Books, Arts & Manners

A Critical Defense of Common Sense

Our intellectual and cultural elites have become unmoored from common sense; a new book charts a course for restoring it.

Robert Curry’s Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World is a companion volume to his earlier Common Sense Nation. Both books are apologias, defenses against certain attacks by our intellectual and cultural elites on the foundations of American life, which the American Founders understood in terms of “common sense.” As Curry elaborates, “While Common Sense Nation addresses the challenge to the American founding by presenting anew the Founders’ understanding of what they were establishing”—an understanding rooted in Scottish “common sense realism”—“Reclaiming Common Sense takes up . . . the challenge to the foundation of the founding”—commonsense rationality itself. Ultimately, he wants to “restore a trust in common sense and an understanding of its crucial role in our lives” as human beings and as American citizens.

A good catch-all term for the elites’ alternative to common sense is “political correctness,” an ideological party line much akin to the Newspeak of Orwell’s 1984 that tries to prohibit not only honest questions but even acknowledgement of facts in plain view. Who are you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes? And pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! From denying basic biology in favor of infinitely fluid “gender identity” to condemning commonsense measures against Islamic terrorism as “Islamophobia,” there is no fact so obvious it won’t be discounted whenever it should cross or inhibit whatever agenda du jour elites deem “progressive.” Political correctness is, in short, a “war on common sense.”

But what exactly is common sense? It turns out to be much harder to describe and explain common sense than just to have it. Describing and explaining it, however, becomes necessary when what would be taken for granted in a healthy social situation comes under relentless assault by deconstructionist, fundamentally nihilistic “intellectuals” and ideologues (not to be confused with philosophers) who because of their pedigrees and because of their fearsome passion may intimidate and undermine the confidence of people not prepared to handle the onslaught. In such a context, which we face today, we need a few insightful, bold, and eloquent people to step into the breach and put up a reasoned defense—people like Robert Curry.

Curry’s definition of common sense, echoing that of the father of commonsense philosophy, Thomas Reid, is self-evident truth, the truth of reality itself for which no argument can be made because it is basic, presupposed by any sound logical reasoning. Logical argument is a matter of demonstration that given certain premises, certain conclusions necessarily follow. But how do we know the truth of the premises? It is an elementary point of philosophy that a logical argument can be valid—necessarily true on the level of logic—but false when the premises on which the train of logic is based are false, i.e., not based in reality. Self-evident truth supplies the premises of true arguments, and its own truth must simply be seen by looking at reality itself. Self-evident truth—commonsense truth—is therefore best grasped through example and illustration.

Fortunately for us, Curry has a kind of genius for illustration, for finding illustrations that make the truth of commonsense understanding unmistakable and, for any honest person, undeniable. Most of his illustrations are drawn from imaginative literature. Literary portrayals of common human attitudes, actions, and interactions are particularly helpful for illustrating commonsense truths because of their focused concreteness. We can see in such portrayals things we have seen directly in ourselves and in others. Great literature is powerful precisely because it illuminates with unusual clarity various facts of human existence.

Curry’s analysis of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is a case in point. Austen contrasts Elinor’s good “sense”—her well-developed common sense—with her sister Marianne’s excessive and self-destructive “sensibility” or emotionalism. Austen is quite explicit about this: At one point she has Elinor say, with reference to her sister, “A few years will settle her opinions on the reasonable basis of common sense and observation.” The story contrasts the two sisters’ dramatically different responses to their respective romantic tragedies. Both of them experience romantic desire, but Elinor handles both her desire and the thwarting of that desire sensibly, responsibly, and, as a result, gracefully, while Marianne is overwhelmed by her desire and melodramatically devastated when that desire is let down. Elinor is mature and Marianne is immature in the precise sense that Elinor is guided by common sense while Marianne is driven by a sentimental dreaming that prevents her from seeing things as they are (in her case, from seeing that the man she is madly in love with is a rogue and that his eventual unfaithfulness to her is inevitable). As Curry sums it up, Elinor because of her common sense is in tune with reality, while Marianne in her extreme sentimentalism has “lost contact with reality.” Common sense in its essence is an in-touchness with reality. To depart from common sense is to be disconnected from reality. Fortunately, as Elinor predicted, Marianne came to recover her common sense and to grow in it.

Two questions arise. First, if commonsense truth is self-evident, why doesn’t everyone see and acknowledge it? And, second, a related question: If everyone has the capacity for common sense, how can one have more or less of it—how could it be possible to grow in common sense? Concerning the first question, common sense or self-evident truth is obvious only to those who look in the right place with clear eyes, their minds undistorted by disordering passion. Concerning the second, like any of our physical senses common sense must be developed in order to be fully effective. As your ability to appreciate the visual arts is refined through careful attention and repeated observations, so with your ability to make good commonsense judgments.

A third question, one that brings us to the sharp edge of Curry’s purpose: How can today’s intellectual elites have become so far removed from common sense? Not only do they often make claims flatly contradicting commonsense experience, but many of them have gone so far as explicitly to reject common sense as a thing deliberately to be overcome. In the words of Herbert Marcuse, “Philosophical thought begins with the recognition that the facts do not correspond to the concepts imposed by common sense and scientific reason [which, as Curry shows, is based on commonsense observations]—in short, with the refusal to accept them.” How facts could contradict the findings of common sense and scientific reason, which are concerned precisely with facts, is hard to conceive. In any case, “the refusal to accept” common sense is the outstanding feature of our current intellectual and cultural elites, especially those elites who are partisans of the Left.

What could motivate such a refusal? I recall my own surprise when I first encountered writers on the left who treated the very idea of truth as inherently oppressive or tyrannical. In hindsight I understood: Acknowledging the truths of common sense would not allow them to do what they wanted to do, to live as they wanted to live. Accepting reality as it is rather than as they wished it to be would intolerably (to their minds) cramp their style. In short, they lived, in a way analogous to Austen’s Marianne, in a romantic dreamworld, and did so quite deliberately.

To the rest of us this would be merely amusing were it not for the fact that dreamers like Marcuse and Marx and, today, “democratic socialists” like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez really intend to live in that world and to transform human reality to make their dream world possible. The problem for them, and collaterally for us, is that the real world resists such tampering, and nature will have its revenge. As John Adams observed, “Facts are stubborn things,” and as Eric Voegelin pointed out, attempts to live in the “Second Reality” of radical imagination always do real damage to the “First Reality” that is the real world. Just ask the 100 million-plus human beings (so far) sacrificed on the altar of the greatest of modern Second Realities, Communism. When the romantic dreamers come into positions of power, as is happening in our own country today, they must be taken very seriously indeed, not for their absurd agendas but as a threat to the intellectual foundations of our republic as well as to the institutions that sustain them.

In my view this threat has reached the level of an existential crisis. Many of the young people who may be our future leaders have been deep-marinated in the stifling political correctness and the toxic anti-commonsensism rife in many of our prestige universities. Let us hope and pray, then, that Robert Curry’s powerful little book finds its way into as many Americans’ hands as possible and turns out to be only one of many likeminded efforts in a great restorative commonsense movement.

Scott Segrest — Scott Philip Segrest is an associate professor of political science at The Citadel and the author of America and the Political Philosophy of Common Sense.

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