Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Common Sense and an Old Friend

Today, let me respond to BPinMD and Gwydion. Let me begin by pleading innocence by ignorance on BP's charge that I was just trying to flush out lurkers and lure them into commenting with my "any questions" post. That was not my intention at all, but as Aristotle argues, sometimes you are guilty anyway because you should have known better. I do this "any questions" bit in my classes for a couple of reasons. One is that I love the energy. When you don't know what's coming and the studetns know the thing is live, it adds a certain electricity to the class. But on top of that it does a couple of things.

First, some smart ass is inevitably going to see it as a challenge and try to ask the silliest question possible. I'm thrilled that Gwydion (one of my dearest friends for better than 30 years now and a blogger to boot) took on the role. Six times nine is generaly fifty-four, or so I learned in Mrs. Adelberg's class (in which Gwydion was the fastest in the class with his multiplication tables).

The job of the smart ass here is to ask a question so innane that anyone else thinking of commenting will think, "no matter how dumb my question might seem, it isn't that silly." And whether it is in class or on a blog, asking that first question is always the hardest. Everyone else seems so much smarter and you don't want to make a fool of yourself. But once someone else has made a fool of themselves, it seems less risky and more people contribute. It always happens in class, so BP, I should have figured it would happen here as well.

So, the question, which is a good one, is whether there is such a thing as common sense. The first thing I always think of is the openning line from section I of Descartes' Discourse on Method:

Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed, for everybody thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters do not commonly desire more of it than they already possess.
The phrase "common sense" I would claim has absolutely no meaning. The idea of course is that there are certain innate bits of knowledge that (almost) all people possess (an idea Descartes also subscribes to, incidentally). The only people who do not have this "common sense" seem to be smart people whom someone is trying to make seem much less smart. "Sure he's got book smarts, but he has no common sense" is a way of leveling the playing field without actually having to do any real leveling.

This is not to say that people don't do dumb things that if they had stopped and thought about it, they otherwise would not have done. We all do stupid things. In addition, some of us are easily distractable, forgetful, and prone to getting lost in our thoughts. When someone is like this it is easy to say s/he doesn't have common sense because it seems to mean something -- and whatever it means drops the person below our level.

In this way, "common sense" is a lot like the phrase "politically correct." PC has no real meaning, but if you call something PC, you've instantly discredited it without having to show why it deserves no credit. Instant refutation, just add water. "Common sense" works the same way in the opposite direction. Call something common sense and what you just said is that it must be true and anyone who doubts it is a moron. You've just justified that which is common sense without actually having to go through the trouble of actually justifying it.