Here is Ralph McInerny commenting on ‘common sense’ (better put as ‘Implicit Philosophy’) over at The Catholic Thing. Here are my two cents: (By the way, the term was coined by John Paul II in Fides et Ratio).
JPII argues that there are certain questions which are unavoidable for us. Across all cultures, ‘there arise the same fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?‘ (n1). As McInerny puts it, these are not just questions we ask, there is a sense in which we are these questions (JPII suggests that system must always serve inquiry, not the other way around).
Philosophy’s work is to sort these questions out through reflection and reason. He writes, ‘These fundamental elements of knowledge spring from the wonder awakened in them by the contemplation of creation: human beings are astonished to discover themselves as part of the world, in a relationship with others like them, all sharing a common destiny. Here begins, then, the journey which will lead them to discover ever new frontiers of knowledge. Without wonder, men and women would lapse into deadening routine and little by little would become incapable of a life which is genuinely personal.’
This philosophical journey, over time and in different cultures, presents us with various philosophical systems. JPII decries the ‘philosophical pride’ that assumes that any one system has captured reality in one totalizing system of thought. That said, this does not mean that we are in a kind of radically diverse milieu where one cannot make judgments. Philosophy never starts from scratch. Even philosophers who pretend to start from scratch really don’t (every student who has read Descartes notices how, despite his insistence on radical doubt, he actually lets really important bits of undoubted knowledge in, by the ‘light of nature’, as it were). There are no totally thoroughgoing skeptics, since we all import in certain ’self-evident truths’.
But what are these self-evident truths from which we all must begin, and from which we sort out which philosophical system is most compelling? That itself is a philosophical question. But JPII suggests that there is some store of ‘common sense’, which he calls ‘Implicit Philosophy’. In other words, not only do we all ask these questions, we all have some basic answers to them. JPII writes,
‘Although times change and knowledge increases, it is possible to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole. Consider, for example, the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness. Consider as well certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all. These are among the indications that, beyond different schools of thought, there exists a body of knowledge which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity. It is as if we had come upon an implicit philosophy, as a result of which all feel that they possess these principles, albeit in a general and unreflective way. Precisely because it is shared in some measure by all, this knowledge should serve as a kind of reference-point for the different philosophical schools. Once reason successfully intuits and formulates the first universal principles of being and correctly draws from them conclusions which are coherent both logically and ethically, then it may be called right reason or, as the ancients called it, orthós logos, recta ratio.’
Of late I have found myself disagreeing with people almost all the time. Perhaps I am just disagreeable. Perhaps I just live in what McInerny calls a ‘Thomist free zone’. But I think there is something more to it than that. I am afraid that philosophers too often deny the Implicit Philosophy that is the bedrock of philosophical inquiry. There is a temptation, among some philosophers and students of philosophy, to be contrarian just for the sake of being a contrarian. To use Plato’s description in the Republic, they ‘argue for amusement, and are always contradicting and refuting others in imitation of those who refute them; like puppy-dogs, they rejoice in pulling and tearing at all who come near them.’
It is tempting to do this, tempting to deny the Implicit Philosophy because skepticism is apparently the mark of thoughtfulness. But is it really? When we ask incessant and pointless ‘what if’ questions, are we really advancing the cause of philosophy? Just because we can deny in speech self-evident truths, should we? (I take them to be self-evident because, no matter how much we might deny them in speech, we don’t deny them in how we live). It is hard to ignore the prevalence of Implicit Philosophy. For all that Huenemann and I disagree on when it comes to questions of philosophical system, we have the same Implicit Philosophy. We have roughly the same moral outlooks, the same view on education, many of the same hopes. Our lives look very similar and are lived in largely the same way (family, philosophy, love of learning, exercise, etc). (I’m hoping Huenemann is not cringing right now!).
What is the point of all this? Well, I wonder if we do philosophy a disservice when we use it to question rather than to inquire (if that distinction makes any sense). To question might mean to act as if nothing is ‘sacred’, as if there is nothing that should not be called to the mat. To inquire would be to take our Implicit Philosophy as a starting point (our human questions and the basic answers that we all live), as the wellspring for the original wonder of philosophy. In the former model, philosophy devolves into a tit for tat, puppies pulling and tearing. It actually devalues the original questions that drew us all into philosophy in the first place, for it makes of them a game only. The latter effort allows for genuine philosophical creativity, and a philosophical discourse which would never be seen as ‘ivory tower’ since it would always be concretely grounded in existential questions that every human person lives.