“The madman correctly knows the individual present as well as many particulars of the past, but he fails to recognize the connexion, the relations, and therefore goes astray and talks nonsense.”
(Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, III, §36)
When insanity takes over the world, the sane resort to the notion of “common sense”. Isn’t it common sense that strength is better than weakness? Isn’t it common sense that locking down nations causes problems? Isn’t it common sense that health is not created by injections? And isn’t it common sense, that a man is a man, and a woman a woman? Indeed. But what is this ‘common sense’, and why is it lacking?
In German, the word for common sense is Gesunder Menschenverstand. Literally: healthy understanding. In Dutch, my own language, it is similar: gezond verstand. Common sense has to do with sanity. Wisdom is health, and stupidity is like a disease.
Common sense also has to do with what is “common”. Those notions which are common to all men, are said to belong to the domain of common sense – that manner of judging that is common to all. Or at least, that manner of judging that should be common to all. But wisdom will never be common, and perhaps it is of the nature of the masses to bathe in stupidity. In the end, common sense seems quite uncommon.
Descartes said, partly as a joke, that “good sense is the best distributed thing in the world: for everyone thinks himself so well endowed with it that even those who are the hardest to please in everything else do not usually desire more of it than they possess.” Common sense is uncommon, but even more uncommon are those willing to admit their lack of sense.
For the history of philosophy, the notion of common sense has always been an important one.
In a more technical sense, Aristotle spoke of the common sense, later called “sensus communis”, as that faculty of the soul responsible for recognizing what is similar in a diversity of sense perceptions.
When I perceive a tree, I do so through many different senses. I see the tree, I might hear the wind going through its leaves, and I can touch it. All of the senses give me different information. But how is it that, for all this different information, I perceive one and the same tree? How is it that I relate all this different information to one and the same tree? Aristotle’s answer: the common sense (αἴσθησις κοινὴ). A sense above the senses, which senses what is common in all that the different senses give me.
“Every sense has something special and also something common; special, as, e.g., seeing is to the sense of sight, hearing to the auditory sense, and so on with the other senses severally; while all are accompanied by a common power, in virtue whereof a person perceives that he sees or hears.”
It is also the common sense that relates what I perceive to me as the perceiver. The eye sees, the ear hears, but the common sense makes it so that I know that I see and hear. As Meister Eckhart writes:
“The power through which the eye sees is quite different from that through which it knows that it sees.”
In many ways, common sense is related to personal identity. By way of the power of common sense, we have knowledge of ourselves as knowing subjects.
You can see how Aristotle’s technical notion is related to the common sense of common speech. For what is common sense but the ability instantly to perceive connections? It is the ability to judge, that such and such elements belong to one and the same object. I don’t need to investigate all elements of every tree I encounter in detail in order to judge that I am perceiving a tree. Common sense is also what allows me to establish true causal relationships in an instant, without needing elaborate reasoning or empirical research.
A person dies seconds after taking a vaccine. The cause seems evident, but someone asks: “Who knows: the person might have had other conditions. It must be a strange collision of circumstances.” So speaks the man lacking in common sense.
Common sense also allows us to see what is most important in a large diversity of elements. “Drunk truckers insulting minority more important than government forcing experimental injection on its people.” So speaks the man lacking in common sense.
In many ways, the common way of thinking in our times is a thinking void of common sense, only focused on the particular, the different, incapable of grasping the common. We see this in the increasing specialization in the sciences, medicine, and so on. And we see this in the “common man”, watching the news every day, but unable to see how today’s message contradicts yesterday’s. We see this in our inability to see commonalities between different individuals of the same race, and so on.
The causes for the loss of common sense are many, probably as much to be attributed to general biological degradation, as to ideological transformations.
In the history of philosophy, we see a shift away from the esteem for common sense, which Descartes still saw as the most important thing to cultivate. In rule 1 of his Rules for the Direction of the Mind, he says that we should be wary of seeking specialization if we do not first cultivate our common sense.
“What makes us stray from the correct way of seeking the truth is chiefly our ignoring the general end of universal wisdom and directing our studies towards some particular ends.”
The reason is evident; if you seek only specialized knowledge, but do not care for cultivating common sense – that ability to relate these specializations to each other, and to judge on whatever it is that you might encounter – you become an easy victim of deception. As an example; you can be an expert in mathematics, but when a “pandemic” comes about, you will know so little about medicine and viruses, that you will have to listen to virologists on how to act. As you know so little about medicine and viruses, you will be unable to judge whether the expert is telling you the truth. And as you lack common sense, you will be unable to spot basic contradictions in what you are being told.
As Aristotle’s sensus communis held the different senses together, Descartes conceived of common sense as that which holds the different branches of knowledge together. We can do mathematics, philosophy, theology, physics, medicine, and so on. But to make sense of these different fields, to see how they relate to each other, and to incorporate them into one vision about man and his ends, we need to cultivate our common sense.
But why have we ended up here – in a climate where we are discouraged from using our “common sense”, and are encouraged to listen to the experts? In short, we have not listened to Descartes, and the notion of common sense itself has been discredited.
You see this clearly in 20th-century philosophy. As an example, I look at Deleuze. In his philosophy, he sought to critique what he called the “postulate of recognition”. For Deleuze, Western philosophy was dominated by this postulate, which led thought to take as its task the recognition of what is similar in a variety of different things. Such a “postulate” is an ideological belief that determines what we want thought to do. In other words, that thought means recognition, but this is not natural to thought itself for Deleuze. Rather, the philosophers of the past have made it appear that thought is identical to recognition, because they wanted thought to be identical to recognition. This desire to have thought be identical to recognition reflects itself in the concepts philosophers used. And in particular, Deleuze says that common sense is that concept representative of the postulate of recognition in thought.
What is Deleuze’s problem with philosophy making recognition so important for thought? It prevents thought from grasping what is different, for we will always be occupied with recognizing that which is common within different singular elements. We see a tree, but we are not aware of the magnificent uniqueness of the leaves of this particular tree: we only recognize yet another tree. And moreover, we will never be able to come up with new ideas. For what is it that we recognize? We recognize that which has already been seen before, that which is already known.
With Deleuze, the sensus communis comes to be seen as the symbol for all that stifles thought, all that is conservative in thought, and all that prevents thought from being creative. Difference over identity, schizophrenia over health. Such becomes the order of the day. Deleuze is an avatar, expressive of a general mode of thought. A noble pursuit for creativity, turned into a kind of openmindedness through which one’s brain falls out.
Whenever philosophy’s questioning becomes so radical that all knowledge seems impossible, thinking men resort to “common sense” to set things straight. In Descartes’ dialogue The Search for Truth, he announces his famous proof: “I think, (therefore) I am”. In the dialogue, a learned university philosopher by the name of Epistemon responds: “You say that you exist and you know you exist, and you know this because you are doubting and because you are thinking. But do you really know what doubting or what thinking is?”
Descartes answers: “I would never have believed that there has ever existed anyone so dull that he had to be told what existence is before being able to conclude and assert that he exists. The same applies to doubt and thought.”
There are things so evident, so commonsensical, so evident in their continuous presence, that questioning them does not speak of superior intellect, but simply of stupidity.
I know that I am, not because I have some logical proof for this, but because I am. I know that I exist, because I exist. Life is its own proof, and it isn’t the proof of logic. And “in order to know what doubt and thought are, all one need do is to doubt or to think. That tells us all it is possible to know about them, and explains more about them than even the most precise definitions.”
The university philosopher does not grasp this. That which makes him into a philosopher – his ability to question – has dragged him away from the truth. He might have a sharp intellect, able to question even the most evident of things. But of what does this ability speak? There seems to be something of disease in questioning even the most evident of things. There is something idiotic in failing to recognize that, for all our questions, we have knowledge of the fact that we are questioning, that we are thinking. And that there is an I doing the thinking.
Descartes believed that questioning is intoxicating, and therefore addictive. Philosophy starts in wonder. We wonder at the new, at that which we do not yet understand. And because the object of our wonder is new to us, it impresses itself with that much more force in the brain. As such, it is more exciting to focus on the “new”, on what is “different” from what we already know, than it is to contemplate the evident truths we have always known. For the latter don’t impress themselves with as much force in the brain. Because of this exciting quality of the “new”, it can happen that people start seeking out the different and new for its own sake. Not to eventually arrive at truth, but merely to continue the exciting sensation of wonder. And because they can’t get enough of wonder, they will start wondering at even the most evident of things. They will turn the most commonsensical truths into questions to investigate. A lack of knowledge, becomes more interesting than knowledge.
Thought starts in wonder, but if it stays there, it will never mature into wisdom.
In a sense, philosophy is nothing but this questioning of common opinion, of common sense. Pointing out that what seems evident is not that evident at all, this is philosophy, or so it is said. But philosophy, understood as questioning, can go too far. And for wisdom to occur, life must be kept safe from excessive thought.
We know the dangers of excessive questioning. We question whether there is such a thing as “man”, or such a thing as “woman”, the soul has been questioned into a pile of atoms, and the notion of a “people” is under attack.
Descartes aims to give an answer to the question of why people choose wonder over the calm recognition of truth. Why do we think in the first place? To find the truth. And why do we seek the truth? To better guide our actions in each of life’s contingencies. To live in accordance with truth, wisdom.
To act, we must know what to do. But if we are always wondering, never knowing anything, then we have an excuse to refrain from action. It is easy to question the truth, it is harder to act on it.
Philosophy cannot solely be questioning, if it is not controlled by common sense. A strong mind, certain of principles and evident truths that are immune to questioning.
Descartes complains: There are these philosophers, and they proclaim to find the truth and live in accordance with wisdom. But all they do is question things that are evidently true, so that they can renounce their responsibility to live, to act. They do not think to live, they think to flee from life. This is their secret motivation: to turn away from life, by way of thought.
When life turns against life, a first occurrence is the loss of confidence in its own powers of thought, a loss of confidence in its own ability to attain truth. A loss of belief, that one’s own common sense is enough to attain knowledge of those things most worth knowing.
At the origin of the loss of common sense, lies a life refusing to live. If I cannot come to know those things I need to know to act in all of life’s contingencies, I can renounce my responsibility to know and act in accordance with what I know – I can renounce life. And, I can outsource my responsibility to know to others.
There is a general drift of life, away from itself, and thereby, against itself. A life so unsure about itself, that it no longer believes in its own capacity to attain truth by way of its own common sense. A life, that no longer wants to believe that it possesses truth.
Such is the history of the loss of common sense. Yet another episode in the history of life turning against itself.