Common Sense School

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB017-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 20, 2019, from

Article Summary

The term ‘Common Sense School’ refers to the works of Thomas Reid and to the tradition of Scottish realist philosophy for which Reid’s works were the main source. The ideas of the school were carried abroad – to France; and to the USA, where they were highly influential, particularly among leading academics critical of Calvinism. Interest in Reid and the tradition to which he gave rise was revived almost a century later by leading American philosophers and their students.

P. Royer Collard introduced Thomas Reid’s work to France, and Victor Cousin and Théodore Jouffroy became disciples of the Scot, though they were sometimes loathe to give full credit to their mentor. Through Cousin’s influence Reid’s expressionist theory of art had a continuous influence throughout the nineteenth century on French aesthetics, culminating in a modern version of expressionism developed by René Sully-Prudhomme, the first recipient of the Nobel prize in literature in 1901.

John Witherspoon emigrated early in life to the United States and introduced Reid and Stewart to the young republic, where they, along with Cousin, exerted a major philosophical influence for fifty years. Their free-will agency theories were used effectively in undermining the Old School Calvinism of the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches. Among the most effective followers of Reid, Stewart and Cousin – all critics of Calvinism – were Francis Wayland (Brown University, RI), Asa Mahan (Oberlin College, OH), Henry P. Tappan (University of Michigan, MI), and Alexander Campbell (Bethany College, WV). Like Witherspoon and George Campbell before him, James McCosh emigrated from Scotland to be the president of Princeton and the last great light of the Scottish tradition in America, providing what the tradition had hitherto lacked – a realistic analysis of causality. The interest in Reid and the Scottish tradition as a whole was revived in the United States in the twentieth century by the writings of C.J. Ducasse, Roderick Chisholm, Wilfred Sellars and their students.

While it must not be thought that all the members of the tradition held identical views, there was a common core to the Scottish realistic tradition to which most of these people adhered.

According to Reid, a number of concepts and principles in daily use could not in principle be learned from experience. The concept of space, for example, could not be learned from experience since every perception presupposes it. Hence concepts and judgments which cannot be learned must be the result of nativistic epistemic input, since that is the only other alternative. The judgments supplied nativistically are numerous and constitute what Reid called the principles of common sense. The following is a small sampling of these principles: every event must have a cause; people have some degree of power over their own actions and decisions; qualities perceived by the senses must have a subject called body or substance. These principles and numerous others proclaim what is either evident or self-evident and hence require no justification other than rebuttal of criticism. Any judgment may be accepted at face value unless there is a reason to doubt it. But the only acceptable reason for doubting such a judgment would be that it conflicts with other evident judgments. Hence no discursive philosophy can throw doubt on them singly or as a class. Such judgments carry more authority than any discursive arguments that are designed to show them to be false. Moreover, common-sensical principles are inviolable because they are universally held, and they are unavoidable in the sense that denying them is pointless (in that further sense that doing so never gets rid of them). The philosopher who momentarily denies them reaffirms them in the market place or, even while denying them, acts upon them unwittingly. That Hume pointed out this state of affairs (see Hume, D. §2) was, for Reid, a very honest if self-defeating thing for a sceptic to do.

Philosophies which deny the truths of common sense principles must contain a fallacy, and the job of the philosopher is to detect that fallacy. That such philosophies must contain a fallacy follows from the fact that denying them leads to absurd consequences and from the fact that evident and self-evident judgments always constitute a better reason for keeping such principles than discursive reasons can provide for disallowing them. Since philosophers on the whole are clever reasoners we must not usually look for the fallacies in their arguments but for some faulty premise with which they begin.

An example of a faulty premise which leads to absurd consequences by rejecting an evident universal and unavoidable judgment is the premise shared by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Locke’s premise is that the only things of which we are directly aware are our own ideas, impressions, sensations, phenomena, or whatever else the alleged non-physical entity of direct awareness insisted upon might be called. Once granted this premise, the slippery slope from Locke to Berkeley to Hume’s scepticism is inevitable. Since no sensation can in principle in any way resemble an object, Locke’s representative realism is untenable and we are left with the equally untenable alternatives: Berkeley’s subjective idealism, which avoids scepticism only by inconsistently allowing direct knowledge of the self, or Hume’s scepticism, the claim that we can never know or have any good reason to believe that our senses ever give us reliable information. Reid found no good argument to support Locke’s premise – indeed, Locke and most philosophers generally take it for granted – and he argued convincingly that Hume’s ‘diminishing table’ argument to bolster this premise was not only not successful but proved the opposite viewpoint. Having dismissed Locke’s premise, Reid offered instead his adverbial-like analysis of sensation, which construed sensation as an act of the mind and dispensed with non-physical entities altogether (Reid 1872: 245–306; ‘diminishing table’ argument, 303– 5). It was this aspect of the common sense tradition which re-emerged in the work of contemporary adverbial theorists like Ducasse, Chisholm, and Sellars.

Citing this article:
Madden, Edward H.. Common Sense School, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB017-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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