‘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)


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



Another device which philosophical liberals use to escape the nitty-gritty of politics is neutrality. Once again, the idea is to set up constitutional procedures, or something like them, to discipline day-to-day political activity: the state aims to be neutral or impartial between different conceptions of the good life, such as political ideologies or religious creeds. Where it can’t avoid taking a position (as, for example, with public policy on abortion, even if the state does nothing), neutralists shift their attention from the policy to the procedures which generate it. Neutrality, which has taken hold as a sort of new-variant liberalism, has claimed a number of prominent victims, including John Rawls, Thomas Nagel, Dworkin, Bruce Ackerman, Brian Barry and even Jürgen Habermas.

Glen Newey in the London Review of Books

Philosophy as Literature?


I just came across this conclusion from Michael Fisher in a collection of essays about Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. As a former literature student, I found it to be quite interesting. How do other people feel about Rorty’s attempt to align philosophy with literature?

Despite Rorty’s considerable interest in literature, he still allows philosophy to decide its fate. Even when literature succeeds in Rorty’s argument – when it presides in triumph over the rest of our culture – literature does not win; philosophy defaults. Literature is less a force in Rorty’s argument than an inert category, represented by a list of titles and names that Rorty’s theory gives him no reason to analyse. Instead of doing constructive work in Rorty’s writings, literature, like a junk yard, just sits there, waiting to claim philosophical texts that cannot achieve what they set out accomplish. Rorty’s point, in short, is not that literature is cognitive, serious, powerful and responsible, but that philosophy (without admitting it) is like literature: imprecise, capricious and methodologically dishevelled. Instead of strengthening literature, Rorty leaves it impotent, which is why, among the consequences of Rorty’s pragmatism, I do not find a convincing rationale for literary study.

Unworthy Preconceptions of Truth


We know that truth belongs in a certain way to our daily affairs, and we know quite naturally what this means. It lies so close to us that we have no distance from it, and therefore no possibility of having an overall view of it and comprehending it.

So the first thing must be to distance ourselves from this self-evidence, to step back from it so that what we so readily conceive as truth can be left standing and resting by itself. But where are we to step back to, from where are we to observe the self-evident?

(Heidegger, The Essence of Truth)

I’m trying to go back to the beginning myself; the way forward in this project will come through a careful consideration of what is essential to a definition of truth. Heidegger teaches us that when he talks about going back to the beginning, back to the Greeks, back to aletheia, to unhiddenness, to see the eroneousness of our path from aletheia to adaequatio. More from Heidegger coming up shortly.