Common Sense and Philosophy

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Dr. Adler often speaks of “common sense” . . . How does common sense compare to wisdom? Can a man have wisdom and lack common sense? Could you point me in the right direction?

Response: Your letter affords us the opportunity to clarify a common misunderstanding about common sense. And no, we do not believe that it is possible for one to be wise and lack common sense. Wisdom is the goal, and the utilization of common sense is a crucial means towards that end.

In our everyday conversations, we say or hear someone say, “that person just does not have any common sense” or “that young woman really has a lot of common sense.” This use of the term, common sense, refers to the sound or unsound judgments or actions of particular individuals. However, this is not the same “sense” that is meant when it is used by philosophers. When philosophers use the compound “common sense,” the word common is used as “communal” meaning shared by all men everywhere at all times and places regardless of their backgrounds; the word sense is used as “experiences” and/or “opinions” commonly shared by mankind. Here are two quotes that should shed further light on this matter.

The first quote is from Harvard University Professor George Santayana’s book, “Skepticism and Animal Faith” (1923): “I think that common sense, in a rough dogged way, is technically sounder than the special schools of philosophy, each of which squints and overlooks half the facts and half the difficulties in its eagerness to find in some detail the key to the whole. I am animated by distrust of all high guesses, and by sympathy with the old prejudices and workaday opinions of mankind: they are ill expressed, but they are well grounded.”

The second quote is from Dr. Adler, from his book entitled “The Time of Our Lives: The Ethics of Common Sense” (1970): “The distinctive method of philosophical inquiry involves reliance on the common experience of mankind, and an appeal to it as the test of the validity of philosophical theories, either about what is and happens in the world or about what men ought to seek and do. It also involves an assessment of the validity of commonsense answers to the kind of questions for answering for which common experience by itself is adequate, no additional empirical evidence or investigation being needed.

Philosophy thus conceived is a development of the insights already possessed by the man of common sense in the light of common experience; it is a development that adds clarifying analytical distinctions, the precise definition of terms, the reinforcement of systematic reasoning, and the critical exploration of problems to which no satisfactory solution is yet available. The philosophical knowledge achieved by these additions confirms, even as it elaborates, the commonsense wisdom one need not be a philosopher to possess.

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