December 3, 2008

Common Sense

Common sense means, 'sound judgment not based on specialized knowledge; native good judgment,' according to the American Heritage Dictionary.  It's roots trace to the ancient Latin, sēnsus commūnis, or 'common feeling of humanity,' which itself is a translation from the ancient Greek, koin aísthēsis, according to Random House.  Like the word welcome, it's a phrase which is readily translated into numerous languages used today around the world.

Like the word truth, it's not clear that there is such a thing as a 'common feeling of humanity.' We face such diversity in thought, culture and personality that perhaps there is no such thing.  Or, if there is such a thing, it is not clear from whence it comes.  After all, we do not agree very much, on this planet, about religion.  We do not agree very much, on this planet, about politics.  We do not agree very much, on this planet, about the distribution of wealth, about cultural goals, about the use or effect of technology, or about any systems or sources of morality.

In American history Thomas Paine, in the early part of 1776, used Common Sense as the title to a phamplet calling for independence from England.  In his introduction he stated that 'a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.'   He proceeds to make a case, in keeping with the political philosophy of the American founding fathers, in favor of independence, offering 'nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.'

The British in 1776 did not agree that common sense supported American independence.  Nor had the Americans and the British reached a mutual understanding of 'common sense' by the time of the War of 1812.  Nonetheless, there seems to be something intuitively correct about Paine's statement that 'a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT.'  Habit and routine CAN mask a wrong, dulling our ability to reason clearly, or to use sound judgment about an important matter, can it not?

Or, are we forever going to be bound by Paine's other statement, that 'time makes more converts than reason?'  Do we, as a species, really have time for that anymore?  Given the perils we potentially face on this planet, hadn't we better at least hope that we all possess some form of common sense?

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Credit -
         The pamphlet Common Sense, by Thomas Paine (1776)


1 comment:

  1. Common sense is decidedly uncommon. Unfortunately, that will likely fall into the realm of opinion, and like noses everyone has one. Therein lies the rub. For selfish/stubborn/ delusional reasons we all think our own judgment beyond reproach. To come to some common accord we must persuade others our view is correct. Hard to do in a competitive species, harder still when suggested solutions go against our short term self interest. Greenhouse gas is a good example. Powerful forces oppose, for economic and standard of living reasons, curbing them. If the question is posited in chicken little format, the premise is denied or the solution is believed to be forthcoming either from Providence or science. This belief absolves the believer from the responsibility for action.

    I think, perhaps we need a whole new set of questions. If I were smart enough to ask them I would. Without those questions and new answers as a species we are in for a very tough time.



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