Common Sense Philosophy
In the first century BC the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero claimed “There is no statement so absurd that no philosopher will make it”. Indeed, in the history of Western thought, philosophers have rarely been credited with having much common sense. In the 17th century Francis Bacon made the point rather poetically and wrote “Philosophers make imaginary laws for imaginary commonwealths, and their discourses are as the stars, which give little light because they are so high”. Samuel Johnson picked up the theme with characteristic pugnacity in 1751 declaring that “the public would suffer less present inconvenience from the banishment of philosophers than from the extinction of any common trade.” Philosophers, it seems, are as distinct from the common man as philosophy is from common sense.
But as Samuel Johnson scribbled his pithy knockdown in the Rambler magazine, the greatest philosophers in Britain were locked in a dispute about the very thing he denied them: Common Sense. It was a dispute about the nature of knowledge and the individuality of man, from which we derive the idea of common sense today.
But what is Common Sense Philosophy, who were its proponents and how did it emerge from the tides of scepticism, empiricism and rational enquiry running through 18th century Europe?
A C Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London
Melissa Lane, Senior University Lecturer in History at Cambridge University
Alexander Broadie, Professor of Logic and Rhetoric at the University of Glasgow
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