The Common Sense Approach

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Written by Dr. Nash Popovic

Common sense is based on ordinary personal experiences and practices (that are distilled and shared). It is the most widespread way of acquiring knowledge, understanding and skills. However, this approach is often neglected in scholarly writings and only occasionally receives vocal support from specialists in other fields (such as mathematician Thomas Reid and philosopher George E. Moore). Common sense essentially uses heuristic methods to draw intuitive insights or tacit knowledge from our experience. For this reason it is best expressed through narratives (myths, stories) or words of wisdom passed from generation to generation.

Some Misconceptions About Common Sense

Common sense is less valid than other approaches – the success of science in particular has often led to a derogatory attitude towards common sense (sometimes labelled ‘folk psychology’). To demonstrate its supposed inferiority, examples are often given of our ancestors believing that the Sun goes around the Earth or that the Earth is flat. Common sense, indeed, can sometimes be wrong, but this cannot justify completely denying its value. Most of the knowledge we gain in this manner has at least a pragmatic use (the Sun may not go around the Earth, but it is useful to think in terms of the Sun rising in the east and setting in the west). Other approaches, when they go against common sense, are more often than not eventually shown to be mistaken. For instance, during the reign of behavioural psychology parents were urged to bring up their children in the ‘scientific’ manner, but this appeared to be, at least in some instances, damaging for children and parents alike (both sons of the founder of behaviourism, John Watson, suffered from depression later in life (Smirle, 2010)). Eventually, such ways of upbringing were abandoned and common sense prevailed again.

Common sense is simplistic – in fact, common sense is probably the most intricate approach of all. This is because it deals with our life experiences that are usually non-linear and complex in nature. Linear systems may be more precise, but they are inevitably simplifications and therefore not fully adequate in many situations.

Common sense is relativistic – common sense may, indeed, vary from individual to individual or from culture to culture to some extent, but it is often forgotten that what people share is much greater than what they do not. Stripped of its cultural idiosyncrasies, common sense can be surprisingly universal. The differences are often the result of an adaptation to diverse,  historical or present, circumstances (e.g. every culture recognises human agency, but various cultures may interpret it in different ways).

Dig deep enough and you may find that science, philosophy and spirituality all have roots in personal experiences and common sense. Although science sometimes corrects the errors of common sense, even scientific theories ultimately depend on its support. As Reid pointed out, those who ignore common-sense principles in building their metaphysics find their reductive constructions built upon sand, which makes it impossible to reach the conclusions that their own positions require (Honderich 1995, p.142).

Common sense provides non-algorithmic, tacit understanding, which enables it to deal with complex situations that are difficult to address adequately by other approaches, such as scientific observation. Even with all the help of modern technology, science sometimes needs years to prove what is self-evident from the common sense perspective, and some phenomena may be so intricate that science or philosophy can never hope to achieve fully independent results and has to invoke a commonsensical evidential basis. Futurist Alvin Toffler (of ‘Future Shock’ fame) suggests:

Where ‘hard data’ are available, of course, they ought to be taken into account. But where they are lacking, the responsible writer – even the scientist – has both a right and an obligation to rely on other kinds of evidence, including impressionistic or anecdotal data and the opinions of well-informed people (1970, p.15).

Knowledge obtained in these and other ways that common sense is usually based on is not necessarily inferior. Here is one simple example: most of us have few difficulties accurately reading even subtle emotional states of others.

After many years of research science is making some progress in this direction, but it is still far from being able to match the richness of information that is taken for granted in personal experiences.

Common sense also has a huge practical value. Everyday life and human reactions rely to a large extent on personal experiences rather than scientific, spiritual or philosophical insights. Furthermore, this sort of acquisition of knowledge can be more rapid and direct, and such an intuitive grasp of a situation is often essential.

This approach can also guard against the extremes of the other approaches. For instance, although reductionist science denies phenomena such as free will, the self and sometimes even the uniqueness of experience, ordinary life and language go on regardless, fully acknowledging them (e.g. every legal system is based on personal responsibility and therefore assumes the notion of free will). There is a sort of ‘bad faith’ among scientists, philosophers and those with spiritual inclinations who take for granted certain beliefs in day-to-day life, but deny the same in their practices.

As already mentioned, culture can be taken as a social framework of this approach. Any culture is, to a large extent, an external expression of common sense and its formalisation within a particular community. Such cultural frameworks have played an important role throughout history in the preservation and homogenisation of societies. However, culture can also be restrictive and distorting. Common sense tends to be solidified and transmitted inertly by the culture in which it is embedded. This solidification is often the reason why common sense appears in some cases to be in conflict with rationality and gives rise to superstitions.

Superstitions are sometimes associated with spirituality, mysticism and the like, but this is mistaken. Even atheists can be superstitious (and, of course, spiritual people may not be). It is more likely that superstitions and other cultural idiosyncrasies originate in individual or group interpretations of personal experiences that in some instances become collective beliefs. This is why there are many superficial differences among cultures. For example, a black cat crossing one’s path is interpreted as good luck in one culture and bad luck in another. Both interpretations might have had local historical bases that were lost, while only the form (in this case an association between the colour of a cat and luck) has remained. In other words, something that perhaps used to make sense in certain circumstances may be perpetuated by culture even after it ceases to make sense.

In many cultures, hostility towards homosexuality, for instance, could have been, to some extent, justified in the past by fear of annihilation, when a culture was preserved in relatively small communities that needed to reproduce in order to secure their survival. After all, the Spartans (who won the war against the Athenians) seemed to disappear partly owing to practically institutionalised homosexuality that contributed to a decrease in their population. However, nowadays, when there is no danger that a national entity or culture may be extinguished because of lack of offspring, there is no reason for such hostility. Yet, many cultures still harbour an antagonistic attitude towards homosexuality. Other sinister attitudes such as chauvinism, racism, xenophobia, sexism and so on, may also have been cultural distortions of certain social processes that may have made sense at a particular historical moment (e.g. self-protection from invaders, the division of labour, etc.). The same, of course, applies to how reality as a whole is perceived and interpreted. It is not surprising then that many unnecessary frictions and misunderstandings surface in a world with so many cultures. This is not to say that cultural differences should be disregarded but, especially in multicultural societies, a heavy reliance on culture can be divisive rather than unifying.

The limitations of this (as well as other approaches) can be grouped in three categories: extrinsic limitations resulting from outside factors and influences, its limitations as a social practice (ensuing from the way knowledge is shared and communicated), and its intrinsic limitations.

Extrinsic Limitations

Bias – insights based on personal experiences are difficult to separate from our preferences, desires or fears. There is also a widespread tendency to interpret these insights in such a way as to satisfy one’s needs and perpetuate existing beliefs, which may give rise to superstition and other unproductive ways of explaining reality.

Limitations of Common Sense as a Social Practice

Dogmatism – common sense insights are, at least to some extent, shaped by specific circumstances. However, when beliefs formed  in this way become embedded in a particular cultural framework, they often become dogmatic and are very difficult to change, even when the circumstances change.

Intrinsic Limitations

Limited scope – common sense is limited in scope. Not all aspects of reality are accessible to personal (even if collectivised) experiences. The far corners of the universe, the world of subatomic particles, or the processes in the living cell, are not within the reach of common sense. By the same token, some explorations may require going beyond ordinary perceptions and typical personal experiences.

Imprecision common sense generally relies on ‘rule of thumb’ methods that are not very precise. This does not always matter, but sometimes a more exact and systematic approach is needed. For example, common sense may suffice to learn about a climate, but not about climate change.

Ambiguity – common sense is based on clues often too complex and subtle to be rationally explained and systematically described. This is why common sense, more than any other approach, finds its expression in narratives (from myths and dramatisations to stories and films). However, such a way of transmitting knowledge may be elusive and open to multiple interpretations. A more systematic and strict use of logical thinking and reasoning may sometimes be necessary.

The above analysis indicates that common sense is a valuable approach but not sufficient on its own, so it needs to be combined with others.