The common sense myth

Who gets to decide what it is?

The U.K. government has just appointed a new minster, widely referred to as the minister for 'common sense'. But what common sense is, is widely disputed, not just among philosophers but in everyday life. Using the rhetoric of common sense is in fact often used to present controversial claims as obvious, and conceal ideological commitments, argues Peter West.

 

Amidst the comings and goings of his cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has created a new position in government: the ‘minister for common sense.’ The news reads like satire, something out of The Onion, or a Monty Python Sketch, and the newspaper that broke the story only made things sound more surreal, calling the appointee, Esther McVey, the “common sense tsar”. Her goal? To “lead the charge on the government’s anti-woke agenda.”

When asked on the BBC’s Today Programme what a ‘common sense tsar’ is, the new cabinet chair Richard Holden failed to give a clear answer. He denied that the role was all about promoting the government’s ‘anti-woke’ agenda and alluded to conserving free speech in British universities. Jacob Rees-Mog, who is perhaps as anti-woke as it gets, called the name of the position “silly.”

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Not all philosophy is opposed to common sense, but much of it is. Some philosophers have drawn on it to support their views, while others have dismissed it as something irrelevant to serious inquiry, and some have denied its existence altogether.

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Leaving aside the silliness for a minute, this episode elicits a genuine philosophical question. Is there such a thing as common sense, and if so, what is it? 

This is a strange question to ask. It seems strange because of what common sense is meant to be; something that is common to us all and which we all use, all the time. If something were the preserve of a select few, or something we had to be trained to use, it wouldn’t be common sense. Often, those of us who fail to perform the tasks of everyday life – getting to work on time, avoiding parking tickets, tripping down the stairs – are mocked for lacking common sense. As a philosopher, I get accused of this all the time, especially by family members. But what is it that people like me are accused of lacking?

Not all philosophy is opposed to common sense, but much of it is. Some philosophers have drawn on it to support their views, while others have dismissed it as something irrelevant to serious inquiry, and some have denied its existence altogether. One thing that becomes very clear, though, when we examine the history of philosophy, is that 'common sense' is an extremely elusive concept.

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Consider, for a moment, the specific case of eighteenth-century debates in the philosophy of perception. George Berkeley, an Irish philosopher and bishop, claimed that his infamous theory of idealism, which is the view that ‘to be is to be perceived,’ is common sense. But having read Berkeley’s philosophy, the Scottish philosopher and father of the ‘Scottish School of Common Sense Philosophy,’ Thomas Reid, claimed that he had never heard anything more absurd. As far as Reid was concerned, you couldn’t come up with something less common-sensical if you tried.

Regardless of who was right, what this debate tells us is that ‘common sense’ means different things to different people – and can be used in different ways. In this instance, it seems plausible that Berkeley was using common sense as a rhetorical device to give some force to his own view and daring the reader to question it.

Consider another example from philosophy’s more recent history. In her 1939 book Thinking to Some Purpose, Susan Stebbing (the first women in Britain to be a professor of philosophy) examined a series of political speeches in which British politicians decried the merits of following ‘good British common sense’ and criticised their European counterparts who prefer logic and abstract reasoning. There seems to be a disagreement here but, on closer inspection, Stebbing argues, it transpires that when British politicians talk about ‘common sense’ and European politicians talk about ‘logic’, they mean roughly the same thing: the ability to think clearly.

If philosophers – who famously love to spend time clarifying concepts – aren’t clear about what they mean by the term 'common sense', shouldn’t we spend time thinking about what it means before putting it to use? This seems especially important when we are talking about governments and prime ministers.

Yet, there is very little clarity from the government about what ‘common sense’ actually means. The same was true in 2020, when the then prime minister Boris Johnson told us that we ought to use our common sense to avoid getting covid. At this point in time, knowing what that meant was quite literally, for some people, a matter of life and death.

Perhaps this is just carelessness or perhaps there is something more sinister going on. Consider, again, the fact that common sense is something that, in theory, we are all already familiar with. It isn’t a new concept that we can be introduced to, or a word we learn how to use. We already know what it is. That’s what makes it common!

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When disagreements do arise though, it's worth asking who has the final say: who gets to decide what is and isn’t common sense. Is something common sense because the government says so?

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But what happens when people disagree about what common sense tells them? This is where problems arise. For some, common sense might tell us that if someone is in danger of dying crossing the channel, then they ought to be saved. For others, however, the decision to cross the channel in the first place might exhibit a distinct lack of common sense.

What’s worse, you can’t correct somebody about their definition of common sense, because, so the argument goes, we all have an equal claim to knowing what it means. When disagreements do arise though, it's worth asking who has the final say: who gets to decide what is and isn’t common sense. Is something common sense because the government says so? Philosophers, rightly, typically eschew such ‘appeals to authority’ – and demand, instead, explanations or justifications.

‘Common sense’ might not be totally unique. There are signs of other words that have crept into public discourse without anyone taking the time to clarify what they mean. ‘Woke’ itself comes to mind - which means that the government is now in the odd position of having appointment a minister of we-know-not-quite-what whose brief is to tackle we-also-don’t-know-what.

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Appeals to common sense which mask ideological commitments, give the impression that only the other side of the argument has its thinking skewed by ideology.

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The slipperiness of a concept like ‘common sense’ is also ripe for abuse. Because it both cries out for definition while also resisting definition, there is a sense in which it can mean whatever one wants it to mean. It can be a way of smuggling in an ideological view under the guise of something very different. What’s more, appeals to common sense which mask ideological commitments, give the impression that only the other side of the argument has its thinking skewed by ideology. ‘Anti-wokeness’ isn’t an ideology, whereas ‘wokeness’ is wrapped up in the ideology of critical race theory, one might argue. Standing up for ‘anti-wokeness’, on this view, can be presented as a form of resistance, a defence of, well, common sense.

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In this case, we can learn from the history of philosophy. Even if it is not possible to come up with a definition of common sense we all agree on, it is absolutely crucial that we scrutinise how the term is used, especially by public figures, and demand greater clarity when it is appealed to. Otherwise, we risk people talking past each. And not only that: there is a risk that one side of debate – those who claim the defence of common sense – are able to define what is reasonable and what is not, at the cost of alternative viewpoints and opinions. This threatens to undermine the sentiment, echoed in the Conservative Chair’s remarks after McVey’s appointment, that politics ought to be broad church.

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Elrick 20 November 2023

Tricky discussion! As an ex 82 year old farmer I have seen the necessity and excellence of Health and Safety being applied throughout industry. It was followed soon after by the litigation process which in turn led to large organisations, especially Councils etc., drawing lists of 'processes' for doing jobs and making decisions. This has in turn led to the dropping of use of 'common sense' which I believe to be the natural evolution of the human (and indeed animal) brain's power to calculate and see the sensible next step in any action/process. Rules/regulations - yes, but common sense in their application is essential.