‘Common Sense’ and Philosophy

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.

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

11 thoughts on “‘Common Sense’ and Philosophy”

  1. As David Lewis once said, “Put forward no thesis which you would not believe in your most commonsensical and least philosophical moments.”


  2. Huenemann, please don’t succinctly sum up my long-winded posts in just one sentence. It makes me look like an windbag. :)

    So here is the issue, what is the content of the Implicit Philosophy? Immediately we run into an issue: Could we come up with a laundry list, or is the Implicit Philosophy so pre-theoretical that once we articulated it we would already be adding baggage (placing it into a system) and therein losing its universal character? This is, in many ways, Heidegger’s whole method in Being and Time – begin in everydayness (pre-theoretical throwness) and interpret the necessary existential structures without turning it into a metaphysical system.

    To get us started, let’s look at JPII’s provisional list:
    1) The principles of non-contradiction
    I suspect this is uncontroversial?
    2) Finality
    Surprise, surprise, Harrison brings up teleology! But do we really deny teleology in our ‘most commonsensical and least philosophical moments’?
    3) Causality
    Any Humeans out there that want to argue here?
    4) The concept of the person as a free
    Any determinists out there?
    5) Concept of person as an intelligent subject
    Any irrationalists out there?
    6) With the capacity to know God, truth and goodness
    He is starting to pack a lot in here!
    7) Consider as well certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all:
    I would think we are back to uncontroversial truths here (murder is wrong, rape is wrong, using another person is wrong, etc etc).

    I think a very good case can be made that the above 7 things JPII lists as Implicit Philosophy ‘self-evident truths’ are the sorts of things everyone would sign on to in their most commonsensical and least philosophical moments.

    So is Huenemann still so willing to sign on? Do some of the things not belong on the list? This is starting to look pretty radical, since any seriously skeptical philosophy, denial of teleology, immoralism, and determinism would be taken off the boards as mere ‘pulling and tearing like puppies’. I know I am painting with a broad brush here, but isn’t modern philosophy basically leveled here?


  3. Leave it to Kleiner to use “common sense” to reject what the majority of reflective people believe today!

    I can go for #7. #s 1-6 I could sign on to, but I know what I take them to mean, or what I take them to consist in, is radically different from what Kleiner intends. Sure, a proposition and its negation cannot both be (wholly) true; organisms have features which allow them to do neat stuff; there are exceptionless patterns in natural phenomena; people make decisions, and are responsible for them; people are intelligent; they can form beliefs about God, truth, and goodness. It’s what comes next — when we reason backward to what “must” be the case, if these claims are true, that interesting differences will start to emerge. “Implicit philosophy” will be shared territory only so long as that territory remains unexplored.


  4. Yeah, I thought that was pretty slick. But there is a serious issue here. One might argue that all a philosophical system has to do is treat the Implicit Philosophy pre-theoretical truths, it does not need to confirm them but only explain how they arise out of our questioning experience. In other words, you could just put a ‘seems to’ on the front of each of the 7 assertions. Life seems to have some meaning, but it is really just will to power. Objects seem to behave causally and finally, but that is only apparent (maybe we impose that order a la Kant). Etc etc
    But one of the functions Implicit Philosophy serves is to give us some ground from which we might judge the various philosophical systems that are developed out of wonder-ful inquiry into our basic questions and the pre-theoretical Implicit Philosophy. If we gut it of any real content, then it is worthless.

    By the way, I take some umbrage at the claim that ‘the majority of reflective people’ would necessarily disagree with me here. It isn’t that I mind being in the minority (truth is company enough!), but the academy (whose members certainly do reject the listed common sense) are not the sum – or even the majority – of ‘reflective people’, are they?


  5. What of these ‘Huenemanniacs’? Is there an Implicit Philosophy in Huenemannism? Or does Huenemannism simply involve a deep distrust of the truth of any of the Implicit Philosophy?

    It must be the latter, for isn’t it the mark of the noble types that they do not follow, and have no desire to be followed? Zarathustra asks, ‘This is my way; where is yours?’ In order to be consistent, the Huenemanniacs would have to be an unruly crowd with no commitments whatsoever. In fact, perhaps they ought to even do violent and cruel things to one another and their children, so that a Huenemanniac could say to another Huenemanniac, “Thank you for releasing me from my slavish bonds of herd morality’. Stranger still that, and I am speculating here, the Huenemanniacs are also probably Obamanauts. But noble men are deeply distrustful of mass social movements, especially those with ‘special leaders’.
    Maybe the Huenemanniacs should be renamed the SOBs (Society of Blinkers).
    In short, Huenemanniacs lack the order and grace of lived virtue that you find in the Aristotelian Holdouts. Since we do not attempt to deny the basic order of the world, our lives are not marked by strife but by harmony.

    Or maybe I am just jealous of the Huenemanniacs super cool name. (I am still not sold on ‘Aristotelian Holdouts’).


  6. Congratulations, Kleiner; your unruly Aristotelianism has just made you a member of the Huenemanniacs. Membership can be neither refused nor requested.


  7. What, can Aristotelian Holdouts not critique? My critique was not lawless (sarcastic, yes, unruly no). Come on, the SOB remark was funny too. Aristotelians are permitted biting critiques – Aristotle himself sarcastically mocks those who challenge the law of non-contradiction. This is not as harsh as Avicenna, who suggested ‘Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.’ In view that, my sarcastic chiding of lovers of Nz to follow through with what they claim to love was pretty timid.

    I remain on friendly terms with the Huenemanniacs, and share their mocking of mediocrity and their desire for greatness. But I am not one of them, because I fundamentally disagree with them on what qualities are ‘great-making’ and why they are great-making. (They don’t want me anyway, since I would just talk about God all the time). In fact, my door is always open to disaffected Huenemanniacs, those seeking for some understanding of why they find Nz so ultimately repulsive (that is, those who are interested in an adequate philosophical anthropology that will help us to understand the Implicit Philosophy). This was the root of my post – Nz has to deny the Implicit Philosophy, but it is the Implicit Philosophy that makes us blink. We all agree that it is good to blink. The question then is, is blinking just weakness (albeit a welcome one), or is there really something to the Implicit Philosophy? And if there is something to it, which philosophical systems best explain the ultimate ‘ground’ of it?

    By the way, the only membership that cannot be refused or requested is membership (throwness) in the teleologically organized world.


  8. Even Norm Chomsky dismisses the complete skeptic of values. He labeled Michel Foucault the most amoral human he had ever met. Instead Chomsky thinks that humanity has a range of valuing, but shares a common core of valuing created by the human evolutionary history.

    There is nothing to say that evolutionary development of valuing is not a whisper of the Divine into creation towards justice and kindness.


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