Reclaiming Common Sense

How has it come to pass that in America, a man can identify as a woman, and his linguistic affirmation by itself, at least in New York City, obligates others to refer to him as "her"?  And why is it increasingly considered mandatory to declare that men taking female hormones can compete against women in sporting events?  What aberrant philosophical doctrine, you may ask, is behind the assertion that there are sixty-three genders or that marriage must no longer be considered the union of a man and a woman?  The answer to these and other absurdities can be found in Robert Curry's new book, Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World.  This brief and manageable philosophical analysis forms a welcome addendum to Curry's earlier work, Common Sense Nation, which "explores the thinking of the American Founders" and "present[s] to Americans today what was once known by virtually every American."

What Americans once knew was humorously summarized by Abraham Lincoln when he posed this question, "If you call a tail a leg, how many legs would a dog have?"  Abe's answer: "Four, because even if you call it a leg, it's still a tail."  This "common-sense realism" was once, as Curry points out, the currency of both everyday Americans and the nation's academics.  The author, however, goes well beyond Lincoln's yarn to explain the philosophical background of "common sense" as developed in the writings of Scotland's Thomas Reid.  Reid notes the foundational quality of certain "self-evident" truths not only for practical living (You can't fly if you jump out a fifth-story window.), but also for intellectual and moral pursuits.  These basic truths are not ideas that can be proven.  Instead, they are the necessary presuppositions of rational analysis and moral reflection.  Furthermore, these basic, "self-evident" truths aren't always obvious, but rather are recognized as rational or moral pillars once discovered.  Even simple mathematical truths, to say nothing of more advanced axioms, require a grounding in the discipline to be seen clearly.  With respect to morality, the "self-evident" truth that "all men are created equal" was capable of being clearly perceived only after history and thoughtful refection prepared individuals (like the Founders) to see and acknowledge this seminal insight.

So when did Americans begin to lose this commonsense perspective that was an essential component of the Founders' belief that self-government is possible?  Curry points to the ascendance of German-trained academics among American intellectuals in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  With the importation of "Romantic" and "progressive" ideals that often sailed under the heading of science, intellectuals dismissed the notion that ordinary folk were capable of discovering the not so obvious truths according to which society should be ordered.  Psychiatrists, sociologists, and political scientists would henceforth, they believed, set down rules for raising children and organizing society.  This perspective was widespread among American intellectuals in the early twentieth century as the philosophical gap between academics and ordinary Americans widened tremendously.

A Marxist variant of these "progressive" ideas became all the rage on American campuses in the sixties and seventies thanks to another German émigré, Herbert Marcuse.  By that time, however, the illusion that Marxism and science were joined at the hip was becoming implausible.  Eventually, instead of rejecting Marxism or other utopian constructs, science and reason were themselves jettisoned in favor of the unbridled emotions that always lay at the heart of Marx's romanticism.  The absurd conclusion of this intellectual cul-de-sac is today's "linguistic realism" that asserts that people actually are what they say they are.  Thus, a boy in a tutu and tiara who insists he is a girl must be considered a girl — a proposition considerably removed from the commonsense statements about dogs, legs, and tails put forth by Lincoln.  A further consequence of this escape from reality is the assertion that speech itself is violence, a corollary of attributing to words the status of reality and thus the justification for hate speech laws.  The pseudo-scientific cherry on top of this irrational hodgepodge is the popular misunderstanding of Einstein's "theory of relativity" as asserting that "everything is relative," including morality — thus the ubiquity of the modern phrase "my truth."

All these philosophical twists and turns are unpacked slowly by Curry and in a manner that doesn't require a formal background in philosophy or intellectual history.  Dreams, for example, are used to illustrate the romantic alternative to commonsense perceptions, and Jane Austen's two major characters in Sense and Sensibility provide literary examples of two different approaches to life, one based on commonsense moderation (Elinor) and the other ruled by self-destructive emotion (Marianne).

Other than showing us exactly how far we have traveled from the commonsense doctrines of Thomas Reid and the Founders, Curry provides in this short work no advice for reversing course other than admonishing each reader to "make the life-defining effort to become a person of robust common sense."  Perhaps a third postscript to Common Sense Nation will take on that necessary  task with more detailed strategies that extend beyond an appeal to individuals to adopt a  perspective that's at odds with the enormous emotional power of a corrupt academic and popular culture (cf. Attorney General Barr's Notre Dame speech) that controls almost all the major instruments of communication and education.

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California whose book Moral Illiteracy: "Who's to Say?" is available on Kindle.

How has it come to pass that in America, a man can identify as a woman, and his linguistic affirmation by itself, at least in New York City, obligates others to refer to him as "her"?  And why is it increasingly considered mandatory to declare that men taking female hormones can compete against women in sporting events?  What aberrant philosophical doctrine, you may ask, is behind the assertion that there are sixty-three genders or that marriage must no longer be considered the union of a man and a woman?  The answer to these and other absurdities can be found in Robert Curry's new book, Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World.  This brief and manageable philosophical analysis forms a welcome addendum to Curry's earlier work, Common Sense Nation, which "explores the thinking of the American Founders" and "present[s] to Americans today what was once known by virtually every American."

What Americans once knew was humorously summarized by Abraham Lincoln when he posed this question, "If you call a tail a leg, how many legs would a dog have?"  Abe's answer: "Four, because even if you call it a leg, it's still a tail."  This "common-sense realism" was once, as Curry points out, the currency of both everyday Americans and the nation's academics.  The author, however, goes well beyond Lincoln's yarn to explain the philosophical background of "common sense" as developed in the writings of Scotland's Thomas Reid.  Reid notes the foundational quality of certain "self-evident" truths not only for practical living (You can't fly if you jump out a fifth-story window.), but also for intellectual and moral pursuits.  These basic truths are not ideas that can be proven.  Instead, they are the necessary presuppositions of rational analysis and moral reflection.  Furthermore, these basic, "self-evident" truths aren't always obvious, but rather are recognized as rational or moral pillars once discovered.  Even simple mathematical truths, to say nothing of more advanced axioms, require a grounding in the discipline to be seen clearly.  With respect to morality, the "self-evident" truth that "all men are created equal" was capable of being clearly perceived only after history and thoughtful refection prepared individuals (like the Founders) to see and acknowledge this seminal insight.

So when did Americans begin to lose this commonsense perspective that was an essential component of the Founders' belief that self-government is possible?  Curry points to the ascendance of German-trained academics among American intellectuals in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  With the importation of "Romantic" and "progressive" ideals that often sailed under the heading of science, intellectuals dismissed the notion that ordinary folk were capable of discovering the not so obvious truths according to which society should be ordered.  Psychiatrists, sociologists, and political scientists would henceforth, they believed, set down rules for raising children and organizing society.  This perspective was widespread among American intellectuals in the early twentieth century as the philosophical gap between academics and ordinary Americans widened tremendously.

A Marxist variant of these "progressive" ideas became all the rage on American campuses in the sixties and seventies thanks to another German émigré, Herbert Marcuse.  By that time, however, the illusion that Marxism and science were joined at the hip was becoming implausible.  Eventually, instead of rejecting Marxism or other utopian constructs, science and reason were themselves jettisoned in favor of the unbridled emotions that always lay at the heart of Marx's romanticism.  The absurd conclusion of this intellectual cul-de-sac is today's "linguistic realism" that asserts that people actually are what they say they are.  Thus, a boy in a tutu and tiara who insists he is a girl must be considered a girl — a proposition considerably removed from the commonsense statements about dogs, legs, and tails put forth by Lincoln.  A further consequence of this escape from reality is the assertion that speech itself is violence, a corollary of attributing to words the status of reality and thus the justification for hate speech laws.  The pseudo-scientific cherry on top of this irrational hodgepodge is the popular misunderstanding of Einstein's "theory of relativity" as asserting that "everything is relative," including morality — thus the ubiquity of the modern phrase "my truth."

All these philosophical twists and turns are unpacked slowly by Curry and in a manner that doesn't require a formal background in philosophy or intellectual history.  Dreams, for example, are used to illustrate the romantic alternative to commonsense perceptions, and Jane Austen's two major characters in Sense and Sensibility provide literary examples of two different approaches to life, one based on commonsense moderation (Elinor) and the other ruled by self-destructive emotion (Marianne).

Other than showing us exactly how far we have traveled from the commonsense doctrines of Thomas Reid and the Founders, Curry provides in this short work no advice for reversing course other than admonishing each reader to "make the life-defining effort to become a person of robust common sense."  Perhaps a third postscript to Common Sense Nation will take on that necessary  task with more detailed strategies that extend beyond an appeal to individuals to adopt a  perspective that's at odds with the enormous emotional power of a corrupt academic and popular culture (cf. Attorney General Barr's Notre Dame speech) that controls almost all the major instruments of communication and education.

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California whose book Moral Illiteracy: "Who's to Say?" is available on Kindle.