Philosophy of Learning 3 (common sense)

  1. לְהַשְׂכִּיל –(to discern) common sense

The old tired cliché is common sense is neither common nor sense. Some go so far as to argue the entire idea of common sense is a fallacy. Definitions of common sense are as varied as the ideas of what common sense might encompass, which is the source of the confusion. One might easily argue that the rubric is a phenomenon that everyone can perceive but no one can comfortably define for everyone else to agree. As Justice Potter Stewart wrote in a Supreme Court decision, it is hard to define pornography, “but I know it when I see it.” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964) We know common sense when we hear it, which is not only too ambiguous to be useful but also counter-productive. We are left without a definition; nonetheless, the rubric exists.

Common sense can be found in all sorts of human endeavors but no matter where common sense is identified or claimed, two elements must be present. First, there must be a convincing argument. The argument does not have to convince everyone but the argument must have accepted assumptions, a logical progression from point to point, and reasonableness. The first element must be well-structured argument whose conclusion cannot be challenged because one of the assumptions is false.

The second element is all other competing arguments must be disproved. For a common sense point to be valid, the presenter cannot just have the best argument. The presenter has to demonstrate conclusively that the other arguments fail to prove the point they are attempting to make, or unmake as the case may be. This second element is a much higher bar of proof than most other human endeavors.

If one of the two elements is not present, then one holds an opinion rather than a proof. Even if a presenter offers a persuasive argument with gifted tongue and keen insight to sway the most skeptical, unless the presenter meets the higher bar of disproving the other arguments, then all of the bombast is for naught. A good argument is not enough.

From the other side, if all that one can do is prove that the other arguments are inadequate but can offer nothing in their place, the presentation is also a failure. Disproving everyone else is an accomplishment but by itself, this type of argumentation fails. The absence of competition does not convey success because common sense is neither a race nor a battle of wits.

Common sense is rare because both elements together are difficult to create. Common sense is a type of truth, a rarity of human truth that is also universal. Most human truth is flawed because anything mortal is imperfect. Common sense is a high goal but as we can attest, this truth can be achieved.

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