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Philosophy can be seen as a huge domain: studying everything that exists and questioning its inner mechanic, purpose, moral (non exhaustive list). For instance stuyding the laws of nature, logic, psychology, etc., which can all be seen as extension of philosophy. Yet these are concrete and are actually separate fields - as they have different methodologies and aims.

Concrete fields like physics and logic can answer concrete questions like "why do things fall?", "how to make sound conclusions?" and psychology is also a concrete experimental science. Philosophy is therefore understood here as answering simple and fundamental questions like "what is the purpose of life?", "do we have free will?", "do good and evil exists?".

Example: To the question "do we have free will?" it is easy to answer yes or no using common sense: "yes" cause we can definitely make choices, "no" cause these choices depend upon many factors both conscious (e.g. someone compelling us) and not conscious (e.g. our education), and therefore "we don't know". Alternatively, one could choose "yes" or "no" depending on its own's opinion on the question and disregarding evidence for the contrary.

Counter example: The cavern allegory of Socrates in a nutshell wants to teach us that we can not believe what we have seen. This conclusion of the allegory can be reached using our direct experience and observations: we know pretty well that we largely do not believe what we have not seen. So the contribution of Socrates to the question "how do we know something is true?" seems meager in this light compared to the fame of the story.

So, decomposing and layering my question:

  • Is philosophy able to go any further than common sense in aswering question? i.e. a) weighting options without solving the question, b) dogmatically/randomly choosing one in a leap of faith (e.g. Pascal's bargain), c) stating colourfully obvious facts (e.g. Socrates' cavern)

  • If yes, does it just pile more evidences in the 'yes' and 'no' buckets adding complexity but not answering the question more precisely, or are there examples where it was able to actually find more precise or unexpected answers?

  • And finally, if yes, which are these questions and answers?

EDIT: common sense: as I understand it describes the fact that we know for sure by our direct experience and observation. As a consequence most of these are trivial (e.g. an open door lets the cold in) from which little is to be generalised, but some are not and are often captured in proverbs (e.g. dogs don't make cats/apples don't fall far from the trees => say something non trivial about the cause behind one's personality)

closed as too broad by virmaior, iphigenie, James Kingsbery, Einer, Hunan Rostomyan Nov 6 '14 at 0:41

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    First off welcome to philosophy.se. I think there's some interesting things going in this question -- but there's a big problem lurking here too: viz., you ask whether philosophy provides "more satisfying" answers or "is able to further than common sense"... but it's difficult to see how answers won't just be opinion-based. Common sense is less in common than you might imagine and judgments over what arguments are good or bad are not always clear cut (exception: sometimes the clearest are absolutely terrible arguments). – virmaior Oct 27 '14 at 13:53
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The three questions you list -- "what is the purpose of life?", "do we have free will?", "do good and evil exists?" -- are ones many people have strong feelings about, and likely they do not all agree with one another.

But common sense is generally understood to mean something like "sound and prudent judgement based on a simple perception of the situation or facts" (Merriam Webster). I.e., a piece of common sense is something which is obvious to anyone and which no reasonable ("sound and prudent") person would disagree with.

This is important because it means common sense things are generally not contentious; they are obvious based on "a simple perception of the situation or facts". Citing common sense normatively means pointing out the obvious to someone, often simply by reminding them. For example, if you are in a cabin in the woods at night during a freezing cold winter, common sense dictates the door should not be left open. No one in the cabin is going to take issue with that -- unless there is another common sense factor that supplants it, for example, that the cabin has filled with smoke.

So questions which have common sense answers are generally not topics for philosophy, although the concept of "common sense" might be (e.g, contemplating how people come to recognize common sense). There are some grey areas, however:

  • Many common sense issues are cultural, and so come into conflict. This may reveal that they have stretched the definition of being derived from "a simple perception of [...] facts", and may involve some ingrained prejudice, which brings us to the next point:

  • "Common sense" is often used as a rhetorical ploy in public discourse. For example, in politics it is not unusual for a candidate to state that something his/her opponent did "defies common sense". In this case, it might be something 30 or 40 or 60 or 70 percent of a relevant population agree with, but it is still a hyperbolic use of the term, since it is meant to imply this is something "no one in their right mind" (sound and prudent) would deny. The fact that a corresponding 30 or 50 or 70 percent do deny it tells us the issue is, in fact, not one that can be decided using common sense -- and thus might be fit for philosophy.

Going back to your three questions, at least two of them are obviously not answerable with common sense unless one uses the term pejoratively (as in political rhetoric). Different people will give very different answers to, "What is the purpose of life?", and, to a lesser extent, to "Do good and evil exist?" It is also probably a matter of common sense (obvious to everyone) that the very nature of these questions makes them bad topics for common sense to tackle (since common sense requires a "simple perception of facts" and there are few simply perceived facts here).

Your approach to the third question is actually an example of philosophy, albeit with a little bit of the aforementioned political hyperbole thrown in. Is it common sense that we can make choices? Probably it is, but this is a case where philosophy might take issue, and you do, by saying

these choices depend upon many factors both conscious (e.g. someone compelling us) and not conscious (e.g. our education)

Unlike the ability to make choices, which is obvious from "a simple perception of facts",1 this is not, as you claim, a piece of common sense even if most people agree. Going back to our politician, winning an election with 70% of the vote is an accomplishment, but it does not mean the politician's hyperbole is true. That would be a perverse interpretation of democracy; it implies that if a majority vote that the sky is bright orange at night, then this means the sky is bright orange at night. Obviously a rational majority would not do that, but that is not why it is not true, either. It's not true because this is a matter of common sense, a "simple perception of facts", and not something that can be decided by human beings making choices.

Likewise, although settling debates democratically is a laudable social practice, this is not ideally how philosophy works. Philosophical issues are not published as multiple choice questions then distributed to university faculties for their members to vote on. However, there is a democratic factor in so far as in any other academic field, if your peers take you seriously, your philosophical work may flourish, otherwise it likely will not. But the argument that something is false because it is unpopular is not a good one; ideally, we want a rational case for the opposite: that it is unpopular because it is false. This does not free us from making a case about why it is false (again, not because it is unpopular).

Framing an issue as a matter of common sense is political rhetoric if the issue is in fact not one which everyone will easily agree upon, and this is exactly what you have done with the issue of free will; despite the fact that almost everyone will agree that for pragmatic purposes we can make choices, many of them will admit that could be a bit of a theoretical distinction for various reasons. So free will is a good topic for philosophy precisely because it turns out to be a bad topic for common sense.

To answer your question, then, no, philosophy does not work by tackling common sense questions and "adding complexity but not answering the question more precisely". Truly common sense questions ("Should I leave the door open?") are not really serious topics for philosophy. We might even say that philosophy begins where common sense ends, and this is true to the literal meaning, "love of wisdom or knowledge", if we assert that the "wisdom or knowledge" referred to here is potentially of the uncommon sort.


1. This is not to say that strong determinism is wrong, only that it defies common sense. Just because common sense is defined as something which is obvious to everyone does not mean it is always correct (although it is probably political suicide to challenge). There are often cases where what was obvious to everyone turns out to be wrong; a flat earth is a prime example.

  • Thanks for your detailled answer. It is right that common sense is mostly influenced by opinions, yet I beieve that common sense can also find answer to not trivial questions. It seems that the most cricital aspect is to define what is common sense. I believe it can extended, at least partially, to questions tackled by philosophy, while you draw a clear distinction between them. – Nicolas Nov 2 '14 at 21:52
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    Sure -- but if you are going to extend it to mean something 25 or 40 or 70 % of the human population are going to disagree about, then what is the point in using the label "common sense"? It is a vast realm to contemplate on one level and a vastly limited one on another. Common sense is a shorthand, thus, "Close the door it is freezing out." I should not have to explain this any more as a matter of common sense. You cannot arbitrarily say, "Oh my ideas are beyond reasonable argument" when in reality they are not. – selfConceivedAsEvil Nov 3 '14 at 1:26

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