Making sense of common sense

I remember when my children were young, listening to parents talking about what they wanted or wished for their children which was usually academic, sporting or professional achievement or good looks or good luck and asking myself what I wanted for my children.

And the answer was, if I had to choose one thing, it would be common sense. Fortunately, time showed, that while they did have other achievements, most importantly they had common sense in abundance.

I thought they would have because my observations seemed to show that common sense ran in families, or not, as the case may be. But is that nature or nurture?  Perhaps, as is so often the case, it is a bit of both.

I came to believe that everyone is born with varying levels of common sense and astrology would say the same thing, but that quality can be increased or diminished by the environment in which the child is raised. One of the core aspects of common sense is experience and the only way we can learn from experience is if we are allowed to learn from experience. The more children are protected then the less mistakes they are likely to make and the less they will learn. The more children are protected then the less responsibility they will take for themselves or their lives and the less developed their innate capacity for common sense will be.

If I had to define what common sense was I would do it so: common sense is a ‘skill’ sourced in instinct, intuition, a capacity to reason and knowledge gained through experience. Small children and animals have the first two qualities and not the third and less of the last quality. But given the fact that some people are simply born with more common sense, perhaps because it has been handed down at a cellular or psychic level, you can get five year olds with far more common sense than some fifty year olds.

In terms of the ‘experts’ the view on what common sense is varies with many definitions discussing what common sense does rather than what it is. To my mind Aristotle was closer to understanding common sense and its importance than modern psychology.

Aristotle saw common sense as an actual power of inner sensation as opposed to the external five senses. Modern psychology sees it more as ‘sound judgement sourced in experience.’  In other words, Aristotle saw common sense as pre-existing to a large degree, which is how I see it, and psychologists today would see it as something learned or gained through experience.

There is no doubt that experience can help develop common sense but it is also clear, observing human behaviour, that many people, and nations or systems for that matter, continue to repeat the same behaviour even though they get the same negative results. Those who do not, those who learn from the experience or the circumstance have more of what I and Aristotle would call common sense.

Is common sense more common in some cultures and belief systems than others? I would say that it is, having lived in dozens of countries around the world. Is the level of common sense predicated on the level of education? Absolutely not. Some of the most sensible people I have met have had little or no education and some of the most foolish, or lacking in common sense, the most educated or most ‘brilliant.’ The brilliance being defined in an academic sense and bearing no relation to them as human beings nor how successfully they live their lives.

So common sense has nothing to do with being academically clever, nor to do with one’s level of education. So what is it? I believe it is a quality sourced in a sensitivity which allows good instinctual and intuitive function – in other words, you can ‘smell’ or ‘feel’ what is ‘right’ to do or ‘wrong’ about someone or a situation. When this is combined with an ability to reason – to weigh up, the pro’s and cons of a given action or situation – and that requires good skills of observation and memory – then the chances of making a sensible or wise decision are greater.

Combine this with a childhood where one is encouraged to take responsibility, within age limitations, to make mistakes and learn from them, to experience as varied a world as possible, then the mind has a wealth of material with which to work through a process of reasoning and intuiting, which is most likely to result in less foolhardy behaviour or decisions.

Culture does play a part but many parents simply do not trust their children. How can a child trust themselves or their capacity to be sensible if their parents do not trust them? They cannot.

In essence, if we are to encourage common sense then we need to allow our children to think for themselves wherever it is possible; to take responsibility for their actions within age limitations; to encourage our children to take reasonable risks and to deal with failure, disappointment, pain and perhaps humiliation and to trust our children enough to allow them to practise with and develop all of the qualities which will allow optimum development of their capacity for common sense.

A world sourced in common sense must be a saner, more functional and better place for everyone.

About rosross

Editor, writer, poet.
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