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Weekend Long Read

An excerpt from Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World (Encounter Books).

The War on Common Sense

Faltering belief in common sense is behind the rejection of the Founders’ idea of America. More broadly, it is behind the astonishing rejection of Western civilization by its own people.

- September 14th, 2019
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When Thomas Paine appealed to “common sense” to make the case for American independence, it probably never crossed his mind that there would ever be a need to make the case for common sense itself, at least not in America. But common-sense thinking has fallen out of favor. Because it has been under attack for a very long time, it no longer gets the respect it once commanded. Deep thinkers have discarded it, elites have learned to disdain it, and many of us have had our confidence in its value badly shaken.

The consequences are enormous. Faltering belief in common sense is behind the rejection of the Founders’ idea of America. More broadly, it is behind the astonishing rejection of Western civilization by its own people—a rejection that has reached what looks to be a civilization-ending crisis in Europe.

Examples of the war on common sense are now everywhere in public life. How about the denial of the plain fact that humans are either male or female?

Not long ago, a boy in a tutu and a tiara who claimed he was a girl would still be regarded as a boy. Today, academic and cultural elites, as well as government officials, insist that “gender identity” is more real than biology. They say there are many genders, and one website tells me there are 63. Elites tell us we had better get with the many-gender program, or else. And while we are at it, we had better get politically correct about marriage. We are told that marriage no longer means one thing, a union between a man and a woman. How long will it be until we have 63 varieties of marriage?

The war on moral common sense has reached new heights of absurdity. If we point out a need for common-sense steps to protect ourselves from Islamic terrorists, we are said to suffer a psychological condition called “Islamophobia.” But unlike other phobias, such as claustrophobia, this condition is said to make us victimizers rather than victims. Similarly, if we say that America needs to secure its borders, we are met by cries that “walls are immoral.” Evidently, the common-sense wisdom that good walls make good neighbors has been taken down by the masters of political correctness.

Political correctness is quite simply a war on common sense. It is a war by the elites on the common people and on the shared understanding of basic realities of life that has made it possible for us to rule ourselves under the Constitution. Once this common-sense understanding of reality has been vanquished, it is “mission accomplished” for the Americans who reject America.

The Founders realized that there might eventually come a time when their achievement was no longer understood—when perhaps one generation simply failed to pass the understanding on to the next. “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote. “The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” But the possibility that common sense could be abandoned to the extent it is today would most likely have been beyond their imagining.

And no wonder, for a great deal of effort has gone into assailing it. Proponents of irrationalist doctrines that came on in wave after wave beginning in the 19th century—romanticism, Hegelianism, Marxism, progressivism, existentialism, postmodernism, and the like—have been pounding away at common sense for a very long time.

Once upon a time, the foundation of an American college education was common sense. The philosophy that young Americans learned in college was called common-sense realism, a philosophy that was “virtually the official creed of the American Republic,” in the words of the great American historian Arthur Herman. Another great historian, Allen Guelzo, in his lecture series titled “The American Mind,” notes that prior to the Civil War, “every major [American] collegiate intellectual” subscribed to that philosophy.

According to Guelzo, most American professors continued to be common-sense realists until a revolution in academia around the beginning of the 20th century pushed them out. The result was the end of an academic tradition that reached back to the founding era, a tradition which had meant learning to think like an American. The central role of common-sense realism in the American tradition is today unknown to most Americans—which is testimony to the astonishing success and thoroughness of that campus revolution.

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A 50-Year Assault on Truth

As you know, we have had another revolution on campus since then. The student revolution of the 1960s eventually resulted in populating American colleges with politically radicalized professors who veered even further from the tradition of common-sense realism. In the 1960s, it was still possible to get a real education on campus if you made the effort, though common-sense realism was nowhere to be found in the curriculum. But if you have followed what has been happening at your alma mater or elsewhere in academia, you already know that education has been replaced by indoctrination in multiculturalism and an ever-changing array of politically correct doctrines that are inimical to the American foundational philosophy.

This, in outline, is the story of how we now have so many Americans who reject America.

Because we no longer learn about the philosophy of common-sense realism that once marked the education of America’s elite, let’s begin with how Arthur Herman defines it:

The power of common judgment belongs to everyone, rich or poor, educated or uneducated; indeed, we exercise it every day in hundreds of ways. Of course, ordinary people make mistakes—but so do philosophers. And sometimes they cannot prove what they believe is true, but many philosophers have the same problem. On some things, however, like the existence of the real world and basic moral truths, they know they don’t have to prove it. These things are . . . self-evident, meaning they are “no sooner understood than they are believed” because they “carry the light of truth itself.”

The core idea of common-sense realism is that there are self-evident truths—truths which do not need to be proved. Self-evident truths are the foundation of human understanding; they are the necessary basis for knowing anything at all. We know self-evident truths by means of our common sense.

Does that phrase “self-evident truths” ring a bell? Yes, it echoes the familiar line from the Declaration of Independence. When Jefferson and the other Founders wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they revealed their reliance on the philosophy of common-sense realism.

Abraham Lincoln vividly expressed the same philosophy when he asked: “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs would a dog have?” The answer: “Four, because even if you call it a leg, it’s still a tail.” Of course, this is ordinary common sense. In Lincoln’s time, the dominant philosophy taught in American colleges was deeply rooted in the common-sense thinking of ordinary Americans. Under the same philosophy, if a boy calls himself a girl, he is still a boy.

The powerful affinity between the thinking of ordinary Americans and the common-sense realism of those who constituted America’s educated elite explains why in former times they understood each other. It also explains why the Founders believed that Americans could govern themselves: they had faith in the common sense of ordinary people.

Ordinary Americans, for the most part, are still common-sense realists, even if they have never heard of the formal philosophy, and especially if they have never been to college. But the intellectual affinity with cultural and political elites has been lost. Elites and average people no longer understand each other, and our colleges and universities are teaching students to distrust their own common sense and to deny the existence of objective truth.

When someone today dares to use the word “truth,” many have been conditioned to respond by asking “Whose truth?” And so the discussion ends.

We are being told that there are no basic moral truths, that there are really no truths at all, only the prevailing tenets of multiculturalism and political correctness. These doctrines, if accepted, deprive Americans of the ability to carry out their responsibilities as citizens—in voting, in serving on a jury, and in their community lives.

Undermining the very concepts of truth and common sense accomplishes quite a lot for the enemies of the American system of liberty that is the gift of the Founders.

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The Philosopher of Common Sense 

A brief visit with the founding father of the philosophy of common sense will help us get our bearings as we explore the fascinating subject of common sense.

“If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them; these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.” 

So wrote Thomas Reid, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. He referred to his philosophical method as “common sense realism” and he published his greatest work, An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, in 1764. It is difficult to overstate Reid’s importance to the American Founding. Arthur Herman emphasizes this point, writing that “Common Sense Realism was virtually the official creed of the American Republic.”

Reid’s philosophical purpose was to provide a foundation for morality and knowledge. He argued that there is an endowment of human nature that makes both morality and knowledge possible, and he called it common sense. Because we possess it, we human beings can master speech, geometry, shipbuilding, and a host of other skills that are unique to humankind. It enables us to serve on a jury and weigh the evidence presented in a trial. With it, we are able to make rational judgments and moral judgments. Common sense is the human attribute that makes it possible for us to be rational creatures and moral agents.

Common sense is most familiar to us as our shared understanding of the way things are. But perhaps we understand it best when we consider its absence, and when we agree on what “makes no sense.”

Reid’s fundamental insight was that our ability to make sense of our experience presupposes certain first principles. Because these principles are implicit in our conduct and our thought, they cannot be proved; there are no other truths from which they can be derived. However, to deny or even to doubt any of them is to involve ourselves in absurdity. Consequently, the principles of common sense have the special authority of first principles: we cannot operate without them. They are inarguably true and “self-evident.” In Reid’s words (which we have seen quoted by Herman), common-sense judgments are “no sooner understood than they are believed,” because they “carry the light of truth itself.”

Whatever is contrary to the principles of common sense is, in Reid’s term, “absurd.” Let’s examine that word. According to Roget’s Thesaurus, its synonyms are “ridiculous, ludicrous, laughable, silly, preposterous, foolish, outrageous, asinine, idiotic, loony, stupid, crazy, nonsense.” No doubt “nonsense” is the one that best captures Reid’s meaning. To reject the self-evident principles of common sense, then, is to indulge in nonsense.

As you know, the American Founders claimed they were guided by self-evident truths. They relied on self-evident truths because their deliberations were deeply informed by the thinking of Thomas Reid. And Reid continued to be at the center of American thought for more than a century. Generations of American academics were common-sense realists, and until the Civil War, every major American collegiate intellectual was a common-sense realist.

Reid is all but forgotten in America today. He is routinely missing from survey courses in philosophy and even from courses in American thought. You may very well have never heard of him. But you don’t have to read his Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense to understand common sense. You already have everything you need for that.

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Knowing and Doing 

Common sense is most familiar to us as our shared understanding of the way things are. But perhaps we understand it best when we consider its absence, and when we agree on what “makes no sense.”

P. J. O’Rourke in Parliament of Whores wrote famously, “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” It is easy to see that O’Rourke is making an argument from common sense by appealing to a shared understanding of what is nonsensical. We all know that we shouldn’t give car keys and whiskey to teenage boys. How do we know? Ask anyone and they are likely to say, “It’s just common sense.”

Our common sense gives us the implicit major premise of a syllogism, with the quotation above being the minor premise. Put them together, and here is the argument:

a) Giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys is dangerous and unwise.
b) Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and power to teenage boys.
c) Therefore, giving money and power to government is dangerous and unwise.

Of course, you may not buy the conclusion. But if you see no danger in giving money and power to government, you are not likely to attack the argument at (a), which for all practical purposes is unassailable. If you are going to attack the argument, you will surely strike at (b), and insist that giving money and power to government is completely different from giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys. You wouldn’t get very far by attacking (a) because (a) is common sense. Disputing (a) is a losing strategy because we—you and I—believe that (a) is true.

Granted, there are sophisticated people who deny that there is any such thing as truth. You may even be one of those sophisticated people yourself. (If you are, I want to thank you for reading this far. Please continue!) But no matter how strongly those sophisticated people insist there is no such thing as truth, they can generally be counted on not to provide teenage boys with whiskey and car keys. They also won’t let their infant children play with sharp knives. They aren’t going to jump into the Grand Canyon holding an umbrella to find out whether doing so would get them safely to the bottom. In their actions, they honor common-sense truth.

The truths of common sense can be stated, but they usually don’t need to be, and consequently, are seldom stated at all. They are demonstrated in what we do and what we refrain from doing. They are revealed in every action we take, especially when we do something that displays a lack of common sense.

We are able to state the truths of common sense because we live those truths—and the ability to live the truths of common sense makes human life possible. It is therefore about as precious as human life itself. We are made aware of this whenever we witness the heartbreaking struggles of those who are in the process of losing their access to the world of common sense, such as victims of Alzheimer’s disease. Their ability to participate in the human world we share and their ability to take care of themselves diminish toward a vanishing point as their disease robs them of the common sense we take for granted.

Even people who are normally of sound mind can temporarily lose access to the world of common sense and find themselves in a strange and unfamiliar world. I experienced this firsthand when I visited a friend who was recovering from a prolonged period in a coma. He had undergone several major surgeries, and he was being administered an astonishing number of medications of all types. Though he was able to recognize me, he did not understand that he was in a hospital. This had caused constant problems for the nurses and staff. He begged me to help him escape from “this place where they are keeping me prisoner.” He told me he had met with the president in the Oval Office the day before and that the president would help us escape if only I would call the White House. I briefly tried to get him to understand that he was in a hospital, but soon abandoned the attempt. Bizarre, frightening, absurd stories of what had been happening poured out of him. His loss of common sense made conversation impossible. All I could offer him was the reassurance of a familiar face.

Understanding this aspect of common sense can take us to the very foundations of what we know and how we know. Consider, for example, cases of the most severe psychiatric disorders. When a person is incapable of functioning at a necessary minimum level of common sense, we say that person is insane.

Imagine that a patient in a psychiatric hospital tells you he is Napoleon Bonaparte or that the hospital attendants are actually disguised Mafia assassins out to get him. You do not alert the French embassy or call the police. Why not? No matter how sincere the patient is, your common-sense knowledge of the world lets you know not to take his claims at face value. The patient’s problem is not the Mafia or other people’s failure to recognize that he is the emperor of the French. The problem is that the patient has lost contact with reality. “Lost contact with reality.” Think about that phrase for a moment. To have common sense is to be in meaningful contact with the human reality we have in common. Just as our eyes reveal to us the visual world, common sense reveals to us the world of human understanding and action. In this respect, common sense functions like our other senses. No wonder we call it a “sense.”

It is easy to overlook common sense for the same reason. We think about what our senses reveal to us, but give little thought to the means by which those things are revealed. Likewise, we are caught up in our experience of the world of common sense, and we don’t notice the means by which we are able to apprehend it.

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