UNCOMMON SENSE ABOUT COMMON SENSE
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.
It is relative to the way of life of a social group in a given historical
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.
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.
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.
Common sense is participative and conservative in spirit and thus
opposed to the critical spirit as well as to the innovative spirit.
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.
Ordinary common sense is often made the basis for mounting a critique
of a specialty-defined mode of common sense.
brings us to the concluding observation that we have been building
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
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,
(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;
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,
and leans in certain other
respects towards the third term of these triads, namely,
(1-iii) poetic language use,
(2-iii) poetic symbolism,
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
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
advantage and disadvantage;
good and bad;
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).
Ashok R. 1984a. Mathematics, language, art.
Special lecture delivered at the 6th International
Institute for Semiotic and structural Studies, Mysore, December, 1984-January
semiotics of technical names and terms.
Recherches semiotiques/Semiotic inquiry
4. 303-26 (Toronto).
The World of signs and symbols; The Rise of a new discipline. New Quest No. 85. 5-14, Jan-Feb (Pune).
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.