Tag Archives: Aristotle

Common Sense

Isabel Overton took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘common sense’ as a philosophical keyword.

As a result of studying in one of the most expensive cities in the world, upon moving to London in September 2013 I found myself working part time in the supermarket chain Waitrose. Located in a particularly affluent area of London it boasted a continuous stream of business professionals and upper middle class families. Working in such an environment it is no surprise that I have been witness and recipient of many ‘unique’ queries. Whilst some have provided vast entertainment during an otherwise tedious shift (I once had a man ask me where we kept the ‘premium houmous’) others have been baffling in their lack of what we would call ‘common sense’. It would seem that many people, so drained from their fast paced city lives, seem to have no energy left to try and manoeuvre the minor speed bumps they may face when doing a food shop. I’m sure i’m not alone in being familiar with the phrase ‘use your common sense’, but how productive are we actually being when urging someone to tap into their inner instinct. Furthermore, where does the term ‘common sense’ stem from, and how common, or sensible, is it?

Greek philosopher Aristotle coined the term ‘common sense’ to describe a sense that unified all five human senses, such as sight and smell, allowing humans and animals to distinguish multiple senses within the same object. This came in response to a theory put forward by Plato that all senses worked individually from one another but were then integrated within the soul where an active thinking process took place, making the senses instruments of the thinking part of man. In Plato’s view, the senses were not integrated at the level of perception, but at the level of thought and thus the unifying sense was not actually a kind of ‘sense’ at all. Aristotle on the other hand, attributed the common sense to animals and humans alike, but believing animals could not think rationally, moved the act of perception out of Plato’s rational thinking soul and into the sensus communis, which was something like thinking and something like a sense, but not rational. He also located it within the heart, as he saw this as the master organ.[1]

“Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for every one thinks himself so abundantly provided with it”[2]

– Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method

French Philosopher Rene Descartes

French Philosopher Rene Descartes

Contemporary definition can be summed up as the basic ability to judge and perceive things shared by the majority of the population. Father of modern western philosophy, French philosopher Rene Descartes, in Discourse on Method established this when he stated that everyone had a similar and sufficient amount of common sense. He went on to claim however, that it was rarely used well and he called for a skeptical logical method to follow, warning against over reliance upon common sense.

During the Enlightenment common sense came to be seen more favourably as a result of works by philosophers such as religiously trained Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid. Often described as a ‘common sense philosopher’ Reid developed a philosophical perspective that provided common sense as the source of justification for certain philosophical knowledge. Reid wrote in response to the increase in scepticism put forward by philosophers such as David Hume, who held an empiricist view towards the theory of ideas, arguing that reason and knowledge were only developed through experience or through active research.[3] Reid, alongside other like-minded philosophers including Dugald Stewart and James Beattie, formed the Scottish School of Common Sense, arguing that common sense beliefs automatically governed human lives and thought. This theory became popular in England, France and America during the early nineteenth century, before losing popularity in the latter part of the period.

Political philosopher Thomas Paine

Political philosopher Thomas Paine

In terms of American influence Reid’s philosophy was pervasive during the American Revolution. England born political philosopher and writer Thomas Paine was a key advocate of common sense realism, and used it to advocate American independence. Published in 1776, his highly influential pamphlet Common Sense conveyed the message that to understand the nature of politics, all it took was common sense. Selling around 150,000 copies in 1776 during a time when the rate of illiteracy was high amongst the American population, Common Sense was both a tribute to the persuasiveness of Paine’s argument and his ability to simplify complex rhetoric.[4]

In the early twentieth century British philosopher G. E. Moore developed a treatise to defend Thomas Reid’s argument titled A Defense of Common Sense, that had a profound effect on the methodology of twentieth century Anglo-American philosophy.[5] This essay listed several seemingly obvious truths including “There exists at this time a living human body which is my body” arguing against philosophers who held the idea that even ‘true’ propositions could be partially false.[6] He greatly influenced Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who, having previously known Moore during time spent in England, was reintroduced to his work when a former student was wrestling with his response to external world skepticism. Inspired, Wittgenstein began to work on a series of remarks, eventually published posthumously as On Certainty, that proposed there must be some things exempt from doubt in order for human practices to be possible.

The philosophical debate surrounding common sense shows itself as complex and immersed with disunity, so it is important to view how modern society has taken the idea of common sense and what platforms of discussion it features in. Whilst many people take for granted what they assume to be an innate natural instinct, it seems that over the past two decades there has been an increasing documented lament over the decrease in common sense within society as a whole. In 1998 author Lori Borgman released an essay entitled The Death of Common Sense in which she remarked:

“A most reliable sage, he was credited with cultivating the ability to know when to come in out of the rain, the discovery that the early bird gets the worm and how to take the bitter with the sweet.”[7]

She then noted the decline of ‘Common Sense’s’ health in the late 1960’s when “he became infected with the If-It-Feels-Good, Do-It virus”[8]. It is unsurprising that countless idle news stories reporting the ‘misgivings’ of people who appear too incompetent to make the most basic decisions has led to such a cynical outlook on how sound societies judgment is. An example that springs to mind is the plethora of multi million pound lottery winners who spend all their money within a year only to find themselves in debt wondering where it all went wrong. This is something reiterated within psychologist and professor Jim Taylor’s article Common Sense is Neither Common nor Senseand instead he argues for a focus on ‘reasoned sense’ as opposed to ‘common sense’.

Naturally, this perceived lack of common sense has led many to question how common it really is. According to Voltaire common sense was not so common[9] but the more accurate assumption might be to suggest it was not so commonly used in particular situations; on the down side this is not nearly as memorable. Nevertheless, education teaches us to make decisions based on careful, calculated thought, something that people lacking education fail to do. Whilst almost all people have common sense, it is usually those who are more intellectually capable that ‘fail’ to use it, at least initially, when in the process of basic problem solving. This is through over-calculating however, not under-calculating, and ultimately not an accurate measure of capability.

Some theorists believe that educational intellect can clash with basic common sense

Educational intellect does not impact the amount of common sense people hold

Many lighthearted studies have been done that test this theory, one of the most popular being to have a child and adult solve the same simple brainteaser. Studies seem to suggest that a child is more likely to solve a simple problem faster than an adult, as their lack of knowledge disallows them to overcomplicate the problem put in front of them. An example of this is found in the short clip featured below:

This use of common sense is of course unique to brain teasers and jovial mind games, and through the course of day to day life, the majority of the population are unwittingly using their common sense concisely, whether it be to look both ways before they cross the street, or to let their coffee cool down before taking a sip.

It has been argued however, that group judgment can impair individual common sense, thus providing debate towards how significant it is when used as a means of judgment. Social theorist Stuart Chase is believed to have remarked that common sense was that which told us the world was flat, putting focus on the semantic ‘common’ in its raw sense to mean widespread, that is to say, consensus of opinion.[10]

Group judgment can impair individual thinking

Group judgment can impair individual thinking

In 1841 Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds observed: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”[11] It is natural for something to gain credibility the more universally it is agreed upon or known, but this does not necessarily make it right. For example, studies have shown that the commonly held belief of never waking a sleepwalker as it is dangerous is actually a myth. Whilst they may find themselves disorientated upon being woken, the act itself is not harming.[12]

Through all this we have seen the reshaping, acceptance, memorial, criticism and dissection of the term, and use of, common sense, and it is ultimately personal opinion that can decipher how prevalent an individual will view it. Some pride themselves on their developed intelligence through precision schooling, whereas others prefer to boast of their natural intelligence. All this aside, I am sure I stand in the majority when I admit that this natural guide has helped me maneuver my way out of a tricky situation on more than one occasion, and so for that I am happy to look upon it favourably as a silent guardian, justified or not.

[1]Gregoric, Pavel, Aristotle on the common sense, Word Press, https://arcaneknowledgeofthedeep.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/aristotleoncommonsense.pdf

[2] Descartes, Renes, Discourse on Method 1635, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/descartes/1635/discourse-method.htm, [accessed 19th February, 2016]

[3] David Hume, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, http://plato.standford.edu/entries/hume/, [accessed 15th February, 2016]

[4] Thomas Paine, History, http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/thomas-paine, [accessed 19th February, 2016]

[5] Philosophy of Common Sense, New World Encyclopedia, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Philosophy_of_Common_Sense, [accessed 15th February 2016]

[6] Mattey, G. J., Common sense epistemology, UC Davis Philosophy 02, http://hume.ucdavis.edu/mattey/phi102f03/moore.html

[7] Borgman, Lori, The Death of Common Sense, http://www.loriborgman.com/1998/03/15/the-death-of-common-sense/, [accessed 15th February 2016]

[8] Ibid.

[9] Voltaire, A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary, Oxford World’s Classics, 2011

[10] Hayakawa, S. I. and Hayakawa, A. R., Language in Thought and Action, Harvest Original; 5th ed. 1991, p.18

[11] Mackay, Charles, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Wordsworth Reference, 1995, p.xv

[12] Future, BBC, bbc.com/future/story/20120208-it-is-dangerous-to-wake-a-sleepwa, [accessed 19th February, 2016]


Further Reading

Lori Borgman, The Death of Common Sensehttp://www.loriborgman.com/1998/03/15/the-death-of-common-sense/

Ian Glynn, An Anatomy of Thought: The Origin of Machinery of the Mind, (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Pavel Gregoric, Aristotle on common sense, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

S. I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, (Harvest Original; 5th ed. 1991)

Philosophy of Common Sense, New World Encyclopedia, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Philosophy_of_Common_Sense



Charlie Roden took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘happiness’ as a philosophical keyword, with the help of Charlie Brown.

Extract from the comic-strip ‘Peanuts’. Image from http://www.philipchircop.com/post/15448312238/incidentally-what-is-happiness-do-whatever

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘happiness’ is defined as ‘the state of being happy’, that is, ‘feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.’[1]  Happiness is a universal concept which, I believe, most people aspire to achieve. However, since happiness is so subjective, everyone interprets it in different ways.

Many people believe that they attain happiness when they eat their favourite food, buy new clothes or earn a lot of money. Although these are all experiences that can be enjoyed, they don’t actually cause happiness- they only bring us pleasure.  Of course, the official definition of ‘happiness’ does include pleasure, however I agree with Happiness International who suggest that pleasure is only short-lived and externally motivated. If happiness relied on pleasures such as the ones just mentioned, does this suggest that without a lot of money or materialistic items people are unhappy?

I don’t believe that anyone can truly define ‘happiness’, and by looking at the history of this word we can see how its cultural and philosophical meanings have changed over time, demonstrating that happiness cannot simply be understood as a single concept.

‘Happiness’ stems from the late fourteenth-century word ‘hap’ meaning ‘good luck’ or ‘chance’. [2] This suggests then that in the Middle Ages, a person was believed to be happy if they had good fortune.  Already, we can see how a modern perspective of ‘happiness’ is different to this idea, as although being lucky can promote happiness, we can often feel happy without being fortunate.

The sole predecessor to the idea of ‘happiness’ was proposed by Aristotle (384-322 BC). In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasised that the ultimate aim in life is ‘Eudaimonia’, an Ancient Greek term usually translated as ‘happiness’ or ‘human growth.’ [3]

Unlike an emotional state, such as pleasure, Aristotle asserted that Eudaimonia is about reaching your full potential and flourishing as a person. In order to do this, you need to live a life that is wholesome and virtuous to attain the best version of yourself. [4] Virtue can be achieved through balance and moderation, as this way of life leads to ‘the greatest long-term value’ rather than just pleasure that is short-lived.  [5] In a modern-day perspective, this would be the difference between earning vast sums of money but spending it all at once, as opposed to spending money wisely, ensuring it will last and provide you with a good life. [6]

In the early modern era, the importance of happiness began to emerge in the political sphere. [7] In 1726, the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) wrote that

‘that Action is best, which procures the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery.’ [8]

This utilitarian principle, which aims at the greatest happiness of the greatest number, essentially asserts than an action is right if it produces happiness and wrong if it produces the reverse of happiness. [9]

Jeremy Bentham 1748 – 1832

Jeremy Bentham, image from http://sueyounghistories.com/archives/2010/06/13/jeremy-bentham-1748-%E2%80%93-1832/

The most famous advocate of utilitarianism was English philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham proposed many social and legal reforms, such as complete equality for both sexes, and put forward the idea that legislation should be based on morality. [10] Identifying the good with pleasure, in his 1781 book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham wrote:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.’  [11]

By stating that happiness can be understood in terms of the balance of pleasure over pain, Bentham shares an ethical Hedonistic claim; the notion that only pleasure is valuable, and displeasure or pain is valueless. [12]

In 1861, English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) published one of his most famous essays, Utilitarianism, which was written to support the value of Bentham’s moral theories. The general argument of Mill’s work proposed that morality brings about the best state of a situation, and that the best state of affairs is the one with the largest amount of happiness for the majority of people. Mill also defined happiness as the supremacy of pleasure over pain; however, unlike Bentham, Mill recognised that pleasure can vary in quality. Whereas Bentham saw simple-minded and sensual pleasures, such as drinking alcohol or eating luxurious foods as just as good as complex and sophisticated pleasures, such as listening to classical music or reading a piece of literature,  [13] Mill argued that:

‘the pleasures that are rooted in one’s higher faculties should be weighted more heavily than baser pleasures.’

[14]  Mill’s version of pleasure also links back to the tradition  of Aristotle’s virtue ethics, as he stated that leading a virtuous life should be counted as part of a person’s happiness. [15]

Ultimately, ‘happiness’, at least from a political viewpoint, took its deepest roots in the New World. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) asserted that:

‘The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.’ [16] 

He believed that a good government was one that promoted its people’s happiness by securing their rights.

First Printed Version of the Declaration of Independence

First Printed Version of the Declaration of Independence, 1776, image from http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/creating-the-united-states/interactives/declaration-of-independence/pursuit/enlarge5.html

‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’, the three ‘unalienable rights’ is the phrase  most often quoted from  the 1776 American Declaration of Independence. Today, Americans translate ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as a right to follow ones dreams and chase after whatever makes you subjectively happy. [17]   However, Professor James R. Rogers from Texas A&M University argues that happiness in the public discourse of the late eighteenth-century did not simply refer to an emotional state. Instead, it meant a person’s wealth or well-being. [18] It included the right to meet ‘physical needs’, but it also encompassed an important religious and moral aspect. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 confirmed that:

‘the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depended upon piety, religion and morality, and… these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.’ [19]

Statements like these can be found in many documents of the time. Essentially, ‘happiness’ in the Declaration should be understood as a virtuous happiness, again similar to Aristotle’s ‘Eudaimonia’. Although the ‘pursuit of happiness’ includes a right to material things, it goes beyond that to include a person’s moral condition. [20]

After searching for the philosophy of happiness in twentieth-century Britain, I came across Bertrand Russell’s (1872-1970) The Conquest of Happiness, published in 1930. To my surprise, I found his beliefs on happiness rather modern, and similar to the sort of ideas about happiness you can read about in self-help books today. Nevertheless, I found his work inspiring. Russell wrote this book to ‘suggest a cure’ for the day-to-day unhappiness that most people suffer from in civilised countries.  [21]

The key concept of happiness that I took away from Russell’s book was to stop worrying:

‘When you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, “Well, after all, that would not matter so very much,’ you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent.’ [22]

This also means to stop worrying about what other people think of you, since most people will not think about you anywhere near as much as you think [23], essentially suggesting that people overestimate other negative people’s feelings about them.

With around two thousand self-help books being published every year, it can be argued that happiness is more central to modern-day society than any other time in history. [24]

However, as well as aiming to achieve happiness, there is now a huge emphasis on how to reduce symptoms which prevent happiness, such as anxiety and depression.  According to the Huffington Post, around 350,000,000 people around the world are affected by some form of depression. These extortionate statistics has led to the creation of organisations such as Action For Happiness, whose aim is to reduce misery in people’s lives, and encourage people to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world.

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1838-1910) once said:

“If you want to be happy, be.” [25]

The idea that we can simply choose to be happy, regardless of certain aspects of our life that we want to change, is also a prevalent idea today. The best-selling song of 2014, Pharrell Williams’ Happy promotes this idea:

‘Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.’ [26]

When asked what these lyrics meant, Williams stated that happiness has no limits and can be achieved by everyone.


Pharrell Williams’ reply. Image from https://twitter.com/Pharrell/status/431011318737698816?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

Finally, the idea that everyone can achieve happiness has been a topic talked about by Sam Berns. Berns suffered from Progeria and helped raise awareness of this disease. He died one year after appearing in a TEDx Talks video called ‘My philosophy for a happy life’ at the age of seventeen in 2014. In this inspiring video, Berns shares his four key concepts that help him lead a happy life.

1) Overcome obstacles that prevent happiness.

2) Instead of focussing on what you can’t do, focus on what you can do.

3) Surround yourself with people who bring positive energy into your life.

4) Don’t waste energy on feeling bad for yourself.

Overall, it appear that there is no such thing as one concept of ‘happiness.’ From classical antiquity all the way through to present day, the idea of what happiness means culturally and philosophically has developed, and will most likely continue to change in the future.

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