Dr. Ben Carson, the distinguished Secretary of the Housing and Urban Development department, recently sought to calmly assess the COVID-19 pandemic and the equally virulent panic paralyzing the nation. Concluding his remarks he said we really need some “common sense” to deal with the crisis. In the light of his Christian faith, he probably shares the view of G.K. Chesterton, who (in one of his Father Brown stories, “The Oracle of the Dog”) said: “the first effect of not believing in God is that you lose your common sense.” The need for such common sense is urged in Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World (New York: Encounter Books, c. 2019), by Robert Curry, who seeks to follow the example of George Orwell, of whom Lionel Trilling said: “The medium of his thought is common sense, and his commitment to intellect is fortified by an old-fashioned faith that the truth can be got at, that we can, if we actually want to, see the object as it really is.” Curry wants to introduce Americans to a way of thinking that was quite common a century ago, for it was “the coin of the realm in American thought.”
Unfortunately, such common sense realism has been largely supplanted by ideologies (e.g. Romanticism or Progressivism or Freudianism or Postmodernism or Transgenderism) of various sorts. For example, powerful elites in America deny the self-evident differences between men and women. “Today, academic and cultural elites as well as government officials insist that ‘gender identity’ is more real than biology” (p. 23). Thus they claim to discern 63 or more “genders,” and we’re asked to embrace the dogma that “marriage” can describe unions of alternative sorts. As Bruce Fleming says: “‘The dogma of the intellectual upper classes today is a bedrock belief in what I call “linguistic realism” . . . . If I say I am a woman, I am a woman, whatever others think. If I say I feel myself to be oppressed, I am. If I say that I was the victim of what we call sexual assault, I am—even if a court later decides there was no assault and hence no victim’” (p. 95). To have asked a farmer in Kansas in 1890 about such “genders” or “assaults” would have elicited from him, most probably, sheer speechlessness! One could not even imagine such silliness. This farmer’s reaction would be simple common sense!
The Kansas farmer would not likely have attended school very long, but such schooling would have been rooted in a common sense philosophy then widely embraced by the schools. Common sense was, the historian Arthur Hermon said, “virtually the official creed of the American Republic.” This faculty, he says, “‘belongs to everyone, rich or poor, educated or uneducated; indeed, we exercise it every day in hundreds of ways.’” It’s not infallible, of course, but many things are simply self-evident—“‘the existence of the real world and basic moral truths’” that “‘are no sooner understood than they are believed’” because they “‘carry the light of truth itself’” (p. 27). In leading universities, such as Princeton, this “common sense realism” held sway for much of the 19th century. It was deeply shaped by an important 18th century Scottish philosopher, Thomas Reid, a Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, who said: “‘If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them; these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd’” (p. 29).
Curry seeks, in this treatise, to simply explain and defend the thought of Thomas Reid. So doing he rejects many modern philosophers, starting with Rene Descartes, who doubted everything other than their own subjective selves. Descartes, the “father of modern philosophy,” famously declared “Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am.” He began with with himself and erected a philosophical system, setting forth an approach largely followed by hundreds of other less astute thinkers. But Reid and his epigones thought we are equally if indeed not more certain that the world and other people really exist. “There is no need to prove that the world and other people exist, just as there is no need to prove that tables can’t sing arias or that carafes cannot at the same time be women. Stated, put into language, they are self-evident truths, which cannot and need not be proved.” And these are the truths we must assert.
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The United States was founded, Robert Curry believes, by thoughtful men who took their bearings from the Scottish Common Sense tradition (“one of the most remarkable developments in the history of the world”), and he defends this thesis in Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea (New York: Encounter Books, c. 2015; Kindle Edition). Bearing witness to this position he cites Alexander Hamilton, who said: “The sacred rights of mankind are . . . written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” His frequent adversary, Thomas Jefferson, put the same truth more famously: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Trusting the perspicacity of such Founders, Curry dedicates his book “to the proposition that we need to understand the language of the Founders if we want to understand the ideas of the Founders. It will also tell the story of the systematic effort to bury the ideas of the Founders ” (p. xvii).
The Founders’ ideas were grounded in those self-evident truths they considered foundational. They thereby embraced the Scottish common sense philosophy shaped by eminent thinkers such as Thomas Reid and Adam Smith. It came to America via emigrating scholars (preeminently clergymen such as John Witherspoon) and young Americans such as Benjamin Rush who studied in Scotland—major figures in the “American Enlightenment,” which was something quite different from the French Enlightenment. Consequently, historian Allen Guelzo, says: “‘Before the Civil War, every major [American] collegiate intellectual was a disciple of Scottish common sense realism’” (p. 7). The Founders certainly cited Montesquieu and John Locke, but it was the Scots who showed them ways “to fashion government along unprecedented lines—and to find a hitherto undreamed of way to realize Locke’s revolutionary claim that the supreme political power in every commonwealth is the people. When it came time to lay the foundation for the new nation and its government, the Founders went to work thoroughly grounded in the philosophical arguments the Scots advanced. It was those arguments that showed the Founders a way forward. It enabled them to go beyond the idea of a monarchy with its power somewhat limited by a Bill of Rights, and to make the American experiment in government by, for, and of the people” (p. 14).
They did so, in part, because the Founders were largely educated by Scots such as William Small, “by far the most brilliant member of the faculty at William and Mary,” who taught Jefferson. At Princeton Madison was quite influenced by President John Witherspoon, who had studied with Adam Smith and Thomas Reid in Scotland. Witherspoon himself would sign the Declaration of Independence, and his influence was prodigious, for his “students by one count included, among many others, five delegates to the Constitutional Convention, twenty-eight U.S. senators, forty-nine U.S. representatives, twelve governors, three Supreme Court Justices, eight U.S. district judges, three attorneys general, and many members of state constitutional conventions and state ratifying conventions. Is it any wonder that the ideas and arguments of Reid and Smith and their Scottish colleagues are everywhere in the writings of the Founders? Witherspoon’s course in moral philosophy, which he dictated year after year in largely unchanging form and which his students copied down faithfully, is almost certainly the most influential single college course in America’s history” (p. 19). Hamilton was tutored at King’s College (now Columbia), by Robert Harpur, who had also studied at Glasgow, absorbing the Scottish Common Sense perspective. “The ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were studied and hotly debated just about everywhere in colonial America.” Throughout the land, in all the colonial colleges, says Douglass Adair, “‘the young men who rode off to war in 1776 had been trained in the texts of Scottish social science’” (pp. 16-18).
Importantly, Common Sense thinkers believed we have an innate “moral sense” providing important ethical precepts. There are some things we can’t not know! Recently advocating this perspective, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said: “We are born with a sense of justice in our souls; we can’t and don’t want to live without it!” Similarly, in 1787, writing to his nephew, Thomas Jefferson said: “Man was destined for society . . . He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality . . . The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of a man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree . . . It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. “ Twenty-eight years later he said virtually the same thing in a letter to John Adams. These words clearly reflect the views of Francis Hutcheson, the leading spokesman for Scottish moral sense philosophy.
Textbook treatments of the Declaration of Independence routinely credit John Locke for the views set forth by Jefferson. Curry, however, wants us to see it in the light of Scottish thinkers who constantly critiqued Locke. Consider the famous “self-evident truths” Jefferson cited. In an 1825 letter to Henry Lee, he said that while writing the Declaration he sought: “Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of . . . but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject . . . it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.” This is not a Lockean notion! Rather, it was Thomas Reid who had “made self-evident truths the foundation of his philosophy, the philosophy of common sense realism. Reidian common sense is the human faculty by means of which we can grasp self-evident truths. It is a power like Hutcheson’s moral sense or the sense of sight or of hearing. Therefore, common sense is the power that makes human understanding possible” (p. 55). Reid at times equated “self-evident truths” with “first principles,” which are “‘propositions which are no sooner understood than they are believed . . . [having] the light of truth in itself.” Similarly, Alexander Hamilton said, in Federalist 31, that “there are certain primary truths, or first principles, upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend. These contain an internal evidence which, antecedent to all reflection or combination, commands the assent of the mind.” Saying so, Hamilton could easily have been quoting Reid!
After analyzing the Declaration of Independence Curry turns to the Constitution, and its defense in the Federalist Papers, which obviously leads to citing their primary authors, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Unlike the utopian romantics, such as Rousseau, who helped shape the French Revolution, American revolutionaries took a realistic approach to human nature and politics. In important ways their views resembled Scottish Presbyterianism; indeed King George III called the Americans’ revolt “a Presbyterian Rebellion.” The church in Scotland, with its uniquely representative form of government, illustrated the popular sovereignty invoked by the Founders. At the Constitutional Convention, Madison’s “Virginia Plan” closely resembled the Presbyterian system. And so did Madison’s understanding of human nature. Thus: “Madison was fighting for a radical re-conception of the relationship of mankind and the state” based upon natural rights, given by God and not the state, nor by any “contract” established by earlier generations. “‘The rights were there all along.’ That is to say, our rights are inherent, part of our nature as human beings, unalienable. In order to understand the Founders, we need to recognize their intent: to design America’s government guided by this new understanding of the nature of our rights, and, insofar as possible, to design government so as to protect and preserve those rights” (p. 85).
The Founders’ common sense philosophy, however, was abandoned by the Progressives who gained power at the beginning of the 20th century. Emblematic of this change is Woodrow Wilson, who embraced an evolutionary worldview that justified replacing the written Constitution with constantly changing edicts and laws designed to meet current demands. He scoffed at any notions of “self-evident” truths or “inalienable rights” as fantasies of earlier times. Wilson embraced the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel which was in vogue when he went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins, where virtually all the professors had secured their Ph.D.s in Germany. Hegel celebrated the powerful state rather than personal freedom. “For Hegel, the movement of the state through time was the ‘march of God on earth” (p. 164). Successive progressive presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, followed Wilson and rejected “the Constitutional safeguards of individual liberty in favor of the government’s ability to bring about social change, favors an ever expanding and activist role for government in society, such as government control of health care, government intervention in the economy and so on” (p. 150).
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In my many years teaching introductory philosophy classes I never discussed Thomas Reid. And I’d never read any of his books. Recently prompted by Robert Curry’s discussion of common sense philosophy I secured and read Reid’s An Inquiry into the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense (Kindle Edition). He begins with a simple declaration: “Wise men now agree, or ought to agree, in this, that there is but one way to the knowledge of nature’s works—the way of observation and experiment” (#65). Throughout history man has reasoned from observable events to their explanations, employing “the same method by which Newton discovered the law of gravitation and the properties of light. His regulæ philosophandi are maxims of common sense, and are practiced every day in common life; and he who philosophizes by other rules, either concerning the material system or concerning the mind, mistakes his aim. Conjectures and theories are the creatures of men, and will always be found very unlike the creatures of God. If we would know the works of God, we must consult themselves with attention and humility, without daring to add anything of ours to what they declare.”
Descartes, uttering his famous Cogito ergo sum, “resolved not to believe his own existence till he should be able to give a good reason for it.” If, in fact, he could actually doubt his own existence, Reid thought, “his case would have been deplorable,” for anyone who “disbelieves his own existence” is as deranged as one who “believes he is made of glass.” Nevertheless Descartes sought to move from certain internal truths to then “prove the existence of a material world: and with very bad success.” He (along with John Locke and William Berkeley and David Hume in different ways) invoked “philosophy to furnish them with reasons for the belief of those things which all mankind have believed, without being able to give any reason for it” (#174). Without intending to, they all espoused positions that would inevitably lead to an “abyss of skepticism” as was demonstrably evident in the works of David Hume. To refute the skeptics Reid devoted successive chapters to describing and analyzing the five physical senses—smelling; tasting; hearing; touching; seeing. When we smell the scent of a rose, we simply testify to the undeniability of an existing reality. We can do no more than observe that something smells. Likewise we have memories of scents in the past. “Sensation and memory, therefore, are simple, original, and perfectly distinct operations of the mind, and both of them are original principles of belief. . . . . Sensation implies the present existence of its object; memory its past existence” (#362). From our sensations we can infer that we have a mind capable of knowing the world around us. We know the things we sense—not simply the ideas in our minds concerning these things. But the “wisdom of philosophy” sought to demonstrate the primacy of sensations or ideas in the mind rather than assume the reality of the material world. Implausibly, to Reid, “wisdom” philosophers such as Descartes and Locke “maintained, that colour, sound, and heat, are not any thing in bodies, but sensations of the mind.” Denying color resides in things, Reid contends, is “nothing else but an abuse of words,” capriciously changing the “meaning of a common word” (#1342). He sided with ordinary folks who simply assume that colors and sounds reside in things independent of the mind.
If Descartes and Locke are “wise men,” Reid declared,“let me be deluded with the vulgar.” To him, “Common sense and reason have both one Author, —that Almighty Author, in all whose other works we observe a consistency, uniformity, and beauty, which charm and delight the understanding: there must therefore be some order and consistency in the human faculties, as well as in other parts of his workmanship.” Obviously the “belief of a material world is older, and of more authority, than any principles of philosophy.” So too is our awareness of “first principles” given us by the Author of our being, our human nature. “Such principles are parts of our constitution, no less than the power of thinking: reason can neither make nor destroy them; nor can it do any thing without them . . . A mathematician cannot prove the truth of his axioms, nor can he prove any thing, unless he takes them for granted. We cannot prove the existence of our minds, nor even of our thoughts and sensations. A historian, or a witness, can prove nothing, unless it is taken for granted that the memory and senses may be trusted. A natural philosopher can prove nothing, unless it is taken for granted that the course of nature is steady and uniform. How or when I got such first principles, upon which I build all my reasoning, I know not; for I had them before I can remember: but I am sure they are parts of my constitution, and that I cannot throw them off” (#1060).
Concluding his essay, Reid explains, with compelling clarity: “when I feel the pain of the gout in my toe, I have not only a notion of pain, but a belief of its existence, and a belief of some disorder in my toe which occasions it; and this belief is not produced by comparing ideas, and perceiving their agreements and disagreements; it is included in the very nature of the sensation. When I perceive a tree before me, my faculty of seeing gives me not only a notion or simple apprehension of the tree, but a belief of its existence, and of its figure, distance, and magnitude; and this judgment or belief is not got by comparing ideas, it is included in the very nature of the perception.” Such “original and natural judgments are therefore a part of that furniture which nature hath given to the human understanding. They are the inspiration of the Almighty, no less than our notions or simple apprehensions. They serve to direct us in the common affairs of life, where our reasoning faculty would leave us in the dark. They are a part of our constitution, and all the discoveries of our reason are grounded upon them. They make up what is called the common sense of mankind, and what is manifestly contrary to any of those first principles, is what we call absurd. The strength of them is good sense, which is often found in those who are not acute in reasoning. A remarkable deviation from them, arising from a disorder in the constitution, is what we call lunacy; as when a man believes that he is made of glass. When a man suffers himself to be reasoned out of the principles of common sense by metaphysical arguments, we may call this metaphysical lunacy; which differs from the other species of the distemper in this, that it is not continued, but intermittent: it is apt to seize the patient in solitary and speculative moments; but when he enters into society, common sense recovers her authority. A clear explication and enumeration of the principles of common sense, is one of the chief desiderata in logic” (#3841).
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Paul A. Boer, Sr. has edited a helpful book: Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense, (Veritatis Splendor Publications, c. 2002; Kindle Ed) and included writings by Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson, James Beattie, and Duncan Stewart, who were all alarmed by the skepticism of David Hume. Reading them reminds one of the perduring wisdom of the philosophical realism variously espoused by Aristotle and Aquinas and of the fact that “the Philosophy of Common Sense was the dominant philosophy in the American Universities,” and left its imprint on this nation, both theologically (in the Princeton school) and politically (in the thought of the Founders).