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Thursday, June 12, 2008

What's in my Common Sense?
















Draft. Do not quote. A version of this paper will appear in the October 2008 issue of the review The Philosophical Forum.

“I believe that I have forbears, and that every human being has them. I believe that there are various cities, and, quite generally, in the main facts of geography and history. I believe that the earth is a body on whose surface we move and that it no more suddenly disappears or the like than any other solid body: this table, this house, this tree, etc.” [Wittgenstein, On certainty, §234)

“We are all, I think, in this strange position that we do know many things, with regard to which we know further that we must have evidence for them, and yet we do not know how we know them” [Moore, 1959]


In his famous paper In defence of commonsense (1959) G.E. Moore starts with a long list of what he calls commonsensical propositions that he holds true :

  1. There exists at present a living human body, which is my body.
  2. This body was born at a certain time in the past
  3. Ever since it was born, it has been either in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth
  4. There have existed some other things of this kind with which it was in contact
  5. Among the things which have, in this sense, formed part of its environment there have, at every moment since its birth, been large numbers of other living human bodies
  6. But the earth had existed also for many years before my body was born; and for many of these years, also, large numbers of human bodies had, at every moment, been alive upon it; and many of these bodies had died and ceased to exist before it was born.
  7. I am a human being, and I have, at different times since my body was born, had many different experiences, of each of many different kinds.
  8. I have often perceived both my own body and other things which formed part of its environment, including other human bodies
  9. I have not only perceived things of this kind, but have also observed facts about them, such as, for instance, the fact which I am now observing, that that mantelpiece is at present nearer to my body than that bookcase
  10. I have been aware of other facts, which I was not at the time observing, such as that my body existed yesterday
  11. I have had expectations with regard to the future, and many beliefs of other kinds, both true and false
  12. I have thought of imaginary things and persons and incidents, in the reality of which I did not believe
  13. I have had dreams and I have had feelings of many different kinds.

These are propositions that according to Moore are commonsensical, that is, are believed and held true by every “regular” or, one could say, “commonsensical” human being. There are subtle debates among philosophers about the epistemological status of these kinds of propositions, whether we know them (as Moore claims) or just believe them to be true while knowing that they are partly false; how do we know them etc., whether they have a special status, an ear-mark, as Thomas Reid thought, that distinguish them from other kinds of beliefs or propositions…

But what strikes most at a first glance in Moore’s list is the heterogeneity of the propositions he accepts in his commonsense:

Some of them, like 1 and 7 are expressed in the form of first-person thoughts (I imagine that Moore would have consented to rephrase 1 as: “I am alive”) the evidence of which is based on one’s present self-awareness. Others, like 8, 12 and 13, are again first-person thoughts, but this time believed on the basis of memory, whereas 3, 9 and 10 are factual statements whose evidence is based on something I may discover by observing myself instead of a direct self-awareness. I find 2 and 6 even more surprising to cast in the “commonsensical” category: the fact that one is born sometime is something one is told about. Many people don’t even know exactly when they were born: before the mass diffusion of hospital births, in which the exact time is recorded in the official acts of birth, birth of children was vaguely reported days or months after by the parents. Memories of the event are usually very, very costly to recollect: maybe after an entire life of psychoanalytic training one is able to go back to that. And I can imagine a commonsensical belief in another culture that people are not born but brought to Earth from another planet (actually, to conceive such a belief, I do not need to think of a very exotic culture: when I was 8 years old, I found the personal diary of my 10 years old sister in which she was writing every night about how kind we all were with her even if she was not the daughter of my parents, but an extraterrestrial creature coming from a planet called Happiness). Proposition 6 strikes as even more controversial. This seems a genuine piece of testimonial knowledge, or, more exactly, historical knowledge, that I’ve acquired through some instructor at a certain point in my childhood, usually around the age of five or six, when some folk-historical concepts start to develop in children that are reinforced by school-learning. But, surely, I believe it for reasons that are quite different from the other propositions in Moore’s list. Certainly, no direct experience is involved in 6.

This apparently idle analysis of Moore’s commonsensical shows that even in the conception of one of the most enthusiastic philosophers about commonsense, this notion seems to point to a very weird philosophical kind. Pieces of self-awareness, of experiential knowledge, memories, testimonial beliefs and “common-knowledge” beliefs that are cheaply acquired in each culture seem to float freely together without any clear conceptual tie to connect one to the other. The general glue that makes these things stick together seems to be the idea that “Anyone who has a drop of commonsense would obviously believe them”. Commonsense in philosophy thus seems to be a rather “commonsensical” notion that doesn’t capture any real psychological kind.

In the history of philosophy, the expression has been used in a quite ambiguous way:

Common sense, from the Greek words, κοινή (common) αισϑήσις (sensation) was used in two very different ways, sometimes by the same philosopher, who left open - unintentionally or intentionally - a double reading: it may refer to a sort of sixth sense which gathers the various impressions received from the five senses into a common apperception (Aristotle, John Locke, Thomas Reid, Robert Burton)

“Inner Senses are three in number, so called, because they be within the brain-pan, as Common Sense, Phantasie, Memory [...] This Common sense is the Judge or Moderator of the rest, by whom we discern all differences of objects. Ibid. III. xiii, The external senses and the common sense considered together are like a circle with five lines drawn from the circumference to the centre.”

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621 I. i. II. vii.

For Locke, each of the senses gives an input that has to be integrated in a single impression. Commonsense is the result of this integration, the sense of things in common between disparate impressions.

And, at the same time, commonsense refers historically to an average experiential/practical knowledge dependant on a universal human κοινή. Κοινή in Greek was in fact used to refer to the average language spoken by Greeks, a mixture of dialects that established the Attic variant of Greek as the common one. Commonsense is then what everyone commonly believes in a community, the wisdom of ordinary language.

And indeed the same ambiguity is found in modern and contemporary philosophical literature on commonsense. Take the anti-skeptical arguments in which commonsense is invoked. In modern and contemporary philosophy, the notion of commonsense was at the centre of various arguments against scepticism, like in Scottish commonsense philosophy. The overall structure of these arguments may be summed up in this way: Look, there are some obvious truths - the realist says - that nobody would deny and that lie at the foundation of philosophical inquiry. But when relativists object to realists that the appeal to a universal κοινή is misplaced, because every culture has its own system of commonsensical beliefs, commonsense philosophers usually reply by appealing to the other meaning of commonsense, that is, commonsense as more than common knowledge, as a special sixth sense that guides us in practical reasoning.

Another ambiguity is the one between two other possible meanings, that is commonsense as good and sane comprehension as opposed to the distorted visions of the mad. A further one is between commonsense as the view of the world of the layman as opposed to the scientist’s image of things.

All these ambiguities are present in Thomas Reid, “earmarks” of commonsense beliefs:

(1) Universally held by mankind

(2) Whose acceptance is reflected in the common structure of all languages

(3) Whose contradictory is not merely false but absurd, and

(4) That is irresistible, so that even those who question them are compelled to believe them when engaging in the practical affairs of life

Note that for Reid these are not epistemological criteria that we need to identify before commonsense beliefs are evident to us. They are automatically self-evident, and the criteria are just a way a posteriori of “marking” commonsense beliefs.

To sum up this excursus, it seems that commonsense beliefs are and have been for long time identified with those beliefs which it is commonsensical to hold. This of course introduces a problem of circularity in the definition (actually, there are few “explicit” definitions of commonsense: philosophers prefer the vagueness of the term so that it can be adapted to very different uses in different contexts).

But today I do not want to address the questions of the epistemological status of commonsense beliefs - questions such as: “do we really know commonsensical propositions and how do we know them?” - rather, I would like to share with you some intuitions about what we accept as “commonsensical” among our beliefs, how we pry apart commonsensical and non-commonsensical propositions, how we “construct” that very special system of irresistible beliefs that constitutes our folk epistemology[1]. As Clifford Geertz says, “There are really no acknowledged specialists in common sense”, neither philosophers, nor psychologists or other scientists. Maybe the layman is the expert in commonsense, but usually the commonsensical layman doesn’t have a cue as to how and why he accepts a stock of beliefs as commonsensical. So, I’ll turn to self-insight and autobiographical report in order to provide a concrete illustration of what’s in my commonsense and try to find out how and why some of my beliefs are for me commonsensical beliefs.

I hope that this will allow me to illustrate some general points:

  • Our folk-epistemology contains very heterogeneous beliefs such as: pieces of learned expertise, vulgar knowledge, proverbs, intuitions, cultural beliefs, perceptual beliefs (the ones we can verify with our eyes and ears), norms of practical reasoning that help us to use these beliefs judiciously and reflectively, hence:
  • Commonsense beliefs can’t be used to separate the Manifest Image from the Scientific Image of the world. There are some pieces of commonsense that are not manifest, as well as others that are scientific.
  • Commonsense beliefs can’t be used either to distinguish between what we know through our eyes and ears and what we know through culture. Both kinds of beliefs can be commonsensical.
  • They are no more unreflective and logically untied than other categories of beliefs (i.e. scientific beliefs or religious beliefs which we accept under authority are highly unreflective and logically untied as well)
  • Still, not any cultural belief can become a part of our folk-epistemology. Cultural as well as cognitive constraints intervene in making a special set of beliefs particularly irresistible.
  • It is not just pervasive cultural influence that is the evidence of validity of a commonsense belief, because we still want to distinguish between religious superstitions and ethnic canards of stereotypes from the belief that if you go out when it’s raining without an umbrella you can catch a cold.
  • What makes us accept some propositions as commonsense beliefs is a complex system of trust in the reputational cues about their source, cognitive constraints on their intuitiveness, and socio-cultural or, as I will claim, conversational constraints on their acceptability in a certain community.

I will use my own personal example as a test for these claims.

What’s in my commonsense?

  1. If I go out in the cold without warm clothing I catch a cold
  2. Olive oil is better for health than butter
  3. A fresh squeezed lemon juice each morning before breakfast prevents you from catching a cold or a flu
  4. Fasting is good for health
  5. Laughing is a cheap and efficacious anti-depressant
  6. I have dreams and these dreams mean something that I can interpret
  7. I have memories and sometimes I repress them
  8. I have a bad character and people around me have characters
  9. I am a woman and this influences my feelings and reactions
  10. There are no intellectual differences between men and women
  11. All that glitters is not gold
  12. Nothing on Earth travels faster than light
  13. Things do not fall just because they are heavy, but because of gravity
  14. I have a heart and a kidney

As you may see, my list is as heterogeneous as Moore’s list, although I won’t exchange mine with his. Actually, I would not include some of the propositions in his list in mine: I think I never thought of other people as other bodies around me - more as other minds, and intentional agents – and I don’t find commonsensical at all to reflect upon the fact that my body was in contact with the surface of the Earth or not far from it since I was born (especially after a week in which I’ve spent more than 20 hours at a distance of about 30 000 feet from Earth!)

My folk-epistemology includes pieces of knowledge that come from very different corpuses and that are tied together by a certain intuitiveness they have, by a certain privileged relation with my sense of certainty or, as I will argue, by the place they have in my everyday conversational practices. It is not their value in practical reasoning, as many have argued, or their capacities of “making a difference to judgement and action” (Shapin 735), that makes them belong to my common sense. Rather, it’s their place in conversation, the default certainty-value they have in our conversational practices, their pragmatic self-evidence that we expect would be evident for our interlocutors too that give them such a special status.

Let’s see in more detail what is the nature of my commonsensical beliefs: (1) is based on my experience as well as on the authority of grand-mothers. (2) is more of a cultural-biased belief that I’ve learned in my Italian education and was subverted when I moved to France: I remember myself staring at my son’s French paediatrician when he told me to add some butter in the soup instead of olive oil because it was “healthier” for the baby… (3) is a very idiosyncratic dietary rule that I inflict to myself on the basis of a number of intuitions about what my body needs in order to be in a good shape and on the personal experience that happens to work very well. (4) and (5) are less idiosyncratic and more diffused pieces of common knowledge, even if (4) seems to be scientifically untenable - whereas I’m not aware of any result that systematically falsifies (5). (6) and (7) are deferential to psychoanalysis - here also as a result of a mixture of acceptance of a certain corpus as admissible in conversation and of personal experience with its techniques. (8) and (9) are based or my folk-theories of personality and gender. Even if any serious psychologist or social scientist would deny (8) and claim that people’s moral behaviour is more a matter of the situation and its opportunities than a matter of character (the recent brilliant book by John Dorris Lack of character is exactly a plea for this idea, or the splendid definition that Scott Fitzgerald gives in The Great Gatsby of personality as “un unbroken series of successful gestures”), I still include an irresistible folk-theory of personality in my everyday way of making sense of the social world around me. The same goes for (9): it packs my folk-theory of gender, even if I believe in (10), that is, that there are no intellectual differences between men and women. (10) of course is a matter of experience, of deference to scientific knowledge and also of a valuable ideology that has a role in defining my identity. (11) belongs to my “proverbial economy”, to use the words of Steven Shapin: “A network of speech, judgement and action in which proverbial utterances are considered legitimate and valuable, in which judgement is shaped and action prompted by proverbs competently uttered in pertinent ways and settings, that is to say a cultural system in which proverbial speech has the capacity of making difference to judgement and action” (Shapin, 2001: 735) So I’m a competent user of (11). (12) and (13) belong to the commonsensical propositions I trust because I trust in modern science, even if they do not have any practical consequence in my everyday reasoning. The last one is even more puzzling: nobody would deny that this is a commonsensical belief, yet my knowledge of it is as indirect as the ones about light and weight. Of course I can take my pulse and interpret its beats, but how I connect it to the presence of an organ called “heart” is a matter of having learned some piece of sophisticated science and not of taking the world as its authority.

In the essay already mentioned at various points today, Clifford Geertz challenges the idea that commonsense beliefs bear a privileged relationship with the immediacies of experience and defines it as a cultural system, an interpretive system that, as art, myths, religion is historically and socially constructed. An indeed the pieces of my commonsense I have shown you belong to my culture: they say a lot about my cultural identity and how I define myself with respect to it. Still, their systematicity is questionable: as I’ve tried to show, intuitive knowledge and learned expertise are clearly mixed up, and the way they relate to the world’s direct authority is not just by taking the reality at its face value. If it were so, then, bodies would fall because they’re heavy and light simply doesn’t travel at all. So the demarcation between the manifest image and the scientific one doesn’t hold to define what is commonsensical. Nor the relative “naturalness” as opposed to the “culturalness” of my beliefs. Cultural beliefs such as the one on the benefits of olive oil can be as commonsensical as more experiential beliefs, such as if I get out in the cold I can catch a cold.

But what Geertz doesn’t say is why these propositions form a cultural system, an interpretive schema of “relatively organized considered thoughts” (p. 75): how do I accept them as commonsensical, or how do they become commonsensical ? Is there a criterion that allows me to filter what enters my folk epistemology?

This is of course a very complicated question that I don’t have the ambition to resolve here. Still, I would like to advance some suggestions about a possible criterion: for a belief to be acceptable in my commonsense it has to be acceptable in those conversational practices which I repute valuable and want to take part in. The boy who responds to his mother who tells him “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” by saying:

“Mother, three NIH studies have shown that on a sample of 458 Americans of all ages there was no statistically significant decrease in the number of house calls by family doctors; no I won’t eat this apple” (Latour, Science in Action: 208) is just refusing a conversation with its rules and epistemic standards, not really challenging his mother’s folk epistemology.

The most authoritative conversation in which all of us are involved from the onset is that with our parents and teachers during our childhood. I have a precise memory of the bookshelves in my father’s library, what was in and what would had never slipped through his severe judgement. The complete works of Freud were there. Words such as repression, super-ego, and unconscious circulated often in conversations. But I never heard a word of astrology or homeopathy in my parents’ house: neither their friends or, later, mine, would have accepted them as themes of conversation. So, I still would have problems in accepting this corpus in a conversation.

Of course our epistemic authorities change as our will to be involved in new conversations evolves, and our epistemic standards are constantly updated. What settles in my commonsense is what is cognitively constrained by my folk theories about the world (such as psychoanalysis, which, as it has been nicely argued by the philosopher Thomas Nagel in a paper entitled “Freud’s permanent revolution” owes its success to its capacity to be an extension of our everyday folk psychology). But at the same time, they are constrained by the reputational value we attribute to some conversational circles we want to be part of, our family, our teachers, and the social milieu which shapes our intellectual and cultural identities. But what we feel as acceptable, as believable, as an irresistible part of our sense of ourselves, is shaped in many ways by what we want to be able to talk about with the people we repute authoritative for us. So, in conclusion, what ties together the weird thoughts that I accept as commonsensical is their contribution to my autobiography, to that unique mixture of feelings, ideas and practices that renders me a unique human being.

Clifford Geerts says that commonsense is “the world in its authority”. I would reformulate its motto in conclusion by saying that it is rather “the word in its authority”.



[1] There are many senses in which expressions such as “commonsense” and “folk- epistemology” may be used, and I do not want to present here a new definition. In this presentation I will use them as synonymous, and will refer to “folk-epistemology” as the system of commonsense beliefs we commonly accept in our everyday understanding of the world.