Common sense not so common nowadays

Published 11:37 am Monday, January 30, 2012

We usually praise “common sense” and there is, indeed, much to be said for it. The first problem with talking about common sense, however, is it really isn’t very common and another is many don’t even know what it means. Although common sense certainly is important for everyday living, failure to understand its limitations and grow beyond them becomes tragic.

The “popular” use of the term “common sense” is that everyone has it whether an individual uses it or not. This is common or general among us and means ordinary or average. The term does indeed mean this, because this later meaning has become a fact, and it is one of three major definitions dictionaries provide. A person is not incorrect so to use it and I sometimes do, although I try to avoid it. I somewhat disdain the term, because it is both trite and unclear. More important: it is not the original meaning, and forgetting this impoverishes language, confuses thinking, and disables actions.

The original meaning — the basic, essential meaning — refers to that sense that is common among classes and not distinctive to a particular class or requiring special knowledge. The laborer has as much sense as the shop owner and professor. The same meaning is seen in the military term “common specialist,” (cook, clerk, mechanic) found in all branches.

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In neither meaning is “common sense” inherent; both are learned. In popular usage it is learned so unconsciously one might suppose it to be inherent. In the original meaning it was learned by effort and consciously. A college campus might have a Commons, an area used by students, staff, and professors with no reference to academic status.

Common sense is such as this: If you walk out into the rain, you will get wet; if you put on rain gear, only these will get wet. Of course, common sense includes much more profound recognitions as well, but any thinking person in every class understands this much.

Common sense is important, but we need a lot more because it is limited to those things that are picked up casually or with only a mention.

What is beyond common sense can be as simple as street-smarts unknown to farm boys—or, alternatively, the intuitive ability to fix things that leaves city-slickers at a loss. It can be techniques surgeons learn in medical school unknown to first-aid workers. It can be industrial proprietary information or trade secrets of a business. It can be esoteric or secret such as the ritual of an oath-taking society or techniques learned by musicians through long experience. These are all specialized knowledge or senses that are uncommon outside a given closed circle.

Did not our great president Abraham Lincoln say, “God must like common people, because he made so many of them?” (Apparently not, because no one can document it, although popularly attributed to him. If he said something in this direction it was: “The Lord prefers common looking people. That is why he made so many of them.”) Regardless, he did say in 1838: “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.” Lincoln used common sense without letting it limit him.

Such was the thought of Thoreau: “A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry, for common sense always takes a hasty and superficial view” (1849). It was Voltaire who, perhaps first, said, “Common sense is not so common” (1764).

Finally, the Bible lays it down as the very words of God: “What God has cleansed, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). This is to say when something has been transformed into yet greater value, do not presume upon it or take it for granted. Respect and value what has been achieved or accomplished.

We recognize common sense as essential, and if this is all of which an individual is capable, there need be no apology—but use the common sense you do have. Having said this, I also say our culture and society will stagnate and then deteriorate if capable people do not grow to become outstanding individuals who accomplish extraordinary things for the common good. While being common requires no apology, remaining common is not grounds for boasting.