, thereby reinforcing the impression that this school – which dominated the curriculum at Harvard for nearly 20% of its history – never existed.

Even in Scotland we find this same amnesia. In the Transactions of a little-known latter-day revival of the old Aberdeen Philosophical Society, after recounting the topics covered by the original Wise Club, the author commented in 1938, “What I have said… was, in the main, well known to Scotsmen of two generations ago; it was less known to Scotsmen of one generation ago; but it is, I fancy, almost unknown to Scotsmen today.” That was three generations ago.

Today common sense in America is more a political slogan than a philosophical principle, so it harks back more to Paine than to Reid. In the 2012 Presidential campaign the Republican candidate Mitt Romney, Harvard Law School alum, proposed to repeal ‘Obamacare’ and replace it with “common sense health care reform.” His opponent, Harvard Law School alum President Obama proposed to raise taxes on the richest one percent, arguing, “It’s not class warfare; it’s common sense.”

© Dr Toni Vogel Carey 2015

Toni Vogel Carey, once a philosophy professor, is an independent scholar of philosophy and the history of ideas. She writes regularly for Philosophy Now and serves on its U.S. advisory board.

• If not otherwise indicated, quotations are from Sophia Rosenfeld’s 2011 book Common Sense.

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