Philosophy’s Restoration & the Return to Common Sense

“Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense”. The prolific British essayist wrote these words in his book Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, where he elucidated and affirmed the Angelic Doctor’s common sense philosophy.  

Although Aquinas has not been forgotten, various philosophies of uncommon nonsense have dominated the intellectual landscape since the medieval period. Philosophy lost its intimate connection with reality and became either too pragmatic to be considered wisdom or too abstract to be taken seriously. William James famously referred to truth as the cash value of an idea. The therapeutic society took over and replaced the Socratic question “Who am I?” with “How can I feel good?” The therapeutic culture, not truth, was enlisted to answer life’s anxieties. The pharmacist dispensed with the need for philosophical thinking. Psychologists supplanted Socrates. Prozac replaced Plato. The school of Athens no longer held sway.    

At the opposite pole, the path of abstraction took philosophy along the highway of doubt with check points at skepticism, relativism, logical positivism, cynicism, deconstruction, and nihilism. It became an object of ridicule. Critics likened philosophy to being in a dark room and looking for a black cat, while metaphysics, which Aristotle regarded as the summit of philosophy, was the search in a dark room for a black cat that was not there. Nor did theology emerge unscathed. It became the search in a dark room for a black cat that was not there, but with the pseudo-triumphant shout, “I found it!”

Philosophy is love of wisdom. And “A wise man,” said Bernard of Clairvaux, “is one who savors all things”. The hidden wisdom of this phrase lies in the word “savor”. Philosophy is so readily available to people of common sense that one can “taste” it. The Latin word of ‘wise’ is sapiens, which is etymologically related to the Latin word for ‘taste’ which is sapere. If philosophy has become “insipid” it is because people have lost their taste for it.    

In biting into a luscious peach, for example, a person does not doubt whether the peach is real. The peach, common sense reports, is just as real as all the other realities I can taste, both physically as well as intellectually. Philosophy begins with the loving affirmation of a reality that we can virtually taste. Yes, there is being. We cannot doubt that. If we do, we have lost the starting point.

Chesterton is a proponent of a philosophy of common sense because he is a man of common sense. He explains his viewpoint in the following paragraph: “All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I could neither create nor expect; strong plain daylight on stiff upstanding wood; it is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes”.

The philosophical enterprise need not begin with something too subtle for the common man. In fact, as we can observe, even children have an innate disposition for philosophy. They will, at a very early age, ask “Where did I come from?” “How did the stars get there?” “Why am I here?” “Where am I going?” We ponder the meaning of Christ’s words in Matthew 18:03-4:  “I tell you solemnly, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And so, the one who makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”.

The child and the adult to be share the same basic reality. They are both human beings with human sensibilities. As William Wordsworth has stated in the epigraph of his ode, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” “The child is father of the man; And I could wish my days to be bound each to each by natural piety”.  Philosophy, like great murals that have faded over the years, needs to be restored.  It was alive and vital with the ancient Greek philosophers and with the medieval scholars.  And the innate disposition for it is evident in children at a time, according to Wordsworth, when “every common sight to me did seem apparelled in celestial light”.  Therefore, philosophy does not need to be created anew.  It needs to be brought back to the life it once enjoyed.

Philosophy, being the love of wisdom, should be as natural as love.  We have love for and are filled with wonder at everything we behold, all those various beings that we did not create and stand before us to be cherished and explored.  But, as it so often happens as we age, dark clouds obscure our vision. “The things which I have seen I now can see no more”, to cite Wordsworth once again.  We become ambitious and try to dazzle people with novel ideas.  Universities no longer give primacy to philosophy but to job training and to imposing alien ideologies on impressionable students.  Or we become excessively concerned about ourselves and forget the glorious world that God created for us.  As a result, we accord sovereignty to technological advances, therapeutic innovations, or economic growth.  Philosophy is regards as a relic of the past.

Modern philosophers such as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Ralph McInerny, Josef Pieper, Allasdair MacIntyre, James Schall, S.J., Peter Kreeft, and others are all apostles of common sense.  It is earnestly hoped that the common man will become more familiar with their thought and help to  inaugurate a renaissance in common sense philosophical thinking.

By

Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review and is the author of thirty-nine books. His latest book, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling is posted on amazon.com.  His fortieth book, Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, is in production. 

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