Common Sense and the American Mind

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Many of the tutors at Princeton were Edwardsians. Witherspoon, as the new president, promptly drew them out. It was not just revivalism that made Witherspoon suspicious of the Edwardsians, he had little truck either with Edwards’ appropriation of Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialism, and to understand the importance of that, we have to understand what Scotland meant to the Enlightenment in Witherspoon’s day.

Until the 18th century, Scotland was regarded as a cultural backwater. But when the English finally shut off all access to the universities to non Church of England people, they inadvertently handed the minor Scottish universities, at Edinburgh, St. Andrews and Glasgow; an enormous gift. While Oxford and Cambridge, the official Church of England’s universities, sunk into contented conformity, the brightest minds of Britain’s non-conformists headed to the only universities open to them, the Scottish ones. With them, almost by default, came the Enlightenment, as Scottish universities blossomed after the 1720’s, with solutions to English philosophies’ unsolved problems.

The Problem with Locke and Berkeley’s Unsatisfactory Answer

One of these problems came directly from John Locke. Remember that Locke did not believe that we actually could know the object of our ideas directly. He believed that we know only our ideas of the objects, so that ideas represent objects to us, rather than having the object presented directly to our consciousness. But he was confident that we could rely on those ideas to tell our minds what is a true, or at least a probable story about the objects we were sensing. An assumption for which Bishop Berkeley pointed out that Locke had absolutely no worthwhile evidence.

Berkeley, as it turned out, was not the only one who saw problems with Locke’s representational realism. Francis Hutchinson, of the University of Glasgow, objected that Locke’s description of how we know was empoverished and “unrealistic”. First, because it made minds perfectly passive in the knowing process; and second, because Locke’s description failed to account for why minds have ideas about things which mere sensations cannot account for. For example, someone gazing at a painting actually senses only oil and chemists. Yet that same person perceives beauty, something far beyond what lies in colors and shapes. In the same way, a virtuous act is perceived by a mind not just as an act, but as something which is beautiful; and it moves the perceiver to a response of moral approval.

This implied, for Hutchinson, the existence of a power, of a capacity, which he called the moral sense; which moves everyone to recognize beauty and virtue for what they are, and which ensures that morality is not just a fluctuating experience which varies according to our sensations or situations. No matter how varied are individual situations or experiences, the moral sense, that we are all equipped with, enables us to sort through the mass of sensations we receive; and to perceive what is true, right and beautiful. Thomas Reid would be who gives this moral sense epistemology the enormous influence it would achieve in the 18th century.

Bishop Berkeley had helped cripple what he thought were the atheistic tendencies in Locke, by showing purely in Locke’s own terms, that we could not have assurance that our ideas correspond to anything in the outside world. This is what allowed Berkeley to step in and assert the need for God. And God guaranties such a connection between our ideas and what exists in the outer world by both giving minds their ideas and by upholding the external reality they represent.

But all this seemed to suggest to another Scotsman, David Hume, complete intellectual skepticism. Granted that Berkeley was right about our inability to know for sure whether our ideas correspond to anything in the external world, why should we then assume that God makes the connection for us? Why assume that there are any connections? We perceive this connections and even dignify them with names: cause and effect. But that is likely merely a prejudice or a mental habit. Berkeley could invoke God as he likes, Hume said, but even God must be just another mental habit.

Reid’s Appealing Response

In his Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, Reid observed that there was a practical common consensus among everyone. That there is a reality which exists outside the mind and its ideas. Without trying to explain how this worked, or implying that one could know how it worked, the fact was there was a common sense which attested to the real existence of objects outside the mind. And it was so elemental, that denying it or questioning it was absurd.

This appeal to common sense not only threw Hume’s skepticism back into his face, but it permitted Reid to object to Locke’s representationalism and insist that not only does the external world exists, but we may know it directly, without mediating ideas blurring it. Objects are, therefore, presented immediately to our consciousness; and to deny their reality is tantamount idiocy, according to Reid.

One of the great attractions of Reid’s common sense philosophy was the neatness with which it intercepted with traditional scholastic appeals to natural law, and with what was becoming a new political science of natural rights, something which was also pioneered by Locke. Strictly speaking, this was a good distance removed from orthodox Calvinism. Calvinists of the stricter sort wondered where Reid planned to explain how sin entered into this picture of natural perceptions of virtue and reality, or what capacity sinners had to understand natural law, if it existed at all outside scripture. But it was not wholly beyond the grasp of moderate Calvinists, who preferred some form of accommodation with the Enlightenment. And within that circle of moderates, that John Witherspoon was located.

The common sense philosophy had a number of intellectual gifts to bestow. First of all, the common sense philosophy taught that minds not only perceive the world directly as it is, they also simultaneously render a judgement about the certainty of that world, which no honest mind can avoid making. Therefore, Witherspoon offered what we have to call an intellectualistic kind of human psychology, not a voluntaristic one like Edwards. Because minds are incapable of denying the judgements which common sense makes. Will simply does not enter into it.

Secondly, just as common sense dictates our perception of the reality of the external world, it also reveals certain fundamental moral principles within us. Everyone possesses a moral sense, which causes them to see and approve virtue and beauty. And it does so in so immediate fashion that these truths may even be said to be self-evident. Self-evident in that they do not require explanation, they do not require divine illumination; you see something which is beautiful and immediately you respond by recognizing it as beautiful. The reason for that cannot be limited strictly to the mind as it responds to material subjects or material objects, rather, when the mind responds to beauty, it can only be because there is operating, within the human consciousness itself, a factor which stimulates you to recognize the thing which is beautiful.


Reid worked backwards or inductively, from the fact that all minds intuitively understand the objective reality of the world; rather than as Locke and Edwards, analyzing the mind and then deciding whether it can know such reality. So, all truths about consciousness, the world or god must be built up using the same method, by strict induction from facts.

Of course, this Scottish common sense philosophy also had some serious dangers. But in the 1770’s, those dangers were more than compensated by the way that common sense thinking allowed moderate Calvinists, in fact, allowed almost any English protestant, to have a rational epistemology without needing to resort to the radical immaterialism of Edwards or the anti-intellectual enthusiasm of the Awakeners.

From this synthesis of Scottish common sense philosophy and moderate Calvinism, represented by John Witherspoon, would flower the first creative era of the American conversation about ideas between religion and the Enlightenment, between God and nature. A conversation that in many ways we still participate in.