Edmund Husserl On Common Sense

In Special Topic on August 16, 2012 at 7:08 am

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It would seem that everyone has “common sense” and that a philosophical consideration of the term has no purpose.  The term itself, “common sense” doesn’t seem to mean anything specific, but rather just a vague term about some sort of “common knowledge.”  However, when one considers the term more closely as the founder of phenomenology Edmund Husserl did, one might ask, “How would one define such term for obvious knowledge?”  It seems to be a fairly vague, even a subjective term almost, that never seems to get explained but people agree to know what each other is meaning when something is referred to as “common sense.”  Well, if common sense is so obvious, what is its definition?  Also, how is it that it is said that some people don’t have “common sense”?  If this is so, but “common sense” is what is ‘common to all,’ how is it that some people do not have it? And, how are we better off for having “common sense” as opposed to esoteric or elite knowledge that makes some people “special” or experts, do they not have common sense anymore? There seems to be a certain unappealing, very basic sort of “lowest common denominator” connotation to “common sense” that makes it almost embarrassing for anyone to claim to know it with any sort of pride.  Why is that?

In his book The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (Trans. David Carr, Northwestern University Press: Evanston, 1970), Edmund Husserl makes some interesting statements about common knowledge.   He says, “Along with his [man’s] growing, more and more perfect cognitive power over the universe, man also gains an ever more perfect mastery over his practical surrounding world, one which expands in an unending progression.  This also involves a mastery over mankind as belonging to the real surrounding world, i.e., mastery over himself and his fellow man, an ever greater power over his fate, and thus an ever fuller “happiness” —“happiness” as rationally conceivable for man.  (p.66)  Here, one might think that this is a Renaissance humanistic type of attitude, even Machiavellian, that man is ever the master of nature through education, science and technology.  However, Husserl is probably making a different point here, that as man grows experientially by dint of his education, and the progress of science and technology, he makes sense of his own world better and then the world or universe better, thus growing in the horizon of the possibility of more happiness.  In other words, one could say that common sense is necessary for happiness because of the plain fact that you know more. At the same time, one needs to understand subjectively how the objective life-world works for oneself experientially for this to happen.  The informal, non-institutional, pedagogy of “life-experience” which taken aggregately amounts to what we call “common sense,” dispels the confusion about how life works over time, how one’s own micro-societies work (family and friends), and how one functions within different societal institutions and even in the global society at large.  Using quotidian terms, we can think of “common sense” as the difference between being “book smart,” only having theoretical knowledge, as opposed to “street smarts” or “worldly-wisdom,” having experiential knowledge.  For growth in happiness, one should have both worldly-wisdom or “common sense” and “artful” education or theoretical knowledge. Aristotle makes a similar epistemological distinction in his Metaphysics using the example of the experienced doctor as the most preferred option for a patient, because he or she has the combination of theoretical and experiential knowledge, but the experienced nurse is still preferred to the inexperienced doctor.

Just viewing the world as a physical object full of other physical objects, we take for granted as a given, all of the physical objects as part of the life-world in which we operate.  In an essay that covers this topic more extensively in the Cambridge Companion to Husserl (“Common Sense” eds. Barry Smith and David Woodruff Smith. University of Cambridge Press: 1995), the author appears to say that Husserl claims that common sense world is real and reality is organized around things and have networks of causal dependence (p. 398).  In other words, people make sense of the world by constantly inducing the causes of things in an attempt to understand the operation of the system in which they find themselves.  In other words, “common sense” is knowing “the that” but not “the why” of a system of knowledge.  Common sense requires experience of the life-world, from experiential knowledge the abstract universal is induced thence deducing the cause of the experience.  Scientific knowledge or skilled theoretical knowledge is specific knowledge of the causes of things in a system.  Husserl uses regularly throughout The Crisis the examples of geometry and mathematics as sources of objectively known knowledge of the world that are consistently true with precision and commonly held to be universally true knowledge about the pre-given, extra-scientific real world which is the ultimate test case system of theoretical truths for any scientist and the non-scientist assumes knowledge of this knowledge of geometric shapes all of the time.  One might say, “If it doesn’t work out there (the real world), it doesn’t work in here (meaning on the chalkboard or whiteboard or one’s own head).” It seems that someone who lacks common sense is someone who is so engrossed in his or her own head that they lose touch with the life-world, in certain circumstances, such as the “absent minded professor” (or anyone wearing earphones). The absent minded professor finds himself or herself contemplating his or her subjective-relative world of knowledge disproportionately to the way in which the life-world is presenting itself to him or her in his present.  So, an absent minded professor walking down a busy street, may be dangerous to himself or others because he is not paying attention to the other system (transportation system of cars and people) in which he traverses down the street, but is more focused on the life of his thoughts and his own world.  As a consequence, one might say, “That professor lacks ‘common sense’ as he walks down the street,” in that, this imbalance of undue attention to his own thought-world in the wrong context (the system of transportation) rather than in the right context (the academic system, in his office, for example) is a hazard to his physical self and others because of his lack of “presence of mind” to be consistent with the metaphysical realities of the objectively real life-world of cars, buses, trains and persons bustling up and down city streets.  The sauntering professor probably lacks “common sense” whereas a fast-paced taxi driver going down the same street probably does not.

“Common sense” or “worldliness” or “knowledge of the world” is important for happiness but not necessarily being “of the world.” Husserl says, “For he [man] can also know what is true in itself about values and goods.  All this lies within the horizon of this rationalism as its obvious consequence for man.  Man is thus truly an image of God.” In other words, what perhaps Husserl is saying here is that as “truly an image of God” man has a special likeness to God, and as such, just as he uses his rational nature to make sense of the physical world’s order put there by God (whom he calls “Absolute Being”), then man can also make use of his rationality to “know what is true in itself about values and goods” in the world of morality and the function of things put there by God. In other words, man can personally discover experientially the essential worth of things, in and of themselves.  What Husserl may mean here is that not only can persons use their rationality to grow in “common sense” cosmologically but also cosmogonically, thereby glimpsing the transcendental meaning of being.

Husserl makes a similar “common-sensical” distinction about the two types of knowledge that man can acquire, (experiential and theoretical).  He says, “The sciences build upon the life-world as taken for granted in that they make use of whatever in it happens to be necessary for their particular ends.  But to use the life-world in this way is not to know it scientifically in its own manner of being.”(p.125)  He goes on here to give an example that even Einstein’s knowledge took for granted everything required for his predecessor Michelson’s experiments to be true, such as the measurements, the scales, the room in the institution where the investigations were carried out, the people involved and many other variables which could be studied in and of themselves.  In other words, the “common sense” here is the life-world, or the world which we all take for granted when investigating something specific out of necessity.  It is the mental bracketing or phenomenological reduction which Husserl calls the “subjective-relative” knowledge in one’s own head that one must do in order to gain knowledge about something specific, the objective life-world must be taken for granted at that moment.  This is common sense, the knowledge of the existence of the rest of the world outside of one’s own subjective-relative analysis of it.  Husserl says, “The idea of objective truth is predetermined in its whole meaning by the contrast with the idea of the truth in pre- and extra scientific life.  This latter truth has its ultimate and deepest source of verification in experience which is “pure”…in all its modes of perception, memory, etc.” (p. 124) In other words, this truth about the knowledge of the world which is full of stuff, in which we find ourselves, is the experiential aspect of life that everyone comes to know for and by themselves sensorily and metaphysically from conception in the womb.  Husserl says, “What is actually first is the ‘merely subjective-relative’ intuition of prescientific world-life.”(p.125) So, before any scientist does any science, he or she has all of his previous experiential knowledge of his or her own life already in his or her disposal in mind and already knows it to be objective and true because it is the stuff that he or she comes to the laboratory table already knowing prior to any theoretical analysis.  It is this pre-scientific knowledge that Husserl is calling “pure” because it is known for sure by this individual person personally about the world and is affirmed in his or her own mind as true.  In other words, it is this subjective knowledge that is personally verifiable above and beyond the theoretical truths that scientists have to believe as true knowledge from their intellectual predecessors while having no certainty now or in the future whether or not a Kuhnian style paradigmatic shift could debunk what they currently hold as true since a new discovery, technological advancement or scientific insight could deem their current knowledge as the “old science” which is no longer true.  One of the points of Husserl’s book is that the European scientists have a significant crisis on their hands because they are constantly groping to say something objective about the world but are unwilling to affirm anything in the mind as true and coming to be affirmed with and from the objective world (whereas Modern philosophers have no problem making such claims).  This is why Husserl says, “The disdain with which everything ‘merely subjective relative’ is treated by those scientists who pursue the modern ideal of objectivity changes nothing of its own manner of being, just as it does not change the fact that the scientist himself must be satisfied with this realm whenever he has recourse, as he unavoidably must have recourse, to it.”(p.125)  Things as simple as knowing one’s own name, or knowing who one’s parents are, or knowing when one is hungry or tired, or aware of one’s own feelings or mood et cetera, all very personal knowledge, all “pure” “common sense” knowledge that each and every scientist already knows as true and pre-given as true for himself or herself or personally a priori.  It is this sort of “common sense” intuitive knowledge of the pre-scientific world-life that we know to be true experientially and bring to all theoretical inquiry before any subjective-relative inquiry takes place.  Husserl’s point seems to be that it is this sort of “common sense” knowledge that needs analysis the most by academia because it is the most taken for granted by the sciences as already known to be true, which is why he is proposing transcendental phenomenology as a solution.

Just as there really is precision and unity in science, Husserl discusses geometry’s predictability mathematically and the use of things having shape which confirms our knowledge of objects in the world, so too in the infinite variety of phenomenological reductions possible by all persons, there exists a common sense morality of values and the good of goods for each and every situation that the person finds himself or herself. This is where it is up to the free will of the person to judge the transcendental value of things and persons or to deny their value by saying either nothing in the mind is true or nothing in the world is true, and common sense tells us that such a denial is not true experientially in either way.  However, such a denial is convenient for epistemological particularists who sometimes extend such a relativist principle to the realm of morality. The issue here maybe that such an extension is a universal claim, that particularism in quantum physics coincides with moral particularism, however such a claim proves universals and is a logical fallacy, to argue from particular to particular.  One possible example might be, that just as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle suggests that the precise location of a certain particle of matter may not be known exactly, there still exists a range of its location or activity.  Analogously, in a Husserlian sense, just as the quantum physicist could say that there is a range of the physical location of the particle (a common sense of the particle, so to speak), so too is there a range of the best possible of actions and reactions by persons who could affirm universal moral values given the particular contingencies of every moment and circumstance of every unique and unrepeatable human life while also considering the whole range of possible human behaviors if the person denies those universally held values as well.  This is “common sense.”  Just as according to the Heisenbergian principle that the exact location of the quantum particle is not now able to be measured, this doesn’t preclude that in the future it may be known precisely and exactly with the possibility of a new technology or means of measuring or scientific discovery.  So, given this current uncertainty and future uncertainty of the locate-ability of the quantum particle which is a fundamental theorem of physics, the individual physicist still knows better his or her subjective-relative knowledge in his or her own mind about himself or herself which he knows from life experience to be true (such as one’s own ability to see, or hear or touch and knowing that it is himself or herself, seeing, touching or hearing but also morally, he or she knows many standards of cultural and moral behaviors such as appropriate behavior in the laboratory, common professional courtesy for the sake of cooperation in research, or a childhood memory, all of which are a priori sources of knowledge and extra-scientific for each physicist yet more certain than the objective knowability of a particles location now or in the future).  In other words, just as there is a range of behavior of the particle there is a range of behavior for the person with one very significant difference, the particle must follow the laws of physics, like Brownian motion, whereas the person has innumerably more freedoms when behaving in the life-world in each of the contingencies of life, physically, emotionally, rationally, dispositionally and spiritually.  Consequently, because of this vast panoply of options man must use all of his creativity, all of his intellect and his experience to its highest degree to act most morally in every circumstance of life, unlike the deterministically led particle that must follow the sometimes ambiguous “laws” of physics.  There couldn’t be a greater metaphysical gulf between the value of a particle and the infinite intrinsic value of the person, to compare the two beings couldn’t be more philosophically erroneous. It does not follow that uncertainty about the location of a particle, and therefore the constitution of all matter, that therefore, there is uncertainty in all of morality.  Saint Augustine says in the City of God that God allows for order and chaos in nature but there is always order in morality.  Even what Augustine called “chaos” in nature we know now that there is an abundance of calculable order in all of nature, it is just that following the causes of things quickly becomes a reductio ad absurdum because of the seemingly infinite regression of causes of things, the dynamic of the present and the unknown future of matter, but one can rely on the omniscience of God to know all of these things.  Still, Husserl’s point is that there are many unknowns and uncertainties and disputations over many foundational principles in the “hard sciences” at the highest levels.  Take the Higgs boson, the best physicists in the world using the most highly advanced nuclear accelerator in the entire world can track the existence of the particle’s existence for a billion of a billionth of a second.  How many of these particles have existed in the history of the universe, the present and future of the universe?  Again, Husserl’s point, “The sciences build upon the life-world as taken for granted in that they make use of whatever in it happens to be necessary for their particular ends…The contrast between the subjectivity of the life-world and the “objective,” the “true” world, lies in the fact that the latter is a theoretical-logical substruction, the substruction of something that is in principle not perceivable, in principle not experienceable in its own proper being, whereas the subjective, in the life-world, is distinguished in all respects precisely by its being actually experienceable.” (p.128)  This doesn’t mean that everything true is in our head, but that, “The life-world is a realm of original self-evidences.”  In that, that stuff in the life-world has a “life” of its own.  He continues, “That which is self-evidently given is, in perception, experienced ‘the thing itself,’ in immediate presence, or, in memory, remembered as the thing itself; and every other manner of intuition is a presentification of the thing itself…All conceivable verification leads back to these modes of self-evidences because the “thing itself” (in the particular mode) lies in these intuitions themselves as that which is actually, intersubjectively experienceable and verifiable and is not a substruction of thought; whereas such a substruction, insofar as it makes a claim to truth, can have actual truth only by being related back to such self-evidences.”  Husserl is not saying that the world outside our head doesn’t exist or we can’t know it for sure, or that it should be doubted incessantly, rather it seems that what he is perhaps saying is that knowledge that we commonly sense “has the sense of an induction of something intuitable,” and that when we perceive things all of the time in the world, we do so prescientifically and naturally categorize them abstracting what we can about its knowability and make a judgment about the thing intuitively.  In other words, we get the form of the thing in our head as presented to us from the senses from the life-world and it is “that form of the thing in our head” which is from the self-evidencing of the “thing itself” on its own in the life-world which is real, which is then intersubjectively knowable, and is metaphysically verifiable back in the life-world.  Husserl is serious when he says, “It is of course itself a highly important task, for the scientific opening-up of the life-world, to bring to recognition the primal validity of these self-evidences and indeed their higher diginity in the grounding of knowledge compared to that of the objective-logical self-evidences.  One must fully clarify, i.e., bring to ultimate self-evidence, how all of the self-evidence of objective-logical accomplishments, through which objective theory (thus mathematical and natural-scientific theory) is grounded in respect of form and content, has its hidden sources of grounding in the ultimately accomplishing life, the life in which the self-evident givenness of the life-world has, has attained, and attains anew its prescientific ontic meaning.”(p.128)  In other words, laden within the objective theories of science is a more substantial truth about the world that the “self-evidence of things in the world” to our mind is much more true to us because we are constantly personally sensing the entire gamut of life-world “self-evidences” of things.  We always have lived in the life-world, always have and always will live in the life-world where we constantly know and test our knowledge personally and make judgments about it constantly, this is “common sense.” It is this pre-scientific “common sense” that is self-evidentially knowable to each person about the life-world which has the most truth ontically, more true than any theoretical postulate because all theoretical postulates refer back to the prescientific knowledge of the life-world we all already know to be true in our head, scientific theorems are substructions of that stuff that we know for sure: this is the true test of any theorem, if what Husserl is saying is here understood accurately .

So, when the smallest particle of matter bounces around, it still follows the laws of physics unautonomously, although the person inheres in a physical body, he autonomously choses how to react to all moments and circumstances of his life psychically, rationally, artfully, virtuously and spiritually, all of these multifarious freedoms bespeak of supernatural order, morality, human dignity and ultimately, hope.

Finally, a definition of “common sense” might be, “the balanced conscious awareness of the subjective-relative world of one’s own mind with the objective reality of the life-world coupled with the constant ability to learn and operate within each and between the two while always considering the transcendent meaningfulness of all things and all persons,” or just “naturalness.”


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