Common Sense and Philosophical Method


What’s the relationship between common sense and philosophy?

This is one of a number of challenging methodological issues philosophers across a wide range of fields face.

Richard Estes, “D Train”

Guy Longworth, reader in philosophy at the University of Warwick, offers some thoughts on this question. In an interview by Richard Marshall at 3:16 about his work, some of which has been on the connection between ordinary language philosophy and experimental philosophy, Marshall asks him: “JL Austin defended common-sense and thought philosophers didn’t understand it. Are you sympathetic to his approach to philosophising and his view that philosophers refuse to cash the cheques written by common sense, as you vividly put it?”

Here’s Longworth’s reply:

I think that common-sense is important in philosophy, at least insofar as our aims as philosophers are more than merely exploratory—that is, insofar as we hope to get things right. For common-sense is just our general ability to assess claims and courses of action. Furthermore, I think that philosophers typically have a good, off-duty understanding of the demands of common-sense. Insofar as they depart from those demands, I think that their doing so is often due to pressure from the competing demands of clean, general theorising. One of Austin’s central insights, one shared by some other ordinary language philosophers, was that common-sense thinking is indefinitely sensitive to differences amongst cases. By contrast, as philosophers, we often aim to construct theories that are general, and so that efface differences amongst cases. That sort of difference between common-sense and our aims as philosophers can lead into conflicts, at which points it seems that we will have to give up either a piece of common-sense or a piece of philosophical theory. The question is, which?

Naturally enough, I think that there is no general answer to that question. It’s surely possible for philosophical theorising to reveal a piece of common-sense to be dubious. And it’s surely possible for a philosophical claim to be out of step with what is, given appropriately developed common-sense, obviously correct. Furthermore, it can be very far from obvious whether the deliverances of philosophy really do conflict with those of common-sense. However, since common-sense is our ordinary ability to assess claims or courses of action, there can be no question of our giving it up in toto.

The whole interview is here.

Discussion welcome.

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Chris Tucker
1 year ago

When I explain what philosophy is to other academics, I often say something like the following, in part to explain why the conclusions in philosophy often seem either obvious or ridiculous.

“A central goal in philosophy is the systematization of our commonsense intuitions. This involves figuring out what is true on topics that commonsense doesn’t explicitly address. Yet commonsense is also incoherent: it contradicts itself if you ask it enough questions. So part of the systematization is to identify and resolve contradictions in our commonsense intuitions. To resolve a contradiction in common sense, you must reject one of the intuitive claims that, when taken together, lead to contradiction. Much important work in philosophy, then, involves defending a commonsense claim–i.e., arguing that such-and-such is not the part of commonsense that is to be rejected–or rejecting a commonsense claim. Either way, it can be hard to understand why the work is important. If you are defending a part of commonsense, doesn’t everybody already know that your conclusion is true? If you are arguing against common sense, doesn’t everybody already know that the conclusion is false? It is hard to appreciate the value of philosophy until you see that your own commonsense intuitions systematically conflict with one another.”
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David Mark Wallace
David Mark Wallace
Reply to  Chris Tucker
1 year ago

But the obvious follow-up for those other academics would be: why is the goal of systematizing our commonsense intuitions worthwhile?

That’s not (necessarily) a gotcha question. Descartes had a good answer: he had (he thought) logically derived the existence of a God who was not a deceiver, in which case the appropriately cleaned-up intuitions would be a plausible guide to deep reality. Kant had a good answer: because we’re learning about the constraints our own nature places on our understanding of reality. Strawson had a good answer: because the metaphysician’s job is to understand the conceptual scheme implicit in human language and practice, never mind its connection to objective reality. (Substitute your own interpretation of these authors as desired: I’m not an expert on any of them and these are only rough sketches.) Plausibly certain contemporary ethicists have a good answer, depending on their meta-ethics.

But an answer is needed. And for at least some substantial part of modern analytic metaphysics, it’s not clear what the answer is supposed to be (which I take it is why a lot of sophisticated recent defenses of analytic metaphysics – e.g. by, Dorr, Cappelin, Williamson – explicitly reject intuition-based methodologies.)Report

Chris Tucker
Reply to  David Mark Wallace
1 year ago

David (if I may), I don’t think that follow-up is obvious to anyone but philosophers. I have given something like the above spiel to probably two dozen non-philosophers over the last few years. I’ve taught that idea to at least 25 intro students. Never once has any of these people asked me why it is worthwhile to systematize commonsense. About half a dozen times, however, someone has interrupted me with a knowing smirk and remarked that “Common sense isn’t very common these days.” What they mean, of course, is that a lot of people do and believe stupid things precisely because they violate common sense. It is common sense that common sense is important.

Part of the reason why I explain philosophy in the way that I do is precisely because non-philosophers have no trouble understanding why someone might want to get really clear about what common sense says and what it entails. In the quoted passage above, Longworth suggests that “common-sense is just our general ability to assess claims and courses of action”. That seems to be on the right track, and it would explain why non-philosophers find it to be common sense that common sense is valuable. Again, if you disregard common sense, then you end up believing or doing something stupid.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Chris Tucker
1 year ago

But now I’m concerned again about the ambiguity as to what “common sense” means. If it’s just “our general ability to assess claims and courses of action” it’s not obvious that it involves claims or intuitions at all, much less that those claims or intuitions are contradictory. If instead it involves substantive factual content (as when someone has an intuition that time passes, say), then we’re back to the question as to why that substantive factual content should be ascribed any weight at all.Report

Chris Tucker
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Here are two commonsensical claims: 1) if you see a bear, believe that a bear is there (and maybe don’t intentionally provoke the dangerous animal); and 2) it is morally wrong to torture for fun.

Here are two claims that violate commonsense: 3) you always ought to do what’s worst for you, and 4) nothing exists, not even me.

Now I am inclined to describe the difference between the first pair and second pair as the first pair being intuitive and the second pair being counterintuitive. I recognize that there are philosophers who reject the idea that there are intuitions. That’s fair game. This is philosophy. But it seems like common sense to many philosophers and many ordinary people that there are claims that are commonsensical (that are intuitive) and claims that violate common sense (that are counterintuitive).

I don’t think we need a refined definition of ‘common sense’ to make the above sort of distinctions.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Chris Tucker
1 year ago

OK, let me play with those examples in detail, to try to illustrate where we’re disagreeing. Firstly, two of them ( (2), (3) ) are ethical principles, and I’m much less sure of my ground there, so let’s stipulate that you’re right about how moral philosophy works.

That leaves three principles:
1a) If you see a bear, believe that a bear is there
1b) If a bear is there, don’t intentionally provoke it
4) nothing exists

For (1a), arguably (i.e., depending on your theory of perception) “I see a bear” entails “there is a bear such that I see it”. If that’s the right analysis, then (1a) reduces to “If P, believe that P”. I don’t think we need to appeal to common-sense intuitiveness to understand why, ceteris paribus, that’s a good epistemic norm.

Alternatively, (1a) might be something like “If you see something that looks a lot like a bear, believe that a bear is there”. That’s really bad epistemic advice: for me, like most people alive today, almost all the things I see that look like bears are pictures of bears, or statues of bears, or toy bears, and not actual bears. (Replace “bear” with “stegosaurus” to make the point even more strongly.) How do I know it’s bad advice? Detailed background empirical data, not intuition. (“If you see something that looks a lot like David Wallace, believe that David Wallace is there” is usually pretty good advice, though not if, e.g., you’ve got lots of reason to think that I’m in a different city from you right now.)

And there might be a subtler intermediate reading of (1a), where it’s good advice but not vacuously so – but if so, that tells us that it’s philosophically subtle just how to understand (1a), and that seems to get in the way of treating it just as intuitive deliverance of common sense.

As I understand it, (1b) is *mostly* good advice, at least for the bears one runs into in the North American woods, because those bears mostly don’t predate large mammals but are quite bad-tempered in some situations. Though someone whose “common sense” interpreted “don’t provoke” as “don’t make yourself known” would probably be making a mistake. If you ran into a mountain lion, it’s fairly bad advice: mountain lions sometimes do attack humans, especially young children, but shouting at them and throwing things tends to scare them off. If you ran into a polar bear, it’s probably also bad advice, because polar bears see humans as food and don’t need provoking in order to attack. (There probably isn’t any blanket *good* advice, to be fair: “shoot it” is probably the least bad advice in close quarters.)

I could be wrong about all these bits of animal advice (don’t plan your camping trip based on them) and I’ll happily be corrected – but by someone with appropriate domain-specific empirical data and/or evidence-supported theory, not by someone who appeals to common sense.

For (4), I don’t need to appeal to its unintuitiveness. There is a copy of ‘Word and Object’ on my bookshelf; hence, something is on my bookshelf; hence, something exists. Unless “intuition” becomes synonymous with “evidence”, it’s not intuitive that ‘Word and Object’ is on my bookshelf; it’s just true.

Of course, my evidence is not infallible. Some ontic structuralists (Steven French, maybe) who systematically want to reject the ‘object’ concept in metaphysics might indeed want to hold that nothing – that is, no thing – exists. It’s going to be uphill work for them to convince me, given how much of my antecedent evidence and theorizing seems to be stated in terms that presuppose objects: they’re going to have to show me how to recover at least some facsimile of that evidence and theorizing in their terms. And similarly for mereological nihilists, who maintain the slightly weaker (4′): nothing exists other than elementary simples, and in particular, I don’t exist. But in assessing the ontic structuralists’ claims, or the mereological nihilists’, I don’t see any reason why the *intuitiveness* of what they deny gets any particular weight.

I’m also not sure why claims like “I am whizzing around the Sun at thirty kilometers per second” or “time slows down when you move quickly” don’t equally well count as counterintuitive/violating common sense. It’s pretty routine, for scientists and lay people alike, to say that modern physics strongly violates common sense (and to loop back around to where we started this discussion, most of the non-philosophers I talk to are scientists, and that’s perhaps relevant to my own experience that non-philosophers are puzzled as to the point of systematizing common sense).Report

Chris Tucker
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

[Reply to your 10/31, 10:02am comment]
David, at the big picture level, I’m not sure how much we really disagree. I offered “systematize commonsense” as a way to characterize a central goal of philosophy for a specific audience, highly educated people with little to no prior understanding of what philosophy is. Part of the benefit of that characterization is that it helps the relevant audience understand why so many philosophical conclusions seem either obvious or ridiculous. Since non-philosophers generally find common sense to be valuable, it nonetheless gives them a sense of why philosophy is a worthwhile endeavor.

Now, given the audience, my characterization of philosophy’s methodology and central goals will have to be simplified and catered to the audience (to other philosophers, the use of “common sense” is probably more distracting than helpful). To be a good characterization, even a simplified one, a fair number of philosophers would have to agree that the characterization at least roughly captures a lot of what they are up to. It is not clear to me that you have tried to argue that my characterization fails this criterion.

Now, I agree that some philosophers will reject my characterization and/or some of its assumptions. As you note, some philosophers reject the existence and/or value of intuitions. Given the amount of disagreement in philosophy, I don’t think the existence of such philosophers calls into question whether my characterization is good for its intended audience. I also agree that I’m engaging in a little bit of a bait and switch for the sake of simplification (the transition from talking about common sense to talking about commonsense intuitions—and when I teach, I’ll transition from commonsense intuitions to intuitions in general). I agree (at least I think you were hinting) that one worry about my characterization is that it will over-count what counts as philosophy.

When I explain what philosophy is to intro students (rather than other academics at, say, a university reception), I have a bit more time to distinguish philosophy from other disciplines, such as science and math. I think a result of what I say to those students is that most, if not all, science will count as having at least a little philosophy in it. This result seems okay to me. (If it seems absurd to others, I probably could tweak what I say to students to avoid the result.)

I take it that physicists are doing something at least relevantly like philosophy when they end up rejecting a piece of common sense. Their arguments ultimately boil down to things like lots of accumulated observations—which common sense regards as evidence—and the physicists hold that the weight of all that evidence is strong enough to overturn some piece of common sense. Likewise, philosophers don’t reject a piece of common sense (or something highly intuitive) willy-nilly. Usually it is because it conflicts with something else that is highly intuitive or else it conflicts with lots of other things that are at least a little intuitive.

Now, we do disagree about some of the details. This probably means that we disagree about what counts as the best systematization of our intuitions (to the extent that we share approximately the same intuitions with approximately the same weight). I disagree that your 1a boils down to “If P, believe that P.” It’s not clear that you epistemically ought to believe every trivial truth regardless of what evidence you have for it. But if something is true and you see that it’s true, then it does seem that you epistemically ought to believe it.

I am a phenomenal conservative, so I will accept something like your alternative reduction of 1a, namely: if you seem to see that there is a bear, believe that there is a bear in the absence of countervailing considerations. But in the relevant sense of “seem to see that there is a bear”, we usually don’t take ourselves to “seem to see a bear” when we are looking at a stuffed bear. So the phenomenal conservative principle isn’t subject to the particular worries you were raising about the “looks a lot like a bear” principle. I didn’t go with a principle in terms of seeming to see, because I take it that the principle in terms of actual seeing is even more intuitive.
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David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Chris Tucker
1 year ago

Some scattered replies:

1) The bait-and-switch you mention is exactly the one I’m concerned about. If “common-sense” is just a synonym for something like our pre-philosophizing knowledge and means of inference, then that’s one thing. But when we shift to common-sense *intuitions*, that often seems to clear the way for intuitions like “I’m not moving really fast” or “moving clocks don’t run slow” that don’t (I claim) deserve any deference, and when we drop the “common-sense” bit altogether and just start talking about intuitions, I don’t see even prima facie why we should care about these.

2) I don’t think you’re right that scientists wait until “the weight of all that evidence is strong enough” to overturn a common-sense result: I don’t think common-sense intuitions get any weight at all in scientific practice. (Dennett has a nice quote that in most areas of science, calling a result “counter-intuitive” is a good thing; it’s only in philosophy that it counts as an objection.)

3) Purely descriptively it might be right that “philosophers don’t reject a piece of common sense (or something highly intuitive) willy-nilly. Usually it is because it conflicts with something else that is highly intuitive or else it conflicts with lots of other things that are at least a little intuitive.” But I’m claiming that if that is how philosophers reason, they need a good metatheory as to why reasoning that way leads to the truth. (And it certainly isn’t how all philosophers reason! I’m an advocate of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is wildly counter-intuitive: my reasons don’t have anything to do with saving other intuitive things, and I’m completely unmoved by its unintuitiveness.)Report

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Can you really say the reasons for advocating the many-worlds interpretation don’t have anything to do with saving other intuitive things. Here’s Tim Maudlin, in a recent popular piece for the institute of arts and ideas:

“But on the other hand, it is logically impossible for any empirical science to break free completely of common sense. For empirical theories ultimately appeal to experimental outcomes for their justification, and claims about experimental outcomes themselves draw their authority from common sense. The experimentalist informs us that 28% of the electrons in a certain experiment have been deflected upwards and 72% downwards. Why should we believe her? Because it is part of common sense to accept what we take to be the plain evidence of our senses in appropriate everyday situations.”

I’m sympathetic to the idea that philosophers often go too far in trying to save common sense, and that the weirdness of many-worlds shouldn’t count against it. But I think it’s overreaching to try to vindicate these thoughts by saying that the reasons in favor of it (or other weird empirical theories) have nothing to do with common sense. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Well, that comes back to this ambiguity about what “common sense” means. Maudlin’s use (I take it) is the fairly minimal use I more-or-less endorse earlier in this thread and describe earlier in that post as “just a synonym for something like our pre-philosophizing knowledge and means of inference”. (Though actually I think his detailed example doesn’t work: it’s no part of the “plain evidence of our senses” that some electrons go up and some go down, it’s a highly theory-laden inference from data, and in any case ex hypothesi someone other than me did the experiment. I believe the experimentalist because of confidence in the functioning of the experimental-physics community.)

(FWIW I think something like the Quinean Neurath’s-boat approach makes more sense of practice than a fixed common sense to which our science and philosophy perpetually have to answer: we have a bunch of things we think we know; any of them are open to revision and in the fulness of time maybe I’ll revise vast chunks of them, but at any given moment I have to hold the bulk of my current beliefs constant on pain of incoherence.)Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
1 year ago

I agree with Longworth’s characterization of the relationship between commonsense judgments and philosophical theorizing, but I also think he understates the case. Not only does the relationship he describes hold, but a stronger one does as well: philosophical theorizing is unintelligible without our commonsense competences. But maybe this is just too obvious to be worth stating.

The intelligibility of even the most abstract philosophical undertakings are parasitic upon ordinary human competence. Laying out and grasping a formal language (for whatever purposes you like, in whatever subdiscipline you like) is parasitic in this way. Even Hegel’s and Heidegger’s exotica are departures from, and thus understood only by reference to, (descriptions of) ordinary experience.

Whether common sense is the final court of appeal in a particular case is always debatable. But the debate and its terms are unintelligible without common sense.Report

David Mark Wallace
David Mark Wallace
1 year ago

There’s a problematic ambiguity (or, if you like, an unintentional bait-and-switch) between two different senses of “common-sense” here.

Maybe one coherent meaning of “common-sense” is something like: our pre-theoretic or folk-theoretic understanding of the macroscopic world around us, including our own language, and our ordinary reasoning processes. And then, sure: it’s highly plausible (pace Descartes and some of the logical positivists) that while any given bit of it is revisable, we can’t just discard it as a whole. But insofar as that’s true, it’s (a) not very controversial and (b) not specific to philosophy. The same arguments would apply in other humanities, and in the sciences. (And so this sort of “common sense” is pretty minimal, and perfectly compatible with, e.g., relativistic time dilation, or the fantastic ages revealed in the geological record, or the range of cognitive illusions to which we’re susceptible, or the weirdnesses of quantum theory.)

But there is a different usage (for which talk of “intutions” is often a tell): it’s the one that seems to apply when philosophers assess substantive metaphysical claims on a measure of how well they accord with common sense, or when recovery of common-sense intuitions is seen as a success criterion for a philosophical theory. That seems more specific to philosophy – and more open to methodological worries. (At least in metaphysics, I don’t see any reason why recovering common-sense intuitions in this sense should have any weight at all, let alone be a decisive factor.)Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  David Mark Wallace
1 year ago

I agree and would go even further. For one, I’d say that an intuition isn’t part of common sense unless it is expressed in a sentence that a common person with little-to-no understanding of philosophy is likely to agree to without hesitation. For instance, the transitivity of parthood may be intuitive, but it isn’t common sense in any meaningful sense of the phrase. That’s like saying the axiom of choice is part of common sense. If anything, common sense disagrees. RBG is part of the SCOTUS, but RBG’s left foot is not. Also, I think most of the common sense claims relevant to metaphysics aren’t intuitions. Saying that it is intuitive that there are statues and cats doesn’t really do statues and cats justice. When a statue has been melted down it has been destroyed. This is common sense. There’s nothing special we have to visualize to realize that the statue has been destroyed. On the other hand, the claim that the statue is located in the same place as the metal that makes it up sounds far too weird to count as common sense. If you say that to someone they are just as likely to ask you what you’re on about or say that the statue *just is* the metal as agree with you. Common sense is pretty indeterminate. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  YAAGS
1 year ago

Agreed. Philosophers’ use of “intuition” is often pretty rarified. I remember Tim Williamson recounting a conversation something like the following:

Williamson’s interlocutor: I am not my brain, because my brain weighs only a few pounds and I have an intuition that I don’t weigh only a few pounds.
Williamson: Intuition is a funny way to weigh yourself.Report

Tim Maudlin
Tim Maudlin
1 year ago

Responding to David Wallace above:

Of course, all I meant by “The experimentalist informs us that 28% of the electrons in a certain experiment have been deflected upwards and 72% downwards. Why should we believe her? Because it is part of common sense to accept what we take to be the plain evidence of our senses in appropriate everyday situations.” was the report that 28% of the marks formed on the screen were above the midline and 72% below, not some theory-inflected claim about how those marks were formed, if that is what you are concerned about. The common sense claim would be accepted by someone with zero specialized training. If you want to cast doubt on that claim, then it is extremely obscure how there can be any empirical data appealed to to adjudicate theoretical disputes. Even on Neurath’s boat, you can’t just the remove 50% of the hull and get to work patching it. A wholesale questioning of. common sense. would be like that.Report