One of my favorite philosophers is George Edwin Moore, one of the originators of “ordinary language” philosophy in England in the early 20th century. GE Moore is something of a hero of mine, not only because he wears sport coats and smokes a pipe (both passtimes that I happen to enjoy) but also because he is historically known for being a defender of “common sense” in philosophy. His unashamed defense of this rather unpopular form of reasoning was often as humorous and polemical as it was insightful; consider the following passage from his Principa Ethica (1903):

“That ‘to be true’ means  to be thought in a certain way is, therefore, certainly false. Yet this assertion plays the most central part in Kant’s ‘Copernical Revolution’ of philosophy, and renders worthless the whole mass of modern literature, to which that revolution has given rise, and which is called Epistemology.”

There are many words that a commentator might use to describe this passage; “polemical,” “rhetorical,” “opinionated;” but I prefer to use the far more evocative vernacular term, “ballsy.” GE Moore certainly could not be said to have lacked balls, a trait that philosophers in today’s day and age could use a bit more of. Moore’s arguments, from his Refutation of Idealism to his Prinicipa Ethica and on, were by themselves intuitive, commonsensical and easy to understand. It was his defense of the premises of those arguments that spanned many pages and showed extremely systematic attention to very abstract details; I also think he was great for possessing the rare ability to make points that, upon hearing them, make you slap your forehead and yell “well of course! How the hell did I not see that?” For instance, he innocently (almost naively) questions the view that to “know” a proposition is true means we must have absolutely no reason whatsoever to doubt its truth, and instead suggests that perhaps simply increasing our degree of skepticism to an absurd level has no effect on what we actually “know” and what we don’t. His dismissal of Kant in the passage above, whose ‘Copernican revolution’ in philosophy was (this is the Cambell’s soup condensed version) to suggest that the human mind plays a role in the definition of ‘truth’ (in the same way that the motion of the Earth plays a role in the apparent motion of the stars) could be said to help lay a groundwork for the general de-emphasis of Kant in analytic philosophy as opposed to his predecessors, Locke, Berkeley and Hume.

Moore raises an important question, in my opinion, not only for philosophers but for pretty much anyone with even the most modest education as to where we draw the line between the domain of ‘common sense’ and the domain of special study. The history of philosophy is littered with philosophers who would try to convince us of the most counterintuitive and seemingly crackpot conclusions, and I don’t only mean unconvincing religious philosophers or arguments such as the Ontological proof for the existence of God. I include in this domain philosophers such as Nietzche, with all of the ridiculous talk about “the Will to power” or Ayn Rand, who would have us believe that what’s “really” good for society is for everyone to blatantly act in their own self interest (an obscenity of a moral theory known as ‘ethical egoism.’) What is amazing though, for a student of philosophy, is that careful study of the actual arguments of these philosophers and their background assumptions can reveal them to be extremely systematic and well-thought out, even if the conclusions reached are utterly appalling (though personally I find even the humble Ontological argument, for all of its implausibility, a far worthier argument than any defense of ‘ethical egoism’ that I have ever read, but perhaps I’m just benighted and old-fashioned). And while non-philosophers who seem to absolutely love Ayn Rand, Friedrich Nietzche et. al. seem to abound, the reaction is exactly the opposite when one brings up Idealists such as George Berkeley or his descendents that were alive and well in Moore’s day (and who Moore worked very hard to refute). When these philosophers are brought up, the reaction I have seen is almost universally derisive, since no one wants to think that there’s no such thing as matter, or if they do they don’t seem to want to admit it (this is probably also explained by the simple sociological fact that while it sure would suit some peoples’ self interest if they could justify why ignoring the needs or desires of others is “really” the moral thing to do, there isn’t much utility in thinking that no material world exists, hence the vast majority of people can remain unbiased enough to affirm that this is a load of crap, even if they aren’t capable of providing quite a thorough demonstration of that fact as Moore did.)

But then again, even the more radical voices in philosophy, both in contemporary ‘Postmodern’ departments, who attempt to show that there’s no such thing as truth (i.e. Jacques Derrida), or ‘Analytic’ departments, who try to show that there’s no such things as beliefs and desires (i.e. Paul Churchland) have a point when they say that we should not let the limits of what we imagine is possible or plausible limit our inquiry. Who is to say that the truth isn’t weird? How do we know that things might not all change tomorrow? I must grudgingly admit that it was ‘common sense’ that told us the Earth was flat, ‘common sense’ that tells us that heavier objects fall faster, and ‘common sense’ that tells us we can drink seawater. There seems to be no clear line to differentiate the acceptable domain of ‘common sense’ from the domain of more systematic and thorough reflection, or thorough empirical testing. Does this mean we have to abandon common sense altogether, and that Moore’s viewpoint is fundamentally flawed?

As far as I can see, no, it does not, because it’s the spirit of common sense, in a manner of speaking, rather than the letter, that matters. What I mean by the ‘spirit of common sense’ is that rather than ‘common sense’ being conceived of as a certain framework (or worse, as a sort of ‘folk theory’ in the appallingly over-scientific way that a lot of modern philosophers of mind approach it) ‘common sense’ more means a certain kind of principles in approaching information, arguments, claims etc. It means approaching these things in a spirit of a straightforward, earnest desire to know what’s going on, one that “cuts the bullshit” if you won’t mind a slight bit of obscenity. I think what Moore was really responding to in his quote above, which explains his rather dismissive tone (and which I can really relate to) is the tendency of intellectuals, not only in philosophy but in a whole host of fields, to dogmatically treat certain theoretical frameworks, certain assumptions, certain guidelines as simply given, based not upon actual arguments for those assumptions but because we like the conclusions, and furthermore with no reflection upon how those assumptions are affecting the final outcome of chains of reasoning. This may seem obvious, or even worse it may seem like a charge that anybody could make. However, what seems to me to be a key aspect of real, good ol’ fashioned ‘common sense’ spirited philosophy is really paying attention to unspoken details. Moore, for instance, brilliantly observed the distinction between a sensation (an experience considered on its own as an object) and the object being sensed, and was able to show that an inference going back to Berkeley (which concluded that, because any object being conceived of had to be conjoined with some sort of consciousness, logically all objects must exist conjoined with consciousness, vindicating Idealism). This extremely technical detail made the difference in terms of undermining an argument that, like so many in philosophy, led to a conclusion widely considered undesirable, yet seemingly unavoidable. It is this sort of attention to detail, not only to the starting assumptions of an argument but to the assumptions made by every one of its premises, that is what I would label “the spirit of common sense,” a spirit of calmly looking at the premises to an argument themselves, without letting oneself get too excited by the mystery or wonder of an argument’s conclusion.

I think in the end every camp in philosophy could be accused of, at some point or another, getting so excited by particular conclusions of particular arguments that they began to overlook critical details of certain premises. Religious medieval philosophers, thrilled by what they thought they had proven about God, overlooked critical considerations to be made about whether the language their arguments were using were really applicable in that way. Early Modern philosophers, thrilled by how their arguments seemed to provide an airtight philosophical basis for the conquest of science, overlooked ways in which their mechanistic assumptions were far too limited to really capture the complexity and detail of the natural world. Idealist philosophers, impressed by how obviously their arguments seemed to show that the extremely counterintuitive conclusion that in fact there was no material world was true, overlooked critical details underlying the premises of those arguments. 20th century philosophers, in their excitement to “do away” with so many ‘traditional’ problems of philosophy simply by dismissing them as figments of unclear language, overlooked ways in which this thesis can, if taken too far, become radically self-undermining. Everyone has been there at some point; but what I think “the spirit of common sense philosophy” entails is, in all things, showing a bit of moderation, and always remembering that “we must follow the argument wherever it leads,” rather than having it “follow us wherever we lead.”