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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Common Sense and the Lack of It

"Common sense is neither common nor sense. There's not a whole lot of sound judgment going on these days (though whether it is worse than in the past, I can't be sure), so it's not common. If common sense was common, then most people wouldn't make the kinds of decisions they do every day. People wouldn't buy stuff they can't afford. They wouldn't smoke cigarettes or eat junk food. They wouldn't gamble. And if you want to get really specific and timely, politicians wouldn't be tweeting pictures of their private parts to strangers. In other words, people wouldn't do the multitude of things that are clearly not good for them."

(Jim Taylor, Ph.D. "Common Sense Is Neither Common nor Sense."
Psychology Today. June 12, 2011.)

Read the entire article by Jim Taylor by clicking here: .

Jim Taylor -- author, blogger, and adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco -- believes common sense is a contradiction in terms. He thinks real sense can rarely be derived from experience alone because most people's experiences are limited. Interesting? True?

I tend to think so. And, I do know one thing. Many people today believe there is a general lack of common sense in the populace. I sadly agree. Having been a high school teacher for almost 30 years, I frequently encountered students who lacked high academic ability but seemed to make up for that deficiency with a wealth of what I called "common sense." Indeed, that image of common sense evokes memories of earlier and simpler times in which industrious men and women were fairly reasonable, down to earth, reliable, and practical.

But that was then -- over fourteen years ago -- and this is now, a time when it seems (at least in my immediate environment) that the number of those with good common sense keeps dwindling. What has happened to basic awareness and the simple, seemingly natural, shared ability to make good decisions in everyday matters? It is a question that begs an answer.

Perhaps we should begin with a definition of the term. Common sense is defined by Merriam-Webster's Dictionary as "a basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge things, which is shared by ("common to") nearly all people and can reasonably be expected of nearly all people without any need for debate."

Sensus communis (literally "common sense" in Latin) is a philosophical term originally used to refer to the perceptual power of binding the inputs of the individual sense organs into a coherent and intelligible representation (the way we access external reality).

In a wider philosophical sense, German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) applied the term sensus communis to the whole human race in his work Critique of Judgement:

"..we must [here] take sensus communis to mean the idea of a sense shared [by us all], i.e., a power to judge that in reflecting takes account (a priori), in our thought, of everyone else's way of presenting [something], in order as it were to compare our own judgement with human reason in general... Now we do this as follows: we compare our judgement not so much with the actual as rather with the merely possible judgements of others, and [thus] put ourselves in the position of everyone else..."

Common sense? Around and around we go with some connotative semantics. Yet, when we talk about common sense, we do mean understanding important concepts that allow us to exist in reality, a reality we share with others around us -- a specific commonality of education.

I like the description of common sense attributed to Albert Einstein, who states: "Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen." This is echoed by renowned author C.S. Lewis (1898- 1963). He wrote common sense "often means the elementary mental outfit of the normal man."

Lewis said ...

"Quintilian (Roman rhetorician, 35-100 CE) says it is better to send a boy to school than to have a private tutor for him at home; for if he is kept away from the herd (congressus) how will he ever learn that sensus which we call communis? On the lowest level it means tact. In Horace (Roman lyric poet, 65 BCE-8 BCE) the man who talks to you when you obviously don't want to talk lacks communis sensus.

(C.S. Lewis. Studies In Words. 1960)

Common sense ideas tend to relate to events within human experience, and thus commensurate with the human scale -- the set of physical qualities, and quantities of information, characterizing the human body, its motor, sensory, or mental capabilities, and human social institutions. Thus, there is no commonsense intuition of, for example, the behavior of the universe at subatomic distances or speeds approaching that of light.

Taylor believes perhaps the biggest problem with common sense is that it falls prey to the clear limits of personal experience. Or, when people don't even have any actual experience in a matter, they rely simply on what they believe to be true or have been told is true -- what might be labeled as "faith-based sense" (in the broadest sense of the word faith). He asks us to answer a simple question about common sense ...

"When you're having a discussion (with another person) about just anything that requires taking a stand, for example, the weather, the economy, raising children, sports ... how often do you hear some variation of 'Well, it's been my experience that ____________ [fill in the blank].' And the person then draws a conclusion based on said experience? And how often is that conclusion wildly at odds with the facts? More often than not, (absent) in the person's experience (though, of course, his experience may be insufficient to draw a truly sound conclusion).

(Jim Taylor, Ph.D. "Common Sense Is Neither Common nor Sense."
Psychology Today. June 12, 2011.)

Taylor believes although we can't do an in-depth study of every issue for which we must draw a conclusion, we still need reliable "reasoned sense," that is, "sound judgment based on rigorous study of an issue (which also includes direct experience)."  He thinks courses in scientific thinking and methodology for everyday life should be requirements for all students. Therein is an assumption that this taught "reasoned sense" would raise the level of what we call sense that is "common."

Jim Taylor suggests a few ways we can engage in more "sensical" thinking, whether common or otherwise:

1.  We should begin an "inquiry" with an open mind -- not just believe what we want to be true and going with that.

2. We should not merely establish a hypothesis that we would like to see affirmed but also propose alternative hypotheses. Taylor amplifies this here:

"For hypotheses to be more than just foregone conclusions (e.g., the world is flat; oops!), it's important to also propose alternative hypotheses (e.g., maybe the world is round or square). Just considering that there might be answers other than the ones we want ensures that any 'experiment' we conduct isn't just an exercise in self-serving affirmation (e.g., drug trials done by pharmaceutical companies)."

3. Instead of asking a few friends their opinions on issues, we should collect a sizable sample of data that is more likely to representative of the population as a whole.

4. We should analyze the data as objectively as possible.

Taylor says, "If the facts don't fit the theory, throw out the facts." Also, we shouldn't forget the acronym "GIGO" (Garbage In, Garbage Out) which describes the "failures in human decision making due to faulty, incomplete, or imprecise data" (thanks Wikipedia).

My Two Cents

Whether we call this basic knowledge "common sense" or "reasoned sense," we know increasing our understanding by employing an open mind to investigate issues in depth leads to more reasonable, longer lasting solutions. It is logical to assume this mode of natural thinking is essential to the well being of the human race. Now, perhaps more than ever, we are in sore need of those who take time to do their own research and who avoid the pervasive nature to be easily influenced by special interest groups that court their material desires -- groups that contain biased individuals who relentlessly feed upon those vulnerable to making quick, rash judgments.

I believe common sense, for lack of a more concrete term to describe what we use to deal successfully with everyday reality, is an essential virtue that can be attained by almost all people.

Who contributes to what C.S. Lewis called the "the elementary mental outfit of the normal man"? Of course, parents, families, schools, peers, and other social influences (communis -- community) positively and negatively affect our acquisition of common sense. So, naturally, people with limited experience might lack sufficient common sense.

 This raises the question of whether we can teach common sense in a time when many people prefer private learning to social contact. I think that depends upon the kind of exposure and experiences we structure to strengthen the skills of reasoning. Common sense learning requires more than simple, passive acquisition. It requires "walking and talking" in the real world -- not just browsing information at will, but actually practicing basic knowledge. We need to enrich our understandings outside of textbooks and virtual reality. Common sense tests its practicality during active participation in every conceivable social situation.

I truly believe a willing participant can improve his volume of common sense... if he so desires.

To me, strengthening common sense involves creating a positive self-image by building upon elementary education and essential social graces. A person who doesn't care whether others find his common knowledge acceptable is leaving himself open to criticism on the most basic levels of intellectual understanding. Like it or not, he who lacks common sense is prone to be stereotyped as "dim-witted" and "backward." As a matter of positive pride, he must take the initiative to develop a core of reasoning skills. That effort includes a commitment to lifelong learning.

I think we need a great resurrection of common sense in America. For too long we have glorified the mundane and the unreasonable behaviors of those who know better. This has caused a general neglect and even an uplifting of ignorance in America. As a nation, we once prided ourselves on the solid, valuable sense we shared. Some of us still understand that having the propensity to rely upon sound judgment is vital -- gaining sensus communis must once again become the willing obligation of each individual.


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