Common sense and intuition

Common sense is an attitude towards our environment that can be summarized by the slogan: Automatic pilot if possible and investigative attitude if necessary. This slogan nicely captures the fact that there is no need to acquire common sense. Everybody always already possesses it. Yet, we can always continue to improve and edify our common sense. That is a crucial insight. We all have automatic inclinations all of the time. These are our impulsive responses that are easily triggered by environmental clues. They are part of our common sense. But the better we develop our sensibility to potential perturbations of how scenarios are expected to unfold, the better we become capable of shifting from these immediate inclinations to the investigative attitude in case this is needed. Developing this sensibility is key to full-blown common sense. That is actually just an intelligently reflective autopilot: it can switch itself off – automatically! – if needed. Once our automatic pilot is switched off, common sense shows its critical potential, its kinship with our ordinary human capacity for critical thinking. That is a part of common sense too, a part that we may be inclined to overlook, given that we are accustomed to a division of labour between laypeople and experts. That is an unfortunate side-effect of our modern scientistic culture.

Common sense as I understand it is a bit like intuition, but it differs in a number of ways. Intuition often is associated with a kind of non-inferential certainty: I don’t know how or why I know it, but I just know it! That is like the autopilot part in my picture. But intuition often seems to entail a kind of indifference towards scrutinizing the nature and the origin of one’s intuitions. That is not very smart, and not what common sense would advice. Sticking to one’s intuitions in this way deprives one after all of a number of opportunities for improvement. These have mainly to do with learning from others and learning to accommodate one’s emotions. Emotions play an important role in common sense, but not in the populist understanding of the fundamental primacy of our gut feeling. Common sense is a much more balanced and mature capacity.