Common Sense Isn’t So Common

November 21, 2019
Often, common sense isn't as universal as we think it is. In fact, many even misuse it. Moreover, not all people have this capacity for discernment and sense of logic that guides us in each situation.

Descartes pointed out that common sense was the best-distributed quality in the world. That there was no person who didn’t have this gift of sensibleness. The famous mathematician and philosopher already understood that this dimension went beyond our idiosyncrasies. Also, that it allows each and every one of us to know what’s right, what’s acceptable, and what borders on irrational.

Voltaire once pointed out that common sense isn’t so common. But what did he mean by it? Basically, he implied that we don’t always give or perceive that unanimity when it comes to understanding what’s logical or expected in every situation. Somehow, each one of us integrates their own version of common sense into their being and, on occasion, it doesn’t necessarily agree with the common sense of others.

Interestingly, we all would do better if we were able to apply this simplicity in terms of values ​​and principles of action, based on a sensible and nearly universal essence. However, there are times when we don’t exercise good judgment even though we know what would be the most acceptable thing to do in a given situation. We do this either out of neglect, because it’s challenging, or because our mind is elsewhere.

For example, common sense tells us that we should lead a healthier life. However, we don’t always put our health before immediate gratification. Thus, our sensibleness often whispers that paper shouldn’t go to waste; that we should recycle more; that we shouldn’t text while we drive, or that we should spend more quality time with the people we love. Thus, we’re clear on what we have to do. But why don’t we do it?

“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”

-Albert Einstein-

What we mean by common sense

A woman with the sea inside.

Psychology tells us that common sense is the ability of discernment that every person has (or should have). Thanks to this ability, one can make coherent decisions based on logic and reason. In fact, Albert Einstein once pointed out that much of what we call common sense is nothing more than a set of prejudices that others instilled in us.

Be that as it may, good judgment always seeks the purpose of the common good. With this competence, we try to ensure that we all have the practical sense to facilitate coexistence, avoid hostile conflicts, and contribute towards the common well-being. However, where exactly does common sense come from? In most cases, it isn’t only what others taught or dictated us, as per Einstein’s words.

In reality, it’s part of our own experiences, of what we’ve seen, felt and lived. Thus, it’s clear that everyone travels their own path and experiences events that don’t even come close to resembling those of others. Hence, what’s logical for you may not make sense to me.

Three ways of understanding it

The concept of common sense focused on many different angles throughout human history. Understanding each of them will certainly help us gain a little more perspective:

  • Aristotle. Common sense focuses solely on our sensory experiences according to this Greek philosopher. Thus, we all experience the same when we face a stimulus (watching glass break; feeling the heat of a fire; the sound of the wind, etc). He believed that common sense starts from sensitive objects. That is, from what people could perceive through their senses.
  • Rene Descartes. It didn’t matter that each person is from a different culture to this French mathematician and philosopher. We all share a universal common sense, from which we can judge and distinguish what’s true from the false and what’s good from the bad.
  • The pragmatist philosophy. This approach emerged in the 19th century and gives us a more useful vision. According to this philosophy, common sense arises from the beliefs and experiences of our daily lives. That is, they’re basically a part of whatever context surrounds us. And this, as expected, may vary depending on the weather and any other conditions we face.

What does psychology say about it?

A woman without a head.

Adrian Furnham, a psychologist at the University College London, wrote a very interesting book entitled All in the Mind: The Essence of Psychology (1996). Furnham’s premises are resounding and warn us that we shouldn’t take anything for granted because what most think of as judiciousness is plain nonsense sometimes.

What he intends to transmit through his work is the need to keep a critical and realistic vision of reality at all times. If we must make decisions, then it’s best to analyze the context, the particularities of the case, and what suits us or seems more accurate, as long as they’re reasonable judgments. Getting carried away by what most consider mere “common sense” can lead to more than one mistake.

Furnham recalls, for example, those events that not long ago most people considered universal truths. For instance, thy myth that women weren’t smart enough to vote. Or that institutions were the best place for people with disabilities. Thus, sensibleness isn’t always well-calibrated because it may be outdated or it doesn’t suit our personal needs. Let’s also use it with a bit of critical judgment. We need to understand that the common sense of others can lead to different conclusions than ours simply by telling or assessing the situation from another point of view.

  • Furnham, A. (1996).  All in the mind: The essence of psychology.  New York: Taylor & Francis.
  • Maroney, Terry A. (2009). “Emotional Common Sense as Constitutional Law”. Vanderbilt Law Review. 62: 851.