Common sense is usually said to be sturdy, but in fact it has been faring badly ever since the scientific revolution began. It is plain, common sense declared in those days, that the sun revolves around the earth. Wrong, said Copernicus, and of course the astronomer was right. It is plain, said common sense, undaunted, that heavy bodies fall faster than light ones. Wrong, said Galileo, and of course Galileo was right.
So it has been for the past four hundred plus years. Every time a new science took command of a subject, common sense had to retreat. When the dismal science of economics was founded, common sense, it turned out, did not even understand money. By the time Ibsen was ready to proclaim that “a majority is always wrong,” the authority of common sense had clearly reached some sort of nadir. There it remains to this day, and no one seems to care as much as we should. We live, said George Orwell, ” in a “yogi-ridden age,” an age where every kind of mountebank, quack, and nostrum peddler can gather himself or herself a sizable congregation, and occasionally even an entire nation. Surely this is true, in part, because common sense has lost its grip.
Just what is common sense anyway that its decline should merit concern? This turns out to be a difficult question; common sense is far easier to recognize than define. An abstract definition, for one thing, is hardly in keeping with its spirit, for common sense itself is unreflective, the “unthinking reasonableness” of humanity, according to Hegel, perhaps its last philosophical admirer. A purely personal conception of common sense would do even greater violence to its spirit, for personal and private judgements, the fruits of mere self, are the common enemies of common sense. They are exactly what common sense irons out like so many wrinkles in a shirt.
The ironing out process seems to work somewhat as follows. Ask twelve randomly chosen people to sit down together and reach a common judgement on some common human occurrence. Ask them, for example, whether a person who walked smack into a roadside pothole did or did not bear some blame for their fractured shinbone. At first, and almost inevitably, the extremists will dominate the discussion. One of the group, scathing in his contempt for fools, insists that anyone thick enough to walk into a pothole should count themselves lucky more damage was not done. A second person, equally accusatory, in contempt for the government will assert that public censure is called for the bureaucrat responsible. Others in the group, holding middling views, will emphasize the contingent, qualifying facts in the case at hand.
Of course, the extremists will soften: road maintenance is not cut and dry and some sympathy for the injured is in order. A common judgment is reached, and it is the judgement of common sense after everyone’s cherished private notions have been watered down. It is based on what the twelve conferees hold in common, after discarding what is not in a jury deliberation in a negligence suit. Yet what is the jury system if not a monument to the faith of common sense. The jury room is a forcing house for reaching common sense conclusions, and it plainly reveals the essential point about common sense. That is, it is not the sense of commoners. It is the sense that is found to be common when the facts of the case are inspected from any number of personal viewpoints.
The origin of common sense is simply humankind’s faculty for talking and exchanging views. It is the deliberations of a vast, diverse jury charged with rendering a sober verdict on human life, human nature and human passions. ( to be continued)