Book Write-Up: Common Sense, by Noah Lemos

Noah Lemos.  Common Sense: A Contemporary Defense.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Noah Lemos is a professor of philosophy who teaches at the College of William and Mary.  I had him for a class back when I was a student at DePauw University, which was where he was teaching at the time, and which was also where he was teaching when he wrote Common Sense: A Contemporary Defense.  Come to think of it, he may have mentioned this project to the class of his that I was taking.  The class was about good and evil, and it was there that I learned about the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle.  We also read some Dante and Augustine.

Common Sense: A Contemporary Defense is a defense of the common sense tradition within philosophy.  Essentially, the common sense tradition affirms that certain common sense propositions count as knowledge, and that one can just assume them when one is doing philosophy.  These propositions include: that there is an external world outside of us, that there are other people, that our senses and our memories are rather reliable in helping us to know things, and that we should not deliberately harm another human being.  Contrary to the common sense tradition is the belief that these propositions need to be justified before one can appeal to them in philosophy, or skepticism about genuine knowledge of an external world or morality.

Dr. Lemos interacts with the thoughts of various philosophers, but the three main ones in this book are Thomas Reid, G.E. Moore, and Roderick Chisholm, who are prominent proponents of the common sense tradition.  Reid was an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and critic of David Hume, and his version of the common sense tradition was critiqued by Immanuel Kant.  In Common Sense: A Contemporary Defense, Dr. Lemos explores the thoughts of these three common sense philosophers and responds to their critics.  In some cases, Dr. Lemos disagrees with how Reid, Moore, and Chisholm formulate certain issues, even though he agrees with the common sense tradition itself.  Moreover, there are cases in which a common sense philosopher may support common sense on one issue, but not on another: Moore, for example, was pro-common sense when it came to epistemology (i.e., knowing that there is an external world), but not so much in the area of morality (i.e., whether we can know that certain actions are right or wrong).

Dr. Lemos’ book is quite lucid, and yet it is a book with a number of philosophical arguments, where propositions are laid out and letters can stand for certain propositions.  Consequently, there are places in the book that require extra discipline and focus for one to understand where Dr. Lemos is going.  To be honest, I did not follow all of the arguments in Common Sense, so my analysis will be limited.  But I will offer a few thoughts, from my limited perspective.

First of all, Dr. Lemos says more than once in Common Sense that, if people need to justify the knowledge that they gain from their senses, that means that children and animals do not know things, for they are not sophisticated enough to come up with an epistemological justification for what they “know” from their senses.  In one place in the book, Dr. Lemos notes that different philosophers have different epistemological justifications for their ability to know things, and Dr. Lemos seems to think that this undermines the very need for epistemological justifications for trusting our senses as means to knowledge.  Are we truly supposed to believe, after all, that children and animals do not “know” things, or that a philosopher may not legitimately know something because he happens to have the wrong epistemological justification for what he considers knowledge?  There is a part of me that can sympathize with these arguments, and there is a part of me that is not entirely convinced by them.  Just because children or animals do not know why they can trust their senses, that, in my opinion, does not necessarily mean that philosophers should not try to explain why sensory perception is reliable.  And, just because philosophers may have different (even contradictory) explanations, that does not necessarily mean that searching for a decent explanation is wrong-headed.  A significant part of academia is seeking justifications that may not occur to everyone outside of academia, of trying to discover the “why?” behind the “what?”  Scholars may disagree about the “why?”, but that does not mean that searching for the “why?” is unimportant.  As I will explain later in this post, I sympathize with the common sense tradition, as Dr. Lemos has explained it, but I was not fully satisfied with these particular arguments (which may be due to my incomplete understanding of them).

Second, Dr. Lemos appears to confront the extremist tendencies of skeptics and critics of the common sense tradition.  Granted, not every belief that is commonly held is true, Dr. Lemos contends, but that does not mean that we cannot trust our senses or our memories.  Granted, different cultures have different moral codes, but that does not mean that we cannot say that murdering someone is wrong.  In these cases, Dr. Lemos’ arguments resembled what I have heard from professors of mine who have critiqued postmodernism: yes, there is ambiguity and subjectivity, but that does not mean that everything is ambiguous or subjective.

I found myself in sympathy with the common sense tradition, for two reasons.  First of all, Dr. Lemos quoted David Hume’s reference to an argument that the physical world is irresistible.  I do not know if David Hume himself believed this, or, if so, how that would square with Hume’s alleged skepticism (if he truly was a skeptic).  But that sort of argument makes sense to me.  I assume that the physical world exists because I cannot resist it.  I remember one guy telling a story about his first experience in a philosophy class, and the professor was saying that he did not know if a chair was truly there.  “Let me smash the chair over you, and then you can tell me whether it’s there or not!”, the student replied.  To be honest, I do not know what exactly to do with philosophical skepticism, the notion that I cannot trust that there is an external world.  I feel a need to learn about Kant’s thought primarily because it appears to be important in the world of academia (at least the humanities part of it), and that is where I am, but what am I supposed to do with his alleged belief that there is no time or space (or so Kant’s thoughts have been presented to me)?  I am all for epistemological humility, but I do not plan to live my life as if there is no external world.  Moreover, I wonder how exactly such a belief contributes to the furtherance of knowledge.  What yields, if any, does skepticism offer?  I tend to agree with the common sense tradition that I should just assume that there is an external world.  Even if my brain is in a vat somewhere, from my perspective, I still need to live in the world.  And, even if an evil genius is deluding me into thinking that the external world is real, I have found that trusting my faculties has worked for me, overall.

Second, Dr. Lemos referred in a couple of places to the argument that we have to start somewhere.  Okay, let us assume that I cannot trust my faculties without offering an epistemological justification for trusting my faculties.  To what will my epistemological arguments appeal?  To people’s faculties!  How can one escape that?  How can one justify using reason in a non-circular fashion, when one has to use reason to do so?

I did not understand everything in Common Sense, but I still profited from it, in that I learned more about philosophical schools of thought.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Book Write-Up: Common Sense, by Noah Lemos

  1. Pingback: Book Write-Up: The Cambridge Companion to Hume | James’ Ramblings

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