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#Introphil MOOC – Fifth Week Impressions

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‘Should You Believe What You Hear?’ was the title for this week. It was all very interesting to me as a Scotsman because there was so much to say about David Hume and his rival, the religiously trained Thomas Reid, also a Scottish philosopher who became a professor at the University of Aberdeen in 1752. Reid was the more trusting and thought people were naturally inclined to believe what others told them and that they tended to be truthful themselves. Hume on the other hand was all for ‘intellectual autonomy’ – think for yourself and don’t trust testimony unless you have evidence that it’s likely to be right.

I knew almost nothing about Thomas Reid but David Hume of course is very well known and his views seem far more in tune with the world today than Reid’s. Reid appeals to ‘Common Sense’ as a guiding force in his ‘Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense’ (1764) although, to me anyway, some of his beliefs seem lacking in just that! To be fair, the same could also be said of some of Hume’s beliefs judging from a video on Louise Taylor’s excellent blog. I’m beginning to think that all philosophers tend to push the boundaries of common sense a little too far but maybe that’s part of what philosophy is for, as well as asking and thinking about questions instead of answering them.

BUS STOP volume 2: easter Friday 2011 -

COMMON SENSE (by ruSSeLL hiGGs on Flickr)

I tend to place some reliance on common sense. What else have we got when we move out of our own personal areas of expertise? If common sense is the distillation of life’s experience that we carry around in our heads, ever ready to deal pragmatically with day-to-day problems, it should not be too surprising that one person’s common sense can be very different from another’s. Also, common sense ideas from the past have often been shown to be wrong. All the same, it’s unsettling to think of common sense just floating around unanchored in a sea of subjectivity.

Years ago, a panel of luminaries such as Julian Huxley, Alfred Ayer, Jacob Bronowski, Bertrand Russell etc would come together on an extremely popular BBC radio programme called ‘The Brains Trust’. One question for discussion that I remember was, “What is common sense” but what sticks with me is not their actual words of wisdom but my astonishment at how elusive definition seemed to be and how much they had to say about it. I can’t come up with a good definition of common sense either. Who knows? Maybe I will by the end of this course!

Written by Gordon Lockhart

March 4, 2013 at 9:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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6 Responses

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  1. When I was teaching management students at Lancaster University we used the acronym JOKE to define common sense – Judgement, Objectivity, Knowledge and Experience. So we conjectured that people calling for common sense were in fact asking for all these characteristics to be present. Interesting discussions followed about what they meant and what evidence existed that they were present when decision makers used common sense.


    March 4, 2013 at 10:11 am

    • Interesting – hmm .. I guess a trainee electrician would still exercise common sense without much in the way of knowledge or experience by, say, simply switching off the power supply when confronted with a possibly dangerous fault in a circuit. I can see why interesting discussions followed! Gordon


      March 4, 2013 at 12:41 pm

  2. Thanks for the compliment 🙂
    Common sense is hard to define but you recognise it when you see it.

    Louise Taylor

    March 4, 2013 at 11:39 am

    • I would like to think so Louise and I know what you mean but people often seem to end up explaining complex things by saying, “It’s only common sense!” – leaving one completely lost! – Gordon


      March 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    • and its absence even sooner I suspect


      March 14, 2013 at 11:14 pm

  3. Just as data is not the same a knowledge, it (and analytics) cannot substitute for common sense. I like the JOKE acronym ~ I’d come up with the constituent elements but not the acronym. Intuition may belong in here somewhere too. I came across a column about data that seems to relate (at least enough for an excuse to share it). It takes knowledge, experience and more to know what questions to ask ~ still coming back to questions,

    “Choosing what data to collect takes insight; making good sense of it requires the classic methods: you still need a model, a theory, or intuition to find a cause”


    March 14, 2013 at 11:24 pm

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