If we cannot justify philosophy by common sense, we can at least contrast it with common sense, and so approach it from that more familiar ground. Since we must admit that philosophy is at odds with common sense, let us make the most of it. What, then, is common sense? First of all it is evident that this is not a commonsense question. One of the things peculiar to common sense is that it must not be questioned, but taken for granted. It is made up of a mass of convictions that by common consent are to be allowed to stand; one does not ask questions about them, but appeals to them to determine what questions shall be asked. They are the conservative opinion, the solidified and uniform belief, on which men act and which is the unconscious premise of most human reasoning. As a man of common sense, I use common sense to live by or to think by; it is a practical and theoretical bias which I share with my fellows, but which I do not think about at all.

Now suppose that in some whimsical and senseless mood I do think about common sense. Something very startling happens. This once unchallenged authority is proved to be highly fallible. Its spell is gone. It at once appears, for example, that common sense has had a history, and that it has varied with times and places. The absurdities of yesterday are the common sense of to-day; the common sense of yesterday is now obsolete and quaint. The crank of the sixteenth century was the man who said that the earth moved; the crank of the twentieth century is the man who says that it does not. Moreover, once common sense is thus reflected upon, it is seen to be in part, at least, the result of wholly irrational forces, such as habit and imitation. What has been long believed, or repeatedly asserted, acquires a hardness and fixity from that fact; in the future it is always easier to believe, more difficult to disbelieve, than anything recent or novel. And what others about us believe, we tend unconsciously to reflect in our own belief, just as our speech catches the accent and idioms of our social circle. Furthermore, a belief once widely diffused takes on the authority of established usage. It is supported by public opinion, as anything normal or regular is supported; unbelievers are viewed with hostile suspicion as unreliable and incalculable. “You can never tell what they will do next.” Or they are forcibly persecuted as a menace to the public peace. I have called habit and imitation “irrational” forces. By that I mean that they have no special regard for truth. They operate in the same way to confirm and propagate a bad way of thinking as a good way of thinking. It does not follow that common sense is necessarily mistaken; indeed reasons can be adduced to show that common sense is a very good guide indeed. But if so, then common sense is justified on other grounds; it is not itself the last court of appeal. Common sense, despite its stability and vogue, perhaps on account of its stability and vogue, is open to criticism. We cannot be sure that it is true; and it may positively stand in the way of truth through giving an unwarranted authority to the old and familiar, and through shutting our minds so that no new light can get in.

The philosopher, then, is one who at the risk of being thought queer, challenges common sense; he sets himself against the majority in order that the majority may be brought to reflect upon what they have through inertia or blindness taken for granted. He is the reckless critic, the insuppressible asker of questions, who doesn’t know where to stop. He has a way of pinching the human intelligence, when he thinks it has gone to sleep. Every time there is a fresh revival of philosophical interest, and a new philosophical movement, as there is periodically, this is what happens. Some eccentric or highly reflective individual like Socrates, or Bacon, or Descartes, or Locke, or Kant, strays from the beaten track of thought, and then discovers that although it was easier to move in the old track, one is more likely to reach the goal if one beats out a new one. Such a thinker demands a re-examination of old premises, a revision of old methods; he stations himself at a new center, and adopts new axes of reference.

Philosophy is opposed to common sense, then, in so far as common sense is habitual and imitative. But there are other characteristics of common sense with which the true genius of philosophy is out of accord. We can discover these best by considering the terms of praise or blame which are employed in behalf of common sense. When ideas are condemned as contrary to common sense, what is ordinarily said of them? I find three favorite forms of condemnation: ideas are pronounced “unpractical,” “too general,” or “intangible.” Any man of common sense feels these to be terms of reproach. It is implied, of course, that to be agreeable to common sense, ideas must be “practical,” “particular,” and “tangible.” And it is the office of philosophy, as corrective of common sense, to show that such judgments, actual and implied, cannot be accepted as final.

All Directories