Common Sense and the Common Sense Tradition

HomeArticlesCommon Sense and the Common Sense Tradition

The philosophical and political import of common sense is strikingly suggested in a passage from Eric Voegelin’s Autobiographical Reflections. The passage has the additional merit of highlighting the surprising philosophic richness of American culture and outlook. As a young German scholar studying in America at Columbia University around 1922, Voegelin found himself “overwhelmed by a new [cultural and intellectual] world of which hitherto I had hardly expected the existence.” He took courses with John Dewey, among others, and repairing often to the university library “started working through he history of English philosophy and its expansion into American thought.” His account of what he learned in the process is illuminating:

“I discovered English and American common sense philosophy. More im­mediately, the impact came through Dewey’s recent book, Human Nature and Conduct, which was based on the English common sense tradition. From there, I worked back to Thomas Reid and Sir William Hamilton. This English and Scottish conception of common sense as a human attitude that incorporates a philosopher’s attitude toward life without the philosopher’s technical apparatus, and inversely the understanding of Classic and Stoic philosophy as the technical, analytical elaboration of the common sense attitude, has remained a lasting in­fluence in my understanding both of common sense and [of] Classic philosophy. It was during this time that I got the first inkling of what the continued tradition of Classic philosophy on the common sense level, without necessarily the tech­nical apparatus of an Aristotle, could mean for the intellectual climate and the cohesion of a society.”

“Precisely this tradition of common sense I now recognized to be the factor that was signally absent from the German social scene, and not so well developed in France as it was in England and America. In retrospect, I would say that the absence of political institutions rooted in an intact common sense tradition is a fundamental defect of the German political structure that still has not been over­come . . . . During my year in New York, I began to sense that American society had a philosophical background far superior in range and existential substance, though not always in articulation, to anything that I found represented in the methodological environment in which I had grown up.”1

The passage indicates the meaning of “common sense,” its importance in the history of philosophy, and the political ramifications of its presence or absence as a cultural force. Let us consider each of these points in turn.

Voegelin actually addresses only part of the meaning of common sense here, albeit the most fundamental part. Frits van Holthoon and David R. Olson have suggested, persuasively, that all the various employments of the term “com­mon sense” are rooted in two related notions: common sense as “judgment, the capacity to recognize self-evident truths,” and common sense as the body of knowledge constituted by such truths.2

“Common sense,” then, has reference sometimes to a capacity of mind and sometimes to what is known through that capacity when it is finely attuned to reality. When we speak of a man having common sense, sometimes we mean the basic rational capacity of normally functioning persons, the ordinary variety intended when we say “that’s just common sense”; and sometimes we mean not any mental capacity but rather a certain mental achievement, as in good sense, or what [Paul Henri] d’Holbach had in mind when he said “nothing is more uncommon than common sense.”3

The Sense Common to All Men

The first kind is (as Reid described it, indicating its political significance) the degree of reason “which is necessary to our being subjects of law and government, capa­ble of managing our own affairs, and answerable to our conduct towards oth­ers: this is called common sense, because it is common to all men with whom we can transact business, or call to account for their conduct.”4

The second kind of common sense is a product of exercising this basic capacity over and over again. It presupposes the capacity for judgment but is itself a certain men­tal disposition, an openness of consciousness to all that experience may show. Thus, as Voegelin said, it is a kind of “attitude” or posture toward reality, what I will call a “grounded mode of consciousness,” as it is grounded in and by expe­rience. “Experience” here has two meanings: contact with the world (whether the physical or the mental dimensions of it), what we call “primary experience,” and then the kind of long acquaintance with the world, or with parts of it, that makes one ready to deal with it effectively.

The common sense attitude is grounded in experience, in the sense of staying in touch with the world (again, with mental and physical realities alike), and it is grounded by experience, in that it is the fruit of innumerable encounters with the world’s basic features and innumerable judgments both of fact and logic (though the logic may not be formally recognized). The common sense attitude, once highly developed, enables the clarification, collection, and synthesis of common sense truths into a body of knowledge accessible to a broader community.

Someone is certain to call into question the possibility of “self-evidence” and to object specifically that what one man considers self-evident another will call rubbish. Answering this objection fully would take a book of its own, but let me proffer some indication of an answer here. Self-evident truths can be known only experientially. If someone points at this lamp and demands to know how we know the lamp is really there, the answer can only be, “Why, we know the lamp by experiencing it, and there is no other way it can be known.” Similarly, if it be true that “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, [including] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” we know this to be true only by “seeing” it through lived experience—by observ­ing, for example, the necessity of security of life and the free pursuit of happiness for meaningful human existence and realizing the absurdity of denying these to anyone arbitrarily.

Self-evident truths are not necessarily evident to everyone; they are evident only to those who have seen the evidence and who have viewed the relevant data with sufficient attention. They are truths that every clear-eyed, unbiased observer would recognize if only he looked in the right place. Generally, then, appeal to common sense is an appeal to “what can be commonly sensed,” what can be sensed, not necessarily what actually is sensed.5 The hard-core skep­tic or cynic will hardly be satisfied with this answer. It is fashionable in today’s intellectual climate to ask, like Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” and not stay for an answer. This kind of reader will probably have set the book aside already. So, for those who read on, all I ask is that they be open to the possibility that things can be recognized to be, or to be true, and when one alleged self-evident matter or another is fingered, to look closely and see for themselves.

There is a third kind of common sense that grows out of the other two, and it is of capital importance for politics. This is the common understanding or feel­ing of a people about what is right and good. The common sense of a people may or may not be grounded in cultivated common sense, and there may be factors at work in a particular polity that undermine, suppress, or oppose the operation of the first two kinds of common sense, and so the communal sense of justice and humanity may be twisted. The absence of cultivated common sense, the lack of a common sense tradition, can make a society vulnerable to social breakdown and self-destruction, as Voegelin suggested. Discovering how common sense rationality may be protected, nourished, and institutionalized is therefore of paramount concern for political science.

The Origins of Common Sense Philosophy

“Common sense philosophy” was a philosophical movement of the late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries that had its roots in England, grew up in Scotland, and found its warmest reception in America. Pragmatism, that home-grown American philosophy, has its own roots in this earlier movement and must be accounted an extension of the “tradition of common sense” that Voegelin speaks of.

But the classical and Stoic philoso­phers had recognized the importance of the existential posture that Voegelin calls the “common sense attitude” long before Anglo-American common sense philosophy was ever born, and conceptually the latter tradition owes much to those ancient philosophic pioneers. The classic and Stoic philosophers as well as the British and American thinkers of later times took the common sense atti­tude as the starting point for philosophy, and both the earlier and later thinkers thought it imperative, in all their theorizing, to keep their thought anchored in it.

Indeed, as Voegelin suggests, the fundamentals of truth and right were to all of these thinkers simply a working out and elaboration of this mental orienta­tion and all that it revealed. Thus, though the term “common sense philoso­phy” derives from a particular philosophical movement, it may be employed (as it is here) as a descriptive term for all philosophy that understands common sense as the root of philosophizing and that takes philosophy to need common sense as much as common sense needs philosophy.

The first political significance of ordinary common sense was suggested by Reid: the very possibility of human society depends on it. The extraordinary kind of common sense is no less necessary for the full flourishing of human so­ciety. That a good social life depends on men of seasoned judgment is perhaps too obvious to need saying. The fact that judicious decision-making involves recognizing self-evident facts and truths is less appreciated. This does not mean, of course, that these facts or truths are always recognized as self-evident. Very few have considered the status of common sense philosophically, and for most practical purposes it is not necessary to do so.

The Philosophical Tradition

Belgian Philosopher Herman Parret traces “two rough lines of interest in common sense in the history of philosophical doctrines.” The first, “the Aristotelian line introduces common sense as a category in the theory of perception: common sense is used to explain the consciousness of perception.” The second one is “rooted in the notion of koinai ennoiai developed by the Stoics and used for the axioms of theories and geometry and pure mathematics, too),” leading to “Kant’s Gemeinsinn.6

Actually, these are only the two lines of epistemological interest in common sense. There is a third line of interest critical to the present inquiry, raised just a moment ago: common sense as a community’s sense of what is good and right. This third line finds its classic expression in Giambattista Vico. While certainly distinct from the purely epistemological question, the phe­nomenon of the sense of a community is nonetheless inseparably connected to it: common sense as communal sense is grounded on some level in per­ceptual or intuitive experience.

Aristotle might be considered the first and greatest common sense philoso­pher. He was the first to use “common sense” as a technical term, and some­thing of his meaning has persisted through the whole history of the concept. In De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle describes koine aesthesis (common sensa­tion) as the awareness of external objects through the coming together of our special sensations (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell), that is, perception of “things” and their varying states and modes.7

This common sensation is what enables us to perceive “movement, rest, number, shape and size, such being not special to any one sense but common to all.”8 He does not in De Anima unequivocally indicate a faculty or power of soul that performs this operation, but most interpreters of Aristotle have taken him there to imply such a faculty,9 something he in fact explicitly affirms in Parva Naturalia.10 As Peter van Kessel puts it, this faculty is “the sense which converts the impressions given by the five senses into one unity of sensations connected to the one object and origin of these impressions.”11 Aristotle’s faculty of common sense, then, is that inner sense by which we perceive objects immediately before us as objects, rather than as heaps of disconnected sensations.

Aristotle also, following Plato, modeled the common sense way of phi­losophizing (though he did not use the term “common sense” to describe it): starting with common experiences and common opinions, on the intuition that, being so common, they will reveal on critical examination something about human nature and human potential (See Nichomachean Ethics 1.4). Some opinions when tested will be found to be erroneous, but even wrong opinions, if they are very common, should reveal something.

For instance, in Book 1 of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle raises the question of what constitutes happiness and finds the usual answers reducible to honor, wealth, pleasure, and virtue (by the last he means a certain inward order and harmo­ny derived from exercising one’s capacities to their fullest potential). He tries to show that the last is the right answer — virtue in his sense is the truest hap­piness — but the prevalence of the wrong answers tells something about uni­versal human drives and goods.

Virtue is the right answer not because honor, wealth, and pleasure have no value but because they are of comparatively less value than virtue. Each of them is valuable in its own way because each answers to some fundamental human need or desire, and these needs and desires ultimately reveal the basic components of human nature.12 (Compare Plato’s discussion of the basic human loves and their connections to the parts of the soul in Books 8 and 9 of The Republic.)

Further, Aristotle’s understanding of intellection as the intuitive grasp of first principles and prudence, enabled by phronesis, or practical wisdom, as the application of these principles in action to the circumstances in which one is placed corresponds exactly to the intellectual and practical dimensions of common sense as elaborated by arguably the greatest modem common sense philoso­pher, certainly the greatest associated with the term “common sense philoso­phy,” Thomas Reid, though Reid like other Scottish realists was not quite able to capture the dynamic of phronesis. In fact, Reid could fairly be described as being in many respects a modern Aristotelian.13

Aristotle describes intellection and prudence in Book 6 of the Nichomachean Ethics. These are in their moral operation the concrete basis for his natural right, though he does not make this as clear as his great admirer and expositor Thomas Aquinas does.14  Finally, Aristotle articulates the essence of common sense on the social level as the rational sense of a community about what is good, right, and in the com­mon interest with his notion of homonoia, or “concord” (literally, like-mindedness).

In the Nichomachean Ethics he describes homonoia as friendship among fellow citizens of good character based on having the “same judgment” about “what is in the common interest and what is important for life,” this judgment leading them to “choose the same things, and . . . execute what they have de­cided in common.”15 In particular homonoia leads to a common “wish” and de­termination, among ordinary and great alike, “that the best men should rule.”16 Homonoia, then, is in its fullest import a practical mode of rationality and the ground of inspired and noble politics.

Aquinas later translated Aristotle’s koine aesthesis as sensus communis, the Latin basis of our English “common sense.” But in Aquinas’s handling, as Frits van Holthoon points out, “sensus communis became almost a synonym for reason.”17 In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas describes the faculty this way:

“The proper sense judges of the proper sensible by discerning it from other things which come under the same sense; for instance, by discerning white from black or green. But neither sight nor taste can discern white from sweet: because what discerns between two things, must know both. Wherefore the discerning judgment must be assigned to the common sense; to which, as to a common term, all apprehensions of the senses must be referred: and by which, again, all the intentions of the senses are perceived; as when someone sees what he sees.”18

Thomas thus seems to go beyond Aristotle to make sensus communis “the locus of the discerning judgment.”19 Right judgment or the capacity for it, indeed, is the essence of common sense in both its personal and, as Aristotle suggested in his analysis of Homonoia, its political modes. Sensus communis was a term widely used during Roman times, in both for­mal and informal contexts. Aquinas thus chose for his translation of koine, “aesthesis,” a term of great currency.


Cicero had made several references to sensus communis in his writings and public speeches but had never made use of it as a technical philosophical concept. Cicero used it in the popular sense of “the notions or norms men in society hold in common.” He seemed to be close, however, to fusing its meaning with that of another term that bulked large in his political philosophy: humanitas, a word rich in connotations, signifying variously (1) “human nature, humanity, the qualities, feelings and inclinations of mankind”; (2) “humane or gentle conduct toward others, humanity, phi­lanthropy, kindness, politeness”; and (3) “mental cultivation befitting a man, a liberal education, good breeding, refinement, elegant manners.”

Dutch philosophy historian S. E. W. Bugter writes, “Humanitas in classical Latin is the counterpart of our modern com­mon sense, gezond verstand (in Dutch), gesunder Menshenverstand (German), or le bon sens (in French).”20 The meanings of humanitas, Bugter says, correspond closely to the four connotations of sensus communis that C. S. Lewis delineates in his essay on “Sense” in Studies in Words: (1) “the elementary mental outfit of normal man,” (2) “sensus communis as a social virtue,” (3) “sensus communis as common wit,” and (4) “sensus communis [as] a collection of all our experiences, emotions, thoughts, opinions, etc.,” that is, “the collection of all the sensus that we have in common, because they are ‘normal.'”21

The Stoic koine ennoiai (common conceptions) are “the axioms of theorizing and the norms of practical life, . . . principles of reason in theory and practice, and are thus transcendental preconditions of reasoning (theoretically and practi­cally).”22 The koine ennoiai, then, are something like Aristotle’s first principles — indemonstrable, self-evident principles that are primary in the sense that they are and must be presupposed, taken for granted, in all our reasonings.23 Kant’s Gemeinsinn (common sense) has a similar meaning. In the Critique of Judg­ment, Kant presents Gemeinsinn as the “possibility ground of the conditions” (Parret’s language) of both theoretical and practical reason. That is, common sense provides the preconditions of both. It is thus the very root of rationality. Parret explains that “Common sense [for Kant] appears just at the parting of theory and practice, or at the crossroads where conditions of valid knowledge and conditions of good life meet.”24

Vico and the Sense of Community

In the early eighteenth century, Giambattista Vico employed the Latin sensus communis in his theory of common sense, giving it, however, a rather more involved significance than Aquinas contemplated. Vico’s sensus communis, in fact, combined the meanings of koine aesthesis and koine ennoiai together with the notion of the sense of a community to produce the very rich conception of “the primary truths residual in society,” that is, the primary truths that are universal but linguistically and culturally mediated.25

As John D. Schaeffer ob­serves, Vico’s sensus communis contains a sense of the natural law in recogniz­ing the “underlying agreements” about basic human needs and utilities that obtain among all nations.26 At the same time, according to Vico’s understand­ing, “The sensus communis cannot be merely a static set of values embodied in a literary canon [but, rather,] is a capital constantly changing its outline as it is invested in various causes. The sensus communis is constantly reinterpreted and reshaped by the decisions of the community.”27

Vico may have been influenced in his thinking about sensus communis by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury, who may fairly be considered the originator of British common sense philosophy. Shaftesbury was Vico’s con­temporary and lived in Italy for a time. According to Schaeffer, the two men may have had opportunity to meet and exchange ideas.28

British Common Sense Philosophy

Shaftesbury had been working on a theory of sensus communis before Vico developed his own theory in De nostri temporis studiorum ratione (On the study methods of our time) and further in the Scienza Nuova (New Science). Shaftesbury, however, traced the English “common sense” back to the Stoics’ koinonoemosune (objectively, the commonly perceived or thought; subjectively, like-mindedness) rather than to koine aesthesis. In his essay on Sensus communis, Shaftesbury provides in a foot­note a remarkable account of the early development of the concept. Here is the substantive gist:

“The Greek word is κοινονομοσυνη, which Salmasius interprets “the moderate, the usual and respected mind of a man, which takes thought for the communal good in some way and does not refer everything to its own advantage, and also has regard of those with whom it is engaged, thinking modestly and rea­sonably about itself. But on the other hand, all the conceited and arrogant think that they are born only for themselves and their own benefits and, in favour of themselves, they disdain and neglect others. And these are those who can prop­erly be said not to possess sensus communis.”29

Here we see common sense as a virtue, and the lack of it a vice. Shaftesbury sums up the Stoic meaning of sensus communis (as generally understood by Juvenal, Marcus Aurelius, Horace, Seneca, and Cicero) as the “sense of the public weal and the common interest, love of the community or society, natural affection, humanity, obligingness, or that sort of civility which rises from a just sense of the common rights of mankind, and the natural equality there is among those of the same species.” 30

Vico clearly drew on these overlapping Roman connota­tions in his theory of sensus communis, as did Shaftesbury. Whether they did so independently or Vico was motivated to work out his own more systematic view by Shaftesbury’s beginning remains a mystery.

Shaftesbury’s account was in its own right a brilliant synthesis and extension of the Roman senses of the concept.31 He conceived of sensus communis as a kind of social recognition of natural right, marked by an abiding concern for the public good. It was a kind of rationally substantive public spiritedness. This public spiritedness was rooted in natural social “affection,” and the naturalness of this affection, when persisted in, became self-evident to men of common sense, ultimately revealing timeless truths of human value. “A public spirit,” Shaftesbury says, “can come only from a social feeling or sense of partnership with humankind.” Fortunately, the requisite “social feeling” is natural:

“If eating and drinking be natural, herding is so too. If any appetite or sense be natural, the sense of fellowship is the same. If there be anything of nature in that affection which is between the sexes, the affection is certainly as natural towards the consequent offspring and so again between the offspring themselves, as kin­dred and companions, bred under the same discipline and economy. And thus a clan or tribe is gradually formed, a public is recognized, and, besides the plea­sure found in social entertainment, language and discourse, there is so apparent a necessity for continuing this good correspondency and union that to have no sense or feeling of this kind, no love of country, community or anything in com­mon, would be the same as to be insensible even of the plainest means of self-preservation and most necessary condition of self-enjoyment.”

Only “a more contracted public” (subnational) can have genuine community, Shaftesbury says. Sensus communis is there direct and palpable, while on the level of “the body politic at large,” only the idea of it holds. The idea of it or, rather, a passionate attachment to the idea of it is nonetheless absolutely es­sential for the health of the body politic. For without a spirited devotion to the notion of sensus communis, political society will inevitably be rent by the “spirit of faction,” which is after all “no other than the abuse or irregularity of that social love and common affection which is natural to mankind.”

Self-Interest Does Not Explain Social Order

It is patent to Shaftesbury that self-interest is inadequate as a source of social order. He blasts the “modern projectors” and the “narrow-minded phi­losophers” (he seems to have Hobbes and Locke chiefly in mind) who aim at “conquering nature” in order to “build after a more uniform way.” “You have heard it, my friend, as a common saying that ‘interest governs the world.’ But, I believe, whoever looks narrowly [closely] into the affairs of it will find that passion, humour, caprice, zeal, faction and a thousand other springs, which are counter to self-interest, have as considerable a part in the movements of this machine. There are more wheels and counterpoises in this engine than are easily imagined.”

Shaftesbury rejects the forced simplicity of Hobbesian and Lockean concep­tions of society. Such artificial schemes do not do justice to the complexities of human nature. At the root of the modern tendency to proffer reductionistic ac­counts of human affairs, Shaftesbury thinks, is modern philosophy’s departure from common sense. Common sense judges matters on the whole, according to “the justness of a whole.”32 It opts for richness over logical tidiness. The modern rejection or neglect of common sense entails serious moral consequences. “As notions stand now in the world with respect to morals,” Shaftesbury laments, “honesty is like to gain little by philosophy or deep speculations of any kind. In the main, it is best to stick to common sense and go no further.” He continues:

“Men’s first thoughts in this matter [of morals] are generally better than their second, their natural notions better than those refined by study or consultation with casuists. According to common speech as well as common sense, “honesty is the best policy,” but, according to refined sense, the only well-advised persons as to this world are arrant knaves, and they alone are thought to serve themselves who serve their passions and indulge their loosest appetites and desires.—Such, it seems, are the wise and such the wisdom of this world!”

“An ordinary man talking of a vile action in a way of common sense says natu­rally and heartily, ‘He would not be guilty of such a thing for the whole world.’ But speculative men find great modifications in the case, many ways of evasion, many remedies, many alleviations.”33

Shaftesbury is not anti-philosophical; he understands his own writings to be a species of philosophy, but he is certain that we are better off to “moralize . . .  according to common sense and without canting.” After all, “Some moral and philosophical truths there are, withal, so evident in themselves, that it would be easier to imagine half mankind to have run mad and joined precisely in one and the same species of folly, than to admit anything as truth which should be advanced against such natural knowledge, fundamental reason and com­mon sense” as may be seen in the long run of human experience.

A Lack of Common Sense and the Need for “Wit”

Shaftesbury is distressed by the incapacity of many modern thinkers to see man complete and full-blooded, and the piling up of theoretical technicalities seems to him only to accentuate the substantive emptiness of their sense of human affairs. And the less theoretical modern approaches to understanding politics seem to him just as vacuous. “Some modern zealots,” he says, “appear to have no better knowledge of truth, nor better manner of judging it, than by counting noses. By this rule, if they can poll an indifferent number out of a mob, if they can produce a set of Lancashire noddles, remote provincial headpieces or visionary assemblers to attest a story of a witch upon a broomstick and a flight in the air, they triumph in the solid proof of their new prodigy and cry, The truth is great and it will prevail!”34 Both variants of modern political science have lost sight of common sense and therefore of the quality of human community.35

The key to preserving common sense, for Shaftesbury, is “wit,” a clever sense of “humour” that tests opinions by good-natured “raillery” or jesting.36 We saw Shaftesbury employing wit just now in his comment on the dubiousness of polling as a measure of social truth. It is an attitude akin to the serious play or playful seriousness we see in Socrates. Wit takes opinions seriously, but not too seriously. Shaftesbury seems to play with the double meaning of “humour” in his discussion of wit—the humor of a people, their mood or emotional out­look, and then also what we would call a “sense of humor,” an ability to see absurdity in matters typically treated gravely or earnestly.

A person of wit pos­sesses a sense of humor and appeals to the emotional cast of the people: know­ing well the humor of his fellows, he can exploit their mood and make them see things in a different light, a truer light.37Sensus communis for Shaftesbury emerges as a kind of mean between “zealotry” and frivolity, a mean revealed by open debate, criticism, and especially good-natured, humane ridicule.38

Vico likewise saw wit as the essence of good sense and considered it pivotal for directing the sense of the community. As Schaeffer explains: “The Baroque notion of wit [acutezze] becomes, in Vico’s hands, the mode of uniting meta­phor with the sententiae and the topoi.”  By sententiae is meant wise sayings, proverbs that would be recognized by ordinary people as containing obvious truths; by topoi is meant commonplace elements of argument in rhetoric, ready tools for the forensic specialist.

Schaeffer describes the connecting metaphors as “conceits,” apt metaphors that reveal similarity in dissimilar things and bring a vast range of experience together in an image or turn of phrase. “Vico claims that conceits are arguments, that they teach by uniting beauty and truth in an oral performance. The orator creates the conceit by the force of his ingenuity working on the case at hand. The audience seizes it as simultaneously true and beautiful. . . . The orator must use the common sense of the audience as that which connects his metaphor to the case.”39

Common Sense as a Kind of Rational Aesthetic Judgment

Vico works out this understanding of wit engaging the sensus communis in De nostri temporis studiorum ratione. Vico was a professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples and hit upon his formulation in his rhetorical studies. Ac­cording to Schaeffer:

“Classical rhetorical theory revealed [Vico thought] that there were at least two possible roots for sensus communis: Aristotle’s what is held to be true by all, by most, or by the wisest—and Quintillian’s—a public utterance or “sentence” traced to sensus, feeling, or opinion. Thus sensus for Vico had the dual mean­ing that sense still retains in English, a feeling or sensation, and an intellectual grasp on an idea, that is, “making sense.” In his treatment of the conceit Vico intertwines these two linguistic roots into a concept of metaphor as argument. In the De nostri temporis studiorum ratione, he cultivates those roots to produce a theory of sensus communis.”40

Shaftesbury’s sensus communis was, like Vico’s after him, a kind of aesthetic judgment that, while not a product of ratiocination, was clearly rational. It was a form of rational intuition. It was a sense of beauty or fitness, but also of truth. By it we may see the fit of a certain response to a certain circumstance to be self-evidently right, and this sense of rightness, in matters of any weight, is pregnant with normative implications. Indeed, sensus communis, for both Shaftesbury and Vico, is preeminently a moral attitude. Schaeffer helpfully de­scribes sensus communis in terms of its “form,” “function,” and “content”: its form is “aesthetic beauty,” its function is “judgment,” and its content is “moral consensus.”41

Neither Shaftesbury nor Vico mean to suggest that there is one and only one right response to a given circumstance—not at all, but rather, simply, that some responses can be seen to fit and others to be out of joint. The essential thing is that the man of wit finds something to say that works for the occasion, that meets the needs of the community for an answer. Shaftesbury’s influence on Vico may be uncertain, but his influence on the course of thought in Britain is beyond question. His ideas on moral sentiments, in particular, spurred the thinking of Francis Hutcheson and David Hume. According to James McCosh, Hutcheson “did little more than expound [Shaftes­bury’s] views, with less versatility, but in a more equable, thorough, and sys­tematic manner.”42

Hutcheson: The Moral Sense of Right and Wrong

Like Shaftesbury, Hutcheson saw the moral sense as a kind of aesthetic faculty involving rational judgment. As Knud Haakonssen argues convincingly, “Moral perception [for Hutcheson] is not a subjective affective experience; and moral judgements are thus not simply the expressions of such experience. Whether we make moral judgements of our own behavior or that of others, our moral perception and thus our moral judgement are explicitly representative, and thus either true or false.”43 When we judge another to be virtuous, Hutcheson says, “the Quality approved by our moral Sense is con­ceived to reside in the Person approved, and to be a Perfection and Dignity in him.”44

The moral sense perceives the moral quality of a person’s motivation and judges it to be excellent or flawed, dignified or unworthy. Although the determinations of the moral sense are often attended by pleasure or pain, these affective reactions are incidental.43 The determinations themselves are objec­tive: the quality observed either is or is not a moral quality; it either does or does not reflect human excellence. The substance of Hutcheson’s “moral ex­cellence” is love or benevolence, a tendency to actions that “contribute to the over-all happiness of the moral creation, the ‘moral system.'”

The moral sense cannot function, however, without help of reasoning: “reason prepares moral judgements by establishing the subject of such judgements, namely the (likely) motivation to moral behavior in each particular case.”46 The renderings of the moral sense are irrelevant in cases where the motivation has been wrongly as­certained. The similarity between Hutcheson’s moral sense and Shaftesbury’s com­mon sense is evident. Both involve aesthetic moral judgments about attitudes and the acts (including speech acts) that flow from them, and in each case the quality of the attitudes and acts in question is determined by their ten­dency to promote the common good.

Shaftesbury’s sensus communis in fact presupposes a moral sense that functions just as Hutcheson says it does. In his “Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit,” Shaftesbury claims to have shown that, “Sense of right and wrong [is] as natural to us as natural affection itself, and [is] a first principle in our constitution and make.”47 “Natural affection” is what gives rise to sensus communis, and the highest moral quality approved by the moral sense is the willful embrace of affection for others as the best and noblest thing in human nature.48

Thomas Reid

Thomas Reid’s name after his death quickly became almost a synonym for common sense philosophy. For the better part of a century, from the late 1700s to the late 1800s, Reid’s common sense philosophy “enjoyed enormous popu­larity in the United States, Great Britain, and France.”55 But for much of the last century and a quarter, he has not been considered a philosopher of great importance, and the reputation of common sense philosophy suffered along with Reid’s own flagging fortunes. This is beginning to change, however.

A re­cent resurgence of Reidian scholarship testifies to a growing sense that Reid was in fact a philosopher ahead of his time. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s judgment that Reid was “one of the two great philosophers of the latter part of the eighteenth century, the other being of course Immanuel Kant,” is no longer an implausible position, as witness the impressive collection of essays in the recently compiled Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid.56

Part of the reason for Reid’s disappearance from the story of modern phi­losophy was Kant’s publicly expressed opinion that Scottish Common Sense thought was not worthy of serious consideration.57 Locke, and then Berkeley and Hume, reject Descartes’ rationalism but in varying degrees hold on to his assumption that we do not know physical reali­ties directly but only mediately, through what Locke and Berkeley call “ideas,” imprinted mysteriously on the mind by some external force. Both Locke and Berkeley define “idea” as whatever is the object of thought, so that “ideas,” in their usage, include passions and mental “operations” as well as sense-percepts.

Hume, with greater linguistic precision, calls the phenomena of perception “im­pressions” and distinguishes them from “ideas,” which in his scheme are copies or “faint images” of these impressions. These ideas, the material of memory, are both the basis and content of all reasoning.88 For Hume, as for Locke and Berkeley, all knowledge is perceptual. Locke held that we do know “primary qualities” of physical objects (such as “solidity, extension, figure, motion, or rest, and number”) directly but not “secondary qualities” (such as “colors, sounds, tastes, etc.”).89 Berkeley and Hume take things a step further and hold that, given Locke’s presuppositions (which they accept), we cannot know these primary qualities directly, either. As Reid observes, their logic seems impeccable.90

Reid asks one simple question: What is the evidence we have that these medi­ating entities called “ideas” even exist? He cannot find any evidence. If they do exist, and all we know are ideas, we cannot make any inferences about external realities. For if all we know are ideas, how could we get around them to reach the world outside? Why should we think that the notion of external reality has any external basis at all, and how, by the way, could we get such a notion? That outer world, if it exists at all, must be utterly mysterious to us. Kant would then be right to conclude that we do not in any meaningful sense know the “things in themselves.”91

But after painstaking analysis, Reid discovers compelling, argu­ably conclusive, evidence that we apprehend physical objects immediately,92 as they are and no evidence at all that this apparently direct apprehension is illusory. And after all, how could one know whether it was illusory?93 And if all the evidence points one way, what is the sense in privileging the possibility that has no evi­dence and demanding that the stronger case prove itself to the weaker?

The Consequences of Denying the Truth of Sense Perception

This is all very interesting — but what, the reader may ask, does the debate about the nature of sense perception have to do with politics? The relevance is indirect but nonetheless profound. If educated people, mediately or imme­diately the leaders of society, can doubt their own senses, then they can doubt anything, including the most basic moral verities. In fact this has happened in the West over the last two centuries, to an alarming degree. As education rates have risen, the educated and semi-educated have become less and less confident in their basic convictions in the face of relentless deconstructions by cutting-edge (that is, fashionable) philosophy and “science.” If men as brilliant as Hume openly doubt the reliability of sense and moral conviction, and others such as Kant have so much trouble supporting them, who are we lesser mortals to decide the issue?94

No philosopher, apparently, can win the argument, so there must be no way to know. One recalls the old joke about the quick-witted criminal who, confronted with irrefutable evidence against him, quips, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” But in the case of the modern philosophic powers that be, the same challenge is posed in earnest. There is something ridiculous about this, which is why Thomas Reid, like Lord Shaftesbury be­fore him, occasionally resorted to ridicule in response.95

The business ceases to be funny, however, when a professor today (as happened to me) can find colleagues and students willing to entertain seriously the notion that Hitler’s atrocities were not categorically wrong because all morality is subjective and/or relative to culture. Reid worried about precisely this kind of degrading of moral capacity. He (again like Shaftesbury) used ridicule as a weapon, with deadly serious purpose.96 Kant, a supremely humorless thinker and writer, failed to grasp this and took offense.

It was said before that trust in reason and in what is given in experience is the essence of the common sense attitude. Reid describes this trust in terms of “taking for granted.”98 It is not the same as intuition but is grounded in intuition, in the immediate grasp of external realities and first principles and, more profoundly, in a palpable sense of the rationality of the universe and a kind of harmony with nature, conceived in ancient Chinese thought in terms of the Tao. Socrates, in Plato’s Meno, speaks of the harmony as a kinship with nature.99 This affinity with nature is the life of common sense and the root of natural law.

An awareness of absurdity is awareness of rationality (though this is often not noticed) and proves that there is rationality in the universe, if only in our minds. But rationality is discernible in nature at large for anyone paying attention. Indeed, the concept of “nature” presupposes certain regularities, a certain intelligible order within the flux of things, and we notice these orderly operations all the time, in human and animal behavior, in the motions of the planets, and so on. None of the sciences would be pos­sible otherwise.

The remarkable feature of postmodern thought is its fixation on the absurd and the chaotic and its refusal to notice the equally real order and meaning inherent in things. Contrary to prevailing philosophical opin­ion, order and meaning are not only created but also discovered. The trust-and-kinship-with-nature ingredient in common sense, then, is countered by distrust and alienation from nature, the hallmarks of postmodernity.

What has not been sufficiently appreciated is that this distrust and alienation were already present in the Enlightenment, in the thought of men such as Hume, and Kant as well. Distrust is obviously at the heart of skepticism, but so also is alienation. Perhaps the deepest question concerning modernity and postmo­dernity is whether the distrust and the alienation are a product or a cause of skepticism — and if a cause, then what is the source of these afflictions?

First Principles and Politics: A Latter Day Aristotelian?

It was observed before that Aristotle was arguably the first and greatest com­mon sense philosopher and that Thomas Reid, perhaps the greatest modern common sense philosopher, could be described as a kind of latter-day Aris­totelian.100 Despite finding some inadequacies in Aristotle’s [moral philosophy], Reid is deeply Aristotelian in his analysis of common sense in­tuition, common sense rationality, the common humanity manifested in that basic rationality, and the practical (moral and political) ramifications of com­mon sense . . . .

[It] is hard in problems of great scope and complexity to keep track of all the relevant details. The further removed one is from the first principles in the chain of reasoning, the harder it is to remember all the links in the chain; the more complex the problem the harder to see all the relevant considerations. Moreover, some of the problems involve such subtle consid­erations that great genius is required to detect and work them all out. Finally, in many cases relevant points are unknown or simply undiscoverable, and the significance even of well-known matters and the best way to respond to them are very often uncertain, anything but self-evident.

The wisest thinkers are cor­respondingly tentative in their conclusions, humbly accepting that they must learn to live with mystery and, like Socrates, know and admit what they don’t know. In fact, the mystery is self-evident to anyone with open eyes and broad experience. This is what it means to know that you don’t know. It is in embrac­ing both the mystery and the reality we know perfectly well that common sense may be spoken of as the middle way.

In any case, grasping first principles of both the necessary and contingent kinds is of the most profound importance for politics. To begin, there are necessary first principles of morality, such as “That an unjust action has more demerit than an ungenerous one: That a generous action has more merit than a merely just one: That no man ought to be blamed for what it was not in his power to hinder: That we ought not to do to others what we would think un­just or unfair to be done to us in like circumstances.112

This last, in its positive form (Do to others what you would have them do to you), Reid takes to be the most fundamental of all moral principles and, “of all the rules of morality, the most comprehensive. It comprehends every rule of justice without exception. It comprehends all the relative duties [from the various relations in which we find ourselves]. It comprehends every duty of charity and humanity, and even of courtesy and good manners.” Attention and adherence to these principles, says Reid, is central to the moral life: “Men who have made the greatest advance in self-government, are governed, in their practice, by general fixed purposes” based on rationally discerned “fixed principles.”113

Conscience Must Operate Alongside Reason

Significantly, this does not mean that only those skilled in reasoning can live exemplary moral lives. Reid’s greatest difference with Aristotle is his emphasis on the role of conscience in the making of moral judgments. Conscience as Reid understands it is an intellectual as well as an active power; it judges as well as moves.114 It is, in its intellectual aspect, the moral dimension of common sense or, to use Aristotle’s term, nous. In its motive aspect, it is the sense of mor­al obligation that is produced spontaneously on the intuition of right principle.

The first principles of morality, though he may never have thought of them in propositional form, are not hard to discern for the ordinary man, provided (and this is a critical qualification) he has not been “misled by prejudices of education, or by wrong instruction . . . by . . . appetites and passions, by fash­ion, [or] by the contagion of evil example.”115 And this man can be led to virtue and right conduct as surely by obeying his sense of moral obligation, if rightly informed, as the philosopher can by good reasoning.116

Indeed, Reid seems to think that adherence to moral obligation is as crucial for the philosopher’s at­tainment of moral excellence as it is for the man of humble capacity. In fact, moral obligation in the full sense involves not only feeling but judgment. We not only feel obliged to do what’s right and resist what’s wrong; we also judge that this is right and this other is wrong and that we must embrace the first and reject the last. The feeling of obligation follows recognition of secondary as well as first principles and of what is self-evidently the right kind of response in given circumstances.117 Intuitive judgment is involved at every turn in the moral life.

The universal intuitions are the possibility ground of sensus communis in Vico’s sense, or what Aristotle called homonoia, a like-mindedness of a community about what’s right and good, which is the deepest foundation of social cohesion and functionality. The basic political problem is that the baser passions of men tend to keep their intuitions about what is right and good out of focus so that they are neglected or their authority denied. Communal perceptions of justice and the common good are correspondingly distorted, and homonoia degener­ates into mere common prejudice. Nonetheless, the reality of universal intu­itions gives grounds for hope that a just, or at least relatively just, society may be formed under the right circumstances and with the proper cultivation.

The common intuitions are made possible by a common constitution of human nature. Reid agrees with Aristotle that the human constitution is part­ly irrational and partly rational, that the rational part has authority, and that “all wisdom and virtue consist in following its dictates [and] all vice and folly in disobeying them.”129 These “dictates,” which the constitution of our minds somehow enables us to grasp, are the necessary and contingent first principles apprehended by common sense or nous, the secondary conclusions derived therefrom, and the corresponding recognition of how we ought to order and conduct ourselves. Reid agrees with Aristotle also that man is a political animal, as shown by his natural “social affections” and the “social operations” of his mind. All these features of human nature and conclusions about it, in fact, are as self-evident as the principles the mind’s structure allows us to grasp.130

Aristotle’s Failure to fully Appreciate Obligation and Duty

According to Reid’s understanding of human moral goodness, Aristotle’s notion of morality as a matter of moderation, of achieving the mean between excess and deficiency in feeling and action, while true as far as it goes, is inad­equate.134 What Aristotle lacks, specifically, is a full appreciation of the nature of obligation and duty.135 Reid does agree with Aristotle that, in Reid’s words, “the fundamental maxim of prudence, and of all good morals [is] that the passions ought, in all cases, to be under the dominion of reason,” but for Reid submitting to the rule of reason is not only wise, it is obligatory.136 This is not to deny that an element of obligation is implied in the Aristotelian account, but Reid seems right to think that Aristotle lacks clarity about the lawlike, binding character of obligation, perhaps the reason Aristotle does not push beyond his notion of natural right to a full-blooded conception of natural law.

On the matter of the “social operations” of the human mind Reid adds something interesting to the Aristotelian account. Aristotle observes that what makes man capable of political society is his capacity for rational speech, for communication in particular about good and bad, right and wrong.137 Reid concurs, but he points to these other faculties as equally essential: the capaci­ties for command, testimony, promise, and contract. Reid gives special atten­tion to testimony and promise, taking them to be especially foundational.

It is not enough that men can rationally discuss what is good and bad for them land what is right and wrong in character and action. For political society to exist, they must be capable of making mutual promises (this is contract) and of keeping them. For the promises to be meaningful, men must also be capable of testifying reliably to facts (what their intuitions show, including basic principles of value and right) and to recognize and examine the facts attested by others: for instance, that the agreeing parties are who they claim to be, that they understand the terms of the agreement and see the mutual advantages, that they appreciate the moral obligations involved, and that they have the means of carrying out their promises.

Men Aren’t Solitary Individuals, Contrary to Hobbes or Locke

Reliable promise and testimony continue to be fundamental throughout the life of society, in the making and keeping of contracts and in the maintenance of justice, whether in enforcing the contracts or in determining the guilt or innocence of wrongdoers.138 Legitimate command, presumably, would involve rulers’ making and keeping promises to their people about securing, as much as depends on them, justice and the good of the community. The people in turn would be obliged to keep their implicit promise of allegiance to and support of the government. Hobbes and Locke are right, then, in seeing contract as foundational to society. They failed, however, to appreciate that the human tendency to make contracts (formal or informal) suggests men are social creatures and not, as Hobbes and Locke would have it, solitary beings who contract merely out of self-interest.

The capacities for and tendencies toward promise and testimony are inherently and irreducibly social operations. As Reid explained, “it will be found extremely difficult, if not impossible, to resolve our social operations into any modification or composition of the solitary [those which may be performed in solitude]; and . . . an attempt to do this would prove as ineffectual as the attempts that have been made [by Hobbes and Locke, for instance] to resolve all our social affections into the selfish.” Man is indeed a political animal. Correspondingly, the civilized state of man is as natural as the savage state, and in fact the fulfillment of nature.139

Fidelity and trust, Reid suggests, are the practical basis of society and the glue that holds it together.140 The ground of that trust is homonoia or the common sense of good men about the common good and what is required morally and practically to achieve it, together with fidelity in promise and testimony. There are two great obstacles to pursuing the good and keeping faith: passions and false opinions.141 False opinion comes from misdirected passion, which distorts the judgment of those who should know better, or prevents the deeper experiences of rationality to those who do not. If passions can be moderated and the right experiences can take place, the right kind of homonoia in the Aristotelian sense is possible.

The key experiences here are the experience of truth — in particular the truth about human beings, our place in the scheme of things, and our corresponding obligations, all intuitively discerned — and the conviction of what we should do and become that follows from the experi­ence of truth. Faithfulness to this conviction through changing circumstances makes one worthy of trust. From this conviction we make promises to each other, and keeping such promises in the most prudent way is essential to good politics.

The Natural Law and the Scottish Common Sense

The great achievement of Scottish Common Sense and particularly of Reid, in relation to the natural law tradition, is to bring back into focus the existential ground of natural law, which is common sense. Most of that tradition has fix­ated on the principles intuited and by forgetting and so failing to highlight the existential roots of those principles has rendered them opaque to those not already convinced of their truth. The intuition of the principles is the vital connecting link between natural law and “real life,” or ordinary experience. So, it is perfectly consistent with the rest of his philosophy for Reid to say, as he does in the Intellectual Powers, that we should “try every opinion by the touchstone of feet and experience.”142

Reid and the Scottish Common Sense philosophers treat natural law most directly under the heading of “natural jurisprudence.” At the heart of natural law is the question of justice, and Reid, like Aristotle, emphasizes that justice is natural and not man-made, though it is instantiated through human action. As with so many matters in the Inquiry and Essays, Reid develops his position in response to Hume who, like Hobbes, argued that justice is an artificial virtue and a function of social utility. But the naturalness of justice is proved by the fact that our sense and judgment of the justice or injustice of an action is immediate and spontaneous and prior to considerations of social consequence.

In fact, “the common good of society . . . hardly ever enters into the thoughts of the far greatest part of mankind,” who are preoccupied with their own needs and desires. Hume had it exactly backward to hold that justice is a remote concern and social utility an immediate concern.143 Moreover, Hume’s notion of justice was both thin and severely “confined,” thin because having in it no element of moral obligation, which Reid takes as the root of justice, and confined in being “restricted . . . to a regard to property and fidelity in contracts.”144 Here again Hume is essentially Hobbesian.145 Although the keeping of contracts is a key concern of justice, for Reid as for Aristotle the domain of justice extends far beyond contract to embrace all human relations and interactions.

The practical problem with utility as the basis for justice is that utility, carrying no obligation, cannot bind. Self-interest will not be enough to keep people committed to their agreements; if it is the sole bond, some outside force like Hobbes’s sovereign will be required to make the contracts hold. (Hume does not, apparently, appreciate the power of Hobbes’s logic on this point.) By con­trast, a sense of obligation, in a decent society, will keep most people honest without the constant threat of punishment. Thus, even in the restricted sense of fidelity to contracts Hume’s theory of justice is deeply inadequate.

In mak­ing justice “derive its whole merit from utility, [Hume] has laid down some principles which . . . have a tendency to subvert all faith and fair-dealing among mankind.” In fact, Hume goes so far as to suggest that, in Reid’s words, “the principles of honesty and fidelity [as traditionally understood] are at bottom a bundle of contradictions.” This draws from Reid the harshest criticism of Hume that appears in any of Reid’s works: “This is one part of his moral system which, I cannot help thinking, borders upon licentiousness.”146

Implications for Modern Natural Rights Theory

The centrality of obligation to justice has profound implications for modern natural rights theory, what Reid and the Scottish philosophers call “natural jurisprudence.” It means that rights are inseparably connected to duties, that every right corresponds to a duty of just treatment.147 By extension, natural rights imply natural laws. Historically, Reid observes, the notion of human rights came out of the Western theory of law. “The rights of man,” he explains, “is a term of art in law [contrived by the practitioners of Roman Civil Law], and signifies all that a man may lawfully do, all that he may lawfully possess and use, and all that he may lawfully claim of any other person.”

These catego­ries of rights correspond directly to the key concerns of human law, the pur­pose of which is to protect these freedoms, possessions, usages, and demands. The right of doing is called the right of “liberty,” that of ownership and use of possessions the right of “property,” and that of demand (as by a petitioner or plaintiff) “personal right.”148 But that the purpose of the law is to protect these rights suggests that the rights exist prior to the law and are a standard by which the law may be judged. Therefore, Reid avers, “human laws may be unjust.”149 If they provide protections for these rights, the laws are just; if not, they are unjust. But if the rights are prior to human law, they are not prior to natural law. Natural rights and natural law are coeval.

The rights of the people imply a corresponding obligation on the part of human government to respect those rights and preserve their enjoyment, and obligation implies law. If the obligation, as the right, is prior to human law, there must be a higher law than the human. Natural rights imply a natural law. Cicero called this, as Reid para­phrases, the “law of nature; a law, not wrote on tables of stone or brass, but on the heart of man; a law of greater antiquity and higher authority than the laws of particular states; a law which is binding upon all men of all nations.”150

The Scottish Common Sense school — and notably, the American founders as well — hewed more to the older Western tradition of natural law than Locke and other modern natural law theorists. Theirs was a thicker conception of natural law, involving more than an obligation merely to respect others’ self-preservation. This is seen most clearly in their embrace of Grotius’s notion of “imperfect” rights, rights not merely of protection but of dignity. “Perfect” rights, Reid explains, relate to “the claims of strict justice,” to protection from injustice; “imperfect” rights relate to “the claims of charity and humanity,” evoking obligations to things like benevolence, gratitude, and compassion.151 (The term “imperfect” here denotes not deficiency but a category of rights human government is inadequate or inappropriate to guarantee.) This more expansive treatment of rights and obligations affirms, with a Christian twist, Aristotle’s view that the aim of human community is not mere survival but living well.152

Intuition is Central to Determining What is Right

Reid again distinguishes himself from the prior Scottish as well as from the British moralists generally in his emphasis on the part of intuition in determinations of right. Natural rights and obligations are intuitively perceived. So is also (Hume’s definition of justice notwithstanding) the distinction between public and private wrongs.153 Intuitive judgment is involved in every phase of justice on every level of human relations, in determining what is required gen­erally and in discerning what kind of action is appropriate to each situation. Intuitive judgment is central to deliberation about how to achieve justice, as “the general rules of deliberation” are “axioms in morals,” “perfectly evident to reason” at first sight.154

This does not mean that knowing what to do in any given circumstance is always easy: though the first principles are simple, their application is often complicated.155 Moreover, regard to the truth of moral judgments is absolutely essential to moral living.156 It is not enough to act, as Hume prescribes, accord­ing to instinct, in fidelity to our natural moral sentiments; one must act in the belief that the aim of the act is the true aim; the sentiments cannot be a stan­dard of right unless the judgments they endorse are true judgments.

The picture of natural law portrayed in Reid’s moral philosophy and natural jurisprudence suggests that modern thinking about human nature and human rights is radically defective. Modern philosophy — Scottish Common Sense and American thought in the spirit of the founding era excepted — man to a clever animal guided not by reason (Aristotle’s nous, Reid’s common sense) but solely by calculation of what will best conduce to survival. This abolition of reason was, to use C. S. Lewis’s felicitous phrase, an abolition of man (from his book by that title), an annihilation of most of what constitutes human dignity and value. The destructive work was complete with the Darwinian revolution in philosophy, since few post-Darwinians saw, as James McCosh did, that there is no ground for concluding material evolution implies spiritual vacuity.157

Reid’s elucidation of common sense and the intuition of first principles, which remain accessible to us, stands as a powerful challenge to the materialist theory, in our own time as well as his. Modern thinkers cannot account for those prin­ciples on materialist terms any more than Hume could on his, nor can they reasonably dismiss them, as all their reasoning depends on them. And if the principles are both necessary and true, if they constitute not merely the logical predicate to reasoning but a genuine grasp of reality, then the obligations we manifestly perceive maintain their full force, and natural law in its older, more expansive meaning proves to be as relevant today as it was for Aquinas or the American founders.     



1. Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, 28-29. Voegelin’s last words here are especially remarkable in light of the fact that “the methodological environment” in which he grew up was forged, as he notes in this same passage, by “men like Max Scheler, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Alfred Weber, Karl Mannheim.” By this Voegelin means to suggest that, brilliant as such men were, their sense of the full range of human expe­rience could not match that of the ancients.

2. Frits van Holthoon and David R. Olson, Common Sense: The Foundations for Social Science, 2-3. I am greatly indebted to this collection of essays for help in understanding the full amplitude of meanings and implications of common sense. The essays serve as an excellent introduction to the theoretic significance of the idea.

3. Preface of Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach, Good Sense, 1.

4. Reid, Intellectual Powers 6.2,422.

5. Ibid., 5.

6. Ibid., 18.

7. Aristotle De Anima 425a-b.

8. Ibid.418a22.

9. See Lawson-Tancred’s discussion of why he believes this to be a mistake, in the introduction to his translation of De Anima, 8-82.

10. Aristotle considers this faculty and its activity fairly extensively in Parva Naturalia, finding it to be the differentia specifica of animal life (what sets it apart from mere biological life). See especially “On Sense and Sensible Objects,” the first part of Parva Naturalia.

11. Van Kessel from Holthoon and Olson, Common Sense, 116.

12. Aristotle Nichomachean Ethics Book 1.

13. See Reid’s overview of the insights and deficiencies of ancient ethics in his Active Powers, 583-86, 588.

14. Reid’s treatment of common sense, including its correspondence to Aristotelian intellection and prudence, is considered below.

15. Aristotle Nichomachean Ethics 1167a26-30. Compare Aristotle The Politics 1253al5-18.

16. Aristotle Nichomachean Ethics 1167b1-10.

17. Holthoon and Olson, Common Sense, 100.

18. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica 1.3, 87, in ibid., 101.

19. Ibid. Holthoon credits C. Werner with this formulation, citing Jaeger Werner, Der Heilige Thomas van Aquino, die Lehre (Regensburg; reprint, New York, 1889), vol. 2.

20. S. E. W. Bugter, “Sensus Communis in the Works of M. Tullius Cicero,” in Holt­hoon and Olson, Common Sense, 91-92. Bugter takes these definitions of humanitas from Charleton T. Lewis and Charles Short’s Latin Dictionary (1980).

21. Ibid., 83-84; C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge Univer­sity Press, 1967). Bugter puts these four points in his own words here.

22. Herman Parret, “Common Sense: From Certainly to Happiness,” in Holthoon and Olson, Common Sense, 28.

23. See Aristotle Posterior Analytics 1.1 and 2.8-10, 19.

24. Parret from Holthoon and Olson, Common Sense, 28-29.

25. Ibid., 104. The phrase is Holthoon’s.

26. John D. Schaeffer, Sensus Communis: Vico, Rhetoric, and the Limits of Relativism, 105. See also Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, 1.2, 142-45.

27. Schaeffer, Sensus Communis, 115.

28. Ibid., 41.

29. Lord Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 48.

30. Ibid.

31. Quotations in the next several paragraphs are from ibid., 51-54.

32. Ibid., 67.

33. Ibid., 61.

34. Ibid., 68.

35. The term “political science” is used here loosely and informally. Compare James’s attitude toward the social sciences (see Chapter 6 under “Common Sense and Society”).

36. See Shaftesbury, Characteristics, 31-37.

37. Note well that a sense of humor involves a sense of the humor of one’s ac­quaintances.

38. Shaftesbury, Characteristics, 32, 43, 35-39, 59-65.

39. Schaeffer, Sensus Communis, 63, 67. Regarding the Baroque acutezze, Schaeffer says: “To Baroque poets like Marino, Donne, and Herbert, and to Baroque theorists like Gracian, Tesauro, Sforza-Pallavicino, and Peregrino, wit meant combining two ap­parently dissimilar things into a metaphor that highlighted a heretofore unnoticed similarity.” Ibid., 63. Compare James on common sense as interpolation in Chapter 5.

40. Ibid., 68.

41. Ibid., 106.

42. James McCosh, The Scottish Philosophy: Biographical, Expository, Critical, from Hutcheson to Hamilton, 35.

43. Knud Haakonssen, Natural Law and Moral Philosophy: From Grotius to the Scot­tish Enlightenment, 73.

44. Ibid. Hutcheson quoted by Haakonssen from Hutcheson’s Inquiry into the Origi­nal of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (Dublin, 1738, 4th ed.), 129-31.

45. Hutcheson makes this point in the same passage from the Inquiry.

46. Haakonssen, Natural Law, 73-74. See Haakonssen’s account in these pages of the process by which reason does this.

47. Shaftesbury, Characteristics, 179.

48. See Shaftesbury’s discussion of the relation between natural “public affec­tions” and “self affections” in the same “Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit,” ibid., 192-216.

55. Cuneo and van Woudenberg, Companion to Reid, 1.

56. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology, ix.

57. Cuneo and van Woudenberg, Companion to Reid, 1.88. See Locke, Concerning Human Understanding, book 1, chapter 1; the first lines of George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, part 1; Hume, Treatise of Human Nature 1.1, 1.

88. See Locke, Concerning Human Understanding, book 1, chapter 1; the first lines of George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, part 1; Hume, Treatise of Human Nature 1.1, 1.

89. Locke explains how he came to this conclusion in the Essay, book 2, chapter 8.

90. See the introduction to the Inquiry, sections 3-7. Reid discusses the use and mis­use of the term “ideas” in the history of philosophy in Reid, Intellectual Powers 1.1.

91. It is not clear what exactly Kant means by “thing in itself.” He may mean to say that we apprehend things in the world directly phenomenologically but cannot know them more than superficially and cannot get at their natures as substances. In other words, we know the externalities of external objects objectively but not, or at least not immediately, anything further; the things exhibiting these Phenomenological qualities would not be known at all, though intuition tells us they necessarily exist. Reid would have agreed with the first half of this — all we know immediately are the objects as pre­sented to us; whether Reid would have agreed with the second half is unclear.

92. The most striking piece of evidence is presented in chapter 5, section 2 of the Inquiry. This “proof” is so powerful that it alone seems sufficient to overturn the whole “doctrine of ideas.”

93. The gist of the answer to the argument from illusion is that an illusion is not a mistake of sense but rather of interpretation. (The phenomenon of illusion [optical illusion and the like] is taken up in Chapter 3.)

94. Hume does not doubt that we have common convictions, only that they count as knowledge. He reduces them to instinct and natural feeling. Reid insists that they derive from intuitive judgments and thus have certain truth in them.

95. Reid’s mockeries of the posture are sometimes hilarious. One of my students said he laughed out loud on reading them; for example, the skeptical philosophy “is like a hobby-horse, which a man in bad health may ride in his closet, without hurt­ing his reputation; but, if he should take him abroad with him to church, or to the exchange, or to the play-house, his heir would immediately call a jury, and seize his estate.” Reid, Inquiry, 110. Reid was familiar with Shaftesbury’s essay on sensus communis and touches on it briefly in the Intellectual Powers. Reid, Works, 423-24.

96. Reid defends the use of ridicule and outlines its appropriate employment in Intellectual Powers 6.4, 438-39.

98. See Reid, Intellectual Powers 1.2, entitled “Principles Taken for Granted.”

99. In the passage on the theory of remembering or recollection. See Great Dialogues of Plato, 42.

100. Reid’s debt to Aristotle was direct. He acknowledges Aristotle’s articulation of what he will call common sense principles — indemonstrable, self-evident first prin­ciples whose necessity for logical reasoning, however, is demonstrable. Reid wrote an “Account of Aristotle’s Logic,” which may be found in William Hamilton’s edition of The Works of Thomas Reid. Plato might merit the distinction of being the first and greatest common sense philosopher but for two things: Aristotle elaborated the com­mon sense attitude and its implications more systematically; and more important, Ar­istotle better appreciated the extent to which rationality is grounded in sense percep­tion and the practical life.

112. Reid, Intellectual Powers 6.6, 453.

113. Reid, Active Powers 5.1, 639; 2.4, 540.

114. Ibid., 3.3.8, 598.

115. Ibid., 595.

116. See ibid., 5.1, 640; 5.5, 654.

117. On the dependence of moral feeling on recognition of right and wrong, see ibid., 3.3.5, 587.

129. Reid, Active Powers 2.2, 536.

130. Ibid., 5.6, 666.

134. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, book 2.

135. See Reid, Active Powers 5.1, 638.

136. Ibid. 3.3.2, 581.

137. Aristotle Politics 1253al5-18.

138. See Reid, Active Powers 5.6.

139. Ibid., 664, also 666.

140. Ibid., 663-68.

141. Ibid. 3.3.2, 581.

142. Reid, Intellectual Powers 1.3, 236. (Compare William James on this point, see Chapter 5.)

143. Reid, Active Powers 5.5, 652-53.

144. Ibid., 655, 657.

145. Ibid., 661-62.

146. Ibid., 5.6, 667, 669. The passage Reid evaluates here is from Hume’s Enquiry Con­cerning the Principles of Morals, 3. Hume himself uses the term “contradictions” there.

147. Reid, ActivePowers 5.3, 643. The natural rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” stressed in the Declaration of Independence, for instance, imply a duty to respect the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of others.

148. Ibid.

149. Ibid., 5.6, 662.

150. Ibid., 5.3, 645. Cicero’s full statement maybe found in his Republic, book 3.

151. Reid, Active Powers 5.3, 644. Reid points out that Grotius provided the first sys­tematic elaboration of natural law. Reid’s praise for his work on the subject is glowing. Ibid., 645.

152. Aristotle Politics 1252al-3, 1252b26-29, 1323al5, 1323b, 1324al-4.

153. Reid, Active Powers 5.5, 656-57.

154. Ibid., 2.3, 538.

155. Ibid., 5.2, 642.

156. Ibid., 5.4, 647.

157. Sec again McCosh, Religious Aspect of Evolution.


This except is from America and the Political Philosophy of Common Sense (University of Missouri Press, 2009)

Scott Segrest

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Scott Segrest is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Citadel. He is author of America and the Political Philosophy of Common Sense (Missouri, 2009).