Tag Archives: G. E. Moore

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



Hannah Askari took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post she writes about ‘Individualism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Image from http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8940211/in-defence-of-individualism/

Image from http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8940211/in-defence-of-individualism/

Individualism (a)

‘The habit of being independent and self-reliant; behaviour characterized by the pursuit of one’s own goals without reference to others; free and independent individual action or thought.’[1]

I began my research with a simple Google of ‘individualism.’ It resulted, interestingly, with the discovery of a website titled Individualism. After a few more searches I found that this website has wholeheartedly embraced social media and also has a Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and a Facebook page. The website describes itself, rather paradoxically, as ‘a collective dedicated to celebrating men’s style.’ It’s a place where you (and the rest of the internet world) can find tips and tricks on how to express your individuality aesthetically. For myself, this online faction exemplifies what ‘individualism’ means today in the twenty-first century.

To be ‘individual’ can today often compliment a person with a unique fashion sense or eccentricity; something the website is adhering to. However, ‘individualism’ is still also a word with a range of connotations. It is a political philosophy that puts the individual’s moral worth at its centre. Left-wing commentator, columnist and author Owen Jones complains about the promotion of ‘dog-eat-dog individualism’[2] of contemporary Tories as a replacement for strong working-class values such as community and solidarity. In this sense, to be ‘individual’ is often associated with selfishness, egotism and greed; adjectives that most would agree is not particularly desirable.

Nonetheless, the political and aesthetic ideal of ‘individualism’ actually has a much longer history.

Oscar Wilde, is arguably one of the primary figures when thinking about aesthetic individualism. His flamboyant philosophy justified his colourful persona; which is articulated through fictional characters in his literature and essays. Wilde believed in the value that ‘aesthetics are higher than ethics’[3]; he believed the superior aim in life was to be able to ‘discern the beauty of a thing.’[4] His philosophy was an attack on the old-fashioned Victorian values of altruism. He, and other anti-altruists ‘wanted to create a new moral language and a new kind of ethics’[5]; one which focused on art and the individual. Although Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism was not totally new or original, it did allow a real distancing from Victorian tradition. Wilde’s provocative interpretations are exemplified in De Profundis in which he writes of Christ that:

People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist, or ranked him as an altruist with the unscientific and sentimental. But he was really neither one nor the other[6]

Ultimately, Wilde puts forward Christ as ‘the most supreme of individualists’[7] and proposes that one should be helpful and charitable to others, not for their benefit but for one’s own self-fulfilment.

Oscar Wilde flamboyancy in picture form. Image from http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/features/the-modern-messiah.html

Oscar Wilde: flamboyancy in picture form. Image from http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/features/the-modern-messiah.html

Degeneration theorist, Max Nordau, said that Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic individualism was only ‘a purely anti-socialistic, ego-maniacal recklessness and hysterical longing to make a sensation.’[8] Understandably for the conventional Victorian, Wilde was the incarnation of the signs of a troubling modern culture in the 1890s.

In the 1890s, English philosopher G.E. Moore was inspired by Oscar Wilde, and began to compare the importance of altruism and egoism as ethical moralities. He was asking himself questions such as ‘are we selfish?’ and ‘do we love ourselves best?’[9] His 1903 publication Principia Ethica, settles that:

Egoism is undoubtedly superior to altruism as a doctrine of means; in the immense majority of cases the best thing we can do is to aim at securing some good in which we are concerned, since for that very reason we are more likely to secure it.[10]

Principia Ethica is an innovative philosophical enquiry into what it is that constitutes ‘good’. For the forward thinking Bloomsbury Group it became a sort of Bible and laid the philosophical groundwork of their aesthetic principles. For both Moore and those of the Bloomsbury Group, the ethical ‘good’ was embodied by the importance of individual relationships and personal life. Moore furthered Wilde’s belief that detection of beauty ‘is the finest point to which we can arrive,’[11] defining beautiful as ‘that of which the admiring contemplation is good in itself.’[12] For G.E. Moore, it was in the goodness of art and beauty in which one found moral meanings, not in philanthropy and thinking of others.

Individualism (b)

‘The principle or theory that individuals should be allowed to act freely and independently in economic and social matters without collective or state interference.’[13]

Anarchist-feminist Dora Marsden worked for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU ) but became motivated to express her individualism. She was known for her involvement in serious political demonstrations; which eventually led to a formal break from the WSPU. She established her own magazine near the end of 1911: The Freewoman: A Weekly Feminist Review. She wished to advocate a feminism which dealt with more than just suffrage; a ‘third-wave way before her time.

Dora Marsden being arrested for her suffragette activism in Manchester 1909. Image from Greater Manchester Police Museum

Dora Marsden being arrested for her suffragette activism in Manchester 1909. Image from Greater Manchester Police Museum

It was Max Stirner’s The Ego and his Own, which offered a philosophy dedicated to individualism that influenced Marsden even further. Stirner argues self-mastery is only able to exist when the individual is free from all obligations, only then than the individual be sure that they are never used by others for their ends but only by the individual for the individual’s own ends. Stirner believed that a platform concerned with the welfare of groups would ruin those exceptional individuals.

It was this concept of the individual (and the lack of funding) for The Freewoman, which drove Dora Marsden to create The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review; It followed that:

The New Freewoman is not for the advancement of Woman, but for the empowering of individuals—men and women; it is not to set women free, but to demonstrate the fact that “freeing” is the individual’s affair and must be done first-hand[14]

The New Freewoman was a short-lived publication and by January 1914 it had morphed into The Egoist: An Individualist Review. The Egoist became one of the primary magazines of modernism, and was home to a number of influential literary artists, such as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot. Moreover, James Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was printed as a serial in The Egoist.

Marsden’s transformation to Stirnian individualism can actually be seen as a natural development. It all began as a protest against the Pankhursts’ methods and rejected the idea that the women’s movement was dependent on the sacrifice of individualism. Her magazines are a satisfying evidence for her changing and evolving perspective; firstly as a supporter of democratic suffrage and then an advocate of anarchistic individualism.

The transformation of the journal under Marsden's editorship. Image from http://modjourn.org/

The transformation of the journal under Marsden’s editorship. Image from http://modjourn.org/

Nevertheless it was not Dora Marsden who Russell Brand called the ‘icon of individualism.’[15] That instead is Margaret Thatcher, of course! Thatcher is often criticised for having ‘implanted the gene of greed in the British soul’[16], epitomised by the onslaught of the ‘yuppie’ culture. Aspiration became the thirst for a bigger ‘thing’ like a car, or house.

Following Thatcher’s death in 2013 there was a surge of discussion around her infamous quote:

There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.[17]

Thatcher, like many before her, saw individualism as an important aspect of life. Unfortunately her premiership has, and still does, create fierce debate. When David Cameron won the Conservative Party leadership in 2005 he stated that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.’[18] He wanted to distance himself from the controversy which surrounds Thatcher who is still associated with a selfish and uncaring individualism.

Oscar Wilde once said that individualism ‘seeks to disturb the monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.’[19] We are closer today than ever before to turning man into a machine and individualism is under threat. How interesting would it be to ‘do’ an Oscar Wilde, a Dora Marsden, even a Margaret Thatcher, let the individual loose and disturb … absolutely everything?

Further reading:

Dixon, T The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain, (Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2008)

Clarke, B. Dora Marsden And Early Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Wilde, O. et al., The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Brown, S. L. The Politics Of Individualism (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1993).

Meiksins Wood, E. Mind and Politics: An Approach to the Meaning of Liberal and Socialist Individualism. (University of California Press, 1972)


Clarke, B. Dora Marsden And Early Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Dixon, T. The Invention Of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Jones, O. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso, 2011)

Wilde, O. et al, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)


BBC News

The Guardian

Margaret Thatcher Foundation

Oxford English Dictionary

Modernist Journals Project

The Spectator

The Spectator Archive, 1828-2008


[1] [1] Oed.com, ‘Individualism, N. : Oxford English Dictionary’, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94635?redirectedFrom=individualism&.

[2] Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso, 2011) p. 71.

[3] Oscar Wilde et al, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Vol. 4 p. 204. All sentiments are put forward by Gilbert in ‘The Critic as Artist’ first published in Intentions (1891)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas Dixon, The Invention Of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008). p. 322

[6] Oscar Wilde et al. (2000) vol. 2, p. 176.

[7] Wilde et al. p. 176

[8] Max Nordau, Degeneration, (University of Nebraska Press 1993) p. 319. In Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, p. 333.

[9] Apostles papers given by Moore on 26 Feb. 1898 and 4 Feb. 1899. In Dixon 2008, p. 354

[10] G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, (Cambridge University Press, 1993) p. 216 in Ibid.

[11] Oscar Wilde et al. (2000) p. 204.

[12] G. E. Moore (1993) p. 249

[13] Oed.com, ‘Individualism, N.: Oxford English Dictionary’, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94635?redirectedFrom=individualism&.

[14] ‘Views and Comments’, The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review, (July 1st 1913), vol.1 no. 2., p. 25 http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1303305900625129.pdf

[15] Russell Brand, ‘Russell Brand On Margaret Thatcher’, The Guardian, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/09/russell-brand-margaret-thatcher.

[16] Simon Kelner, ‘Mrs Thatcher implanted the gene of greed in Britain’, The Independent, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/mrs-thatcher-implanted-the-gene-of-greed-in-britain-8565716.html

[17] Interview for Woman’s Own, 1987. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689 [last accesses 06/03/2015]

[18] David Cameron, ‘BBC NEWS | UK | UK Politics | In Full: Cameron Victory Speech’, News.Bbc.Co.Uk, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4504722.stm.

[19] Oscar Wilde et al., p. 260