Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Common Sense

Common sense is defined by Merriam-Webster as, "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts." Thus, "common sense" (in this view) equates to the knowledge and experience which most people already have, or which the person using the term believes that they do or should have. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as, "the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way".
Sound judgment not based on specialized knowledge; native good judgment.

“Common sense is seeing things as they are; and doing things as they ought to be.”
― Harriet Beecher Stowe

“Never assume the obvious is true.”
― William Safire

“Common sense will nearly always stand you in better stead than a slavish adherence to the conventions.”
― M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

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

“The philosophy of one century is the common sense of the next”
Henry Ward Beecher

“Seek advice but use your own common sense”
Yiddish Proverb

“One pound of learning requires ten pounds of common sense to apply it.”
Persian Proverb

What is common sense? Harriet Beecher Stowe talks to William Safire

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Why did you urge us not to assume that the obvious is true?

William Safire: For the fairly simple reason that it rarely is. What looks obvious only appears so because something vital, something integral to the item in question is being overlooked.

HBS: Why do we do that, do you think?

WS: We tend not to look too deeply into something, or even not sufficiently deeply, because that is something like work to most of us, and we would rather not work.

HBS: Do you mean that we are lazy?

WS: Yes, I am afraid we are. If delving beneath the surface of something - something self-apparent – then I would say that we are indeed lazy.

HBS: But that is not how laziness is viewed, is it?

WS: Then how is it viewed? Should we merely say that the man who prefers to stay in bed in the morning rather than get up and do a day’s work is lazy and leave it at that?

HBS: How would you have us look at laziness then, if not in that way?

WS: By taking laziness as not merely being physically idle, but mentally idle too.

HBS: But how can we tell if a man is mentally lazy? Surely, mental laziness is a state of mind, and as such not able to be seen, wouldn’t you say?

WS: Yes, that is true, but if we listen to the man who is mentally idle, we will notice that he does certain things – says certain things – gives his opinion on certain things in certain ways – that is how mental laziness appears. And one of the ways is thinking and then saying that what is obvious must be true.
That is the way to all sorts of species of folly: to prejudice, which has been defined as the production of ready-made answers to complex questions. It is the prejudiced man who sees something and then makes a generalization about it. Such are usually called ‘sweeping generalizations’, are they not?

HBS: Yes, why is that?

WS: Because they sweep all before them – usually under the carpet – a carpet of one’s own making, a carpet that covers all other possibilities. It is this mental sweeping under the carpet that is typical of the prejudiced mind – and it is a form of mental laziness.

HBS: I can see that, but why do you say so?

WS: Because the alternative – to think something through, as we say, to collect all the related data and then to weigh the matter rationally, then that involves some kind of work – not physical work, I grant you, but work nevertheless, and it is just that kind of work that the lazy mind abhors.

HBS: Do you think that is the only reason?

WS: Not, but perhaps it is the main one, or one of the main ones.

HBS: Can you think of another?

WS: Yes, I can. The casting of doubt – we say the shadow of doubt – doubting something is true merely because it seems obvious is comfortable.

HBS: Why do you say it is comfortable?

WS: Because it means nothing has to be done, and that is comfortable and comforting to the lazy mind. It is comforting because nothing untoward is brought into view, nothing that threatens the world view of the lazy man, who is habitually used to ignoring anything that works against his comfortable stance. He has no tolerance for what psychologist call cognitive dissonance.

HBS: And what is that? What is cognitive dissonance?

WS: It is a condition in which one’s views are threatened, by which one is made uncomfortable. People have a propensity to seek consonance in all they see, in their thoughts and in the way they view the world around them.
If a man thinks al people of colour are thieves, for instance, then his seeing such a person performing an act of open kindness or honesty will cause him to experience cognitive dissonance, to some degree.

HBS: Then how does he deal with the discomfort he experiences – the dissonance?

WS: By ignoring it, or by rationalising it, by saying to himself, for instance, that the man being honest and kind is not at all typical of his race, and that, the exception proves the rule, as we say.

HBS: Then you think that the saying that holds that the exception proves the rule is a form of ignoring reality, of being mentally lazy?

WS: Yes, I most certainly do. That particular saying, and many others like it, are tantamount to our rationalizing our own prejudices, our own mental laziness, our own ignoring of facts that do not fit in with our own world view.
In fact, I would say that sayings such as that one, little aphorisms of that sort, that purport to establish some truism based upon observed reality, are nothing more than mental laziness put into words.
Let’s look at some examples.
1. Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.

2. Lately I've found that if it weren't for stereotypes, conversation would be much more difficult for the closed-minded.

3. Justice is incidental to law and order.

4. It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.

5. Wonder, rather than doubt, is the root of knowledge.

The first of these has a lot of sarcasm about it, letting us know two things: that it was written by a woman, and that she thinks herself and her sex superior to men.
The second folds in on itself by using the idea of conversing with stereotypical people on the one hand, and the implied difficulties people with closed minds have talking to the hypothesized open-minded people – the polar opposites of those closed-minded people just mentioned.
The third does seem to have an amount of wisdom behind it, condemning law and order as being not the same thing as the higher quality: justice.
Fourthly, again, this aphorism does sound to have some wisdom as the basis of its meaning; that liberties are chiseled away – eroded – rather than being taken at one fell-swoop, and finally, the fifth too does seem to have some knowledge of how the world is organized.
What they all have in common is a sort of catch-all meaning that implies a sort of knowledge that is superior – better informed – than is general amongst the rest of us.

HBS: So you think that it is that quality – of having a knowledge that is superior to ours – that is typical of such sayings, do you?

WS: Yes, I do, and it is that, if accepted, which it invariably is, that prevents us from thin king, or better, makes us think in one direction – the direction of the right answer, when in fact, what we should always be doing is to question – question – question!
It is by always questioning that we gain the knowledge to learn for ourselves the truth of the saying, the rightness of the aphorism, or the wrong ensconced in both. We must always examine our assumptions, for if we do not, our freedom will be taken from us.

HBS: How will our freedom be taken from us?

WS: By allowing erroneous thoughts to dominate our thinking. Once that happens, once we stop testing what we are habitually led to think by vested interests, we can be made to accept anything. That is the way we are led away from what we hold dear to what are, in effect, what someone else holds dear, that someone else not necessarily having our best interests at heart.

WS: And you said, did you not that common sense is seeing things as they are; and doing things as they ought to be?

HBS: I did say that, yes.

WS: Let us take the first part of your opinion; that common sense is seeing things as they are.

HSB: Yes, I do think that is what common sense is; seeing things as they are, rather than how we might prefer them to be.

WS: An admirable sentiment, if we could only abide by it.

HBS: What do you mean? Things are as they are, surely, and it is our common sense to see them that way.

WS: That is rather tautological, if you don’t mind my saying so. Things, as we call them, can appear to us in many ways. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is it not?

HBS: It is said to be, yes, but that is not my intent, to repeat that. Some things are not beautiful, and so may not appear so to the beholder – to the one who looks at them.

WS: The aphorism that holds that beauty is in the eye of the beholder includes all shades of beauty, even unto ugliness. We see what we want to see – that is the meaning of the words, I feel.

HBS: And do you take those words to be wrong?

WS: Indeed, I do not, but don’t you see, if we see what we desire to see, then that can hardly be termed common sense, can it?

HBS: What would you call it then?

WS: Being blinkered, or something of that sort, which we all are, from time to time.

HBS: Then you think the first part of my words is wrong, do you?

WS: Unfortunately, yes, I do. But do not be affronted by my objection. There is something in the nature of the aphorism, as we have already said, that is at fault; the form is a sort of catch-all phrase intended to sound right to the majority of people, when, in actual fact, it does little more than fool people by its supposed wisdom.

HBS: Then what of the second part – and then doing things as they ought to be – what of that idea?

WS: I take issue with the words ‘as they ought to be’. What does that mean? Who is to decide what ought to be? It is something like gaining consensual approval for something there can never be any general approval for. We cannot agree on anything beginning with the words ‘ought to be’, can we?
There are as m any opinions of what ought to be as there are people to utter the words, are there not?

HBS: Now you must allow me to disagree with you there. There are some things upon which we can all agree; there are moral absolutes, are there not, that are agreed upon by the many.

WS: Then let us take one: Thou shalt not kill! Is surely one, being as it is one of the Ten Commandments. Surely that is inviolate! Surely that cannot be disputed by any sane, rational person, and yet there are instances in which killing is the right and proper thing to do.

HBS: Can you give me an example of when it is right for one individual to kill another.

WS: When one individual is threatening the lives of others. There are many such instances, though that is the main, in my opinion. If we go to what you call moral absolutes and still find exceptions, how many more will be found in examples of a more ordinary nature? No, doing things as they ought to be done has the ring of despotism about it. Once an authority decides for the many what is right to do, then we are living under a yoke, are we not?

HBS: But we already live under such a yoke, as you call it, do we not? We live in a land with laws that dictate to us what ought to be done, what must be done, and what must never be done, do we not?

WS: We most certainly do, that is true. It is also true, however, that the laws that bind us are of our own making. We have agreed, like Socrates, to live under a system that forbids certain things – we might say aspects of our freedom – in order that we may live in a civilized society; we have made a pact, a social contract, to obey laws that ultimately protect us as they protect others from anything we might wish to do.

In that sense, and in only that sense will I allow your words to remain as they are. I have the proviso of social reason to act against your words being taken too far.

HBS: Do you then hold what most people call common sense to be nothing more than a sort of consensus of inertia?

WS: A Consensus of inertia, yes, I do.

Dialogue 2 In which W. Somerset Maugham, the great English novellist, writer and thinker of his day discusses common sense with Victor Hugo the French writer and artist of his.

W. Somerset Maugham: I said that, in my opinion, common-sense appears to be only another name for the thoughtlessness of the unthinking. It is made of the prejudices of childhood, the idiosyncrasies of individual character and the opinion of the newspapers.

Victor Hugo: The phrase, ‘the thoughtlessness of the unthinking’ has a ring to it. What do you mean by it?

WSM: Precisely what I say. Much of what many do is instigated, not by rational thought, but by instinct.

VH: Instinct, but that is something we say animals have, something that drives animals rather than us.

WSM: And that is true, it is something that makes animals behave in the ways they behave, we think, but I believe much of what drives us – human beings – is animal-like, it is more akin to instinct that thought. If it is thought about, it is rationalized to remove any doubt in the person ‘s mind that he is doing something wrong.

VH: You use the example of something that is wrong when you could just as easily used an example of something that is right.

WSM: If something is done automatically, without recourse to rational thought, it is more likely to be in error, wouldn’t you say?

VH: Not necessarily. If someone sees an old lady fall, and rushes to help her, that is not wrong in any way, although it may be done without thinking.

WSM: That is true. I think there is something of a collective store which we are used to calling culture, something that is charitable, something that is protective, something that communicates kinship of some kind.

But what occurs if that something, that element of charity, let us call it, what happens if that is eroded?

VH: Why should it be eroded? How can it be eroded?

WSM: It can and is eroded, in my opinion, by a willed selfishness brought on by needs of various kinds.

VH: What kind of needs?

WSM: Those needs that are animal in nature – the need for warmth, the need for food, for sex, for shelter. Those needs that do not require thought to be felt. Yes, I think I would define them so; needs that do not require thought to be felt. They are, in fact as much feelings as anything. Do you need to think to know you are hungry or cold?

VH: No, of course not, but how can you equate those kinds of needs to the old lady who has fallen, to the one rushing to assist her, to help her to get up again?

WSM: By recourse to observation; an old lady falls down in the street. A young man sees her fall and rushes to her side. What is going through his mind?

VH: That she needs help.

WSM: No, that is what is going through your mind, not necessarily through his.

VH: But why should he be different? Why should he be thinking to act in a way that is different to the way I am thinking to act – to help her?

WSM: Because he has different needs to you, or let us say that he feels them differently, or that they act on his mind in different ways to you.

He sees her fall, he sees she is vulnerable. He assumes that she has money on her –in her purse – or in her pockets – and he is tempted to take it from her. His needs have overridden hers, do you see.

VH: Then he is wrong.

WSM: Not in his mind, not in his way of looking at the situation. Don’t forget, he does not have the same rationality that you have; he does not have the same needs that you have.

Let me ask you a question: what needs of yours are you striving to fulfill when you go over to help the old lady to her feet?

VH: My needs are overridden by hers.

WSM: That will be true, yes, so then, let me ask you which needs of yours are fulfilled just after you have helped her to her feet, when she thanks you?

VH: My own need to think well of myself, to think others think well of me, to think my family and my friends think well of me for acting in such a way.

WSM: Precisely. Now let us return to the young man who has stolen the old lady’s money from her and left her on the ground where she fell. What of him? Which of your needs does he feel?

VH: Probably none of them, for how can he be applauded by his friends for robbing her?

WSM: If they would have done exactly the same thing in the same situation. He doesn’t suffer any pangs of guilt or remorse, as you would if you had robbed her and left her on the ground. He has no remorse, for he has not damaged his own self-image in his own eyes. He has walked away from the old lady feeling nothing but his having behaved properly.

Can you see that the thoughtlessness of the unthinking is something that goes on in those for whom thinking is minimalized when needs must be met.

VH: But you have used an extreme case to make your point, surely.

WSM: That is true, and I have controlled the actors in the scenario I have used, but in so doing have I not proved something to you?

VH: You certainly have.

WSM: Then my creating a specific scenario has been of real value, has it not?

VH: Yes, it has, and, I may also say that the acts you used were not too far-fetched. I was at no time questioning you as to the credibility of the situation you were describing.

WSM Then all is well. Your opinion has been changed. If we had not discussed my words, perhaps you would have accepted them without thinking them through.

VH: Yes, it is very likely that I would.

WSM: And that, my friend is how common sense is generated and maintained.

VH: But we do not have the time or the energy to go through everything we hold as true, do we?

WSM: Indeed we do not. But should we not stop and think before we hurt someone?

VH: We most certainly should. What thought could the young man use to make him act differently?

WSM: I am at a loss to answer. I might say that he should remember his own mother; what would he do if it was his own mother.

VH: But if his own mother had ill-treated him as a child, what then?

WSM: Again, I am at a loss to answer. All we can do is to educate our children to think before they hurt someone; think before they take what is not theirs.

VH: But how do we do that if they feel their needs in a different way to the way we feel ours. For we each of us have those same needs, do we not – the need for warmth, for food, security and so on.

WSM: We do indeed have those same needs, but they may be felt in different measures to the way we feel ours.

VH: But hunger is hunger, no matter who feels hungry. Surely that is true.

WSM: It is, but there are needs that the young man has that we do not have.

VH: Which are?

WSM: Those brought on by what is euphemistically termed substance abuse: by addiction to drugs, to alcohol, even to tobacco. If he feels the need that an absence of these create, he will be moved in ways that we know very little of, will he not?

VH: Then what can we do? How can we proceed?

WSM: By weaning him off those substances.

VH: And replacing them with what?

WSM: I am not sure that they can be replaced by anything really. Rather, we should help him to find fulfillment of a more lasting nature.

VH: By what means?

WSM: Education, education, education.


VH: Why do you mention the opinion of newspapers? What has that got to do with any discussion of common sense – on the thoughtlessness of the unthinking?

WSM: A very great deal to do with it, my friend. First, we must ask ourselves what the main aim – for there is only ever one – of any newspaper is.

VH: I suppose you are going to say that the press wishes to influence public opinion.

WSM: Undoubtedly that is one wish, but it is subordinated to the one aim, which is to make money – any other wishes, as you call them, are subordinate to that one aim – to turn over a profit. Now, how does a newspaper go about doing that?

VH: By selling as many newspapers as it can.

WSM: Exactly, and to do that it must influence public opinion, and to influence public opinion, it must take in the public, or as many of the public as it can.

VH: And it does that by printing pages that are in the public’s interest.

WSM: You might be forgiven for thinking so, but in fact, it is the public are taken in to the extent that they believe that everything a particular newspaper prints is in their interest.

VH: Then if it is not in the public’s interest, whose interest is it in?

WSM: The proprietor’s. His and no one else’s.

VS: And how is that achieved without it being transparently obvious?

WSM: By making the readership identify with it. That is done by creating a culture within a culture.

VH: How can it do that? How can it possibly create a culture?

WSM: By manipulating the thinking of the readers, or I should say that portion of thinking which is done without thinking – or without too much thinking. It manipulates stories to generate a sort of consensus – usually a negative consensus, a species of fascism – a tradition of exclusivity – a culture of disapproval of any but the accepted.

VH: But how does it achieve that?

WSM: As I have intimated, by creating a consensus of non-thinking, knee-jerk opinion that goes under many sobriquets – high moral ground, fair play, rough justice, national promotion, sport, luck, and other things readers can readily identify with what they think they think is in their interest.

VH: Why do you say what they think they think is in their own interest?

WSM: Because they don’t really think, or if they do think, they do not think things through rationally. If they are asked to think, which they rarely are, they will turn the page and read something else. They do not wish to cope with anything like cognitive dissonance. If their views come under scrutiny, which is seldom if ever, they move on until they reach something that readily accords with their ‘opinion’.

That is why the most popular newspapers, the most widely read, are reduced to headlines – bites – that only require the slightest of thought to agree with. It is in that way that newspapers influence opinion – by a sort of subliminal means, which, by the way, is forbidden on TV and on the silver screen. In the press, it is not flashed before the readers’ eyes, never to reappear again, but in a sense it is if the reader’s eyes light on it for no more than a split second as they turn to the back pages.

With so much news appearing so quickly, a sort of tacit approval, or disapproval is sought and won without the reader really appreciating how his opinion is being constantly attacked, attacked and changed – made less radical in the traditional sense of that word, which is usually taken to mean having views that are distinctly left wing – made less radical in the traditional sense of that word, but really made much more radical in a real sense – their opinions are continually being chiselled to make them more and more disapproving of anything at variance with a sort of populism, and more approving of that populism.

Prejudice is, they say, the providing of ready-made answers to complex questions. It is the popular daily newspaper that provides that ready-made answer, leaving the readership able to leave what does not concern them.

VH: But everything concerns everybody, isn’t that the point of newspapers, to keep the public aware of events in the world.

WSM: That is the stated aim, which, as I have said, is subordinate to the main aim – that of making money.

VH: But if what you say is true, the press does more than make them aware of events.

WSM: Of course it does. It informs them where they stand on them, and, one could argue, it does the nation a great service – preventing unrest and social disorder – it placates where there is disapproval, and provides approval where there was none – it influences public opinion and gets paid every morning to do it.

To return to the ‘thoughtlessness of the unthinking’ as I believe we were talking about, the press encourages such a state.

VH: So, in encouraging it, it must be well aware that it exists.

WSM: Well aware. It actively encourages the consensus of inertia, and turns a profit for doing it.

Robert L. Fielding

Robert L. Fielding

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