Against Common Sense

Against Common Sense

I have been looking for a term to describe words which have universal emotional association but wildly divergent denotations. So far, the best I have come up with is “ambiguities,” though I’m sure we can get more precise later on. These words seem to dominate politics and cultural conversation, and seem to consistently result in the illusion of agreement when in fact the agreeing parties have very different ideas of what they are describing.

My go-to examples of “ambiguities” used to be “democracy” and “freedom.” Virtually no one is against “freedom” or “democracy,” yet the actual meanings of these terms are probably as numerous as there are people. To say that one supports “freedom” is to appear to say that one supports whatever the hearer imagines to be good in life, while to say that one supports “democracy” is to appear to say that one supports whatever is procedurally correct in a political environment.

In both cases, the speaker has in fact said nothing of substance at all. They have not taken aside in the actual discussions, which are over what the good things in life are, and what is procedurally correct in politics. One may as well answer a math problem by writing down “the correct answer,” and call it a day.

But recently, I have discovered an even better example of such a term. It is better because it is apolitical, and also more practical. It’s the sort of term that one might here in all variety of contexts, and is perhaps the most ubiquitous, catch-all evasion from conversational engagement with the matter in dispute. That term is “common sense.”

What is “common sense,” exactly?

What knowledge, or skill, or belief, can be universally be expected to be held in common?

The ability to change a tire?

The intuition that one should see a doctor if one is experiencing medical symptoms?

Don’t repeat mistakes?

It turns out that the term originated with Aristotle, who used the term in reference to one’s ability to draw rudimentary conclusions basic sense-perception. It would be common sense, then, to duck in response to something heavy flying towards you. But this is not the sense in which “common sense” is used today, which has more to do with folk wisdom than anything else. According to Quora, here are some contemporary examples of what people mean when they refer to “common sense”:

  1. Flush the toilet
  2. Pace yourself
  3. Drive the posted speed limit
  4. If you’re going to start a fight, throw the first punch and make it a good one
  5. Don’t point a gun at someone unless you intend to shoot them
  6. Don’t do the crime if you aren’t willing to do the time.
  7. Going under a table in the center of a room, when there is a earthquake
  8. Drinking hot water after getting wet in a heavy rain for a long time
  9. Respect your elders
  10. Don’t use abusive words

As a rule of thumb, these bits of “common sense” are, as a category, good things to know. But for me personally, number 8 (drinking hot water) was brand new, and not “common,” and I remain somewhat skeptical of number 7: the center of a room seems more dangerous, and there is good reason to consider heading for a door-frame (far from windows or other glass) rather than towards the center of a room, where the risk of the ceiling collapsing is highest.

As employed, “common sense” seems to refer to whatever seems obvious to the speaker. The defense of or appeal to “common sense” seems to be, in almost every case, an attempt to “speak past the sale,” a phrase coined (as far as I know) by Scott Adams for when someone speaks as if the truth of something is a given, rather than something which has to be proved. It’s already common knowledge.

There is much truth and wisdom in things which are called “common sense,” but nothing is added to their truth or wisdom by calling them by that name. The label “common sense” is both a short-cut in reasoning and, at the same time, superfluous. If it is good to pace yourself, why not just say that pacing yourself is good? Why call it common sense, as though that justifies its goodness? It seems intuitive to me (though you can judge for yourself whether this is “common sense”) that much that is believed by the commonality is false, or even ludicrous. Perhaps we would need a term for this — “common nonsense,” maybe.

And if what is common can be — and indeed, often is — nonsense rather than sense, than appealing to “common sense” is not merely meaningless, but fallacious. Aristotle might have been on to something useful in describing basic sense-making from sense perception, but as the term is used today — especially in the negative (e.g., “kids these days have no common sense”), the phrase adds nothing to an argument, except possibly confusion, and rests on the decidedly unhealthy assumption that what is believed in common by the public-at-large is, by definition, sense.

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