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).

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