Why have so many influential people been quoted on common sense?

Why have so many influential people been quoted on common sense? Why have some of the world’s most influential writers, speakers, politicians, leaders, even philosophers discussed the meaning of common sense?

I think it speaks to how interested people are in the subject, how profound a term it is and how it impacts the way people think. As a matter of fact that really speaks to the heart of it. The way people think – which is as perplexing as it is fascinating.

James Madison the 4th president of the United States talked about common sense. He said, “Philosophy is common sense with big words” ”

Madison was called Father of the Constitution” for his critical role in drafting and promoting the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. What’s interesting is that Madison was well educated that he would downplay in a sense the meaning of common sense. Maybe not downplay but certainly simplify.

Then there’s Voltaire, the French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher. He spoke about common sense probably around the same time Madison was talking about it, probably in the early 1700’s. Voltaire coined the phrase “Common sense is not so common.” A phrase which has been repeated and written in various forms many times. Like, “I wish common sense was more common” And, “common sense is like deodorant the people who need it most never use it. ” What’s interesting is that Voltaire and Madison were practically polar opposites in terms of experience and personality, but they both mentioned the same subject in the same time period.

Another writer who was interested in common sense was Ralph Waldo Emerson who would have been more like Voltaire than Madison. Ralph Waldo Emerson is quoted as saying “Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.” In other words common sense is intelligence in action.

Around the same time period that Voltaire and Madison would have spoken about common sense another popular, early American Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “Common sense is something that everyone needs, few have, and none think they lack” It’s kind of an expansion on what Voltaire said when he said, “common sense is not so common.” Except, Ben Franklin was adding that no one thinks they lack common sense. Everybody thinks they have it.

Then there’s another interesting quote that came a little later from Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein was also a writer and she said, very interestingly, “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” What’s most interesting about the Gertrude Stein quote is that she lived in the early 1900’s, long before the information age we currently live in. Imagine what she would think in today’s age of the internet and social media!

Robert G. Ingersoll somewhat mirrored the sentiments of Ralph Waldo Emerson when he said, “It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense.” Even though Ingersoll and Emerson had very different interests they were both well educated and shared a common belief on the practical value of common sense.

The idea of practical common sense thinking is something that’s echoed by Donald G. Smith, the business and finance expert who said, “Common sense and education are highly compatible in fact neither is worth much without the other.” He takes it a step further by saying that education, and presumably intelligence don’t have much value without common sense. It’s a powerful assumption as well as a clear warning.

Then there are those who compared common sense to science. Willard Orman Quine is quoted as saying, “Science is not a substitute for common sense but an extension of it.” Interestingly Willard Orman Quine is regarded as a philosopher but also a teacher of logic and something called set theory. Set theory is a branch of mathematical logic that studies sets, which informally are collections of objects. Although any type of object can be collected into a set, set theory is applied most often to objects that are relevant to mathematics. The language of set theory can be used to define nearly all mathematical objects. If you study this further it perfectly illustrates common sense in visual form. Meaning the raw truth of mathematics in visual form.

Thomas Henry Huxley was another one who compared common sense and science. He said, “Science is simply common sense at its best, that is rigidly accurate in observation and merciless to fallacy in logic.” Interestingly, unlike Willard Orman Quine who was a philosopher, Huxley was a biologist. Yet, he echoed the same reasoning in regard to common sense and science.

William Thomson also added to the same reasoning. He said, “Do not imagine that mathematics is in conflict with common sense. It is the beauty of common sense.” Thomson could very well be regarded as the authority on the matter since he did important work in the mathematical analysis of electricity and formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and did much to unify the emerging discipline of physics in its modern form.

Of course common sense has a role in practical, every day matters. Ronald Reagan once said, “Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge. It’s common sense.” It’s interesting that he drew a line between political beliefs using common sense to draw to that line.

What’s undeniable is the wisdom all these people possessed and the agreement they shared on the importance of common sense in a variety of ways. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to common sense when he said this, “Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.” There is a certain wisdom in common sense. Being smart isn’t the same as common sense. As Joyce Meyer the modern author and speaker said, “Many sophisticated intelligent people lack wisdom and common sense.”

As much as it’s a common theme and common way of thinking in certain circles it’s also uniquely endowed. As Buddha said, Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own common sense.” In other words, rely on your own natural instincts. Which brings up another fascinating question. Can common sense be taught?

Some people believe it’s naturally given or not. The French philosopher Rene Descartes spoke to this when he said,  “Common sense is the most fairly distributed thing in the world. Everybody thinks they have so much of it that even the people hardest to convince in everything else agree they don’t need any more of it than they already have.” It’s difficult to teach something to someone they think they already know.

Common sense has also been used as a line of thought to bring an end to conflict. Albeit sometimes by first escalating the conflict. Jim Abbot said, “What I’m fighting for is common sense.” Jim Abbot if you don’t know is a one armed baseball player and motivational speaker. He would certainly know a thing or two about overcoming adversity.

But, in terms of resolving conflict Thomas Paine could well be regarded as the father of common sense made popular of course by his book Common Sense that wildly impacted the outcome of the American Revolution. Many people don’t know this but the reason that Common Sense was so important was that the country was very divided. Even though the war had begun almost half the population of the colonies didn’t want independence from Britain. Common Sense was influential in changing that sentiment. In regard to common sense and conflict, Thomas Paine said this, “To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.” The popular soccer player Malanda said something similar when he said, “I’m learning slowly you can’t argue with everybody. Common sense isn’t a common place.”

Maybe Thomas Paine and Malanda were on to something. The literary critic Frank Laurence Lucas said, “The two World Wars came in part, like much modern literature and art, because men, whose nature is to grow bored of everything, became tired of common sense and civilization.”  Could that be true, that the answer to conflict resolution is common sense?

It might also be key to humility which is a great way to reduce conflict. As Julian Casablancas said, “Vanity can easily overtake wisdom. It usually overtakes common sense.” If it is true a great place to start and a worthy goal for anyone is to start with ourselves. As Thomas Edison said, “The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.”


This article is from the Book On Common Sense by Christopher ScottChristopher Scott is the voice of common sense and host of the Christopher Scott Show Talk Radio Podcast.

B&W Face from Dad

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