Books & Culture

A review of Reclaiming Common Sense, by Robert Curry. (Encounter Books, 112 pages, $19.99)

Reclaiming Common Sense

Robert Curry’s Reclaiming Common Sense is a good antidote for America’s current post-truth insanity.

In a healthy society, defending common sense wouldn’t be necessary. But in 2019 America, it is.

Robert Curry offers just such a defense in his book Reclaiming Common Sense. Despite its brevity (107 pages), it covers the issues clearly and effectively.

Curry’s previous book, Common Sense Nation, showed how the American founders used common sense as their guide. Both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution reflect its influence.

His new book argues that elite “political correctness” is an attack on common sense. That attack targets the bedrock not just of the American founding, but of Western civilization itself:

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.

Curry’s stated goal is simply to answer the attack on common sense. But reading between the lines, what his book actually achieves is something more. He:

  • Shows the absurdity of moral relativism.
  • Vindicates the idea of objective truth.
  • Points out the self-evident truth of some common-sense beliefs.
  • Argues that common sense is a central part of our American tradition.

He shows how common sense applies in many different areas, not just in everyday life, but also science, psychotherapy, and self-mastery. He also diagnoses some challenges to common sense based on a woozy romanticism and misinterpretations of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

And yet, there’s a paradox at the very heart of his project. Common sense is a bit like masculinity: you can’t think about it too much without turning it into something else. Likewise, using philosophical arguments to defend common sense risks turning it into abstract reasoning.

Curry resolves the paradox by implicitly observing three levels of common sense:

  • Logical common sense: Beliefs and assumptions that are necessary for any thought at all.
  • Human common sense: Beliefs and assumptions that are necessary for any flourishing human life and society.
  • Social common sense: Beliefs and assumptions that are applied successfully by particular societies.

Logical common sense is indispensable. It includes our knowledge that we exist, that reality is real, that logic works, and that evidence matters: “The world of the dream is our world absent the principles of common sense.” Even a Martian would need it.

Curry cites Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid as a defender of logical common sense, but Reid didn’t invent the idea. The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus noted that:

There are certain things which men not entirely perverted [can] see by the natural principles common to all. Such a constitution of the mind is called common sense.

Human common sense embodies millennia of human experience. It includes our knowledge that men and women are different, that children need guidance, and that social life requires law. Its truths are not infallible, but neither are abstract theories such as the lunatic pronouncements of postmodernists and gender-studies departments.

Social common sense embodies the customs, traditions, and expectations of particular human groups. It includes our knowledge that self-reliance is a virtue, that virtue is impossible without freedom, and that law should be applied impartially. Curry notes “while our capacity for common sense is inborn, we must enter into the common life of a human community to develop it.”

It’s that shared life of a human community—derived in large part from British common law and the Scottish Enlightenment—that inspired the American Founders:

Their wild and crazy notion was that people who are capable of personal self-rule by common sense are also capable of political self-rule by common sense … In the Founders’ vision, the ultimate foundation of American self-rule is the common sense of the American people.

Reclaiming Common Sense is a good antidote for America’s current post-truth insanity.