For refference:


For me this started with Giambattista Vico who pretty much had the same idea of "common sense" we are used to: the wisdom/mindfulness of shared practical experience. However Vico's contemporary Descartes used the term to denote some sort of common perceptual interface where the five senses combine before being passed to the spirit.

The ancient Greeks had the term "phronesis" similar to Vico's use of "common sense". While Aristotle used "common sense" more like Descartes later did. Now all that would be fine, except Vico was a critic of the newfangled Cartesian method in favor of the ancient forms of rhetoric...

Question: Where did the concept 'common sense' originate, and when did it solidify? Does common sense still feature in contemporary philosophy?

  • 1
    Aristotle did not use it more like Descartes (although he kept some aspects of scholastic use), and it started with Descartes, not Vico (btw, he was born 20 years after Descartes's death). The Wikipedia article you linked describes how in unusually great detail:"modern philosophy came to use the term common sense like Descartes, abandoning Aristotle's theory. While Descartes had distanced himself from it, John Locke abandoned it more openly, while still maintaining the idea of "common sensibles" that are perceived. But then George Berkeley abandoned both."
    – Conifold
    May 28, 2019 at 7:47
  • @Conifold common sensibles/sensibilities sounds even closer to "phronesis".
    – christo183
    May 28, 2019 at 10:01
  • An answer hardly could offer more than the refs. What they miss is the emphasis that science, since Copernic and Newton, goes against common sense (while Aristotle's physics was commonsensical). The topic is currently discussed in anthropology/sociology and also by postmodernism.
    – sand1
    May 28, 2019 at 17:11

2 Answers 2



'Common sense' in a philosophical context has often been used contrastively. For instance, Claude Buffier (1661-1737), oppposed common sense to Cartesian scepticism, or what passed for such since Descartes was not a sceptic.

Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753) opposed common sense to the manifest nonsense, as he saw it, of material substance.

A fully-fledged defence of common sense dates from the Scottish School of the 18th century : take Thomas Reid's An Inquiry into the Human MInd on the Principles of Common Sense (1764). Reid influenced both Dugald Stewart (1753-1828) and Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856).

Btw Aristotle does recognise 'common sense' when he takes into consideration, as in the Nicomachean Ethics and elsewhere, 'ta endoxa' - widely held beliefs. He is seldom willing to ignore these, even if he rejects them or refines them out of all recognition.

Response to query

Speaking of Aristotle, how did he use 'phronesis' and how did he relate it to 'ta endoxa'?

D.J. Allan can help here. 'How did Aristotle use 'phronesis' ?

The central figure ... is the man (sic) of practical wisdom (phronesis) in whom habitual rightness of desire is combined with habitual truth of judgement, and who is equally competent in formulating general rules of action and in applying them to the swiftly changing situations of life, in such a way as to do justice to all concerned. It is the intuitive judgement of such a man which serves as the criterion of right action for all who do not yet feel confident of their own power of decision. Not that by his judgement he can make actions right or wrong. He is, to some extent, simply a faithful interpreter of prevailing moral standards, who can point out what society would demand in the given case. (D.J. Allan, The Philosophy of Aristotle, Oxford: OUP, 1970: 133.)

'Prevailing moral standards' are not seen as merely conventional; Aristotle is no moral relativist. He has a teleological view of the world in which the moral life of the polis or city-state is appropriate to human nature.

Now for ta endoxa.

Ordinary moral thinking, which ta endoxa represent, is the range of recognised or received opinions. It generally contains a kernel of truth, even the essence of a matter, but it does not necessarily articulate the exact moral truth:

But again - and this side of the picture ought not to be ignored - he [the phronomos, the practically wise man: GT] has considered these standards more carefully than the average man; he can justify them by a philosophical view of man's place in the universe, and perhaps in some rare cases propose to modify them. (D.J. Allan: 133.)


The philosophy of mind, or philosophical psychology, is a test case. There is a split approach. On the one hand, writers such as Donald Davidson and Jennifer Hornsby work within the tradition of common sense or 'folk' psychology, conceptualising with a great deal of sophistication ideas of action, intention, weakness of will and the general run of concepts which we use to interpret the mental life of ourselves and others. (But justice cannot be done to Davidson in a few words.) On the other hand, philosophers such as Stephen Stitch and the Churchlands regard folk psychology as pre-scientific and they foresee the wholesale replacement of such psychology with one that correlates or identifies psychological states and events with neurophysiological ones, and generates a new vocabulary for the mind - one in which the concept of the 'mind' itself is unlikely to survive as too tainted with folk or common sense psychology.

  • Informative as always :) Speaking of Aristotle, how did he use 'phronesis' and how did he relate it with 'ta endoxa'?
    – christo183
    May 30, 2019 at 6:26
  • "Hegel can only be seen as a great foe of common sense" a commonly accepted view challenged recently: Giladi (2018) *H's phphy & common sense^ The European Legacy, V.23,Iss. 3, p269-85 .
    – sand1
    May 31, 2019 at 20:52
  • @christo. I've been unwell - the reason for my silence. I'll respond in the next day or so. Apologies - G
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jun 11, 2019 at 17:57
  • @christo. Answer amended to meet your questions.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jun 11, 2019 at 19:16
  • Renewed respect for Aristotle to notice that distinction, it wouldn't be easy to tell two men apart, examples of each, by their daily actions alone... - GWS.
    – christo183
    Jun 12, 2019 at 6:50

The two terms are very distinct from each other.

Common sense

Even "common sense" has two distinct meanings:

Sensus communis

"[T]he common sense (sensus communis, κοινὴ αἴσθησις) apprehends the things sensed by all the proper senses." (Summa contra Gentiles II cap. 74 [10.]).

For example, when one sees and hears a person singing, his common sense unifies the visual and auditory sense data together into one sense object, a singing person.

Sens commun

Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., defines sens commun (≠ sensus communis) in his Reality ch. 4:

All these principles are the principles of our natural intelligence. They are first manifested in that spontaneous form of intelligence which we call common sense, that is, the natural aptitude of intelligence, before all philosophic culture, to judge things sanely. Common sense, natural reason, seizes these self-evident principles from its notion of intelligible reality. But this natural common sense could not yet give these principles an exact and universal formulation.

another definition of sens commun, from his Le Sens Commun p. 1

natural intelligence […] our primordial and fundamental knowledge: knowledge of rational first principles, common to all men, of the moral law necessary for the life of individuals and peoples; natural knowledge of the existence of God, principle and end of all things; knowledge of the supernatural mysteries which revelation explains in terms of commonsense so they are accessible to the intellects [of those] in all countries and times.
intelligence naturelle […] nos connaissances primordiales et fondamentales: connaissance des premiers principes rationnelles, communs à tous les hommes, et de la loi morale, nécessaire à la vie des individus et des peuples; connaissance naturelle de l'existence de Dieu, principe et fin de toutes choses; connaissance des mystères surnaturels dont la révélation s'exprime en termes de sens commun pour être accessible à toutes les intelligences de tous les pays et de tous les temps.


Phronesis is a synonym for wisdom (sapientia), the habitus or virtue that "consists in the knowledge of the highest causes (cognitione altissimarum causarum)" (SCG I cap. 94).

A highest cause is the ultimate or final cause (end, τέλος).
(A final cause is called the "cause of causes".)

II-II q. 9 a. 2 co.:

[If] certitude of the judgment is derived from the highest cause, the knowledge has a special name, which is wisdom: for a wise man in any branch of knowledge is one who knows the highest cause of that kind of knowledge, and is able to judge of all matters by that cause: and a wise man "absolutely," is one who knows the cause which is absolutely highest, namely God.

For example, a wise mathematician would be one who knows why the axioms of algebra are what they are, not just what they are.

See also Aristotle's Metaphysics 1.2, that "Wisdom Considers Universal First Causes and First Principles."

  • Any idea what is meant by "highest causes"?
    – christo183
    Jun 11, 2019 at 11:02
  • @christo183 See what I added to my answer.
    – Geremia
    Jun 11, 2019 at 15:23
  • There are three levels of knowledge I like to express with these verbs: knowing (the subject), teaching (the subject), teaching (the teachers). Could Aristotle have had this in mind in some sense? (considering also "ta endoxa" from @GeoffreyThomas contribution)
    – christo183
    Jun 12, 2019 at 7:11

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