Cross-post: Notes towards an understanding of common sense.

Initially I attempted to deconstruct the semantic implications. The word "common" refers to something "commonly held," or public property. A sense that belongs to us all. "Sense" is a slippery word. It is not exactly knowledge, or knowledge at all. To "sense" something and to "know" something are two different experiences. When I know something I am recalling a fact, and when I sense something I have an understanding which guides my actions. If there is common sense, is there a sense specific to a time, a place or a person? A police officer and a pastry chef would require different kinds of senses in order to perform properly. Furthermore, to possess any sense, one must rely on accumulated knowledge to inform this sense. Knowledge is the foundation of sense; collected fragments from the immediate, perceivable world builds and sharpens sense. Just so I can get my head around the word, I looked up sense in the dictionary.

sense |sens| noun
1 a faculty by which the body perceives an external stimulus; one of the faculties of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch : the bear has a keen sense of smell that enables it to hunt at dusk.
2 a feeling that something is the case : she had the sense of being a political outsider.
• an awareness or feeling that one is in a specified state : you can improve your general health and sense of well-being.
• ( sense of) a keen intuitive awareness of or sensitivity to the presence or importance of something : she had a fine sense of comic timing.
3 a sane and realistic attitude to situations and problems : he earned respect by the good sense he showed at meetings.
• a reasonable or comprehensible rationale : I can't see the sense in leaving all the work to you.
4 a way in which an expression or a situation can be interpreted; a meaning : it is not clear which sense of the word “characters” is intended in this passage.
5 chiefly Mathematics Physics a property, e.g., direction of motion, distinguishing a pair of objects, quantities, effects, etc., that differ only in that each is the reverse of the other.
• [with clause ] be aware that something is the case without being able to define exactly how one knows : he could sense that he wasn't liked.
• cause someone to (or start to) think and behave reasonably after a period of folly or irrationality. in a (or one) sense used to indicate a particular interpretation of a statement or situation : in a sense, behavior cannot develop independently of the environment. in one's senses fully aware and in control of one's thoughts and words; sane: would any man in his senses invent so absurd a story? make sense be intelligible, justifiable, or practicable. make sense of find meaning or coherence in: she must try to make sense of what was going on. out of one's senses in or into a state of insanity. a sense of direction a person's ability to know without explicit guidance the direction in which they are or should be moving. take leave of one's senses (in hyperbolic use) go insane.
ORIGIN late Middle English (as a noun in the sense [meaning] ): from Latin sensus ‘faculty of feeling, thought, meaning,’ from sentire ‘feel.’ The verb dates from the mid 16th cent.

I've eliminated some definitions that pertain to fibre optics and genetics. These definitions don't relate to this topic. Some important words that I'm pulling out of this text are "perceives," "feeling," "interpreted," "awareness" and "attitude." For the purpose of my study, I'm going to rely on these words as I embark on this subject.

So if I make the distinction between knowledge and sense then I can, with some confidence, say that common sense is a shared understanding of the world. Also, it is a way of doing things, a way of presenting oneself, a way of thinking about a subject and a way of responding to events - a way, a methodology. More later.

(Originally posted November 11th, 2005 on The Stars Have Eyes)


Will said...

I'm not sure agree with the connection of sense and knowledge that you make. I believe you are conflating information and knowledge. For instance, a newborn baby doesn't require any knowledge at all to sense its surroundings but uses information it gathers to perceive the world it lives in.

Also it seems to me that although accumulating knowledge can inform the senses it doesn't necessarily sharpen them. I would say that there are tasks that we repeat through our lives of which we actually lose sensation because the pathways in our brains are so well-trodden that we skip over how things actually feel. My sense of opening a door is duller than when I first discovered how do perform the task as a toddler. It's only when I encounter a new kind of door or one that doesn't work that I actually stop and use my senses to figure things out.

Jay said...

I agree with your second point, that habit, such as opening a door, does diminish meaningful sensations over time. Michael Young states that habits have four functions: to increase skill, to decrease fatigue, to allow us to be wary of unpredictible encounters and to manage memory.

However, when we encounter something unique, like your uncooperative door example, our common sense may fail us. Common sense is first employed (if turning the doorknob one way doesn't work, then maybe if I turn it the other way. . .) before we apply new logic or critical thinking.

I disagree that knowledge does not sharpen (for the lack of a better word) one's common sense, since we need to adapt to new situations that lie beyond our everyday understanding of our world. And this occurs on a semi-regular basis.

I like your idea of seperating information and knowledge. That does seem erroneous. I'll be thinking about that one.