Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What is the Good of Common Sense?

There are three categories of human knowledge by which James measures our ability to learn: common sense; science, and critical philosophy. By "common sense," James does not mean simply having "good judgment" or being "free from eccentricity." That is the layman's perspective, or what the man on the street means by common sense. Instead, James is talking about an early "stage of development" in which human reason is responding to an unfamiliar world. This early stage of growth is replicated in every human being as the mind develops and extends itself into nature. As James says, it "form(s) one great stage of equilibrium in the human mind's development, the stage of common sense." Essentially, James is referring to the mind's tendency to organize its contents into categories of experience. These categories were not invented by James. They are a legacy of Kant. They represent the manner in which human reason operates upon nature. Such concepts as "thing" (or substance), "mind," "body," "time," "space," "causality," are the categories by means of which "we handle facts by thinking them ("denkmittel")." According to James, none of this organization comes to us "ticketed and labeled...we have first to discover what it is."

For James, these Kantian categories have resulted in a conceptual system that works pretty well most of the time. But we have inherited these "notions" without any knowledge of how they relate to our actual perceptions "taken by themselves." For example, our concept of weather is based on the idea that weather is something capable of description, that it can be observed and measured. In other words, it endures over time and can be experienced, or to put it another way, it has continuity or "being." "Being," of course, is a product of rational (Greek) philosophy which divides the world into two categories of experience: Being and Becoming, or that which IS versus that which is passing away. Linguistically, we employ the same categories when we combine our sentences into "subject" and "predicate."

Regarding weather, James says that there is no such thing as weather in general. There is only weather at a specific time and place:

"Weather-experience as it thus comes to
Boston is discontinuous, and chaotic. In point of temperature, of wind, rain or sunshine, it may change three times a day. But the Washington weather-bureau intellectualizes this disorder by making each successive bit of Boston weather episodic."

James is implying that just as weather is "discontinuous and chaotic" so is all of reality. We never experience weather in the abstract. It is always weather of a specific kind, at a definite location, at a certain time. In other words, episodic. That is exactly how we experience all of reality, episodically. It only appears to be continuous because that is how our minds process sensual information. This doesn't mean that the universe lacks continuity. But our experience of the world is broken into fragments of perception (viz., a quantum view of reality) that are constantly being reassembled to give the appearance of enduring objects.

From the perspective of ordinary common sense, we do not feel this constant motion. Life presents a steady stream of phenomena which is filtered by our mind and conceptualized to appear as though the world is "rational" But the appearance of order and rationality are only a result of our mind imposing its own conceptual structure (the Kantian categories) upon experience.

So what? Who cares if the world is chaotic and discontinuous as long as it appears to be rational and enduring? What difference does it really make? James says that young children and inferior animals "take their experiences very much as uninstructed Bostonians take their weather." In other words, they don't rationalize their experience of the world. They lack the Kantian categories. (Of course, Kant would say that these categories are "a priori" or prior to our experience of the world. Thus, it is inaccurate to describe them as "experiential." While James says that we can only know the categories through experience. We do not simply infer them.) Our mind's ability to conceptualize must develop organically as the brain itself evolves over time. If this growth is interrupted or impaired, our ability to see reality as continuous might also be compromised. At any rate, James argues that dogs and infants do not grasp the idea of a continuous world. For them, when something is no longer visible, it simply goes out of existence. They dwell in a kind of Berkeleyan universe where "esse est percipi" (to be is to be perceived). Whether or not this is a good thing is unclear. But it certainly sounds as if James thinks it is inadequate for human society:

"Absolute freedom and absolute helplessness have met together: you depend wholly on divine favor, yet that unfathomable agency is not distinguishable from your own life..."

Though James is critical of the old experiential categories of common sense, he allows that they do serve a purpose:

"Even today science and philosophy are still laboriously trying to part fancies from realities in our experience; and in primitive times that made only the most incipient distinctions in this line."

Yet, he reminds us that these categories have no reality of their own. They exist only as figments of the mind. They are convenient labels which we assign to perceptual events and that enable us to communicate our inner life (our thoughts) with others. Thus, common sense makes society possible. Otherwise, we would all be trapped in a world of our own experience with no conceptual categories with which to relate to others. Problems with common sense only arise when our assumptions about the world collide with actual experience. Since much of what passes for common sense is handed down to us from our forefathers, it should not be surprising that we are often dumbfounded by novelty, and resist radical change. The transition from Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy took a thousand years. Yet the heliocentric model was first proposed as early as 270 B.C. by Aristarchus of Samos.

Though resistant to change, common sense has a way of embracing new ideas once they take hold. In other words, human thinking, like human behavior, adapts to new circumstance. However, some ideas take longer to embrace than others. The common sense belief that the earth is flat required people (Magellan, Vasco de Gama, et al.) to actually sail around the world before the truth could be accepted. Likewise, the discoveries of bacteria, electro-magnetism, and black holes. Science is the branch of philosophy which subjects conventional wisdom (aka, common sense) to the rigors of verification. What is fact today may well become fiction tomorrow. Thus, human knowledge advances through a slow, laborious process of trial and error, a gradual accretion of new information grafted to old, like the growth of calcium stalagmites in a darkened cave. William James believes that the good of common sense is that it eventually leads, however roundabout and silly the path, to more common sense. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.


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