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If we distinguish:
1. Starting with common sense
2. Answering to common sense

one might claim that even in the scientific cases you mentioned, one starts with "common sense" (e.g., even Galileo starts with Aristotelian physics). It isn't clear where else one could "start".

Answering to common sense is a different issue, and of course there, you're right, the track record on science is to often reject common sense, based on careful observation, experimentation, and reasoning.

I'm sympathetic to a more scientific approach to philosophical issues, but with two caveats in mind:

(1)Sometimes, when philosophers say "that's counterintuitive" they're just trying to fit some new claim into their other claims, in good old fashion Quinean "web of belief" style.

(2) If you go the route of relying on theory selection in science as a model for philosophy, you'd better get confirmation theory right - my sense is that Quine, and others (Fodor, the Churchlands, D. Lewis, Flanagan, etc.) influenced by his confirmational holism, among other things, go wrong in just this way.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Chris: That's a fair and insightful comment. I'm wondering if you could say a bit more about (2), just so I can get a better idea of how you think those folks go wrong...

Daniel Greco

I suspect you may be arguing against a straw man. I think you'd still disagree with Williamson's actual position, but I don't think the position you're attacking here is it. As you quote, he identifies common sense with "what most members of a society know." And knowing Williamson, I'm sure he's using know in what he takes to be its ordinary, factive sense. So it's just not true that common sense, given what he means by it, is often mistaken. Knowledge is factive, so it's never the case that most members of a society ever know something that's false.

Now you may argue that because we're often not good at distinguishing what most members of our society actually know (e.g., common sense in Williamson's sense) from what we merely take ourselves to know (all the examples you provide), Williamson isn't really describing a possible methodology. You can't "begin with what you know" if you don't know what you know.

Williamson will have responses here related to his luminosity argument--he'll accuse you of implicitly relying on the idea that something is only a possible methodology for inquiry if you can always know whether you're following it--but my point isn't to get into that debate, so much as to point out that it's not the same debate you're getting into in the OP.

On the question of whether philosophy should treat intuitive judgments as data, I think you'd be surprised to find Williamson is pretty much on your side--see what he says about the mistake of "psychologizing the evidence".

Marcus Arvan

Hi Daniel: Thanks for chiming in. That's an insightful comment. Although I used the quote from Williamson's book as a jumping off point, my target isn't his particular view. Rather, it's the general practice--commonly invoked in philosophy books, journal articles, and conference discussions--that philosophy should begin with and answer to "commonsense", however that's plausibly understood.

As side note, I have a lot of issues with Williamson's epistemology and the 'knowledge-first' research program it has inspired. But at any rate, you hit the nail on the head on what I would want to say to Williamson, which is that human beings are *terrible* at knowing things and knowing what they know (or, more often, don't know)...and that basing philosophical arguments on what we think we know from the armchair is bad epistemological (and philosophical) practice.

As you note, Williamson might then talk about luminosity, or whatever--but, to me, this is a distraction from the real issue (or at least the issue that I want to focus on), which is simply whether appeals to "commonsense" (as philosophers tend to practice this) is a good methodology

This is the issue I'm concerned with--and my suggestion is that, Williamsonian epistemology aside, it's not a good practice, as it is *far* too open to 'psychologizing the evidence.' I'm glad, by the way, that Williamson is concerned with that! I am not convinced, however--from what I have read of his book or of his other work--that he or philosophy in general currently have an adequate approaching to preventing 'psychologizing the evidence.' This is a broader issue I've written some on in my recent work, and hope to work on some more, as I think philosophy stands to benefit a great deal from thinking through these issues more!


You gave all the examples of when (supposedly) commonsense got things wrong, and it might seem like a lot. But it doesn't mean much unless you compare it to all the things commonsense has gotten right. It would be as though I started listing all the false things you ever said in your life, and then said, "See, look how many false things Marcus has said. You shouldn't trust anything that comes out of his mouth." When the total N is gigantic, a long list of non-conforming ns must be put in context of the total.

I would argue the list of what commonsense got right is much, much, longer than it got wrong. When I read Aristotle, I am always struck by how similarly he saw the world, even with all his false views on science and women and so on. Anyway, especially when you consider that the natural sciences are only one faction of what commonsense covers, I would argue that it has a very high batting average, overall. If you look at it from the perspective of all the wacky things philosophers have doubted, I suspect they are wrong 99% of the time. Whether we exist, whether we are the only people that exist, whether we are being deceived by a demon, etc.

Of course, it matters a lot how we define commonsense. I think there is a difference between commonsense, common knowledge, and cultural belief. Commonsense (how I see it, and how it is used at least sometimes) is what most people would believe, supposing they didn't have a lot of external or cultural influence. For instance, most people believe that other people exist. I think lots of the beliefs philosophers often state as commonsense, especially about science, have nothing to do with commonsense one way or the other. People naturally believe that our vision is more or less accurate, from close enough distances. Most people naturally believe it is wrong to have sex with pre-puberty children. Most people don't have any beliefs at all about, for instance, whether evolution is true.Beliefs about evolution come from education and culture.

There is also the issue about where we would start without commonsense. In order for philosophers to do philosophy with somebody besides themselves, they must agree to some common starting point. And that starting point is typically what both philosophers, or most philosophers involved, see as obviously true.

In spite of the above, I strongly support questioning commonsense. No belief should be beyond question because it confers with commonsense. But even when we do that, we have to still rely on other commonsense principles. When we try to answer the trolley problem, we cannot get distracted with whether or not gravity is real and hence whether trolleys really can roll down tracks.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Amanda: That's fair. There are surely countless things that commonsense gets right, such as the fact that this is a computer, that there is a window behind it, a garden outside, and so on.

I guess my concern is a tendency in philosophy (and even science, as we see in Darwin's and Einstein's cases) to treat contentious theoretical ideas as "commonsense"--and as more or less axioms not to be denied on that basis alone--when, from my perspective, those very ideas arguably reflect a lot of implicit theorizing and enculturation.

For example, prior to relativity it was widely supposed by philosophers and scientists that space and time *had* to absolute - as it was thought to be basically 'self-evident' to commonsense (so much so that suggestions that it might not be were roundly dismissed and even mocked!). By a similar token, when I see philosophical theories and arguments dismissed as 'counterintuitive', or premises that seem controversial to me invoked as 'commonsense', I find it methodologically concerning.

Anyway, I guess that's the real thrust of my message. Not that commonsense is always mistaken - but that, given the historical track record of philosophy and science in overturning what *seemed* to be commonsense at the time, we should be much more skeptical of appeals to "commonsense" and what is "intuitive" or "counterintuitive" than is standard in philosophical practice.


Re: confirmational holism, I was thinking of Sober's papers "Mathematics and Indispensability" (from 1993), "Quine's Two Dogmas" (from 2000) and "Likelihood, Model-Selection and the Quine-Duhem problem" (from 2004) for what's wrong with confirmational holism. Sober's more recent book Ockham's razors is also relevant, though that is obviously more focused on simplicity (another criterion, besides confirmational holism, that philosophers often appeal to without thinking of how it is really justified in science).

Marcus Arvan

Hi Chris: thanks for the references, that’s very helpful. I agree! I actually think some standard philosophical methods—specifically, appeals to commonsense, reflective equilibrium, etc.—run into those issues.


Hi Marcus,
I pretty much agree with that. I guess I just like to frame it differently. Philosophers corrupt the definition of commonsense (something they do with so many other definitions!) and then claim they are friends of commonsense in order to engage in group think. That, for sure, should be avoided. And in the end I agree that nothing should be off the table for questioning, even if we cannot question everything at once.

Matias Slavov

I think you're right about the physics examples. I also very much sympathize with the "naturalistically-inclined philosophers." But shouldn't philosophy take everyday experience seriously? My favorite definition of our discipline comes from Wilhelm Jerusalem:

"Philosophy is the labor of thought undertaken in order to unite everyday experience and scientific research into a unitary and non-contradictory world-outlook."

Philosophy is not a science committed to empirical inquiry (at least primarily) but a "labor of thought." By creating concepts we try to come up with a worldview that is consistent with everyday experience and the results of the mature sciences. Things like past, present and future, flow of time, qualia, morality etc. are not there in the fundamental physical level but it doesn't mean they should be discarded.

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