Thomism and common sense (2)

– Philosophy exists in the space vacated by common sense, but this does not mean that we fill up that space with whatever contradicts common sense; it means that common sense becomes one source of hypotheses to be argued for or against. It becomes one voice among many, and not necessarily one that will have priority in any given case.

– Some non-negligible percentage of persons who read this post and the last one have been punching armchairs and keyboards in exasperation, screaming “What in the world do you mean by this ‘common sense’ – how is this even one thing!?!” Let’s list off some possible meanings: (a) the ‘intuitive concepts’ that Analytic philosophers talk about. (b) the ‘reasonable man’ standard used in legal cases. (c) the ‘man on the street’ idea, understood in a more or less intuitive way (d) the ‘man on the street’ idea, understood through things like polls, questionnaire responses, etc. (e) whatever is axiomatic, understood as axios, i.e. worthy of being a starting point of reasoning. (f) the Chestertonian sense of that which preserves sanity.

Leaving aside (f), none of these gives us any distinct philosophy or even would commend a philosophy to us. This true by definition for (a) and (d), and also for (b), which is a legal expedient. this leaves us with (c), but this is difficult to understand in a way that doesn’t reduce to (d) or (a) or with (e), which specifies only a starting point of reasoning, not a place that is necessary worth ending up at. cf also cryptonymous Bill’s comment on the last post.

– Stay for a moment on the ‘man on the street’ sense of common sense. If you live by this guy, you’ll die by him too. Sure, maybe he’ll agree that motion exists, but he’ll also say that not all lies are wrong, Euclid’s fifth postulate is self-evident, whatever man can do God can do just as well (see what Ockham does with this), matter and form, if real, are beings (which means Aristotle falls to Parmenides) that nothing can actually exist if its not actual (bye bye, prime matter) or, most importantly, that the practical life is more preferable than the life of theoretical understanding.

And once you start taking polls about what the common man believes, philosophy will become ridiculous, morality will lose all sharp distinctions, and you’ll be able to make more or less anything reasonable.

– The say A-T is “common sense” does not describe anything distinctive to it, but is simply a kind of marketing. You can’t find a sense in which A-T is common sense that wouldn’t also be true of Scotism or Pragmatism or even the more moderate strains of scientism (like Elliot Sober or John Searle).

–   No philosopher has insisted more on being common sense than Berkeley, and no one is assumed (in my mind wrongly) to be further from it. The irony here contains an argument – Berkeley presses a crucial question about what exactly is evident, or given in common sense.

– The claim to common sense is, again, a sort of marketing that usually distorts the real issue in play. Take the dispute between Aristotle and Parmenides. Here, Aristotle is assumed to have the high-ground of common sense as the one who defends the reality of motion. But a close look makes the issue much more problematic: Parmenides, it turns out, wrote extensively about nature, but he assumed that to speak in this way was to follow “the way of mortal opinion”.  So the issue between Aristotle and Parmenides turns out to be not whether we can give some account of mobile things, but whether this account rises to the level of episteme. Aristotle says yes, but both Parmenides and the 20th century scientist say no. Simialr things surface when we consider other obvious violations of common sense. No one is assumed to violate common sense more than Berkeley, but an actual reading of his texts shows us a man more zealous to keep himself in line with it than anyone.


  1. November 30, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    Poor Philosophy is a rational animal, and a social one to boot. She wants to be one thing, but can neither rest in common sense nor endure in shear consistency. Animal instinct and angelic intellect – they don’t have these problems. Torn by instinct, beset by fashion, stuck in time but called beyond it – and always subject to a gallery of rock-throwers.

    ‘I refute (her) thus!’ – to the tittering of all the pretty Thracian girls.

    In all seriousness, limiting philosophy to common sense or letting it range to whatever bounds integral logic will bear both shows philosophy’s desire to rest in unity and ignores its being a human enterprise, and so mixed.

    Part of me wants to fix the place of common sense in philosophy by way of a division of labor between different dispositions (given by personal memory, focus and capacity, or social/academic training, priorities and prejudices, and so on) and activities (observation, dialectics, deduction, etc.) ordered to the single goal of understanding.

    But this has all been gone over, so another part wants to shout ‘R T F M’s!’ and throw a few rocks back into the gallery.

  2. Gil said,

    December 1, 2014 at 3:14 am

    I’ll have to side with Feser and Kit Fine on this ( and continue to strongly disagree with you. Common sense is not just one hypothesis among others. Change is a universal, fundamental, and an immediate part of human experience (i.e, common sense). This is distinct from common *beliefs* that we find, such as the belief that not all lies are wrong, or whatever else. This isn’t so much grounded in experience but in some intuition. Even from biblical standards it seems as if God’s very own existence is taken as a kind of self-evident aspect of human experience of nature (Romans 1). It’d qualify as common sense, it seems, to suppose that God does in fact exist.

    Of course common sense can have defeaters, but this doesn’t meant that it doesn’t have priority. Compared to all the nonsense, like atheism, reductionism, and determinism, I cannot help but think that there is indeed something distinctive about the scholastic tradition that makes it a defender of common sense (within reason) and yet so much more. It’s hardly a marketing ploy. I was persuaded by scholasticism precisely because it made sense to me as a “vulgar” man and it opened my eyes to a world beyond the common.

    • Curio said,

      December 1, 2014 at 7:56 am

      Ditto Gil. I was persuaded partly by the harmony between Thomism and common sense. As for lying; that lying is intrinsically evil is not as fundamental to Thomism as the first principles of speculative reason, all of which appeal to and are in accord with common sense. Doesn’t the study of ethics usually come after a careful study of logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics?

      Take something as simple as the principle of finality, that things act for an end. Universally denied by moderns, universally held by “common folk”, and vigorously argued for by Thomists.

%d bloggers like this: