More Common Sense

Editor's Note: What is the origin of what we call common sense? Enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at  

Editor's Note: What is the origin of what we call common sense? Enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http:// steves-blog/


Common sense, defined as "sound judgment derived from experience rather than study," is one of the most revered qualities in America.


Thomas Paine published a pamphlet entitled 'Common Sense' in January 1776. It called for America to become independent of Britain and a copy of the original is considered a treasure of the US Library of Congress, being one of the wellsprings of the thinking that founded the country. Common sense that is, an everyday practical 'get on with the job' philosophy is part of the American psyche.

Paine is sometimes thought to be American but in fact emigrated to the USA after living the majority of his life in England. Nor, as is also sometimes believed, did he invent the term 'common sense,' which had been in use in his native land long before Paine's day.

In the original 14th century meaning of the phrase, 'common sense' was a feeling like our other senses. It was an internal feeling that was regarded as the common bond that united all the other human senses, the 'five wits ' as they were known, and was something akin to what we now call 'heart.'

The one thing that is usually said about common sense is that it isn't as common as it ought to be. This little gag was made as early as 1726, by the political writer Nicholas Amhurst in the satirical text The Secret History of the University of Oxford: 'There is not (said a shrewd wag) a more uncommon thing in the world than common sense.'

By the time that Paine began writing in the 1770s, the term 'common sense' had migrated a little more and was widely used to mean 'primary truth,' that is, the unquestionable beliefs that all people receive from their experience of being alive. Richard Price defined the term in Review of the Principal Questions in Morals , 1758: 'Common sense, the faculty of self-evident truths.'

Paine's work influenced many political and ethical thinkers at the beginning of the American Revolution, and he was personally acquainted with most of them; in England, these included the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the artist William Blake and in America, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

When the authors of the US Declaration of Independence began with the words "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." , their meaning was 'we believe this declaration to be common sense.'

There's a Catch

Common sense is neither common nor sense. There's not a whole of sound judgment going on these days (especially in the current political dialogues), so it's not common (NOTE: see my blog from July 29, 2016). If common sense were common, then most people wouldn't make the kinds of decisions they do every day. People wouldn't buy stuff they can't afford. They wouldn't smoke cigarettes or eat junk food. They wouldn't gamble. In other words, people wouldn't do the multitude of things that are clearly not good for them.

And common sense isn't real sense, if we define sense as being sound judgment because relying on experience alone doesn't usually offer enough information to draw reliable conclusions. Heck, I think common sense is a contradiction in terms. Real sense can rarely be derived from experience alone because most people's experiences are limited.

In fact, I think that so-called common sense is a fallacy that has been foisted on us by our culture of ideology (any ideology that wants to tell us what we should think and do) that prefers us to be stupid, ill-informed, and poor decision makers. Sorry to get a bit political here, but common sense is even used as an ideological cudgel by conservatives in which so-called coastal elites lack common sense and, as a result, are out of touch with "real Americans" who apparently have an abundance of common sense. But, if we use our elected representatives as examples, I think it's safe to say that unsound judgment, that is, the absence of common sense doesn't discriminate based on political ideology.

The word common, by definition, suggests that common sense is held by a large number of people. But the idea that if most people think something makes sense, then it must be sound judgment has been disproven time and time again. Further, it is often people who might be accused of not having common sense who prove that what is common sense is not only not sense, but also completely wrong. And, by the way, common sense is often used by people who don't have the real knowledge, expertise, or direct experience to make sound judgments.

The unfortunate reality is that trusting common sense, in point of fact, causes us to make poor rather than good decisions. Perhaps the biggest problem with common sense is that it falls prey to the precise limits of personal experience. Or, we don't even have any expertise in the matter and rely directly on what we believe to be true or have been told is true, what we might label "faith-based sense" (in the broadest sense of the word faith). For example, when you're having a discussion about just about anything that requires taking a stand, for instance, the weather, the economy, raising children, sports, what have you, how often do you hear some variation of "Well, it's been my experience that [fill in the blank]" and the person then draws a conclusion based on said experience? And how often is that conclusion wildly at odds with the facts?

I think we need to jettison this notion of the sanctity of common sense and instead embrace "reasoned sense," that is, sound judgment based on rigorous study of an issue, which also includes direct experience. Of course, we can't do an in-depth scientific study of every issue for which we need to draw a conclusion or make a decision. We can't, in the formal sense, do a review of the literature that includes relevant theories and the scientific findings to date, prepare detailed hypotheses, design a formal methodology, collect data, and employ sophisticated statistical analyses from which we draw conclusions. But we can, and should, apply many of these basic principles of the scientific method in more informal ways to our daily lives.

In fact, I think that a course in scientific thinking and methodology for everyday life should be a requirement for all students. Such proactive education about precise thinking and real sense might reduce the number of truly dunderhead things that subsequent generations will do.

Here are some ways in which people can engage in more "sensical" thinking, whether common or otherwise.

  • First, we can begin our "inquiry" with an open mind, something sorely lacking in matters both trivial; for example; "Who's better, the Patriots or the Broncos?" and substantial; for example; "How do we fix the Middle East crisis?" Without being receptive to answers that we may not want to hear, we might as well just ask ourselves what we want to be true and go with that, which is what many people do with so-called common sense.
  • Second, we all establish hypotheses that we would like to see affirmed when we are asking questions in our lives, for example, about relationships (e.g., "I know he/she likes me." ) or the economy (e.g. "It's definitely picking up." ). But for hypotheses to be more than just foregone conclusions (for example; the world is flat.), it's important to also propose alternative hypotheses (for example; maybe the world is round or square). Just considering that there might be answers other than the ones we want ensures that any "experiment" we conduct isn't just an exercise in self-serving affirmation, like drug trials done by pharmaceutical companies.
  • Third, we can collect a sizable sample of data that is more likely to be representative of the population as a whole. So, instead of just asking a few friends their opinions on an issue, which are likely similar to our own, we ask others, particularly those we know to have differing views. Does that guarantee sound judgments? But it probably does make it more likely that whatever conclusion is drawn will be closer to reality.
  • Fourth, we can analyze the data as objectively as possible. No one likes to see their "theories" disproven. And there's a cynical saying in the social sciences, "If the facts don't fit the theory, throw out the facts." Also, don't forget "GIGO" (Garbage In, Garbage Out) which describes the "failures in human decision making due to faulty, incomplete, or imprecise data" (Wikipedia). The scientific method attempts to prevent both sayings from being realized by using statistical analyses that, at least in theory, don't allow for the intrusion of human biases.

The bottom line is that if we can learn to think in more open and rigorous ways, we can draw the most accurate conclusions and make the best decisions possible for the myriad of questions, concerns, and issues we face every day, be they mundane or impactful. And we might just all get along a little better too.

Now, Here's a Quiz to Test Your Reasoned (Common) Sense: 4CPvpmgxUig/How+Much+Common+ Sense+Actually

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