A Minor “Defense” of Common Sense Realism

11/30/2022

[I want to clarify that as of right now I do not have any metaphysical commitments. This was mainly written because I realized I could make a joke using the term “mid” in it. However, one could consider it a possible response of the common sense epistemologist to the critiques of common sense realism. Also, the tone of this essay is obviously childish as I just wanted to have fun with it and not treat it so seriously. I digress.]

This essay will be informally and casually written, so if that is not “your thing” I apologize. I will still put informal language, e.g., your thing, in quotes in order to maintain (comedic) pretentiousness. The reason for its informality is a lack of sleep (ten hours over three days). Again, I apologize. Also, Douglas, my friend, my buddy, my pal, do not take any personal offense from this, none is meant by it. It is just for comedic purposes. The work you have done and the commentary you have provided are valuable and even though you and I have disagreements all the way up to meta-philosophy, I respect you as a philosopher.

So, while I was doing the research for my “Preparatory Notes for our Refutation of Skepticism,” I came across this book titled The Rise and Fall of Scottish Common Sense Realism by Douglas McDermid, or should I say McDerMID (see what I did there). It contains a historical analysis of the evolution of Scottish common sense realism and then its downfall to James Ferrier’s idealist critique. I think that McDermid totally missed the point of Thomas Reid’s common sense realism and so for him to even try to forward the notion that common sense realism met its end is laughable. Nonetheless, let’s actually move away from insults and toward arguments.

Let us start with chapter six, section seven which is titled “Where Did Reid Go Wrong?” According to Douglas McDermid, the philosophy of Thomas Reid is “the logical product of certain basic confusions and delusions,” three of which have been clarified by the Scottish idealist James Ferrier, whom McDermid is sympathetic to, contra Reid. The first supposed confusion is metaphilosophical. Ferrier forwards the idea that “Reid’s philosophy does not begin where it should: with epistemology” (2018, The Rise and Fall of Scottish Common Sense Realism, p. 190). Is this true? Under some accounts of Reid, certainly. However, according to other accounts, not at all. The principles of common sense with which Reid begins are epistemological. Reid starts with epistemology. Of course, these first principles make metaphysical assertions, e.g., “Minds exist,” but they are not fallaciously supposed or anything like that. Instead, they are known. Being known, the principles of common sense are the place we are to start our inquiry. So, I take it that this first supposed confusion is actually confusion on the part of Ferrier. Before I continue I want to clarify that I do not care if Reid agreed with what I’m saying or disagreed or anything like that. My main goal here is to defend Reid’s philosophy, that is, the philosophy of common sense against objections. Whether or not Reid held to what I’m saying is not at all an issue. I am not interpreting Reid. I am defending his general position by either clarifying it in such a way that defends against “objections.”

According to Ferrier, philosophy’s first question is the question, “What is the one feature which is identical, invariable, and essential in all the varieties of our knowledge?” (McDermid, 2018, The Rise and Fall of Scottish Common Sense Realism, p. 191). Why is this the first question? How does Ferrier know that this is the first question? If it is by way of, let’s say, a priori intuition, then let us pose a question to him: why is our faculty of reason knowledge-conducive? In response to this question, he can either enter into a circular absurdity, whether it be first- or second-order does not really matter (though, it will be one of the two), assumption, or he can commit to an externalist epistemology which, in my view, would lead to a common sense epistemology. In this sense, he is forced to adopt a common sense epistemology. If he holds that only our faculty of reason is knowledge-conducive that is quite the odd view and not a problem for us at all because we can hold that all our natural faculties are knowledge-conducive and we can use our natural faculties to demonstrate such in a non-viciously circular manner (if you want to understand how any of this is true, I suggest reading my paper “Preparatory Notes for our Refutation of Skepticism”). Furthermore, because all of our natural faculties are practically indispensable (think of the constant move toward a “pragmatic” or “practical” justification of epistemic circularity or of our faculties), if we reject the supposition that pragmatic reasons are non-epistemic reasons, then we can have epistemic justification for our belief that our natural faculties are knowledge-conducive as pragmatic reasons are epistemic reasons (though, take this cum grano salis as this is currently just a theory I’ve been considering and am not necessarily committed to it). Nevertheless, Ferrier’s epistemology is going to have to be externalist in order to escape skepticism or logical absurdity, and, in being externalist, the belief that our natural faculties are knowledge-conducive is easily vindicated. Furthermore, when talking about metaphilosophical starting points skepticism is the only one. Oh? Why is it the only metaphilosophical starting point? Well, you just showed how it is (I hope everyone understands this). So, Ferrier’s first move against Reid has failed, for it must adopt a Reidian externalist epistemology to even be done. Ferrier is in a position of self-defeat.

Next, the second supposed confusion of Reid’s Ferrier identified is that Reid’s “perceptual intuitionism … contradicts the Law of All Knowledge” (McDermid, 2018, The Rise and Fall of Scottish Common Sense Realism, p. 191). Now, before we analyze this, I want to analyze McDermid’s commentary. He says,

Moreover, when we scrutinize the details of Reid’s reply to this ill-possed problem [the problem of knowing the external world], two facts immediately leap out at us. In the first place, Reid’s “ultimate object was to vindicate the absolute existence of the material universe” (FW 1: 493); in the second place, he sought to vindicate belief in ‘the absolute existence of the material universe’ by advancing a doctrine of intuitive perception. According to this interpretation, Reid’s argument for realism moved directly from knowledge to existence: we can know that matter per se exists, because we can and do perceive matter per se. Since to say that we perceive matter per se is to say that “material realities stand face to face with the mind, without anything more standing there along with them.” (p. 191)

Did Reid start with metaphysics or did he not? McDermid and Ferrier were saying he did earlier, but now he is starting with knowledge… Setting this observation aside, let us now look at how Reid’s direct realism contradicts the “Law of All Knowledge” (LAK). Before we get into if it really even is true that Reid’s direct realism contradicts the LAK, let us first see if there is any “validity” to the LAK.

Ferrier holds that “an object must possess a certain feature … F … in order to be something we can know” (McDermid, 2–18, p. 166). What does this even mean? This is a very odd understanding of knowledge. What does Ferrier even take knowledge to be? Furthermore, why do we even tend to the argument? Ferrier has his “Master Argument for Idealism” (MAFI). But, how does he know arguments, a set of premises and conclusion, are knowledge-conducive, for if they are not then there is no MAFI as idealism, the conclusion, could not be known through the argument. In other words, it seems that Ferrier has not properly dealt with skepticism as Reid had.

I’m actually very tired, so I’m going to do my homework and then go to sleep. I may come back to this paper or not. Nonetheless, I just want to note that Ferrier’s attempt to problematize common sense realism is a failure. He has not properly dealt with skepticism and has so many presuppositions. When these presuppositions are gotten rid of and skepticism has been properly dealt with, what one is left with is a common sense epistemology and common sense epistemology leads to common sense realism.

Before I end this I want to address chapter six, section eight titled “Why Philosophy Does Not Depend on Common Sense.” McDermid brings up the “meta-philosophical moral” which Ferrier and he follows: “the apparent truisms of common sense, far from being sacrosanct or off-limits, may be violently overthrown by the a priori arguments of philosophers” (2018, p. 194). McDermid says many things to this effect:

[A]ccording to Ferrier, philosophy’s raison d’être is to question what we ordinarily take for granted, to see through ubiquitous myths and seductive half-truths, and to expose confusions and illusions implicit in our natural modes of thought. (p. 194)

The most basic thoughts of meta-philosophy are two: first, that philosophy is to common sense as superstructure is to substructure, or as tree is to root; second, that because the first principles of common sense are the foundational presuppositions of philosophy, philosophers cannot coherently doubt them or call them into question. Yet according to Ferrier, philosophy is to common sense not as superstructure is to substructure or as tree is to root, but rather as cure is to disease, as light is to darkness, as correction is to error, or as reform is to corruption. In other words, common sense is not what supports, sustains, or nourishes philosophy; common sense is what philosophy, if it is to flourish, must extirpate, transcend, or supplant. Why? Because the stuff of which common sense is made is not real thought, but only apparent thought; that is to say, it does not represent what we actually think, but only what we think we think. (p. 194)

Ultimately, then the ‘philosophy of common sense’ is an oxymoron, since it is anti-philosophical to require philosophy to submit to the spontaneous dogmas of natural thinking without giving it the opportunity to question them. (p. 195)

All of these comments from McDermid become quite funny when we realize we only come to common sense because it is the correct solution to skepticism. The last quotation I have of him speaks of how the philosophy of common sense is an oxymoron, however, we do have the opportunity to question all things, but it is in questioning common sense and all things that we arrive at a common sense externalism.

Ferrier also says something to this effect:

[P]hilosophy exists only to correct the inadvertencies of man’s ordinary thinking. She has no other mission to fulfil; no other object to overtake; no other business to do. If man naturally thinks aright, he need not be taught to think aright. If he is already, and without an effort, in possession of the truth, he does not require to be put in possession of it. The occupation of philosophy is gone: her office is superfluous: there is nothing for her to put hand to. Therefore philosophy assumes, and must assume, that man does not naturally think aright, but must be taught to do so; that truth does not come to him spontaneously, but must be brought to him by his own exertions. (qtd. In McDermid, 2018, p. 194)

Whether or not philosophy continues doesn’t really matter when it comes to finding knowledge, the real object of philosophy (philosophers are lovers of knowledge, remember?). This is the most fallacious approach to metaphilosophy I think I’ve ever witnessed… Philosophy has so many uses. That our natural faculties are veridical is not something contrary to philosophy. If they are not, then how would philosophy correct them? By what means? By reason? Reason is one of our natural faculties! Did Ferrier and McDermid just ignore what Reid said about the faculty of reason or the semi-skeptic?

If you want a serious defense of the epistemological claims I have made about common sense in this essay see Angélique Thébert’s 2021 article “The principles of common sense in the light of the norm of evidence”.

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Evan Jack

How sweet terror is, not a single line, or a ray of morning sunlight fails to contain the sweetness of anguish. - Georges Bataille