Philosophy and Common Sense
by Antonio Orozco Arvo
Taken from http://www.arbil.org/arbil111.htm
Translated from the Spanish by Roberto Hope
The levels or modes of attaining human knowledge are several; at least three: Common sense, Science and Philosophy. Beyond that is Faith
The first three are within the reach of any person, since they are natural capabilities of the human intelligence. Faith, in a theological sense, is a supernatural capability which presupposes a supernatural gift; that is why we do not count it at this point.
Three are, then, the knowledge degrees that man can attain by means of his faculties: starting off from the faculty of his senses and of his intelligence in continuity with his sensing ability, in contact with reality.
Knowledge of things by their ultimate causes is the highest level of knowledge to which we can aspire. To “see” things from their constituting principles and from their ultimate causes, is definitely a little like seeing them from God's stand point; from their absolute origin. This is achieved in a certain measure and form at the natural level, by means of philosophy.
On the other hand, God, lovingly, has made us participant of His divine wisdom; externally by means of His revelation, consummated in Jesus Christ, and intimately by means of the supernatural gift of faith. Faith, far from opposing reason, enhances its capacity to understand. If reason is light, faith is a much more potent light, which enables us to know things the knowledge of which, by nature, is incumbent only upon God. There is no conflict among any of our levels of knowledge.
- Common sense teaches us how things appear to us. And this is an important knowledge, even if one should not take it as definitive and complete (fire will burn you, water will get you wet.)
- Science inquires and manifests the immediate causes of things that fall within our scope of observation and experimentation (water is composed of two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxigen.)
- Philosophy leads us to the knowledge of the causes of beings, in each of the degrees of participation of being which are irreducible among themselves (water and fire are finite beings, comprised of essence and act of being, of act and potency, of substance and accidents.)
- Theology applies the dynamics of reason to the study of those truths which God has revealed to us, to understand them more and better each time, in harmony with all of the rest of the certain knowledge we have at our disposal.
Common sense, science and philosophy provide us with different levels of the truth of things,
Without common sense we would have no possibility of survival, without science no technical development would take place, without philosophy we would know nothing of the origin and the purpose of life.
Common sense and philosophyWe usually call common sense the ordinary knowledge which everyone possesses by means of the spontaneous exercise of reason, in an irreflexive way, i.e. pre-scientific.
Eternal scepticism is manifest in contemporaneous philosophy in the following reductions in the field of human knowledge.
- only phenomena can be known (Kant)
- we can only know the mere essence of concepts (Husserl)
- only the anguishing and precarious subjective existence (Heidegger)
- only the formal structures of language, with exclusively practical ends (analytical philosophy)
- only what is enclosed in the “hermeneutic circle” (Gadamer)
All of these authors share the idea of a relativity of culture, all human culture would be relative, all would be history, nothing would be fixed and permanent.
However, it is easy to notice that the fact that the rest of cultures can communicate with us, that we can accept or reject their theories, indicates that we can understand each other and that it follows that there is a common base of knowledge and certainties, independent of the geographic and temporal differences. This set of natural and universal certainties is what, since the sixteenth century, is being called common sense.
Common sense certainties.Certainties which make up what we call common sense are truly common to all of us, to the point that nobody lacks them nor can do without them at the time of reasoning. Actually, those who deny common sense use it, at least in part, as an implicit presupposition in their reasoning, Thus, for example, as Aristotle already declared definitely, the only way of negating the principle of non-contradiction is by making a surreptitious use of it.
There are a series of “metaphysical principles” and of moral principles which certainly form part of common sense:
- The idea of world or universe, i.e. the ordered set of all things that are evidenced as existing and conjectured as possible. All of them are connected with the very common idea of “being”. They are things that are something; they belong to the order of being.
- The conscience of self, as subject in relation with the universe of objects.
- In the third place, the notion of the “order” existing among things, from which derives the evidence of a duty to adjust one's own liberty to that order so as to reach the ultimate end.
- Finally, the notion of the first cause and ultimate end, i.e. God creator, provident, legislator and remunerator.
In common sense no more is there to be found other than the certainties which derive from those mentioned by their simply becoming explicit. They are few but absolute and universal. No man talks or reasons without making use of them as a starting point, as the grammar of his language, as a logical frame of his reflection on the reality in the search for any kind of wisdom.
Even when somebody in philosophy may wish to deny any of these certainties or the set of all of them (scepticism), the prior existence of these same certainties can be discovered in the language of he who expresses such denial: not only as an anachronism but as an actual element of logical support of his entire discourse.
Exactly for that reason, any philosophy that does not respect common sense (even when not explicitly recognizing it or defending it) is a false philosophy or a counterfeit philosophy, in which a logical incoherence can always be discovered, an intrinsic contradiction. And contradiction is the death of any philosophy, as of any thought, whether theoretical or practical.
Soul of a cultureHowever, common sense is never found in a pure state. It is always found – as the soul – in a body, in the sense that it animates and makes possible the existence of a thought and a culture, but it cannot see it separated from them. That is why it has been said that “common sense is the un-expressed basis of all expression” (Francis Jacques)
When, in human discourse, things are affirmed which are compatible with common sense, it is about opinions acceptable in principle; but if they are incompatible with those primary truths, then they serve for nothing, neither for human truth, nor for the reception of supernatural truth.
Particular sciences as well as philosophy, start off from common sense – it could not be otherwise – which usually tells us how things are, and reflects about our acquired knowledge in a spontaneous way, and then goes further, inquires why and for what purpose are or occur particular things.
Sciences are distinguished or specified by their objects; or put more plainly, for the aspect that interests them of the objects. Each particular aspect can be, in principle, object of a particular science. Medicine occupies itself of the health of the body, psychology of the phenomena of the psyche, ecology of the order existing or that should exist in the environment, geology of the structure of rocks.
Well, among the sciences, one can be found which constitutes a unique species since, instead of concerning itself with particular aspects of things, it is interested in reality as such. It does not so much study this or that concrete reality but starting off, as it is logical, from concrete realities, it targets the first principles or ultimate causes of reality.
PhilosophySomebody has defined philosophy as “that about which children ask until their parents, fed up, tell them to stop being tiresome or silly”. This definition is not all that wrong. Mother, where has yesterday gone? Mother why am I I? Mother, are dreams true? Is truth true? And all this, does it have any importance?
Mariano Artigas tells that one day a -15th of November- he was riding the train on his way to Bilbao. It was almost ten at night . A lady came in with two little children. One of them may have been some six years old and would not quit talking out loud. Suddenly, he said: “Mother, how fast this train runs!” and added “And you can´t feel it!” and then asked “Why can't you feel it?”
That is a good question. Common sense is often puzzled that things do not happen the same way in a room where everything is at rest, as in a train moving at great speed. He who knows physics will say that the explanation of this fact lies in inertia. (vid Mariano Artigas, Ciencia y sentido común). But what is inertia? The answer is a bit disappointing: In physics inertia is a postulate. It seems that it is incumbent upon physicists to tell us what are things and why some occur and others do not, Kant had an absolute faith in the exactness of physics. But every day that passes, physicists find themselves more perplexed when it comes to answering more radical questions, what is reality? and why is it that way and not another?
Especially since quantum physics was discovered, physicists have become aware that when they get close to reality to observe it and measure it in some way, there is no way to give an objective explanation! They realize that they themselves are implicated in the question, and any answer is conditioned by the subjectivity or situation of he who measures. It all depends on the observer's standpoint.
We already have the theory of relativity which has made Einstein famous. But very few know what relativity means for Einstein. For many, “everything is relative” means that reality is unknowable in an objective way, that we cannot know what is true and what is false. The straight cane stuck into a pail of water we see bent. It all depends on the point of view. The physicist cannot tell us more than what is manifest from his point of view. But this is not a failure of physics, nor of human intellect.
Physics does much already making many things useful for civilization. We must not ask more from it, we must not require it to tell us what things are or why they are as they are and not as something else. If we ask a physics professor: What in reality is inertia, gravity? and so forth, it is logical that he will not know what to answer; it is not a failure of physics because the question “what is it?” refers not to what “it appears” but to what “is” the reality as such. But physics occupies itself with phenomena, not with what underlies them. But for that is philosophy and, more concretely, metaphysics, which starts off with phenomena but reasons about them and tries to “read inside” them (intus legere) to reach the quid of the question.
What philosophy is notOne should not confuse philosophy with “thinking much”. Many other professionals – lawyers, architects, engineers – have to think much and the philosophical task is not theirs.
It is also not thinking thoughts (or ideas). Philosophy is thinking deeply about reality.
Philosopher is not one who knows more things and is capable of winning any radio or TV contest; nor is he who understands anything (electronics, computer science, mushrooms, postage stamps, minerals and so forth) but he who understands reality itself more deeply -- Why being and not nothing? What is good? What is evil? What is liberty? What is happiness? What is creature? What is God?
It is curious that the supreme universal – absolutely universal – aspiration of mankind, which is attaining happiness, is surrounded by a not less supreme and universal ignorance.
Plato, one of the first who began talking of “philosophy” as such, said philosophers were those interested in the eternal and immutable. Plato and Aristotle never reduced philosophy to a mere logical and linguistic analysis, as has been happening in recent times.
That physics and mathematics, contrary to what Kant used to think, are not exact sciences and that they are unable to elucidate the essence of things and the sense of reality, should not be a cause for scepticism and discouragement. What we have to do to attain knowledge of those things is philosophy. Philosophy will not tell us how the atom is structured, but it can illuminate us about its purpose. And the same applies to the entire universe.