‘Commonsense’ Definitions 1920s/30s


Commonsense, I suggest, is that native practical intelligence by which men test the truth of knowledge and the morality and prudence of action. I suppose that we can use it to describe not only this faculty of testing, but the product of thinking; at least common usage seems to indicate that we may.

Now, this native intelligence is, I further suggest, an hereditary factor in a man; a factor raised or lowered by the activity or sluggishness of the thyroid or pituitary glands, or both of them, or by some other gland. Individuals with their glands adjusted in a certain way have commonsense or the faculty for testing, etc; those with their glands ill-adjusted have a lack of it. No census could ever reveal how many people have this faculty for prudent action, so there is never likely to be any way of determining whether any group of people, or any nation, will act with commonsense in any emergency, or in its legislative halls. This conclusion if sound is disturbing, but it explains a lot of things.

R.S. Maynard, ‘What is Commonsense’ (1934)

The word commonsense is, I fear, a bête noire of philosophers, partly because it is used and quoted to defy their theories, and partly because it is very difficult to find any clear or precise meaning in its usage. I do not mean by it what may be called horse-sense, nor is it to be confined to sense knowledge, still less to public opinion. The word is chosen as convenient to express and cover certain activities of the mind and their content, which can, I think, legitimately be put under one category. By sense is understood what comes by way of experience. Experience, however, is also a vague word, and so I mean by it and sense what can be classed under perception, direct knowledge and judgement; all, in fact, that is opposed to speculation or reflective thought. I should add that in the use of these terms so far, no particular theory is insinuated; they are words of everyday use, and are intended to be taken according to that use.

The adjective “common” limits the kind of “knowledge” contained under “sense”, and again it is useful as excluding the ephemeral the conventional, the technical, and the trivial. There is a common stock of knowledge which all men and women use in the ordinary concerns of life gained from the primitive and inevitable experiences which every human being must undergo. This common experience is found in language, and used in literature and conversation, and presupposed and added to in the conduct of art and commerce. Were there no such commonwealth of meanings, language could never have become the easy means of communication that it is, and we should be perpetually in a worse plight than the builders of the Tower of Babel. When we are puzzled, as to-day, by certain modern writers of a new prose or Futuristic art, the cause is a conflict of a new set of meanings created by a theory with the old and established, and the latter will win the day unless the new can rid itself of the esoteric and show itself a legitimate development of what is sound in tradition.

M. C. D’arcy, ‘The Claims of Commonsense’ (1927)


The tension between truth and untruth in Heidegger (SZ period)

Obviousness is a special case of common sense perverting disclosive character and yet it simulates real truth through its certainty and clarity; herein lies Heidegger’s reason for doubting obviousness.

Being-certain is essential to Dasein; it is the reason why we orient ourselves to truth, for truth too is about being certain. So how do we have two senses of truth – the unconcealed and the obvious? And how do these interrelate, beyond sharing the appearance of the key characteristics of certainty and clarity?

Certainty is based on common sense. But what is obvious, i.e. based on common sense, perverts the real truth because it holds something up as open when the thing is still concealed. The consequences of this ‘improper certainty’ are two fold: both the being of that about which Dasein is certain, and Dasein’s own being, are covered up.

In contrast, proper certainty is based on convictions. Conviction in Heidegger’s sense is a holding of oneself in truth or maintaining of Dasein in truth. We comport ourselves to the unconcealment of real truth.

Das Man uses Dasein as a disguise. Thus, when we ask ‘who speaks out in certainty’, the They answers through the mouth of Dasein. This is further evidence of the improper certainty of obviousness, the perversion of unconcealment to mere appearance, or semblance of a coming into the light. In Heidegger’s words, a disguise is “something which has been disclosed [which] is still visible, but as a semblance”.

Only in the mode of genuine authenticity can Dasein fully lay claim to being in the truth, holding oneself in the truth. This is because genuine authenticity renders everything transparent, so Dasein cannot be misled. That is not to say that the threats to truth posed by das Man are warded off, but Dasein now has the power to combat them, not only for itself but also for others as ‘conscience’.

Genuine inauthenticity, on the other hand, is characterised by an indifference towards the substance of truth. Inauthentic Dasein is just ‘going through the motions’, putting on a display of being truth seeking, but not doing it for itself. Other adjectives relevant to this mode of being might be misappropriation and disownment.

When we cash out ‘genuineness’, we are faced with four types of character in two modes of being. Genuineness is appropriation, a concern with truth, and can be divided into proper and improper modes of being. The proper mode is that of the philosopher, whilst the improper mode is the philodoxer. Non-genuineness is misappropriation, unconcern with truth, and can be further divided into non-genuine proper and non-genuine improper. Again, the former is the mode of the pseudo-philosopher whilst the latter is the mde of the pseudo-philodoxer. Finally, genuineness is completed by authenticity, whilst non-genuineness is completed by inauthenticity, in the manner described above.

The philodoxer and the pseudo-philosopher are united by their orientation toward the public realm, although they inhabit two sides of genuineness. The philodoxer fails to make distinctions and as such is often prone to being misled by the pseudo-philosopher, who simulates truth claims by putting on the appearance of authenticity. Meanwhile, the pseudo-philodoxer simulates allegiance to untruth through the disguise of das Man. The philosopher might be said to be addressing his claims to the pseudo-philodoxer for this reason, as the latter has a chance at being liberated since he was once oriented toward truth. The relation between the philosopher and pseudo-philodoxer is also characterised by absence – both are excluded from the public realm, neither can converge on common ground, and both therefore exist in solitariness.

Having got to grips with the four possible modes of being oriented toward truth, we can ask ourselves where obviousness might fit in. As we have said, truth is in the mode of genuine authenticity, because this is the only mode devoid of semblance. It is the philosopher alone who can lay claim to truths.

Obviousness, linked to common sense, would fit within the public realm. It cannot be said to be oriented toward truth because it obstructs truth, as we have seen above. Thus, obviousness gives rise to pseudo-truths. But it nonetheless shares a structural likeness with genuine inauthenticity, the mode of the philodoxer. One explanation for the undecideability of obviousness is that it reveals a tension in Dasein between being in truth and untruth simultaneously. Perhaps it is the fate of Dasein that this tension cannot be adequately resolved.

So what do we do? Hopefully this analysis has shown us that, whilst we can be certain in a pragmatic sense – it helps us to get on in the everyday course of our existence in the world particularly in our interactions with others – it is unwise to use that certainty to buttress a more essential view of truth itself.

This article was useful in analysing obviousness within Heidegger’s earlier thought.

Some thoughts on the idea of a truth commission

Even a cursory glance across the history of the twentieth century will reveal plentiful transitional periods precipitated by regime change. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the nationalist Serbian rule under Milosovic and, of course, the fall of German National Socialism: all of these represent regime changes that seem to demand an answer from the newly emerging democratic nation state to the question: should we forget or remember?

Transitional periods face many systematic challenges, but perhaps the most essential question is whether a nation can really face the present reality and future possibilities without confronting the past, however painful that process may be? On the other hand, what are the benefits of turning over the past? Or, more importantly, who are we trying to benefit?

The sense of delivering justice to those who were victimised is what constitutes the justification for bodies like a truth commission. The form that justice takes, however, is likely to far from conventional. In the cases of war crimes, genocides, mass rape and so on, criminal justice is deemed to be inappropriate or insufficient. Such is the gravity of the crime, that the parameters of justification must be enlarged from our everyday criminal proceedings, to capture additional senses: the political, compensatory, restorative, and transformative.

The entity of the truth commission itself has a specific set up. First, it is focused on the past. Second, instead of documenting individual cases, it aims to document the greatest number of human rights violations possible. Third, it is an extraordinary body, existing for a limited period of time and with the expectation that the final report submitted constitutes the closing of that particular body. Finally, it would appear to have a certain amount of authority, nonetheless this is granted by the political body that establishes it.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that there is no guarantee that facing up to the past ensures future stability in the emerging democracy. On the other hand, there is a stronger sense that best way a nation has a shot at moving forward is by creating a whole new moral foundation for the community. Regimes pervert a sense of right and wrong by appealing to their own ethical framework. Thus, it isn’t as simple, post regime change, as replacing the governing elites and instituting a new political framework, since the ethics of the nation – people’s hearts and minds – have become distorted. Hence the requirement for a new moral foundation.

It is not the role of the truth commission to come up with a new set of moral standards, by measuring what has passed before against a vision of the newly democratic nation in question. Rather, the commission facilitates a population’s ability to reflect, introspect, and ultimately come to terms with history rather than burying it deep down. In effect, the truth commission enables a mastering of history. Establishing the truths about a state’s past wrongs can help lay the foundations for the new order, but it is not up to the commission to say what that new order is.

Might a truth commission be bound to deliver an ‘official’ truth? How do we know for sure that it won’t be influenced by strategic interventions on the part of the new political order? In a sense, we can’t say with certainty that this won’t happen. Aside from the threat of strategic intervention, these are are real people and as such bring a set of real lived experiences to the table. It wouldn’t be possible to segregate those experiences, to look at the facts of the matter, because the process and the end result would be meaningless to practice. No, better to accept the limitations that bound the commission and the people who make it up, than to seek a purely objective insight into historical matters.

In sum, the objective of a truth commission is not to produce a new set of moral standards, but, in calling attention to the conditions in which violence etc can arise, to try to make sure  that such events can’t happen again.

Social Norms

Social norms are the unplanned, unexpected result of individuals’ interactions, a kind of grammar of social interaction which codifies what is and is not acceptable in a society or group. As with grammar, social norms are not the product of human design, and so the study of the conditions in which social norms arise is important to our understanding of their distinction from other types of injunction, for example hypothetical imperatives, moral codes or legal rules.

Though norms develop in smaller groups, they often spread beyond the narrow boundaries of the original group: how does this happen? This is a question to which an evolutionary model of social norms might attempt an answer, in terms of the dynamics of propagation from small groups to whole populations.

Norms can die out, but it is unclear how this happens, since corruption of social norms is not by itself powerful enough to generate an overhaul of the system. Thus, efficiency cannot be said to be a necessary and sufficient condition of social norms.

Maybe it’s because social norms, and normativity more generally, are groundless grounds?

Reasons for Action

In modern philosophical literature there are two types of reasons for action, explanatory and justifying. The necessity of the distinction becomes clearer when we consider that reasons that explain may fail to justify, and that reasons that justify may fail to explain. For example, I explain that my reason for shouting at my boss was that she made me angry but this reason does not justify my action. Similarly, I might be justified in pursuing a healthy lifestyle but actually am motivated by winning the affection of the girl I am in love with. Furthermore, justifying reasons can apply to actions that are not performed at all and for which explanatory questions fail to even arise.

In addition to contexts of explanation and justification, we have contexts of deliberation, in which we look for and evaluate candidate-justifying reasons for doing or refraining from various actions; deliberative contexts provide a framework from within which we can determine what to do without necessarily having to act upon reasons to help guide our overall decision about whether to do something or not. Thus, our concern in such contexts is always normative rather than explanatory, though the reasons we determine for action or otherwise may subsequently be cited in explanation of what we do.

Importantly, the distinction between justifying and explanatory reasons is distinct in turn from the distinction between subjective and objective reasons. The latter distinction is actually two kinds of justifying reasons, either the reasons that apply to my circumstances as I, perhaps incorrectly, understand them (subjective) or the justifying reasons that apply to my circumstances as they actually are (objective).

Externalists adhere to a strict distinction between justifying and explanatory reasons. Internalists are charged with conflating the two together. The charge might be unfair to contemporary internalists such as Bernard Williams, however, who can be read as appreciating the distinction but questioning whether, if justifying reasons has little to do with what explains and motivates action (as externalists suppose), we are able to talk meaningfully about reason giving at all. For internalists, then, to talk of reasons is to talk about considerations that speak to our desires, either as they are or subject to some idealising constraint.

Desire-based theories of reason are appealing because they promise to make naturalistic sense of normativity, and thus explain why reason is of such interest and importance to us. However, making reasons contingent on facts about our motivation can have negative consequences, such as, if my motivational system is unusual enough, I might have reason for doing very odd things, or if moral concerns failed to speak to my motivational system then I would have no reason to act morally.

For some contemporary theorists, motivating reasons explain our actions via psychological states of an agent that make it possible to give a rational explanation for why the agent behaves in the way that he does. Motivational reasons contrast with normative reasons, which are more connected with whether an action is justified. For Michael Smith, following Davidson, for example, motivating reasons are complexes of beliefs and desires that motivate action and which can be cited in explaining them where the explanation in question is taken to be causal. Normative reasons, however, can also play an explanatory role, for example where beliefs about normative reasons motivate people who are practically rational.

For others such as Richard Norman, the theory of reasons outlined above is simply a redundancy theory where the sentence ‘x is motivated to §’ can be reduced to ‘x believes he has a reason to §’. As such, the phenomenon of acting in accordance with beliefs does not require a philosophical account of motivation to explain it. Rather, we simply offer a dispositional explanation along the lines of ‘human beings tend to do this’ just as we explain trees losing their leaves in autumn as ‘trees tending to do this’. Thus, the reasons why we ‘tend’ to do something are a matter for the empirical sciences, not a philosophical theory of motivation.

Europe: The Faltering Project


I came across this quote from Habermas, written in the early 2000s, which seems now more prescient than ever. His analysis of Europe may not always be right – faith in the single currency, for example, prevented him from seeing that monetary union must be married with fiscal union – but his remarks about the democratic deficit provide us with stark analysis of the problems facing the European Union in the second decade of the twenty first century. Confidence in the EU is at an all time low according to polls of citizens in the six richest countries in the union. What is the solution? I wouldn’t dare to claim I could answer that, but the quote below provides fruitful avenues for continuing discussion.

The democratic deficit is especially drastic in the European Union. Without a European public sphere, even a sufficient extension of the competences of the European Parliament would fail to enable the citizens to monitor the ever-denser and ever more invasive political decisions of the European Commission and of the European Council of Ministers. Because no European public sphere exists, the citizens elect the European Parliament on the basis of the wrong issues – that is, national ones. At the same time, the legitimacy of the governments of the member states is being undermined because now they can only ‘implement’ the insufficiently legitimate decisions taken in Brussels. Since the public spheres within the national societies do not accord sufficient prominence to European issues, citizens cannot intervene in a timely manner in European decision-making processes. When these decisions finally trickle down to the national level, the political opinion and will formation of the citizens is no longer consulted.

Habermas, ‘Political Communication in Media Society’, pp. 182 – 3

It’s an academic’s life for me…

I came across an article recently in the Guardian Professional Network for people working in HE. Note that’s administrators and academics. The article referenced a piece of ‘research’ in which it was claimed that, of all the professions, academia is the least stressful. The ‘research’ was published in Forbes magazine. Predictably, a lot of academics got quite cross about the assertion, but it got me thinking about why people might have a misperception of the profession.

We come into contact with teachers throughout our lives. It is easy enough to extrapolate from primary/secondary experiences of teaching to the teaching undertaken in HE. But that’s lazy and does a disservice, both to primary/secondary teachers (contrary to popular belief, most do not work only from 8 – 3 pm and take copious holidays throughout the year), and the academics. In HE over the past couple of decades (at least), the burden upon academic staff to take on more administrative responsibilities, to increase and enhance their research output, to be more accountable to the public by demonstrating ‘value for money’ through impact studies like the REF, has all contributed to a much increased workload. For the majority, teaching constitutes a small proportion of an academic’s workload. However, because of lazy conclusions like the above, the general public seem to believe that the academic’s life is one of relatively high freedoms and low levels of responsibility.

It’s true that the profession does have freedoms not open to other professions like law or medicine. That it, intellectual freedom is a basic part of what it is to be an academic: to choose the subject of one’s forthcoming publication, to spend time debating principled issues with fellow academics, to present oneself and one’s institution at conferences internationally and so on. But that intellectual freedom is nonetheless bounded by the responsibilities that are ‘unseen’ or the less glamourous parts of the job: the admin, seminar and lecture preparation, marking etc etc. Again, it is lazy to draw the conclusion that the intellectual freedom is necessarily conducive to a stress-free profession.

So why would anyone want to go into academia? Well, I can only speak from my own experiences, and my aspirations rest on the sense that academia is a vocation. To me, the opportunity to do what I love, what I would do anyway in my own time, and to get paid for it, is a real privilege and sometimes I think that academics can come off badly when they are perceived to be complaining about the additional responsibilities that the profession entails. So not only do I get to write and research about what I love, I know that, in time, I will also get to teach and come into contact with equally intellectually curious students. I will continually be enriching my experiences of the world and of other people, questioning what I take for granted and being open to change.

Maybe people who have been in the job for a number of years will smile or sneer at my naivete, but I don’t care: I think they should be reminded of their own reasons for entering the profession and to be thankful that they have such rewarding jobs. If they can’t see that, then maybe it’s time to look for something new.

Turning a Corner


Happily, I seem to have turned a corner from the impasse that I had reached a couple of weeks ago. Having taken the courage to read through the four chapters I have so far written, I realised that a) it isn’t as bad as I thought and b) there is scope for the remainder to be good, given the ground work that I have laid over the past few months. With that in mind, I rather furiously typed up notes for the remaining two chapters and am hoping to meet with my supervisor by the end of the week so that I know if I am on the right track. The nature of the last two chapters will hopefully be along the lines of: if we give up on a normative concept of objective truth, how are we to justify continuing commitments to institutions like democratic governance, equal rights and solidarity not just with those in our immediate social group but beyond that, and beyond the bounds of sovereign states to encompass global considerations that will shape the future. So not too much then…

Is the EU democratic?

I have visited this area before, specifically looking at the concept of a democratic deficit, but I have found it necessary to return to it again in light of reading some essays in Habermas’s publication Europe: The Faltering Project. Is the EU democratic? Of course, its laws and legislation are founded on democratic principles such as freedom and equality in participation, universal suffrage and so on. But in practice, do the movements of the EU really project an obvious European democratic flavour?

I’m not sure that they do. Two referendums failed, and that failure seems to preclude us from having another one to determine the future course of the EU. Politicking by the British PM and the Conservative Party suggest that, in our domestic policies, we want out of the EU. At least all of the parts that annoy us, presumably not the parts that benefit us like trade agreements and political co-operation. Thus, at the national level, the EU is perceived to be undemocratic by both politicians and the media where there is a vested interest in promoting sovereign interests at home and abroad…when your government is struggling in the opinion polls, it is an easy tactic to strike where there appears to be collective public sentiment. We don’t have any proper conversation about what it means to be part of the EU and what would happen if we left because everything that is reported is biased and tends to leave out the other side of the issue altogether.

Moreover, the European political institutions seem remote, slow moving, inefficient. The International Court of Justice has failed to make an impact. The European Central Bank, with no aligned financial policies at a national level, appears equally powerless, except, that is, when it comes to doling out money to those profligate southern states like Spain and Greece (please note the sarcastic tone). The people have no direct impact within current decision making structures at the Union level, leading to feelings of isolation and alienation. Above all, there is a deep suspicion in the UK that all of these institutions are in collusion to benefit Germany and France more than the other members.

But this is not the time to pull back. Instead of resigning ourselves to the negative image portrayed above, the question posed at the start of this entry could be: not as much as it could be. After all, as Churchill said, democracy is the best of the bad options of political governance that we have. We can always strive to improve what we currently have and, equally, there is nothing wrong with commending what has already been achieved.

Sometimes, it might seem that we are going backwards. In truth, it is only possible to take steps forward if we strengthen the Union to which we pledged our support four decades ago. That means addressing questions like the extent to which members at a national and public level can influence and have a say in decisions made at a higher level, also the questions that nobody seems to want to address like the issue of greater fiscal alignment in domestic policies. Such questions might not be political gold dust at the moment, but they need to be urgently addressed if we are to consolidate the efforts that have brought us to this point in the history of the European Union.

I’ve been busy today…


signs-473x473It is so difficult to arrange all of your thoughts sometimes, particularly when you have reached a junction where there appear to be multiple directions open to you. Which one to take?

I remember speaking to a friend of mine about how he proceeds when he is writing ‘academic stuff’. He said that he reads, thinks and then the words come to him so he tends to spend less time on the writing. I can only hope that the same will be true for me and that this period of apparent inactivity has actually been productive in the sense that thoughts will translate to words.

I should hopefully be meeting with my supervisor by the end of this week, so maybe then I’ll have a better sense of direction! On the other hand, I always seem to come away from those meetings with more questions than answers so perhaps wise to not hold one’s breath.