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Montana Viewpoint
COMMON SENSE—THE DOWNSIDE
November 26, 2007

Whenever I hear someone endorse finding a “common sense” solution to a problem, I prepare myself for the worst. I am always afraid that what the speaker really means is, “Be reasonable, do it my way”; because unless his common sense solution is the same as everyone else’s, there’s trouble ahead.

But using “common sense” seems so—well, sensible—that it’s hard to argue against using it, even if we’re not quite sure what it means. So to be sure that my understanding of the term was the correct one—and why wouldn’t it be, since it was mine—I decided to go to an online encyclopedia to have my interpretation affirmed.

I am here today to tell you that if you go to the encyclopedia and look up “common sense,” you are on your own. I will never do it again. I could not believe that such a simple concept would have so many complex explanations. I’m not even sure that they were different explanations; for all I could tell they all might have meant the same thing. My own brand of common sense told me that I was getting very confused.

Apparently the discussion of common sense goes way back to before people had any, or if they had it, they didn’t know what it was. It has been a subject of philosophical debate since at least 300 BC when the Greek philosopher Aristotle worried the topic some.

My own test for recognizing a common sense solution seems to be limited to slapping myself on the forehead and wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The major disadvantage to this technique is the possibility of self-inflicted concussion on a bad brain day.

While the head-slapping recognition technique works as far as identifying  common sense solutions go, I figured that there ought to be a less painful way to do it; so I chose the only definition in the online encyclopedia I could understand, which was “sound judgment not based on specific knowledge.”  In other words, based on the knowledge of a situation that is within the common experience of most people. This is sort of like knowing not to stick your finger into a light socket.  

But like anything there are downsides to common sense. In the first place, it might be common, but it might be wrong. At one time common sense said the earth was flat, but with lots of bumps on it. At about the same time, common sense held that the sun revolved around the earth. The belief in that particular viewpoint was so strong that when Galileo said that the earth revolved around the sun he got in big trouble with the Church, which considered such beliefs heresy. If nothing else, Galileo was a practical man and could see that he had been badly mistaken, and allowed that he was just plumb wrong.

The fact that thirty years earlier a less practical fellow named Giordano Bruno, who had the same idea, but stuck to his guns and was burned at the stake for his stupidity may have been a factor in Galileo’s seeing the light. I mean, common sense would tell Galileo that things would go bad for him if he didn’t learn from Bruno’s example. And he was right, who the heck remembers Giordano Bruno? When he was sentenced to death for challenging the conventional common sense of his day Bruno said, “Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620

jim@jimelliott.org