Common Sense and Philosophy

Common Sense and Philosophy

Philosophers often assume that there is something called common sense, or commonsense belief, with which their theories may agree or disagree. This gives rise to the idea that there is such a thing as commonsense philosophy, or anti-commonsense philosophy. I think this is a mistake for a number of reasons. The first reason is that the phrase “common sense” doesn’t mean what it is taken to mean: it doesn’t describe a category of beliefs but a way of approaching problems.[1] The OED gives us “good sense and sound judgment in practical matters”. To have common sense is to have the ability to solve practical problems in a sensible manner, i.e., not to do things in a silly or inefficient way. It is not common sense to believe that the earth goes round the sun, or that we see material objects, or that we know we have two hands. It is common sense to wash a car with soapy water not beer, or to look before you leap. The phrase “common sense” is not synonymous with “common beliefs”: the latter phrase means something like “widely held beliefs”. Nor does it mean “beliefs people hold without knowing any science or philosophy”. The phrase “common sense beliefs” is nonsensical: there are common sense methods but not commonsense beliefs. You can have beliefs that don’t require any specialized knowledge, but these are not instances of common sense: you are not exercising your common sense if you believe that the sun rises in the morning or that there are a great many material things in the world. So, the phrase “common sense (beliefs)” does not identify any class of beliefs that might conflict with philosophical theories or theses. It is a misnomer, a kind of category mistake. Its cash-value appears to be something like “beliefs that don’t derive from science or philosophy”, though even that formulation is riddled with difficulty (how about the belief that the post office is closed on Sunday?). So far, then, we have not identified a class of beliefs that are philosophically significant and in conflict or agreement with philosophical theories, but not the province of philosophy as an academic discipline. We have no general characterization of such a class of beliefs. Having good practical judgment is not the same as having a specific set of beliefs with which a philosopher might agree or disagree.

Part of the idea behind the offending phrase is that of beliefs that everyone shares. Some beliefs are held by a select few, often specially trained, but some are held by everyone just in virtue of being human. So, at any rate, it is supposed. We thus have the idea of universal beliefs—what the human species believes as a matter of course. We can then oppose these species-wide beliefs to the beliefs of specially trained philosophers (or scientists). Just as there are linguistic universals and conceptual universals and perceptual universals, so there are doxastic universals—things we all believe just by being human. Indeed, these beliefs may be shared by creatures other than the human kind, just in virtue of their being believers in anything (animals, aliens, non-conformists of various stripes). Let us then substitute the phrase “universal beliefs” for “commonsense beliefs” so that we can say that there are universal beliefs with which the philosopher might agree or disagree. For example, it might be said that we all believe that we see material objects and that philosophers of perception might agree or disagree with that proposition. The trouble with this formulation is that it is false: there are no such universal beliefs. Not everyone believes that we see material objects—some may be agnostic or skeptical or in open dissent or just uncomprehending. The thing about beliefs is that they are friable, labile, and mercurial: they vary tremendously between people and over time, and without much effort. People naturally disagree; and their beliefs can change at the drop of a hat. We don’t have fixed beliefs as we have fixed eye color: that is why it is not difficult to persuade people that we do not see material objects (but only sense-data). We can’t easily change how we see or smell things, but we can effortlessly change what we believe. Universality is not the natural condition of belief; diversity is. That is the joy of belief, but also its curse: you can believe virtually anything, which sets you free, but it also sets you up for error and credulity. Some people are constitutionally contrary, making a point of believing what others don’t believe. Beliefs are plastic and malleable; hence they are not naturally or nomologically universal. And the more contestable they are the more disagreement there will be; thus, the closer to philosophical disputes the less universal. Take free will: the belief in free will is not humanly universal, precisely because it is open to philosophical dispute. I do not think it is possible to find a single belief that even approximates to universality that is of philosophical relevance. Maybe everyone believes that the earth beneath their feet is solid not gaseous, but that is not a belief with which a philosopher might disagree. Similarly for the belief that one is human or has a body or goes to sleep regularly: some eccentrics might not believe even these things (the nature of belief will not prevent them), but their widespread acceptance is of no relevance to philosophy, since no philosopher disputes them. There is no philosophical school whose main contention is that people are not human or have no body or never sleep.

So, is there nothing to the alleged clash between what people ordinarily believe and what philosophers have contended? Not quite, because some of our beliefs seem to clash with certain philosophical doctrines. I have already mentioned one such case, which is the standard example of the alleged collision between “common sense” and philosophy, viz. the question of whether we (really) see material objects. Is it true that some ordinary people (though not all) believe that we see material objects, while philosophers have denied that? Of course, no one with any knowledge of visual perception thinks that we always see material objects, since we can suffer visual illusions and hallucinations; the question is whether we ever see material objects. It is thought that a great many people believe that we do sometimes see material objects, while some philosophers of perception have denied this. Isn’t that an example of disagreement between ordinary people and (some) trained philosophers? Aren’t many people naïve realists and hence in disagreement with what certain philosophers have maintained? Here is where things get interesting: for it is really not clear that there is any genuine disagreement between the parties involved. Does your average perceiver, who has had no exposure to philosophy, believe that he sees material objects and not surfaces of objects or sense-data of them? Highly doubtful. It would be different if he went around saying as much in so many words, but he doesn’t. Isn’t it just not plausible that he has any such convoluted technical-sounding belief? So, what does he believe about perception? He says things like “I saw the cat a couple of hours ago” in reply to the question “Have you seen the cat recently?” Normally he doesn’t make perceptual statements at all, and if he does it is in a very non-analytical way. If you ask him about sense-data, he will look at you blankly—he has no views about such things. He doesn’t even use general phrases like “material object”—he just says he saw the cat or a car in the driveway. If you press him about sense-data, he might reply “I’ve never thought about it, but now that you bring it up, I do rather think that I see those things more directly than cats and cars”. He isn’t rejecting such notions in his ordinary statements (and corresponding beliefs), so he isn’t committing himself to the doctrine of naïve realism. Nor is his casual talk of seeing cats and cars to be understood as evincing the belief that he sees such things “directly”; he might well allow that he sees them only “indirectly”—yet he still can be said to see them. This is obviously true for surfaces: he might quickly allow that what he really sees directly are surfaces of objects, but point out that this is consistent with seeing whole objects via seeing their surfaces. Do children who employ the verb “see” in conjunction with terms for cats and cars really believe that they see material objects and not surfaces or sense-data? Hardly. The truth is that the philosophical theory of sense-data is not in contradiction to what the ordinary perceiver thinks about perception, if he thinks anything; it is only in contradiction to the philosophical theory of naïve realism, which is a product of the philosophical mind not the mind of the ordinary man, woman, or child. Perhaps such a theory could emerge in the mind of the ordinary person without any formal instruction in philosophy, but it is still a philosophical theory, not a piece of ordinary thought (“common sense”). We may thus venture a generalization: philosophical theories conflict only with other philosophical theories not with what we might call ordinary thinking. Naïve realism is therefore not part of pre-theoretical thought; nor is ordinary thought inconsistent with what philosophers have claimed about perception (they might well concede that in a loose sense we do see cats and cars—they are not invisible like atoms or remote galaxies). This means that there is no such thing as “common sense philosophy” that can agree or conflict with professional philosophy. Ordinary thought and philosophical thought proceed at different levels, the latter being at a meta level with respect to the former. Your ordinary man on the Clapham omnibus is not a closet philosopher, equipped with beliefs that are in contradiction with philosophical theories, whether good or bad. There is really no such thing as ordinary bloke philosophical belief.

Are there any areas in which we can detect a genuine conflict between philosophy and what many people ordinarily believe or assume? I will briefly mention three possible areas intended to illustrate sharp disagreements between philosophical theories and ordinary beliefs. The first is free will: don’t people generally believe in free will, and yet some philosophers have denied its existence? Those philosophers think that determinism rules out free will but many people seem to believe in free will. The obvious reply is that the people who believe in free will define it as freedom from external constraint, in which case it is not in conflict with determinism. Thus, there is no contradiction between what they believe and what incompatibilist philosophers maintain. Those who define free will as requiring indeterminism don’t tend to believe in it (a minority). So, it’s not clear there is anyone left who disagrees with the philosophers. Probably many ordinary people have an inchoate philosophical theory of what free will involves, so they are not counterexamples to the claim that all supposed disagreements with ordinary belief are really disagreements between philosophical theories. The second example is knowledge: don’t the common folk think we have knowledge in cases in which philosophical skeptics think we don’t? Isn’t there a clear conflict here? But again, there are nuances to be noted and distinctions to be drawn: the ordinary chap may well be only too ready to agree that many of our claims to knowledge fall short of absolute certainty, and hence are not strictly knowledge, but insist nevertheless that in a loose sense uncertain propositions can be said to be known—and doesn’t the skeptic agree with this? Not all beliefs are equally unjustified, so we use the word “know” to distinguish the better ones; this is pragmatically sensible. The alleged disagreement is therefore not as sharp as one might initially suppose. The ordinary person doesn’t hold that there are no differences in degree of justification, and he accepts that very few propositions admit of conclusive justification; how we decide to use the word “know”, however, is a matter of pragmatics. We ordinarily describe a room as empty when there is no chunky stuff in it, but it is not as if we deny that it has air or dust in it. It is not clear that ordinary people explicitly or implicitly reject the basic epistemology of the skeptic, though they speak loosely and pragmatically of knowing things. Generally, they have no philosophical opinions at all, so none that are contradicted by other philosophical opinions. They may come to have such opinions as a result of philosophical reflection, but they don’t harbor them in their bosom all along (do young children believe an epistemology that conflicts with that of the skeptic?). Third, and least easily disposed of, we have Zeno’s paradox: surely, it will be said, the folk walking down the street believe that things move! Isn’t it a “commonsense” belief that objects travel from A to B, and isn’t this denied by Zeno? But again, we have to ask what exactly the folk believe (including what children and animals believe regarding motion). Do people believe that objects traverse space in such a way as to occupy successive intermediate places in a continuous manner? That sounds pretty fancy, more like a theory. It is true that people and animals believe they are at different places over time, but that isn’t in conflict with Zeno; he just denies there was continuous spatial transposition over time. To what extent is our understanding of motion conditioned by a theory of how things get to be in different places? Is Zeno really denying what people actually hold as a matter of their basic psychology? There surely could be a being that only thought of motion in the bare-bones terms I just sketched (“I was at home this morning but now I’m at the shops”), in which case Zeno’s paradox would not contradict anything this being actually believes. How do we distinguish between having a theory of something and merely accepting its existence? At the very least it is much harder to detect conflict between philosophy and basic belief than many philosophers have supposed. Are we reading more into ordinary belief than is really warranted? So-called common sense is not proto-philosophy. Philosophers have a tendency to over-intellectualize the thoughts of the non-philosophical thinker.[2]

[1] I believe the first person to make this point was Norman Malcolm, commenting on G.E. Moore.

[2] I plead guilty to this: I never questioned the rightness of the view here criticized for decades. I accepted that ordinary people think things that philosophers sometimes deny. I thought of people as mini philosophers. Many, no doubt, are, but not because it is built into what they already think. If I am right in what I say here, large tracts of philosophy are quite misguided. Philosophy is neither revisionary of ordinary belief nor in accordance with it; the two stand cognitively apart.

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4 replies
  1. Ahmadi
    Ahmadi says:

    Is it true to say that philosophical ( also scientific ) theories are not descriptive or revisionary of common sense , but they are explanative of comon sense ?

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Sometimes scientific discoveries disprove common belief (that the Earth moves, that animals were created by a superior intelligence), but not so for philosophical theories. The explanation of ordinary beliefs will lie in psychology, anthropology, and biology–though philosophy may play a part.

      Reply
  2. Ahmadi
    Ahmadi says:

    If there is not descriptive or revisionary or explanative relation between ordinary beliefs and philosophical theories , Therefore what is relation between them ? Isn,t there any relation ?

    Reply

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