There’s No Such Thing as Common Sense, and There Never Was

23991561406_410e1867cf_hThe topic of common sense recently came up in the comment section of this blog, and after initially responding with a comment I thought it would be worthwhile to expand on my comment and explain why "Common Sense" is a misnomer.

Let's start with the comment that set me off. Felix Torres left a comment explaining that:

It used to refer to a minimum level of rationality that could be expected from an adult, based on things that are common knowledge: things like not going surfing in hurricane weather or sticking a finger in a light bulb socket.

Darwin awards prove how uncommon it has become.

My problem with his explanation is one, the assumption that common sense is any less common today than it was a hundred years ago, and two, the assumption that anything described as common sense is true or correct.

I'll address those in reverse order.

Many people share the assumption that a common sense saying must be correct, but based on how I have heard the term used that simply isn't the case. Here's my understanding of the meaning and use of common sense.

In my experience common sense is and always has been a synonym for "the assumption of shared culture or knowledge". Or as the apocryphal Albert Einstein saying goes, "Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen."

When the term common sense is used, it says nothing about the topic at hand and instead merely indicates that the speaker is assuming something to be both true and common knowledge.

What is assumed to be true can range from factual info (such as math or geography) to best practices, urban legends, or possibly racist/sexist/bigoted assumptions like "it's common sense that all blacks/women/gays/ethnic group are (blank)".

I came to this revelation when a forum I used to help run was discussing whether to ban shortened URLs. One person said that it was common sense that you can't trust the shortened URLs, which is simply nonsense. They're used all over, and the only time they're not safe is when used by a malicious actor.

That person had simply assumed it to be true, when in fact he had apparently never confirmed his assumption. This is why I immediately question any argument that ends with "it's common sense".

In my opinion, "common sense" should be regarded as a logical fallacy, perhaps as a thought terminating cliche (a clichéd phrase in and of itself may be valid in certain contexts, its application as a means of dismissing dissent or justifying fallacious logic is what makes it thought-terminating).

That is how I see it used most often, and it is frequently followed by the lamentation that common sense simply isn't as common as it used to be.

Speaking of which, it might surprise you to learn that regretting the decline of common sense is not a recent phenomenon; it's a meme which dates back a couple centuries. Will Rogers is credited with saying almost a hundred years ago that "Common sense ain't common", and half a century before that Horace Greely quipped "Common sense is uncommon."

So not only is common sense not common today, it never was. The only part of common sense which is actually common is the way its absence is noted, so much so that it almost exists in a negative space.

P.S. There's about another 400 words cut from this post which expand on the timelessness of common sense as a meme, but I pulled it because I found the quotes I was going to use are as fake as the belief that common sense used to be more common in the past than it is today.

P.P.S. Do you know those quotes by ancient Greek philosophers lamenting about "kids these days"? They are most likely apocryphal.

image by cogdogblog

About Nate Hoffelder (11480 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

11 Comments on There’s No Such Thing as Common Sense, and There Never Was

  1. John Kenneth Galbraith used the term “conventional wisdom” to describe the stuff everybody knows, even though it’s often wrong or unverified.

    I think another term that means something similar to “common sense” is “urban myth”.

    I find the idea of common sense to be useful in casual conversation but it really doesn’t have any place in serious discussion.


  2. I’ve observed ‘common sense’ as meaning “people who agree with what I say”. Generally, it’s something of a nonsense expression used to justify one person’s opinion.

  3. The term “common sense” apparenty originated in the 14th century to refer to a conclusion based on the five senses, the term used to make a distinction between people who reached conclusions based on the senses and people who reached conclusions based on no input at all, e.g., the insane and idiots. Soon the usage grew to include conclusions based on accepted ideas. For example, at one time it was common sense to say the Earth was as flat as a pancake, but when science demonstrated the Earth is a sphere and the demonstration was confirmed by ships sailing aroun the globe, it became common sense to say the Earth is a sphere. Of course conclusions based on the senses or on prevalent ideas can often be wrong, which means common sense may not be reliable. But on the other hand common sense can be indeed an accurate conclusion. If you see a man with a gun inside a bank and everyone else with their hands in the air, common sense tells you it’s probably a robbery. Probably. It may be a movie shoot.

    • I should add that it’s not a good idea to say that common sense has no place in serious discussion. Einstein’s theory of relativity, his own popularized version of it, was based on common sense as he saw it. What he did essentially was take his common sense ideas and formulate them mathematically. His common sense ideas came first, they really did. The physicist Richard Feynman used a common sense approach to quantum electrodynamics.

  4. On the other hand, rejecting the notion of common sense leads to people thinking they *should* be able to go surfing in a hurricane, or stick their fingers in a lightbulb socket, and *not* be blamed for the consequences. An all too common attitude nowadays.

    Yes, science has proven truths that go directly against common sense and intuition. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Unless you think it’s fine for Search&Rescue to always waste resources looking for people who didn’t stop to think that maybe, just maybe, going hiking in the dark, on a snowy mountain, with a storm coming, is a bad idea…

  5. Arguments over semantics are the best kind of arguments, aren’t they?

    “Common sense” is one of those things nobody really knows how to articulate, but everybody knows what it “means.”

    • I favor Einstein’s take.
      It is a cultural artifact, of course; that is why it is called “common”, not in the sense of “abundant” but in the sense of “shared”.

      But it quite obviously exists, as each community has a set of generally accepted expectations shared by its members.

      No paradox then that people who remember shared knowledge (“electric outlets are dangerous!”) and *act* on that knowledge regularly should be less common than the people who know it but forget or disregard it. Impulse control, planned thinking, etc…

      And yes, a semantic discussion or three is a good way to pass idle moments when there’s no good news to chew on.

  6. I’ve long believed that Common Sense is so rare that it could be classified as a super power.

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