Common Sense Definition

Maybe you're wondering what common is, how to get common sense, or how you can read Common Sense by Thomas Paine or why the book Common Sense was so important in the first place.

What is common sense? It's an interesting question. It's not an easy question to answer and because of the philosophical nature of it it's not something that's answered in a few words or few sentences. It's something worthy of study and discussion.

It's something that impacts every area of our lives. Work, politics, religion, raising children, dealing with people, surviving and thriving. All of these things are prone to reasoning. Sound judgement. It's the way to live a satisfying life. Some people have related common sense to stoicism. And it's true many great philosophers were stoics.

Common sense, no nonsense, horse sense, moral sense, what is common sense? It’s not an easy question to answer. Google doesn’t have an answer. As a matter of fact, not only has it proven extremely difficult to define but even harder to replicate. Despite all the technological advancements in computer processor speeds and mega-computers, researchers have been unable to use artificial intelligence to replicate the common sense of an eight-year-old. Not even technology can replicate common sense. I think that kind of speaks to the divine nature of it.

President James Madison said, “Philosophy is common sense with big words.” In some ways the meaning of common sense is as much philosophical as it is practical. It comes back to the fundamental nature of knowledge, how things are understood. But it’s also a practical matter of rational thinking: the ability to look at raw facts or events, make observations, and draw accurate conclusions.

The philosopher Voltaire said, “Common sense is not so common.” That was way back in the 1700s, and we see even less of it these days. Common sense isn’t so common. That’s at least partially true, and we see it play out every day as opinions are made based on emotion instead of logic and reason. We’re in a time where debate is virtually unheard of. It’s created a lot of division and chaos and not a lot of people offering solutions.

So even today in the age of abundant information, common sense is as important as ever. Maybe even more so. The people who have it are gifted with a powerful talent. It provides a perspective and ability to think and rationalize on a level that’s really not very common anymore. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.” In other words, it’s one thing to have all the knowledge and facts, but it’s another thing to be able to use it.

There’s a real power in common sense. People with common sense have a better understanding, they communicate better, and they’re respected. Common sense is regarded as wisdom, and so somebody with common sense is looked at as a wise person. This book explains in practical terms, what common sense is and how to get it.

I wrote the Book Common Sense. It’s the retold story of Common Sense by Thomas Paine. If you’ve never heard of it, it was one of most influential, widely circulated books in American history. It had a huge impact on the formation of this country. I rewrote the book, and translated it into modern English. I started reading the original manuscript as a side project for my podcast. I thought there would be some good ideas that I could incorporate into the podcast. As I started reading it, two things happened. First, it was like I was reading something from my own mind. The logic and thinking were almost as if I had written the original book. It was kind of eerie in a way. The second thing that happened is that I found it was nearly impossible to understand, so I started translating it.

Common Sense by Thomas Paine was written over 250 years ago, and the older English terms and grammar are almost impossible to understand, such that it might as well be a different language. I had an old dictionary to look up some of the words that aren’t in use any more, and I started making notes. As I got into it, I thought somebody had to have done this already. So I went, and I searched, and I couldn’t find anyone who had updated it. So I kept working on it, translating, making notes. As I got into it, I thought other people might be interested in it, and so it took me about a year, but I completely updated it. That’s how hard it was to translate: It took me a year to go through, read, decipher, and translate all sixty-some pages. In the process of doing that I really got a chance to immerse myself in it. I learned every little detail of what Thomas Paine wrote, and because I was translating it I had to really learn and understand every single line. The big question it made me ask is: What is common sense, and do most people really understand what it means?

Here’s what I uncovered in the year I spent working on that book. Common sense has a definition, but it’s also a way of thinking that relies on basic principles. Basic truths, some people might say. Sometimes these basic truths are universal. Two plus two equals four. Basic math, that’s a principle of common sense and pretty much universally agreed upon. But not everything is simple like this.

What is common sense on a fundamental level? The dictionary defines common sense as good sense and sound judgment in practical matters. “Sound judgement”—that’s incredibly general. Very broad, it doesn’t really define what common sense is at all. The highly educated investment banker Donald G. Smith had another way of describing it. He said, “Common sense and education are highly compatible; in fact neither is worth much without the other.”

There’s a certain wisdom in common sense. Or to put it another way, “Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.” That was written by the 18th-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It’s easy to say that people are just stupid. That’s what we see play out in the media every day. Someone with a different opinion is portrayed as stupid. I think sometimes we spend so much time trying to prove other people wrong that we forget to ask what’s right.

If we’re going to understand, we have to question Why. When we raise these questions together, as a group, it creates debate—healthy debate—and that’s the reason I think this is so important. The 17th-century mathematician and philosopher René Descartes understood this principle. He refused to accept the long-held beliefs of those who came before him and instead set out to prove them himself. He said, “Common sense is the most fairly distributed thing in the world. Everybody thinks they have so much of it that even the people hardest to convince in everything else agree they don’t need any more of it than they already have.”

Just like when Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, the country was very divided. People today can’t see eye to eye on much of anything. It’s turned into vicious attacks, each side completely sure of their position when they haven’t even really thought it through let alone been able to explain their position in a rational way.

There are a lot of popular fools in the world today. It’s better to be lesser known but full of common sense. Questioning leads to reasoning, and reasoning leads to understanding. So always question everything.

“How many geniuses does it take to change a light bulb? Fifty. One to change the bulb, and forty-nine to say I could have done that!”

Learn more about Common Sense HERE.


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