The Perils of Philosophy

David DesRosiers has written a delightful review of my new book, Reclaiming Common Sense. His review appears in the spring issue of the Claremont Review of Books. He praised the book, and wrote that it could have been of great use to him as a graduate student when he tried to rebut utopian thinkers like Plato. DesRosiers writes:

The Republic—with its rule by the wise and its shocking communism of women and children—revealed to me the danger that reason without common sense poses to the political community.

He makes a great point. And it is difficult to overstate Plato’s influence on philosophy in the West. As Alfred North Whitehead famously wrote, the European philosophical tradition largely “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

Plato’s abandonment of common sense in The Republic and elsewhere in his writings continues to exercise an enormous influence today, an influence profoundly opposed to the common-sense thinking of the American Founders.

The Founders claimed they were guided by self-evident truths. To understand the Founders’ thinking, it is important to know that their reliance on self-evident truths shows their reliance on a Scottish philosopher named Thomas Reid.

Reid called his philosophy “common sense realism.” Reid challenged the whole tradition that descended from Plato. His purpose was to put Western philosophy on the firm ground of common sense. In my judgment, he succeeded. The American Founders thought so too. As a result, the Founders’ republic is a far cry from Plato’s Republic.

Self-evident truths are the foundation of common sense realism; for Reid, common sense is the human faculty which enables us to grasp self-evident truths. Therefore, common sense is the power that makes human understanding possible. The Founders relied on self-evident truths to find a new vision of politics, government, and society. Their vision gave us the wonderful country it is our privilege to enjoy each day.

I have been a lifelong heavy reader, a “heavy reader” in the sense that some people are called heavy drinkers, and from nearly the beginning of my life as a reader I have been accompanied by C.S. Lewis. He has been my lifelong protector from reason divorced from common sense. Books that lead you away from common sense can make trouble for you and make you trouble for others.

Lewis, in his novel That Hideous Strength, portrayed a future England coming under the domination of men dedicated to brutal rule by the authority of science. One of the leaders is a character named Wither (“wither: to dry up or shrivel . . .”). Lewis writes this about him:

He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void . . . He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth…

The point of the novel is clear: the belief there is no reality and no truth leads inevitably to brutal rule and ultimately to the abolition of humanity. Destroy truth and you eventually eliminate goodness and beauty. The 20th century offers us more examples of that than we need in order to be certain it is true.

For all practical purposes, Wither had found in Hume all he needed in his quest to be convinced there is neither reality nor truth. Yet it must be said that Hume was better than his philosophy, and not like Wither at all. He was brilliant and charming, liked and admired by Reid and loved by his good friend Adam Smith.

In philosophy, Hume’s brilliance was matched by his boldness. He understood that European philosophy had already abandoned everything we know by common sense. While other thinkers recoiled from daring to complete the chain of reasoning that was right in front of them, Hume was willing to go all the way. As Thomas Reid wrote in his Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, Hume provided all that Wither sought:

No cause or effects; no substances, material or spiritual; no evidence, even in mathematical demonstration; no liberty or active power; nothing existing in nature, but impressions and ideas following each other, without time, place, or subject. (Italics added)

Reid took up Hume’s challenge, making the case that if nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. The existence of the real world can’t be proved and does not need to be proved; it is self-evident that the world exists. And the same goes for basic moral truths. For Reid, the principles of common sense, including the principles of moral common sense, are self-evidently true.

C.S. Lewis was with Reid all the way. The idea that Lewis was a common-sense thinker might come as a surprise to you, but I believe he provides the best introduction to common sense realism there is. My lifelong immersion in Lewis is surely what made reading Reid easy and fun for me. In his introduction to That Hideous Strength, Lewis refers the reader to the companion volume, The Abolition of Man. Abolition, he explains, makes the philosophical case; Strength portrays the ideas in story form. Here is Lewis the common-sense realist in The Abolition of Man:

If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarly, if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all.

Given the chance to read those words, Reid and the Founders would agree whole-heartedly.

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