Perhaps you’ve heard this quote from the noted French philosopher and Historian Voltaire (1694-1778): “Common sense is not so common.” The actual statement is: “We sometimes say that common-sense is very rare.”1 Voltaire then asks the question: “What is the meaning of that phrase?” He goes on to say that so often our progress or exercise in reasoning is interrupted by preconceptions. In other words, we have trouble accepting new ideas.
We can take Voltaire’s statement as either negative or positive. One definition of common sense reads: The basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge things in ways that are commonly understood by others. However, psychologist Dr. Jim Taylor gives us this to think about: “Common sense, defined as ‘sound judgment derived from experience rather than study,’ is one of the most revered qualities in America. It evokes images of early and simpler times in which industrious men and women built our country into what it is today. People with common sense are seen as reasonable, down to earth, reliable, and practical. But here’s the catch. Common sense is neither common nor sense.”
Dr. Taylor is correct on one point, just because the crowd thinks it’s the right thing to do or say, does not mean there is wisdom in numbers. How many times have common sense ideas been blasted into pieces by one individual who saw the real truth by embracing “reasoned sense.” That’s how we got away from the “flat-earth” theory and the misconception that the sun revolves around the earth.
Also, therapist Sandra Cecconello raised the question: “What is ‘common sense’? because, she says: “I hear many irate people saying about co-workers, parents saying about children, colleagues saying about colleagues; authority figures saying about the people being judged; the words — ‘have you no common sense?;’ ‘why didn’t you use your common sense?’ and many other detrimental phrases relating to the lack of common sense.” Cecconello goes on to ask who should we look to as the expert on common sense? This would be challenging since what you might call common sense is not common sense to another person.
While common sense would certainly apply that when you go out on a rainy day to take your umbrella with you, there are other situations in life that are not such simple equations. So the next time you are provoked into shooting the arrow of “common sense” at someone, just remember that the person you are aiming at did not have your upbringing and was not raised in the same environment as you. So do as Dr. Taylor suggested, offer “reasoned sense” as a possible solution in understanding why they did what they did, even to your chagrin. – Dr. Robert R Seyda
1 The Philosophical Dictionary, M. De Voltaire, London, 1802, under “Common Sense,” p. 372