Common sense as a non-philosophical viewpoint is the fundamental everyday knowledge that every human should possess and it is the ability to perceive and judge things around us. This concept of common sense brings forth the question of how much should our common sense or our usual way of looking at things be a guide in our thinking? When it comes to answering this question I will discuss and compare three philosophers whom each has a different viewpoint about the value of common sense and how it should be used. The three philosophers that I will be discussing are René Descartes, George Berkeley, and Henri Bergson. In this essay, I will attempt to dissect each philosophers’ arguments in regards to common sense and towards the end will find which philosophical argument is most correct in its judgment about common sense.
To begin, philosopher René Descartes’ main views of the world stems from his writing Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. This book is, in fact, two of his separate writings combined into one cohesive book, both of which examines his ideas about properly seeking out the truth of the world and gaining our knowledge through reasoning. In order to try and seek out these truths, Descartes begins by doubting all things. This doubtfulness leads him to think about the various lies and deceptions that he has been compelled to believe during his life and how these falsehoods have developed his knowledge. So due to this, he wants to essentially erase everything that he already knows and wants to begin again from scratch. He wants to build up his knowledge with more assurance, so in order to do this, he casts everything into doubt.
This would, of course, mean that he also begins to doubt the basic principles and foundations in which his knowledge would be formed. One of the main basic principles in which Descartes doubts is the concept of common sense. Instead of just doubting common sense immediately, he does everything that he can in order to doubt common sense more carefully. One way in which Descartes tries to doubt common sense is by inventing a thought experiment involving God. During this experiment, he supposes that God is not this supremely good and truthful being, but rather he is this “evil genius” that is still powerful but is also deceitful. Descartes says how this evil God has “employed his whole energies in deceiving me” and that “I shall consider the heavens, the earth, colors, figured, sound, and all other external things are nought but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity” (Descartes Meditations 1-8). To explain it more simplistic terms, Descartes is saying how this evil God is creating an illusion in order to trick Descartes into being more willing to believe something, even without being shown or given the proper evidence.
This thought experiment leads him to ask himself if there is anything that this evil genius would not be able to mislead him about. He comes to the conclusion that the act of thinking is something that he could not be mislead about. Descartes believed that this evil genius could never make him believe that he was thinking when he was not because even a false-thought would still be considered a thought (1-11). Although Descartes does dismiss common sense, he does, in the end, come back to common sense. He comes back to this conclusion ultimately in the same manner in which he doubted common sense in the first place, by using God as a basis. While he at first used God as a way to doubt common sense by thinking about how he could be deceiving him, he again uses God to be sure about the reliability of common sense. Descartes believes that God is an all-powerful and good being. He also believes that God is who created our human intellect and since God is this overall good being, he would not deceive us. So, therefore, we should believe that our thinking is reliable (Descartes Meditations 1-13). So even though Descartes at first doubts everything when it comes to reality and thinking, he, in the end, comes to the conclusion that common sense is a reliable basis for understanding and knowledge because it is God who provides us with our intellect and therefore we should have faith in our senses and ideas about reality.
Descartes method of doubting everything and essentially throwing away all of his previous education and knowledge to grasp a better understanding of knowledge and reality, in my opinion, is an intelligent and effective method. By doubting everything, it leaves Descartes more open to expanding his thinking since it erases any prior views and opinions that he may already possess.
Next, philosopher George Berkeley provides his own views about the world through the character of Philonous in his work Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. Through his text, Berkeley argues and makes the claim for his theory called immaterialism. This theory essentially denies the existence of matter or material substance.
Now the idea of common sense within itself deals with perceiving things around us and using our senses to make practical judgments about everyday things. This perceptions of things involve mental impressions about things, which is done through our senses. These senses of course including touch, sight, hearing, and just becoming aware of something. So this definition of common sense can relate directly to another idea of Berkeley’s, the idea of sensible qualities. In the text, Berkeley describes these sensible qualities as
Another point about immaterialism that Berkeley makes is in regard to sensible qualities. What he means by sensible qualities, or as he also refers to as “sensible things”, are things that can be perceived immediately by our senses. Like an example that he provides in the text is about reading a book. The thing that we immediately perceiving when reading is the actual words on the paper.
Now while Berkeley’s argument seems to be against common sense it is in fact in agreement with almost everything that common sense is comprised of. When we use common sense we are simply making judgments based on simple perceptions, which would line up with his argument. Things around us are real and we know this because they are ideas that are in our minds.
After discussing and dissecting these three philosophers’ views on common sense and our everyday thinking, we can begin to answer the question of which philosopher I believe has the most correct view about common sense. To start, when it comes to my own viewpoint about common sense I can agree with these philosophers that common sense is this sort of naive way of perceiving and looking at our world. Using common sense as a guide to our thinking certainly comes with limits. But while there are limits to using common sense as a guide to our thinking, there are certainly good and positive aspects to it as well.