common sense

It seems fitting that the phrase “common sense” should strike most as being fairly self-explanatory. If one is called upon to offer a definition, however, the matter presents a few challenges. “Common sense as opposed to what?” one may be tempted to respond. In truth, the phrase seems something of a tautology, at least in everyday parlance. If we find ourselves in agreement with someone, we might very well have the confidence to say of a person or an action that it conforms to common sense, but when we find ourselves in any form of disagreement, it is in frustration, rather than confidence, that we invoke the term. It is, in its usage, redundant; if an action occurs in the presence of two or more people, all of whom take no umbrage with that action and do not find reason to protest it, then it can be safely assumed that, if any of them were asked whether or not the action conformed to their notion of common sense, they would respond affirmatively. If a protest were to arise in one or more constituents of the group, we could safely assume the contrary. The phrase seems to appeal to something essential to a human attitude toward the world and the other entities that populate it. Common sense is not reducible to mere animal instinct; it is what might be called, at its purest embodied state, “know-how.” One can only speculate so far, though, before it becomes helpful, if not necessary, to turn one’s gaze toward the past. An overview of some of the most notable conceptions of common sense delineates a progress leading toward abstraction, from something to be had to something to be achieved.1

For Aristotle, common sense (also known as koine aisthesis or sensus communis) describes the higher-order perception that humans uniquely possess. This sense acts as kind of guide for the others, organizing them as well as mobilizing them in one connected perceptual apparatus. As Aristotle puts it succinctly, “In so far as it is indivisible, the judging principle is one and coincident with perception; in so far as it is divisible, it is not one, for it employs twice and simultaneously the same mark. In so far as it employs a terminal mark as two, it distinguishes two things, and these are separable for it as a separable faculty. In so far as it regards the point as one, it judges singly and coincidently with perception.”2 Crudely put, if I perceive an object to be both red and hot at the same time, then I determine those two characteristics of the object with two different senses, that of sight, and that of touch. I do not experience any difficulties in recognizing the two properties as belonging to the same object, not just because common sense is merely combinational, since I perceive said object in toto at the same time as I recognize it as an assembly of constituent properties, but because it is a faculty that belongs to each sense contemporaneously, and, as such, is capable of coordinating their structured collaboration (common sense is “common” to the senses). While this may seem a bit of an antiquated view, given its rudimentary and mostly intuitive understanding of the human sensorium, it nonetheless bears relation to its more modern conceptions insofar as it is still thought of as something organic that makes judgment effortless if and when it is allowed to flourish.

The Aristotelean conception of common sense remained in currency for several centuries. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, sought to create a work that would reconcile, in a systematic and thorough way, the philosophical achievements of Aristotle (as well as two of his foremost commentators, Avicenna and Averroes) and the teachings of the Christian theological tradition. For Thomas Aquinas, common sense is still very much a physiological trait; it is the unifying principle of the physical senses. If present in sufficient measure within a human being, common sense results in that being acting in accordance with his/her sensual unity. This unity takes on a more meaningfully epistemological dimension than it does in Aristotle; in Thomistic philosophy, common sense is, so to speak, the necessary condition for the attainment of any truth concerning the external order of things.3 In contrast, another Italian philosopher, the ardently anti-clerical, Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, would, much later, reverse this conception. In his work, common sense is, as with Aquinas, indispensable but, rather than being the path toward ultimate truths through the attainment of several, incrementally greater ones, it is, on the other hand, that which blinds humans from being aware of the super-structures that govern their existence and bind them to particular compartments in the order of a cultural hegemony. It is also that to which one must appeal in order to make a revolution possible. Gramsci’s historical materialism leads him to understand common sense as that which is instrinsic to the masses, but also that which must be manipulated and, in some sense, that which must be conquered in order for hegemony to be achieved by an ascendant class.4

Gramsci’s preoccupation is, admittedly, an exception, though a notable one. In the history of philosophical understandings of common sense, the major threat to the reign of the Aristotelean-Thomistic conception comes with Immanuel Kant. In his third critique, a discussion of sensus communis occurs in relation to taste. In section 40, he writes, “but under the sensus communis we must include the Idea of a sense common to all, i.e., of a faculty of judgment, which in its reflection takes account of the mode of representation of all other men in thought; in order (…) to compare its judgment with the collective Reason of humanity, and thus to escape the illusion arising from the private conditions that could be easily taken for objective, which would injuriously affect the judgment.” 5 Given that Kant is notoriously fond of forms, the idea in this passage is that, whenever a judgment is made, that judgment is in accordance with the form of judging common to human beings, loci of pure practical reason. Therefore, one should always judge in keeping with the very structure of the faculty of Taste, which is universal; for Kant, this engenders thinking that is “unprejudiced…enlarged…consecutive.” By extending one’s thought beyond the limits of subjectivity, Taste is expressed in an unmediated manner, one reflecting its “universal commmunicability.” For Kant, Taste, as such, is one of our duties qua humans.

Over the course of several centuries, various thinkers elaborated a conception of common sense that, beginning from a physiological principle of sensory organization, one shared by all humans to varying degrees but, in large part, a matter that concerned the epistemic dimension of human existence, took a marked metaphysical turn, in Kant, and became an a priori element of human thought with concrete implications for one’s ethical attitude toward others. This transition is evident as common sense is seen less and less as a threat to philosophy but, conversely, philosophy is seen as more and more of a threat to common sense. American philosopher John Dewey may be seen as a kind of culmination of this transition; he writes that “the concern or care that is distinctively characteristic of common sense concern and of scientific concern, with respect to what is done and known and why it is done and known, renders the subjectmatters that are proper, necessary in the doings and knowings of the two concerns as different as is H2O from the water we drink and wash with.” Common sense is not just a faculty; it is the condition for a form of life.6

There are, however, several other strands of thought concerning common sense that deserve to be addressed, as well. In Roman society, for example, a conception of common sense involved an understanding of “common” meaning “vulgar;” hence, the “common sense” of the people (as in the aforementioned Gramsci). Inevitably, there are less-than-positive echoes in this elitist understanding of that which constitutes the spirit of the masses, to put it in a rather anachronistic way. Nonetheless, thinkers like Cicero, as well as other exponents of Stoic philosophy, extolled the virtues of “common sense” as a crucial feature of any total understanding of one’s community and, more specifically, of the way in which the laws, customs, institutions and practices of a given community represent the inner sensibilities of its constituents.7 This idea, exerted a particularly great influence on Giambattista Vico and, in turn, 19th century German academics whose work more sophisticatedly elaborated several themes from his philosophy of history as well as his pedagogical method. Vico himself was reacting toward the pervasive Cartesianism of his time, which prescribed that common sense be purely ratiocinative and cogitative, such that it could be the basis of pure, objective, rational, and formal ordering of the world in the language of natural science, mathematics and logic. Vico, on the other hand, preferred the imaginative, and called for a reinvention of the human sciences as based on the return to the essential values of post-lapsarian existence, and their resuscitation from the history through philology and the irreducible congeniality between one human and another.8

Despite the vast differences between all of these philosophers’ formulations, there remains a sense in which they share an implicit characteristic, the conception of common sense as a categorically inferior form of knowledge in comparison to the rigorous, critical activity of doing philosophy. To put it succinctly, one gets the impression that, for these thinkers, common sense is something on which one ought to get a hold early on, quickly, so as to move on to the real, tough thinking. At best, common sense has been, in some forms, a goal of philosophy, but never a philosophy in and of itself.

The notable exception to this is the Scottish school of common sense philosophy of the late 18th, early 19th century, founded by Thomas Reid and characterized by its advocacy to realism, in contrast to David Hume, John Locke and George Berkeley, who, despite their numerous other philosophical differences, all shared varying degrees of skepticism toward our supposed ability to know the outside world. For Reid, common sense was the basis on which one is able to form any reasonable opinions, the implication being that many of his predecessors and contemporaries did not possess it; otherwise, they would not have reached the conclusions they did. However, Reid’s philosophy was not merely a destructive one; rather, from common sense, he developed a system of philosophy that dealt with topics in epistemology, ethics, and philosophy of perception.

Thomas Reid’s notion of “direct realism,” the thought that, when we experience the outside world, we are really and truly experiencing something or someone that is external, rather than merely experiencing our own internal representation of that something has proven particularly influential.9 Perhaps one of the most notorious recent contributions to philosophy of perception of recent memory, John McDowell’s Mind and World, suggests a not-dissimilar version of common sense realism with quietist resolve and idiosyncratic interpretations of Kant and Hegel, among others. Reid has also exerted a great influence on American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, whose pragmatic “consensus theory of truth” bears the imprint of Reid’s school of thought. Finally, in the 20th century, G.E. Moore (who, by the way, carried with him his fair share of Thomistic influence) did much to eradicate philosophical skepticism, often in memorable fashion (as in the famed “here is a hand” argument). Despite many disagreements with Moore and his other closest acquaintance at Cambridge, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein also assumed the mission of bringing a commonsensical approach into philosophy, as is evidenced, in particular, in his posthumous publications. Wittgenstein himself exerted influence on a school originating with Oxford professor J.L. Austin, “ordinary language philosophy,” as it is called, whose notable exponents include, among others, Gilbert Ryle, P.F. Strawson, John Searle and Stanley Cavell (even though Wittgenstein’s influence of on “ordinary language philosophy” is itself a matter of controversy). 10

The history of the philosophical notion of “common sense” may seem like a bit of an unlikely source for a renewed understanding of media theory. Certainly there are other terms with a more obvious relevance to media theory, ones that are more often discussed.

However, the neglect of the concept of common sense in media theory may strike one as an oversight upon further consideration. Common sense is, after all, a medium, in a rather straightforward way; it, literally, mediates the so-called inner sphere of our mind and the so-called outer sphere of the world. It mediates our powers of perception and their objects as well as our powers of judgment with regard to those very same objects. Disagreements such as the one between Walter Benjamin, on one hand, and Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, on the other, over the issue of laughter, for example, may be reviewed with the lens of “common sense.” Benjamin, speaking on the topic of laughter, applauds those moments in film, especially animated films such as Steamboat Willy (of which he was an early, great fan) as being ecstatic, hysterical moments of controlled insanity, ones that are uniquely made possible by cinema. Benjamin relishes the moments in which the audience is confronted with visions of their own alienation and moved to a collectively therapeutic reaction in which they both recognize and undermine the absurdity of their condition. On the other hand, Adorno and Horkheimer are notoriously disdainful and highly skeptical of the very possibility of any such redemptive experience, no matter how much cinema may afford an experience of some uniqueness. Though there are several ways to examine this particular debate, a helpful and unusual way might be to consider how Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer understand common sense, and what role that understanding plays in the positions they take on a given phenomena, in this case, laughter.11 To reveal the cloaked, unwritten assumptions at play by subjecting analyses to analysis reveals the philosophical dimension underpinning the arguments. How the senses work with one another, how they are organized, what their guiding principle is, the manner in which the structure of their functioning shapes our manner of relating to the external world, how representations are formed and how we are able to change representations in such a way as for them to be imbued with our intentionality; these are all questions for which philosophical vocabulary is available. To take advantage of that vocabulary, for the media theorist, in order to help organize and substantiate the more abstract realms of her reasoning, would seem to be an opportunity worth taking – to do so might even be, so to speak, common sense.

Dylan Montanari
Winter 2010


1. This is reflected even in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “common sense.”   The definitions range from “an internal sense regarded as the common bond of the five senses” to “the plain wisdom which is everyone’s inheritance” to “the general sense, feeling or judgment of mankind or of a community” to, in conclusion, “thE faculty of primary truths.” OED Online, Second Edition, 1989.

2. Hammond, William, ed. Aristotle’s psychology: a treatise on the principle of life (De anima and Parva naturalia). Trans. William Hammond. Cambridge, MA, Swann Sonnenschein, 1907. 204. Digitized for Google Books on June 6th, 2006.

3. Saint Thomas Aquinas. Treatise on Human Nature: Summa Theologiae 1A 75-89 (The Hackett Aquinas Project). Ed. Robert Pasnau. Boston: Hackett Company, 2002.

4. Cf. Mouffe, Chantal, ed. Gramsci and Marxist Theory. London: Routledge. 1979.

5. Immanuel Kant. Critique of Judgment. trans. Werner Pluhar. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing. 1987. 159-162.

6. John Dewey. “Common Sense and Science”. John Dewey – Later Works 1925-1953, ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. 252.

Conclusive proof of common sense having become acknowledged as constructive, rather than merely receptive, can be found in Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity, New York: Zone Books, 2007.

7. John D. Schaeffer. Sensus communis: Vico, rhetoric and the limits of relativism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.

8. A comprehensive introduction to the main Vichian themes is Isaiah Berlin’s long essay “The Philosophical Ideas of Giambattista Vico,” from the collection Three Critics of the Enlightenment, edited by Henry Hardy for Princeton UP, 2000, pp. 21-122.

9. Yaffe, Gideon; Nichols, Ryan, “Thomas Reid”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy     (Fall 2009), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <>.

10. Representative works are How to Do Things with Words by J.L. Austin, The Concept             of Mind by Gilbert Ryle, “On Referring” by P.F. Strawson, Speech Acts by John   Searle and, finally, Stanley Cavell’s Must We Mean What We Say?

Relevant posthumous works by Wittgenstein are Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty, among others.

11. Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Ed. Michael Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Levin. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. New York: Belknap, Harvard UP, 2008, 318.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. New York: Stanford UP, 2002, 112.