U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Almost Always Polemical": Common Sense, Mortimer Adler, and Late Twentieth-Century Liberalism (Part IIIa)

Here the links for Part I and Part II of this series. Part I dealt with the politics of common sense, and Part II with Mortimer J. Adler’s attraction to the philosophy of common sense, especially in relation to moral and political philosophy. Even if you haven’t read the other two parts, today’s will stand on its own.

Although I wanted today’s post to be the last, another will be necessary. My goal for this half of Part III (or IIIa) is to discuss the meanings of common sense _and_ its fate in philosophy before the 1960s. In next week’s second half (IIIb), I will tease out Adler’s variation of that philosophy and what it meant, to him, for liberalism—and what it could have meant if “common sense” had not been appropriated politically by the New Right. In an age of increasing political polarization, it is instructive to look at those, like Adler, who held the line on moderation—or held loosely to party and ideological affiliations.

But before we reach Adler as of the 1960s, we need to understand what he knew and may have known before that period. In other words, today’s post is about common sense as a philosophical-historical enterprise—both in the United States and in places that affected its development in North America.

I. The Definitions and Roots of Common Sense Philosophy

If one is going to discuss common sense in the abstract—an enterprise that some would say is self-defeating—it feels appropriate to begin at the beginning: definitions. The jump from definitions to epistemology is a small one, so this will help acclimate everyone to discussing the roots of common sense. …Please pardon my plodding, methodical approach.

My first offering is from the online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Here’s its entry (bolds mine): Common sense (n): sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts. First known use: 1726. Synonyms: discreetness, discretion, gumption [chiefly dialect], horse sense, levelheadedness, nous [chiefly British], policy, prudence, sense, sensibleness, wisdom, wit. Antonyms: imprudence, indiscretion

My desk copy of The American Heritage College Dictionary provides the following (bolds mine): Common sense (n): Native good judgment. [Transl. of Lat. sensus communis, common feelings of humanity.]

Finally, let’s turn to the venerable (and fun) Oxford English Dictionary (online). Here are some selections from multiple entries (bolds mine):


1. An ‘internal’ sense which was regarded as the common bond or centre of the five senses, in which the various impressions received were reduced to the unity of a common consciousness. [First use = 1398]

2.a. The endowment of natural intelligence possessed by rational beings; ordinary, normal or average understanding; the plain wisdom which is everyone’s inheritance. (This is ‘common sense’ at its minimum, without which one is foolish or insane.) [First use = 1535]

2.b. More emphatically: Good sound practical sense; combined tact and readiness in dealing with the every-day affairs of life; general sagacity. [First use = 1726]

2.c. Ordinary or untutored perception. [First use = 1598]

3. The general sense, feeling, or judgement of mankind, or of a community. [First use = 1596]

4. 4. Philos. The faculty of primary truths; ‘the complement of those cognitions or convictions which we receive from nature; which all men therefore possess in common; and by which they test the truth of knowledge, and the morality of actions’ (Hamilton Reid’s Wks. II. 756). [First use = 1705 by George Berkeley] [Note: Hamilton Reid’s “Wrks” is really The Works of Thomas Reid. Thomas Reid was cited by Dan Wickberg in a comment on Part I of this series.]


This seems like a confusing mess. What are we to make of these offerings?

First, let’s rule out OED #1. Although that has its roots in Aristotle (On the Soul, Book III, Part 1—evaluated more deeply here), and was picked up by Aquinas (Part I, Question 78, particularly Article 4), this definition has nothing to do with what Mortimer Adler offered us in The Time of Our Lives (TOL), circa 1970—despite his neo-Aristotelianism. This is particularly interesting since Adler’s TOL is an updating of the Nicomachean Ethics for post-1960s America. More on that in Part IIIb.

Let’s also hold off for a bit on OED #4—which we can call the eighteenth-century Scottish philosophical version of common sense, or Scottish Common Sense Philosophy.

What follows are the key words and phrases from each definition offered above, listed one after another to give a distinct, concentrated impression: “sound and prudent judgment”; “simple perceptions”; “native good judgment”; discretion; levelheadedness; wisdom; “sensus communis,” or “the common feelings of humanity”; “ordinary, normal or average understanding”; “plain wisdom”; “everyone’s inheritance”; “combined tact and readiness in…every-day affairs”; “general sagacity”; “untutored perception”; and “good sound practical sense.”

Can we simplify this string any further? Here’s my own cobbled-together offering of a definition: “Common sense involves using simple, untutored, general perceptions available to all—with discretion and tact—to make sound, prudent judgments about every-day affairs in order to obtain both level-headed sagacity and a sense of shared feelings with one’s community.” …Comments?

What’s absent from my own and the other given definitions? First, judgment is important to common sense, and seems centered on situations and facts—as well as making good choices about facts (hence tact and discretion). As such, moral issues are subordinate to understanding what’s going on. Second, aids to perception (mechanical or human) are also not a part of common sense—the perception has to be available to all. Third, perception is treated as an aggregate of many distinct physical and mental processes, with no regard to individual psychological filters.

These are serious problems, to be sure. Yet common sense retains its currency in popular speech. As I said in post I: “Common sense is one of those paradoxical, maddening, inadequate, and, sadly, indispensable tropes of any democratic culture.” It’s even more maddening when we return to political considerations. In an age where many liberals, and a few conservatives, strive—with only spotty success—to accept individual and group differences (i.e. uniqueness, pluralism, and multiculturalism), so many attributions in the definitions above of common, native, average, ordinary, plain, and—gulp—“normal” surely strike the educated mind as somewhat quaint, if not retrograde. Then again, the educated class, consisting again of liberals and conservatives, does indeed seem to also strive for something like “sensus communis.” What else are we to make of ubiquitous Facebook “likes,” popular culture with mass appeal (music, books, film, television), churchgoing, and other efforts at voluntary organizing (hobbies, special appeal groups, etc.)? Common sense seems to fit the cultural and intellectual inconsistencies of the American populace here at the start of the twenty-first century.

Returning to the definitions, notice also the dates—meaning the ages of the above-mentioned list of concepts and terms: 1535, 1596, 1598, 1705, 1726. The kind of common sense represented in the list is clearly as old as modern English. And the phrase, furthermore, is linked (according to the American College entry) to the older notion of a “sensus communis.” Though that expression dates to Aristotle, Patrick O’Donnell reported in a comment to Part I of this discussion that Hans Georg Gadamer also used sensus communis in his 1976 book, Truth and Method. That book provides the link between Aristotle and usage of the phrase in English.

A search for sensus communis in Gadamer’s Truth and Method yields 18 results—most under a section of chapter 1 titled “The Guiding Concepts of Humanism.”[1] If I’ve read Gadamer properly, it appears he links sensus communis to Giambattista Vico (particularly The New Science, 1725). In the words of Gadamer, Vico defines it as follows:

The sensus communis is the sense of what is right and of the common good that is to be found in all men; moreover, it is a sense that is acquired through living in the community and is determined by its structures and aims. This concept sounds like natural law, like the koinai ennoiai of the Stoics. But the sensus communis… is not a Greek concept [to Vico, pictured right]. Rather, Vico goes back to the old Roman concept…[that] held firmly to the value and significance of their own traditions of civil and social life (p. 20).

So Vico’s usage of the less familiar Latin phrase correlates both topically with the definitions I gave above, and chronologically with the eighteenth-century Scottish philosophers. This is a convenient segue.

II. Scottish Common Sense Philosophy

I don’t want to spend too much time on this group since it is a bit far afield, chronologically, from Adler’s stated influences. Even so, I want to lay down some names, facts, and ideas to reinforce Sophia Rosenfeld’s links between common sense and the American political (and intellectual) project. My own understanding of the main tenets of Scottish common sense philosophy comes from a few trustworthy sources (full bibliographic info below): (a) Frederick Copleston’s A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy: The British Philosophers from Hobbes to Hume (Vol. 5); (b) Alexander Broadie, “Scottish Philosophy in the 18th Century,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; (c) various articles in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Ted Honderich (ed.); and (c) Bruce Kuklick’s A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000.[2] An important older work, referenced in the Broadie article and in Kuklick, that I do not have handy is Selwyn Alfred Grave’s The Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960). Of everyone listed above, I would go to additional works by Broadie for the deepest, most intense study of this subject.

From these sources, I gather that Scottish common sense philosophy began with a strong respect for John Locke and his use common experience. But the common sense realists departed from Locke, as well as Hume and Berkeley (and even Descartes), because those thinkers fetished “ideas” as realities (confusing them with conceptions) rather than ideas as the means by which we grasp the world around us (as tools of apprehension). This is what, in Thomas Reid’s view, caused Hume’s skepticism; to Hume ideas and impressions were the basis of our existence, not the world around us.

The Scottish common sense realists also believed that judgments were wrapped up in our perceptions by way of ideas; that operations of the senses implied judgment, belief, and apprehension. Copleston summed it up as follows (and Kuklick agrees, as I see it–bolds mine): “If philosophers [particularly Hume, who used Locke] maintain that ideas are the immediate objects of thought, they will be forced to conclude in the end that ideas are the only objects of our minds” (p. 367). That conclusion seems to say Lock, Hume, and Berkeley’s view exclude judgment, belief, and apprehension as legitimate objects of the mind. After this, there are other fundamental components of common sense realism given attention by Reid: self-evident axioms, first principles (those in logic, math, morals, metaphysics), innate principles of human nature, and even the notion of absurdities (those things contrary to self-evident axioms). Common sense also implied a universal ability to reason—to deduce or infer—from self-evident and first principles. And these first principles cannot be proved, but are known intuitively (p. 367-373).

Although Thomas Reid appears to be the prominent figure in Scottish common sense realism, other thinkers are noteworthy, such as Frances Hutcheson, Dugald Stewart, George Campbell, James Oswald, and Thomas Brown (all are discussed to by Copleston). Kuklick observed that works by Reid and Stewart were used as college philosophy textbooks during the 1800-1868 period (p. 59-60). Kuklick added:

American philosophers wedded Scottish views to a belief in Locke’s greatness and the poverty of ‘metaphysical’ speculation. They gave Lock high marks for his empiricism, use of inductive method, reliance on sensory evidence, and belief in an external world. But Locke went astray, they thought, in his representational realism. He erred in having ideas mediate objects. Once Locke restricted himself to his own consciousness, the immaterialism of Berkeley and the skepticism of Hume followed. …The Scottish tradition clarified Locke and carried on the approved aspects of British empiricism (p. 60).

The main points here are that Scottish common sense, as it existed in Scotland and America in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, is linked to material observations (i.e. privileging of perception of a real world) and a philosophy of mental operations. Judgments are inherent in these perceptions, and the ability to perceive and reason are accessible to all who are of sound mind and body.

III. The Ordinary Language School

Before Adler begins promoting common sense as a viable philosophical construct in The Time of Our Lives and The Common Sense of Politics, one other noteworthy twentieth-century philosophical school appealed to common sense. In concert with and subsequent to Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s work on the philosophy of language, two British analytic philosophers—John Langshaw Austin and Gilbert Ryle (both formerly at Oxford University)—began advocating for the use of “ordinary language” in philosophy. Though not associated with Ryle and Austin, this school is connected to the work of George Edward (G.E.) Moore (picture right). Moore was not an analytic philosopher, and taught at Cambridge University, but ordinary language philosophers had an affinity for Moore’s work. His most famous and related publication on the matter is probably “A Defence of Common Sense”, which appeared in 1925. I have not read the essay (you can read more about it here), but it is all over Adler’s TOL (Adler agrees with parts, and refutes others). I will therefore discuss Moore in more detail next week.

What was the “ordinary language school”? Foremost, it was an attempt to refute the excesses of systems, schools, and theories (particularly nineteenth-century idealism, it appears) by promoting the use of words, in their regular senses, as they appeared in everyday, ordinary language. The Wikipedia article on the subject contains a coherent narrative, but lacks strong citations (though the reference list is strong). Because of this I’ll go to Kuklick. Here’s how he summarized the movement:

Through ordinary language [these philosophers] wanted to promote a mundane understanding of our place in the world against various philosophical theories. [They] believed that ordinary language made distinctions minute enough to circumvent philosophy’s puzzles, and deprecated notions such as that of sense-data that found the existence of a common-sense universe of objects peculiar (p. 244-45).

Apart from Ryle and Gilbert, Kuklick identifies Paul Grice as another ordinary language proponent. The aforementioned Wikipedia article, as well as this issue of Essays in Philosophy (Vol. 11, no. 2, 2010), also name Grice. Both also cite H.L.A. Hart, Sir Peter Frederick Strawson, and Norman Malcolm (an American) as members of the movement. The “Introduction” to the Essays in Philosophy issue connects the ordinary language school to Thomas Reid and the Scottish common sense philosophers. Note: Although ordinary language philosophy is addressed in Honderich’s Oxford Companion to Philosophy, it is not coherently covered in one entry, but is scattered under entries on Moore, Austin, Wittgenstein, and linguistic philosophy (p. 992)

IV. Conclusion

What’s the takeaway from the seemingly overlong focus on the background of common sense in philosophy? How will this help one understand Adler and his like-minded liberal friends and great books supporters, circa 1970-71 and after? I think there are three “less”-ons to carry forward:

First and foremost, this background makes Adler’s advocacy for common sense seem less strange or novel in relation to intellectual history. He didn’t pull this line of thinking out of thin air. Second, it makes Adler appear less simplistic, or reductionist, in terms of the work of academic philosophers. Third, the twentieth-century bridge provided by Moore and other ordinary language supporters show Adler’s invocation of common sense philosophy to be less anachronistic in terms of recent history. This is not to say that Adler functions philosophically like anyone mentioned above (except perhaps Thomas Reid). But Adler’s realism and trust in common sense have precedents, and they were philosophical precedents more recent than Aristotle. That common sense philosophical tradition should have perhaps obtained for him more currency with academic and informed readers. And it did—but not to the extent that he hoped.

In next week’s post, Part IIIb, I will (finally!) discuss Adler’s common sense philosophy as presented in TOL and CSP.


[1] Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, translated by Joel Weinsheimer, Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed (New York: Continuum, 1989 (1976, first ed); reprint 2006), 17-30, 38, 90.

[2] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy: The British Philosophers from Hobbes to Hume, Vol. 5 (New York: Image Books, 1959; reprint, 1994); (b) Alexander Broadie, “Scottish Philosophy in the 18th Century,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.); Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); and Bruce Kuklick’s A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). Significant works edited and authored by Alexander Broadie include: (ed.) The Scottish Enlightenment: An Anthology (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1997); The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2001; 2nd edition, 2007); (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and A History of Scottish Philosophy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Tim–
    An excellent post! I think there are two tensions in the concept of “common sense” as you examine its various modern permutations (and leaving aside the Aristotelian sense, which I am very surprised is _not_ central to Adler, given his dispositions. Looking forward to your following post on that…). The first tension is between the idea of common sense as a body of truths, beliefs, etc., that everybody knows, and the idea of common sense as a faculty of judgement by which everybody comes to know those truths. The first points toward a consensus, a “givennness” to the world and its received body of knowledge; the seconds points toward a basis of epistemological critique, a way in which expertise, philosophical authority, and institutions based on education and control over dogma can be challenged–emphasis here on the “untutored” basis of knowledge. This highlights, I think, the second tension: between common sense as a conservative force, and common sense as an instrument of radical challenge to constituted authority and hierarchy. The reason historians have seen Scottish Common Sense as a conservative philosophy in the early republic was precisely because it avoided the radical epistemological challenges to received authority that were implicit in Hume and in the French Enlightenment–it taught that the world as experienced was a kind of given, that the inherited wisdom of mankind was built on an edifice of common knowledge and perception. There was no need to delve below the world of appearances to go to some hidden “root” of knowledge. What you see is what you get. In this sense, it was resonant with the Puritan plain speech tradition, and cut off the possibility of extensive challenges to the received world. It would be a mistake, then, to see this philosophy as necessarily democratic, even as it evoked a universal, untutored plain truth. The more radical variant of common sense, it would seem, would be in the way it was deployed by Thomas Paine–as an instrument to challenge the obfuscations and mystifications upon which received authority rested, and this did point in potentially more radical and democratic directions. But this common sense as faculty of critique would seem to be more in line with the corrosive forces of modern epistemologies that Scottish common sense was designed to forestall.

    Anyway, just some rambling thoughts on a very interesting post!

  2. I am trying to make sense of the “commons” in this series of posts, so forgive me if I am unintentionally saying poorly what someone else has already said more clearly.

    I think there’s another tension or at least another nuance in the appeal to / of “common sense” that is related to some of the other uses of the term. I’m thinking of how “common” can suggest things like “base, rustic, earthy, uncomplicated, unrefined.” The word “common” can be used as a derogatory term to describe people who have no manners, or no social graces. Interestingly, I’ve only heard the term used in that way by people who might be described as “rustic, earthy, uncomplicated, unrefined” — people who come from the working class, who make (or made) their living by manual labor.

    But this idea of brutishness or raw physicality or lack of refinement that can be conveyed by the word “common” — it seems to me that this gets ported over into the positive character attribute of “common sense” in both meanings of the term: the store of knowledge all are presumed to share, and the reasoning apparatus which forms “the basis of an epistemological critique.” (If one were of the “common sort,” one might describe that latter capacity as the ability to tell shit from Shinola.)

    It seems to me that there’s a certain physicality or corporeality or (literal) hands-on connotation to the idea of “common sense” in both of these aspects. I think there may be a perceived correlation between the degree of someone’s proximity to physical life, sensual experience, manual labor, and the degree of their “common sense.” The latest virulent outbreaks of anti-intellectual faux populism seem to be drawing in part on that aspect of the idea of common sense — “intellectuals” are not to be trusted because they/we don’t do anything, make anything, handle anything, build anything that can be apprehended with any of the traditional senses. Our work is abstract and abstracted from tactile “reality.” It’s not “real” work, not connected with the physical world — and so our “common sense” is suspect. By the same token, men and women who work with their hands are perhaps considered more likely to have “common sense.” Presumably, this why “Joe the Plumber” might be considered as somehow privy (sorry — couldn’t resist!) to insights that might elude “Joe the Professor” or “Jane the Pundit.”

    I hope I’m making sense.

  3. Tim,

    I join the chorus of those enjoying these posts. I thought to mention, if perhaps you or others are interested, there’s excellent discussions of “ordinary language” philosophy and philosophers (I don’t like to call this a ‘school’) in Avrum Stroll’s book, Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy (Columbia University Press: 2000) and Scott Soames, Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 2: The Age of Meaning (Princeton University Press, 2003).

  4. @Dan: I am entirely with on the two tensions you identify. Indeed, you have helped me articulate it in a way in which I hadn’t quite yet arrived. Thanks! I find Tension #1, part 2 to be the most troubling of those you identified. I need to work out, in a bit more detail, what “judgment” (tact, discernment) means in a world of common sense that, being untutored, doesn’t explicate itself in a language of philosophy. Perhaps there’s nothing to be done there.

    @LD: Your sense of the word, or tension #3, is entirely spot on. And I get your class/cultural association (which of course would’ve worked against any philosopher trying present common sense as something “more” than it appears). I think, however, your tension ultimately relates to Dan’s tension #1. By explaining how, it will give me a chance (Huzzah!) to reflect further on how the conversation between Navin R. Johnson and his father (2:11 mark) precisely relates to common sense.

    I don’t know that promoters of common sense in philosophy precisely meant to employ the “rustic, earthy” sense because this person with untutored sagacity must also exhibit powers of reflection (something beyond the simple identifiction of facts like “shit” and “shinola”). You may not know how that calm, well-respected country sage arrived at her/his entirely sound and fair _conclusion_ (the players and facts having already been identified), but you know she/he was “thoughtful” and “reflective” in getting there. I think that’s the kind of person common sense that was respected by Reid, Locke, and American philosophers who respected variations of common-sense philosophy. Adler, for instance, would later embrace a kind of “Yankee mechanic” fanbase, via letters he received from a group of thoughtful plumbers (funny parallel, yes) in Utah, to underscore how his common sense philosophy could be public in the broadest sense. In any case, the culture and class implications are definitely a part of the conversation about common sense and philosophy.

    @Patrick: Once again, thanks for those two references. I’ll see if I can make use of one or both in the next few weeks as I slowly put together my book section on this subject (yep, all of this discussion—including next week’s post—are long-hand drafts of my first thoughts that will comprise _only one_ section of one chapter of my project—SIGH). – TL

  5. Tim, don’t you worry about pre-posting material that will end up in your book? I’ve seen editors who don’t want material that’s been published elsewhere, including for free on the web. I’m curious about this as I prepare my posts each week.

  6. Lauren: This is all so rough, wordy, and conversational, that I have few to no fears. Some of the ideas and topics, of course, will apply, but my wording will change dramatically between now and the final draft. As I said above, moreover, this is material on common sense applies to only one section of one chapter. – TL

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