Ashok R. Kelkar





Beating about the bush


            When does one, literally, beat about the bush?  (Or, in American English, bear around the bush?)


            When one wants to tease out a quarry out of the bush,  I submit that our present quarry, common sense, has so far eluded us because we haven’t done enough beating about the bush.


            To begin with, the expression ‘commonsense’, not the commodity, is an eminently English expression and the commodity is especially prized by the English.  French has its bon sens; Sanskrit has its sārāsāra-viveka; and so forth.  But none of them quite matches common sense.  Now let’s placeit within English.  A close neighbour of this expression is reasonable which stands in net contrast with rational – to be insistently rational is very often to be unreasonable.  (While French law prides itself on its being rational, English law sets great store on being reasonable.)  Common sense is also distinct from common knowledge (it’s common knowledge that the English king has no powers, it used to be common knowledge that yellow bile makes you short-tempered, choleric, bilious and black bile makes you depressed, melancholic, and so on).  Can we say ‘it used to be common sense that…’?  Of course we can expect that common sense in its presumptuousness will never admit its obsolescence.  Two other related expressions are common consent (by common consent one doesn’t hit a fellow when he’s down) and conventional wisdom. One calls common sense conventional wisdom when one is willing to step out of common sense and ungrudgingly accept that common sense varies from time to time and from place to place and even from one social group to another.  Thus, the variety of commonsense that eludes the mere male is either feminine intuition (when the male accepts defeat) or feminine logic (when the male crows over his victory).  There is of course the specifically male common sense, but it remains undesignated.  It figures especially in ‘men to men talk’. So far we have identified some salient features of this commodity called common sense.


(1)               It is relative to the way of life of a social group in a given historical situation.


(2)               It is not a body of shared facts (that would be common knowledge and admittedly variable and relative) but a body of shared insights that confer on us the capacity to distinguish what is obviously, naturally the case from what is obviously, naturally not the case.


(3)               This capacity is compatible with a willingness to leave (with various degrees of willingness) certain maters to experts; something is the case but not obviously or naturally so; for example, that the earth is round and not flat accords with common knowledge accepted from the experts but does not accord with common sense – that is why flat-earthers are still around.


(4)               This capacity is eminently unwilling to examine its own underlying assumptions and consequently unwilling to accept its own variability and relativity (in contrast the expert is unwilling to accept something as obvious so long as it has not been shown to be obvious – there is all the difference between the commonsensical ‘don’t you see?’ and the expert ‘let me show you’).


            Let’s keep beating about this bush a little while longer.  The last feature that we have identified enables us to see how common sense is opposed to the capacity to be critical- even to the point of being self-critical.  Criticism is the refusal to be wholly a participant of a way of life or, as Wittgenstein would say, of a ‘form of life’.  To be critical is to accept the invitation to step out of the groove even if temporarily.  How about the expert?  Is he willing to accept such an invitation?  If challenged about this or, that he will counter it with ‘let me show you’ – but not always, not when his underlying assumptions are challenged, at least not all the experts.  The experts in a given field – be they scientists or theologians or medicine men or whatever – after all form a social group of their own in a given historical situation and thus come to have their own brand of commonsense : (This naturally applies to experts in the field of artificial intelligence – a group to which the present writer does not happen to belong.)


            The great innovators have been typically persons who have had the temerity to question what was common sense (or conventional wisdom if you like) in their field at a given juncture.  (In fairness one must add that the great innovators share this quality with the great cranks, but that is a different story.)


            Now this raises an important question.  What is the distinction and what is the relation between common sense in a specialty and ordinary common sense, so to say?  Indeed, in ordinary parlance the expression ‘common sense’ will usually be limited to this ordinary common sense and indeed be contrasted with theory, dogma, ideology.  The present writer submits that theory, dogma, ideology are simply different varieties of specialty-defined common sense.  (The term ‘paradigm’ that has come into vogue lately in relation to ‘normal’ science precisely underlines this character of accepted or received wisdom in a scientific field.)  This brings us to the second paradox about common sense.  (The first paradox, it will be recalled, was that common sense was uncritical about its own underlying assumptions.)  The second paradox is that ordinary common sense often sets itself up as a critic of theory, dogma, ideology.  Indeed the great innovators often appeal precisely to this ordinary common sense.  En revanche, theory, dogma, ideology often take a delight in highlighting the limits or the weaknesses of the ordinary common sense or ordinary conventional wisdom of their time.  The layman is mystified and suitably impressed.  One of the secondary functions of technical vocabulary is to promote this mystification.


            Let us now go back and add to and conclude our enumeration of the salient features of the commodity under examination.


(5)               Common sense is participative and conservative in spirit and thus opposed to the critical spirit as well as to the innovative spirit.


(6)               Common sense can be relative to a specialty group, in which case it is identified as theory, dogma, ideology as the case may be, or it can be relative to a larger non-specialty group, in which case let us call it ordinary common sense.


(7)               Ordinary common sense is often made the basis for mounting a critique of a specialty-defined mode of common sense.


That brings us to the concluding observation that we have been building towards.


(8)               Ideally, the language of a group is expected to be neutral enough to enable its users to say with equal facility that something is the case or that it is not the case.  However, language often belies this expectation and is guilty of scuttling its functional neutrality in favour of the common sense of the group which it serves.  Specialty language tends to incorporate the specialty common sense concerned and ordinary language tends to incorporate the ordinary common sense concerned.  Common sense insights thus tend to remain eminently tacit insights.


            One can now begin to see why the articulation of common sense and even the very definition of common sense have eluded the experts in the field of artificial intelligence.  They have depended too much on their specialty common sense – and what is worse, on their ordinary common sense (which is naturally tied up wit their nationality, historical situation and so on).  As long as the nature common sense is not properly understood, any approach to its computer representation will forever elude us.


The Nub of the problem


            Some time ago the present writer distinguished between three uses of natural language (Kelkar 1984 b), namely,


(1)        (i)            technical language use which facilitates translation without residue;


            (ii)            ordinary language use which is in between;


            (iii)            stylized (or poetic) language use which resists translation without residue.


He has also distinguished between three modes of symbolism (Kelkar 1986), namely,


(2)       (i)         abstract symbolism of mathematics, science, technology, fiduciary apparatus, or the like;


            (ii)        ordinary symbolism of faded metaphors, barter economy, folklore, every day gestures, or the like;


            (iii)            poetic symbolism of poetry, myth, rite, art, heraldry, or the like.


            Finally, he has also distinguished between three formalisms or organons that help men to handle and shape man’s other activities (Kelkar 1984 a), namely,


(3)        (i)            mathematics;

            (ii)            (natural) language;

            (iii)            art


            Common sense, especially ordinary common sense, is closely connected with the second term, or better the middle term, in each of these triads, namely,


            (1-ii)            ordinary language use;

            (2-ii)            ordinary symbolism;

            (3-ii)            (natural) language.


            The various features of common sense that we teased out by beating about he bush now begin to make better sense, as each of them will be seen to be closely associated with what have presently been respectively identified as the middle terms.  The elusive character of common sense can be accounted for to the extent that the middle terms lens in certain respect towards the first term of these triads, namely,


            (1-i)            technical language use,

            (2-i)            abstract symbolism,

            (3-i)            mathematics


and leans in certain other respects towards the third term of these triads, namely,


            (1-iii)            poetic language use,

            (2-iii)            poetic symbolism,

            (3-iii)            art


and, let’s not forget, maintains its own identity in still other respects.  (Artificial intelligence experts have tended to think of common sense mistakenly as if it is an extension of technical language use and abstract symbolism.)


            To sum up, the nature of common sense can be better understood through seeing common sense as a member of a fourth triad, namely,


(4)        (i)            the critical spirit, concerned with validation;

            (ii)            common sense, concerned with making a judgment ;

            (iii)            arcane wisdom, concerned with making a symbol.


            Common sense will not yield its secrets so long as we are looking for them in the content of common sense, especially in the content of ordinary common sense.  The situation is just the reverse in that a better understanding of the various features of common sense in the light of the above analysis will help us to see better why it is that common sense came to be considered to be better suited to handle the sort of content it is formally called upon on handle.  Thus, if common sense seems to have a penchant for reasoning from insufficient knowledge, for handling fluid situations, for negotiating everyday practical problems in human relationship, there are good reasons for it, but this does not rule out the operation of common sense in matters such as theory, dogma, ideology.


            Sometimes all the three members of the fourth triad may be brought to bear on the same body of content, but they will exhibit their characteristic nature in the way they handle this content.  To take up an example, consider the appraisal of course of action open to a person.  The three members of the triad make such appraisals inn characteristically different terms – respectively in terms of


(i)                 advantage and disadvantage;

(ii)                good and bad;

(iii)              right and wrong.


Thus the technologist speaks of advantages and disadvantages; the artist of right or wrong brush strokes or notes or words; ordinary people of good or bad.  The ‘middle’ pair, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, it will be noticed, is beautifully ambivalent as between the criterion of advantageous or disadvantageous consequences and the notion of intrinsic right or wrong quality, philosophical attempts to pin down the pair one way or the other notwithstanding.


            All this discussion appears to point in the direction of a third paradox about common sense.  Common sense hankers for certainties but is called upon to deal with actualities, which bristle wit uncertainties.  The critical spirit and arcane wisdom are eminently equipped to cope with uncertainties but are called upon to deal with possibilities, which bristle with the conditional certainties of mathematical and artistic schemata.


The problem is an opportunity


            The present writer is aware of course that he has not offered any solution to the problem of articulating common sense.  He has only offered a suggestion, which it is hoped is a plausible suggestion, as to the directions in which to look for such a solution.  Much work of course remains to be done by way of elaborating on this suggestion – of tracing, for example, the characteristic features enumerated later.


            Such work, one has reason to expect, will yield additional bonus apart from nearing the solution of the specific problem in hand, namely the articulation of common sense in the context of artificial intelligence.  It will permit us to reexamine the foundations of human experience and human behaviour, of human awareness and human activity.  It will promote a meaningful dialogue between artificial intelligence experts and computer scientists on the one hand and philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, semioticians, artists, and others on the other hand.


            It is high time hat the ‘two cultures’ merge into one.





            T.S. Eliot argued (in his essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, 1921) that after the 17th century (that is after the Metaphysical Poets like Done) a certain dissociation of sensibility set in [European Consciousness], from which we have never fully recovered.  The split between ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ generated disputes such that the one between. T.H. Huxley (Science and Culture 1881) and Matthew Arnold (Literature and Science 1882) or later between C.P. Snow (The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution 1959) and F.R. Leavis (The Richmond and lecture at Downing College 1962).  The needlessness of such disputes was first shown by A.N. Whitehead (Science and the Modern World 1927) and the neuropsychological discoveries about the hemispheric separation and specialization in the human brain (not shared by promoters) serve to ‘explain’ the biological basis of the split (it has been seen that in some geniuses at least the split is partially overcome).





Kelkar, Ashok R. 1984a. Mathematics, language, art.  Special lecture delivered at the 6th International Institute for Semiotic and structural Studies, Mysore, December, 1984-January 1985.


--         1984b.  semiotics of technical names and terms.

            Recherches semiotiques/Semiotic inquiry 4. 303-26 (Toronto).


--         1986.  The World of signs and symbols; The Rise of a new discipline.  New Quest No. 85. 5-14, Jan-Feb (Pune).







            This was presented in absentia at an Indo-Canadian Colloquium on The Challenge of Common Sense Representation at CIIL, Mysore, January 1987.  It has remained unpublished.