How common is “Common Sense”? | Sunday Observer

How common is “Common Sense”?

28 March, 2021

“Common sense is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, for each one thinks he is so well-endowed with it that even those who are hardest to satisfy in all other matters are not in the habit of desiring more of it than they already have.” – Rene Descartes

The Cambridge Dictionary describes “common sense” as “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgement that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way”.

We hear expressions such as: “Can’t you use your common sense?” or “I sure hope that common sense will prevail in the end”. Though we all use the phrase whenever we feel the need, especially dealing with children and, or subordinates, most of us do not try to think about what we really mean by it.

What is considered as common sense by parents or other adults may neither be sensed by nor common among children. What is considered as common sense by one may not be sensed by another at all. Sometimes we use the phrase just to get out of situations we find hard to explain or define. Even the people who can explain the meanings of the words “common” and “sense” separately may not be able to explain what they really mean by “common sense”.

St. Augustine has once said that he knew what time was, so long as he was not asked to define it. People are said to have common sense when they deal effectively with the common circumstances of life. All beings come into this world equipped to receive signals and indications from the environment and their own experiences how to deal with life’s situations as they arise.

The habits of thoughts and action thus acquired by humans will respond to the demands of their surroundings.


Such innate capacities of a group of people sharing a particular surrounding or similar surroundings may be considered as common sense. Though such capacities may be seen as common within the group, different persons in the group may be aware of them and capable of using them in different degrees. This difference in the presence of common sense and, or the ability to use it creates the ambiguity in the phrase “common sense”.

English philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that every man brought “Natural Reason” into the world with him, for all men can reason to some degree concerning some things but when the situation requires a long series of reasoning, they tend to wander out of the way and fall into error showing the need of a method to keep their reasoning inline.

Natural Reason seems to carry us all to a certain extent, but beyond that it woud be proportionate to the improved reasoning abilities of different persons. When one needs to carry the reasoning successfully over a wider range than the average affairs of practical life, the commonality part of the “common sense” begins to diminish gradually.

Therefore, training people on extending their capacities of Natural Reason to expand its range may help improve their common sense. Then we will be faced with the question whether we have educational methods that can deliver such training.

Etymology of the word “Education” shows that the Latin origin of it “educare” means “to bring out”. Therefore, the truest sense of the word education indicates that there is no reason for anyone to think that common sense cannot be imprvoved. As Rene Descartes has said, what prevents most of us from improving our common sense is our ego of being satisfied with the feeling that we have all the common sense we need and the reluctance of accepting the need of improving it.

Scientists and psychologists say that science is not a substitute for common sense but an extension of it. At the same time, common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom. Studies have shown that creative and logical thinking provide the supporting structure for common sense.

Research has shown, over and over again, that we are all born with the highest creative potentials that diminish gradually through living. A research in the USA in 1960s following 1600 children from the ages of 5 - 25 has shown that 98 percent of the five-year olds scored in the “creative genius” range.

Creative genius

When the same children were tested through the years, only two percent of them got to the category of “creative genius” at the age of 25. To maintain creativity at the genius level, one has to keep the five-year old alive within oneself. Researchers suggested that to achieve that kind of sustainability of creativity, one has to maintain divergent thinking irrespective of one’s age.

Divergent thinking helps create new possibilities using imagination that can expand one’s common sense. Divergent thinking is also supported by happy and pleasant states of mind where as unhappy and, or depressed states lead to more restrictive and limited thought patterns. We will not achieve any type of an expansion of common sense through formal education if our schools and or the universities are places that rob us out of our creativity and force us to cultivate non-creative thinking where experts in reproducing what has been memorised are generously rewarded.

Students as well as teachers should feel happy to be in that teaching-learning environment where, at the end of each day, everyone experiences a sense of fulfillment about the achievements of the day.

Curricula and the evaluation methods should be designed to enhance divergent thinking. Teachers should not only understand the subjects they teach well but also understand the importance of facilitating divergent thinking through which the students will see the bigger and more general a picture.

There are certain aspects of creative thinking that can be developed through knowledge and practice if one is free to follow one’s imagination and ask the questions “why” and “why not?”.

Psychologists have shown that humans learn things faster and much easier when the things they try to learn agree with their common sense. Improved common sense will certainy make life easier to live for everyone.

Eighteenth century English poet Nicholas Amhurst, in his 1726 essays about the University of Oxford, wrote: “There is not a more uncommon thing in the world than common sense; and I will add to the paradox by adding, that this uncommon thing, called common sense, is nowhere more uncommon, than (where it ought to be most common) in our nurseries of literature and religion”.

(The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over 20 years in the USA and 14 years in Sri Lanka. He can be contacted at [email protected])