The Idealist Consequences Of Cartesianism And The Rock of Common Sense – Étienne Gilson

August 2, 2012

It is clear that once we leave the realm of principles the status of a communis conceptio is extremely variable, depending upon the degree of removal from the principles and the aptitude of the individual reason to grasp their consequences. No text has ever come to our knowledge in which St. Thomas considers these common conceptions to be the product of some “census communis.”

“When Thomas Reid recounted this remarkable story of Descartes philosophy [Thomas Reid, Oeuvres completes, published by T. Jouffroy (Paris, 1828), 3:148-223; "Essay on the Intellectual Faculties of Man", essay 6, chap. 2: "On Common Sense".] he was one of the first to discern its meaning, and it was his intent to escape the magic circle in which philosophers since Descartes had been trapped, mesmerized by the cogito and idealism without ever managing to get out….”

Gilson continues with our story….


It was in large measure his resolute rejection of the Cartesian approach that led Reid to elaborate his doctrine of “common sense”. Reid never pretended that he had discovered common sense, but he tried to give the expression, which itself had become common, a technical philosophical meaning.

For Cicero, common sense was primarily the common manner of feeling, the views of the crowd whose tastes the orator had to take into account if he were to influence them. [Cicero, De Oratore, I, chap. 3 to the end. Cited by J. Lachelier in A. Lalande, Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie (Paris: F. Alcan, 1926), 2:75, n. One may find, op. cit., 749-51, other texts of Franck, Jouffroy, etc., on common sense.] However, it was also an ensemble of spontaneous judgments with which all men are naturally endowed and which permits them to discern good and evil. [Cicero, De Oratore, III, chap. So; cited by T. Reid, op. cit., 39.]

This double meaning, commonly accepted opinion and opinion founded upon nature and reason, is almost always found in definitions of common sense. The movement from one meaning to the other is natural and easy. It is not surprising, then, that before Reid, and in a text which Reid himself used, Fenelon had appealed to this spontaneous feeling which guarantees the truth of certain human judgments. “What is common sense?” asks Fenelon.

Nothing but those notions that all men hold concerning the same things. Common sense, which is always and everywhere the same, which foresees every test, which renders the examination of certain questions ridiculous … , this sense which is common to all men, waits only to be consulted, is evident at a glance and discovers in an instant the truth or absurdity of questions; what else could it be but what I call my ideas?
Fenelon, De l’existence de Dieu, part 2, chap. 2, second proof. Cited by T. Reid, op. cit., 38, and in Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie, 2:751.

This fund of self-evident knowledge, which Fenelon supported with his doctrine of ideas and which he used to prove the existence of God, was described even more simply by Fr. Buffier in his Traite des premieres verites et de la source de nos jugements:

`By `common sense’ I understand the disposition given by nature to all men or, manifestly, to the great majority, so that when they have attained the use of reason they may pass common and uniform judgment concerning various objects of private opinion individually perceived. This judgment is not the consequence of any prior principle.
Buffier, S.J., Oeuvres philosophique, ed. Francisque Bouillier (Paris: Charpentier, 1843); Traite des verites premieres, part 1, chap. 5, 15.

In his Catalogue des Ecrivains du siecle de Louis XIV, Voltaire says of Fr. Buffier: “There are in his metaphysical treatises certain sections which Locke himself would not have disdained, and he was the only Jesuit whose works contained a reasonable philosophy”; ed. cit., introduction, I.

One will note that in this passage Buffier begins by distinguishing his conception of common sense from that of the scholastics (op. cit., 14-15). We will return to this point later

For our purposes, the most interesting aspect of Buffier’s doctrine of common sense is that he placed it in direct opposition to the Cartesian methodology of the inner sense, and he did so precisely because the Cartesian principle condemns philosophy to solipsism. When you ask the philosophers of the inner sense “if it is self-evident that bodies exist and that we receive sensations through the body, they flatly reply: No. …”[ Buffier, Traite des verites premieres, part 1, chap. 2; ed. cit., 9.]

“The first consequence of this principle (of the inner sense) is one we have already touched upon. Since it is not evident that material bodies exist, we cannot be certain that our own bodies exist.”[Buffier, op. cit., part 1, chap. 3, 10. The text clearly has Malebranche in mind, whom Buffier knew Berkeley followed. Cf. op. cit., part 1, chap. 2, n. 15; 9.]

Thus, it is against Cartesianism and the idealism which flows from it that Buffier directs his own doctrine of common sense when he cites as the first example of judgments guaranteed by the certainty of common sense: “There are other beings and other men besides myself in the world.”[ Buffier, op. cit., part i, chap. 5, n. 34; i5. T. Reid knew Buffier, whom he cited many times, notably in his Essays on the Intellectual Faculties, essay 2, chap. 10, and essay 6, chap. 2. In the latter text Reid speaks of Buffier's writing as "published fifty years ago". The first example of common-sense truths cited by Buffier becomes, in Reid's work, the fifth principle of common sense in the order of contingent truths: "Fifth principle. The objects which we perceive by the agency of the senses really exist, and they are such as we perceive them to be." Op. cit., essay 6, chap. 5; vol. 5, 106.]

So, as far back as 1732, this man, disturbed by the idealist consequences of Cartesianism, could see no other means of avoiding them than by recourse to common sense, that necessary complement to the inner sense, as a guarantee that the external world exists.

Adopted by Reid, then by Jouffroy, Buffier’s doctrine could not fail to gain the attention of Catholic theologians, especially when Lamennais espoused it, with modifications, as the foundation for an apologetic of the Christian religion. The danger was obvious. Since common sense was conceived as a sort of sense for the truth, at once infallible yet unjustifiable, every attempt to support Christianity by means of this doctrine ran the risk of becoming an irrationalism.

Therefore, theologians and Christian philosophers undertook to do what they had attempted so many times: to prevent the spread of an unhealthy idea while recalling its supporters to an acceptable and already received doctrine. Since common sense seemed to so many troubled souls to be an efficacious remedy to skepticism, why not search the traditional philosophy of the schools for the elements of a healthier form of the doctrine of common sense?

Attempts of this kind are not without risk, and although the history of this particular attempt has not yet been written it is not difficult to discern, by means of the internal law which controlled its evolution, the problems that were encountered.

[FootNote: Such a history would not be entirely useless. It would have to take account not only of Liberatore's work, whose position we have analyzed, but also of Sanseverino's Institutiones seu elements philosophiae christianae cum antiqua et nova comparatae, the fourth volume of which (Theologia naturalis) appeared in 1870. Cf. "Concerning Common Sense", in the edition of Signoriello (Naples, 1885); 1:626-30.

T. M. Zigliara, Summa philosophica in usum scholarium (Rome, 1876). Cf. 8th ed. (Lyon and Paris, 1891), 1:257-59 and 277-81. Also seep. 279 of Sanseverino's I principali sistemi della Filosofia sul Criteria, cap. 3, 2.

One will note the effort which these authors made to eliminate from their notion of common sense any implications of irrationality such as are found in Reid. The example of Reid seems to have led them to give common sense, as understood by Cicero and Seneca, a more important and more explicitly defined status than that which it had in classical scholasticism with the speculative or practical realm (Summa Theologica, I, II, q. 94, a. 4, Resp.). Here it is clear that once we leave the realm of principles the status of a communis conceptio is extremely variable, depending upon the degree of removal from the principles and the aptitude of the individual reason to grasp their consequences. No text has ever come to our knowledge in which St. Thomas considers these common conceptions to be the product of some census communis.] 

At first glance it did not seem impossible to introduce a doctrine of common sense into the economy of Thomism, but the attempt quickly became far more complicated than anyone had imagined it would be. In the first place, nothing called common sense can be found in St. Thomas except for a psychological thesis with no bearing on the question at hand. In his commentary on the De Anima of Aristotle, St. Thomas defines common sense according to the strictest letter of the peripatetics: Sensus enim communis est quaedam potentia, ad quam terminantur immutationes omnium sensuum.[St. Thomas Aquinas, De Anima, bk. a, lect. 13]

Four centuries later Bossuet faithfully restated this definition: “This faculty of the soul which organizes sense impressions … so that one unified object is formed from everything received by the senses is called common sense. This term is sometimes transferred to the operations of the intellect, but its proper meaning is the one we have just pointed out.”[Bossuet, Traite de la connaissance de Dieu et de soimeme] Truth to tell, there had been no transfer of the term; it was simply that sensus can signify both “sense” and “sensation”. It was impossible to translate άναίσθητος other than by sensus communis, just as it was impossible to translate the sensus communis of Cicero and Seneca other than by “common sense”. It was simply a case of equivocation, and Bossuet, who knew the two possible meanings, did not hesitate to maintain that the proper meaning was the first.

Nevertheless, this equivocation was an open invitation to look for a passage whose meaning fell somewhere between the psychology of Aristotle and the rhetoric of Cicero. The ευαίσθητος of Aristotle satisfied the need. “I call the principles of demonstration,” says Aristotle, “which serve as the basis for all proofs, common beliefs [άναίσθητος], such as: everything must of necessity be either affirmed or denied, and: it is impossible for anything to both exist and not exist at the same time, as well as all other premises of this kind.” [Aristotle, Metaphysics, B, II, 996b 27-31] The meaning of this text is clear.

As St. Thomas observed, Aristotle is simply saying that every proof presupposes certain evident principles which are themselves indemonstrable. These dignitates, or axioms, are naturally and immediately known by all men, thus the name άναίσθητος; “et quia talis cognitio principiorum inest nobis statim a natura; concludit [Aristotle], quod omnes artes et scientiae, quae sunt de quibusdam aliis cognitionibus, utuntur praedictis principiis tanquam naturaliter notis.

[Footnote: St. Thomas Aquinas, In Metaphysics, bk. 3, lect. 5; Cathala edition, n. 389. It is necessary to add to these principles their obvious implications. Thus, "communis conceptio dicitur illa cujus oppositum contradictionem includit; sicut omne totum est major sua parte ... "; but also: "naturam animae rationalis non esse corruptibilem, haec est communis animi conceptio" (De Potentia q. 5, a. 3, ad 7).

Thus, the Thomist idea of communes conceptiones is flexible. One may first distinguish here, with Boethius (De Hebdomadibus, init.), two kinds of common ideas: those that are known by everyone and those that are known only by the learned. Therefore, each instance must be examined separately. Everything the opposite of which is contradictory is res per se nota and communis conceptio both for the many and for the learned, but there are degrees of certitude for truths of this sort. For example: ex nihilo nihil  was considered a communis conceptio by Aristotle; and it is, but only in the order of secondary causes, for an exception must be made in the case of creation (Summa Theologica, 1, q. 45, a. 2. ad is De Potentia, q. 3, a. i, ad i).

The existence of God is not res per se nota, and St. Thomas neither affirms nor denies that it is a communis conceptio in the technical sense; he merely says that we have an innate knowledge of this truth in the sense that all men have the ability to arrive at it (De Veritate, 10, 12, Resp. and ad 1). If you apply the strict Thomistic definition from the commentary on the De Hebdomadibus, cap. is "communis animi conceptio, vel principium per se notum, (est) aliqua propositio ex hoc quod praedicatum est de ratione subjecti" (ed. Mandonnet, 1:170), it seems hard to say that the existence of God could be, in this sense a communis conceptio, at least as far as we are concerned.

In the case of natural law St. Thomas explains in great detail the difference between the community of principles and the conclusions drawn from them, according to whether we are dealing with the speculative or practical realm (Summa Theologica, I, II, q. 94, a. 4, Resp.). Here it is clear that once we leave the realm of principles the status of a communis conceptio is extremely variable, depending upon the degree of removal from the principles and the aptitude of the individual reason to grasp their consequences. No text has ever come to our knowledge in which St. Thomas considers these common conceptions to be the product of some census communis.]

This is the ensemble of “common conceptions” understood in the Thomist sense which Lamennais’ adversaries decided to call “common sense”.

Thus understood, the common sense of the neo-scholastics became, from around the beginning of the nineteenth century, something entirely different from that of Lamennais or Reid. Liberatore was too good a Thomist not to be fully aware of the real nature of the work he had accomplished, and Sanseverino and Zigliara were not inferior to him in that respect. For them, common sense, as understood by their adversaries, remained an opinatio quaedam rejicienda [Matteo Liberatore, Institutiones philosophicae; prima editio novae formae] which had been combined with the doctrine of Reid.

They therefore rejected this badly defined innate faculty, concerning which all that was known was that it promulgated infallibly true judgments, although these judgments were neither immediately self-evident nor founded upon experience nor were conclusions of a process of reasoning. In reality, the apologetics of common sense attempted to restore Reidianism — Reidianum commentum restaurat — that is, it attempted to base the whole edifice of true knowledge upon instinctive and, therefore, irrational judgments.

Nothing, says Liberatore, is more pernicious than such a doctrine, nothing more contrary to reason. For if thought is unable to reject these judgments, although they are neither evident nor demonstrated, it will have to submit to certitudes which are at once in conformity with reason, inasmuch as reason does accept them, yet irrational, since they cannot be justified: all of which is contradictory and impossible. In fact, although invented as a remedy to skepticism, common sense thus conceived is quite at home with it. It has landed us upon the very rock from which it was meant to save us.

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One comment

  1. Gilson remains, for me, the most puzzling of the 20th century Catholic philosophers, the most inherently enigmatic, intrinsically unfathomable and viscerally puzzling; he resembles Goethe and Spinoza as Chartier saw them, he reminds me of something A. Chartier wrote somewhere about Goethe and Spinoza—the puzzling characters, enigmatic even as beings. Reputed mostly for scholarship, many of Gilson’s books are wisdom writings, very unusual and highly original as tone. A lot of what’s called meta—philosophy in them, of an original kind—existential methodology, clad in historic scholarship; his tone was something radically new, his deep approach—highly innovative. Very refreshing.
    There are those who claim they dislike Thomism, except for Gilson. But then, you have the whole Thomism in Gilson, at least symbolically, virtually! And trust him with revealing you that Thomism you claimed you dislike. That is, if you enjoy Gilson, you enjoy the Thomism already.

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