Issue #58 January 2023

Philosophy and Common Sense

Grace M. Ballentine - "Mirage" - (ca. 1940s)

Philosophers are notorious for proclaiming all sorts of things that seem to contradict common sense.  According to Cicero: “There is nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it.” And the craziness has only continued. But direct critiques of common sense, such as the present essay, are less common. More common by far are criticisms of upon philosophy in the name of common sense. However, my intention in this essay is not entirely negative: my main aim is simply to improve our understanding of common sense and of its relationship to philosophy.


The Prehistory of Common Sense

Whilst it may be possible for us to judge one ancient Greek philosopher as having more common sense than another, it is generally agreed that the Greeks themselves had no concept of common sense comparable to ours. Aristotle was interested in the common sense that co-ordinated the other senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell – but that is long way from our own concept of common sense. The Roman concept of sensus communis is closer. It meant something like ‘shared community values.’ In pointing to the absurdities of philosophy Cicero might have seen himself as speaking on behalf of sensus communis. There are some examples from the Roman world that seem remarkably close to the modern notion of common sense. For example, in Juvenal is found Rarus enim ferme sensus communis (Common sense is generally rare among those of higher rank) – a sentiment which, at least in politics, never seems to grow old. However, sensus communis did not yet carry the meaning of authentic, self-evident and indisputable.

Some historians of common sense, such as Sophia Rosenfeld (2011), point to the first sentence of Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637) as the first instance of the modern concept of common sense: “Good sense [Le bon sens] is of all things in the world the most equally distributed; for everybody thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters do not commonly desire more of it than they already possess” (Descartes 1637: 3). However, Descartes’ joke was already old. According to Montaigne: “It is commonly said that the fairest division of her favors Nature has given us is that of sense [du sens]; for there is no one who is not contented with the share of it that she has allotted him” (Montaigne II, 16 (‘On Presumption’), 606).

Descartes tells us that by le bon sens he means the “power of forming a good judgement and distinguishing the true from the false” (Descartes 1637: 3). However, the modern concept of common sense not only describes a power – authentic, self-evident and indisputable – but also a body of knowledge (although there is little agreement as to its precise content).

Descartes argued that although le bon sens is possessed by everyone, not everyone knows how to apply this power. More direct criticisms of nascent common sense were made by sceptic François de la Mothe le Vayer (1588-1672) in Opuscule ou Petit traité sceptique sur cette commune façon de parler ‘n’avoir pas le sens-commun’ (1646). (Of all philosophical traditions the sceptical tradition is perhaps the furthest removed from common sense.)


Common Sense in the Eighteenth Century

No one took much notice. In the eighteenth century the authority of common sense – in its modern sense – went largely unquestioned and common sense continued to spread, including into politics and political rhetoric. The best-known example is Thomas Paine’s argument for American independence as set out in the best-selling Common Sense (1776). Paine suggests that there is nothing hifalutin about common sense; it is rather the authentic wisdom of common people. It has since been noted out that the argument of Common Sense was not in fact common sense until after the pamphlet was read; however, this was not a point that was widely appreciated at the time.

The basic problem with the use of common sense in polemical arguments, then and now, was that it was question begging. It was assumed that common sense was that possessed by anyone of good sense. But who were these people of good sense? Why, people who possessed common sense, of course. And yet it was not just politicians who took to common sense many (non-sceptical) eighteenth century philosophers also embraced it. For example, despite what many would view as the counter-intuitive nature of his philosophy, George Berkeley placed himself firmly on the side of common sense.  In Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713) Berkeley used the term to refer to our ability to recognise (self-evident) basic truths. Giambattista Vico was another philosopher who was keen to side with common sense: in The New Science (1725) he defines common sense as, “judgment without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire people, and entire nation, or the entire human race” (Element XII, §145, 63-64). In Vico’s opinion it is the basis of natural law.

David Hume was exceptional in that in significant areas of his philosophy he completely ignored common sense. Indeed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how he could have formulated his ideas on induction and causation had he not. But that his philosophy was seen as an affront to common sense was itself sufficient provocation to inspire an entire school of philosophy, centred around the Wise Club in Aberdeen, dedicated to its refutation. In the words of Thomas Reid, the leading light of the Wise Club, writing to Hume in 1763: “A little philosophical society here . . . is much indebted to you for its entertainment . . . You are brought oftener than any other man to the bar, accused and defended with great zeal, but without bitterness. If you write no more . . . I am afraid we shall be at a loss for subjects” (Reid 1967: 92). As Sophia Rosenfeld notes: “common sense always belongs to the language of reaction, which is to say opposition” (Rosenfeld 2011: 181) – an observation confirmed by a 1726 Secret History of Oxford, in which common sense is defined as “the ordinary ability to keep ourselves from being imposed by gross contradictions, palpable inconsistencies, and unmask’d impostures” (in Geertz 1975: 26).  

Against Hume, Reid argued that common sense is universal and underpins natural science. It consists of “certain principles . . .  which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them” (Reid 1764: 20). The influence of Reid’s foundationalist epistemology, incidentally, underpins much of the American constitution – “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .”

Neither Hume nor Reid believed that scepticism could be defeated but they drew very different conclusions as to where this left philosophy. As Thomas Brown put it: “Reid bawled out, We must believe in an outward world; but added in a whisper, We can give no reason for our belief. Hume cries out, We can give no reason for such a notion; and whispers, I own we cannot get rid of it” (in Mackintosh 1837: 346).

Reid believed that a philosophy that rejected common sense could only be held “at the expense of disgracing reason and human nature, and making mankind Yahoos” (Reid 1764: 10). Hume disagreed but that is not to say that he thought philosophy should hold sway over all areas of life. He advised: “Be a philosopher; but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man” (Hume 1748: 9). By which, as the following passage suggests, he seems to have meant: remember to amuse yourself!

“Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? . . . I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther” (Hume 1739-40: 316).

Differences between Hume and Reid over the relationship between common sense and philosophy may ultimately come down to the fact that Hume believed that common sense was instinctive or intuitive, albeit that certain intuitions could be cultivated, whereas Reid believed it involved a modicum of reason, and so might be continuous with philosophy.

But whilst Hume would have nothing to do with common sense in epistemology he did grant it a role in moral and aesthetic judgment. He suggests that here what is required are “steady and general points of view” (Hume 1739-40: 632) held in common with others of good sense (Hume 1748: 272).

Kant, who was famously impressed by the work of David Hume, was distinctly unimpressed by common sense replies to Hume. He dismissed “the magic wand of common sense,” as, “one of the subtle discoveries of modern times, by means of which the most superficial ranter can safely enter the lists with the most thorough thinker and hold his own” (Kant 1783: 7). He was adamant that common sense should play no role in politics. However, like Hume, in aesthetic judgements he grants that we are unavoidably aware of the tastes and values of a shared community (the sensus communis).

Kant’s warnings against the polemical use of common sense were ignored but he did leave a legacy in continental philosophy, a critical awareness of the role played by common sense in philosophy and in politics. Generally speaking, analytic philosophers, less influenced by Kant, were less critical. In the following section this difference between analytic and continental philosophy will be looked at more closely. But it should first also be noted that although the popularity of Reid’s common sense philosophy declined dramatically in Britain in the nineteenth century (partly owing to the criticisms of Kant), Reid did have some philosophical admirers in America, namely Ralph Waldo Emerson and C.S. Peirce.

Yet, there was still no more consensus as to the relationship between philosophy and common sense at the beginning of the twentieth century than there had been in the eighteenth century. Some philosophers saw their work as guided by common sense or continuing from common sense whereas others were more critical. As mentioned, this division broadly coincided with the twentieth century’s analytic-continental divide. That divide is today no longer as deep or wide as it once was, but the question of the relationship between philosophy and common sense remains unresolved.

The Analytic-Continental Divide

Inspired by Reid, but with greater ambition, G.E. Moore (1873-1958) aimed to use common sense as a resource by which to defeat scepticism. He argued that the overlooked but philosophically significant precepts of common sense are built into our ordinary language and that by ignoring this the sceptic undermines the meaning of his or her own words.  Accordingly, with appropriate simplicity, Moore believed that common sense can be used to demonstrate the existence of the external world. This he famously attempted to do in ‘Proof of an External World’, in which he argued that the existence of the external world could be proved as follows: “By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, ‘Here is one hand,’ and adding, as I make a certain gesture with the left, ‘and here is another’” (Moore 1939: 166).1placeholder

It was an argument that was refuted by pointing out that Moore was simply begging the question, in his own favour. According to Wittgenstein: “Moore’s mistake lies in this – countering the assertion that one cannot know that, by saying ‘I do know it’” (Wittgenstein 1969 §521).

Wittgenstein’s project, particularly in On Certainty (1969), is in some respects continuous with Moore’s – both can be seen as the forefathers of ordinary language philosophy. However, mindful of Moore’s mistakes, Wittgenstein wished to sidestep the problem of scepticism rather than directly confront it.

“One can defend common sense against the attacks of philosophers only by solving their puzzles, i.e. by curing them of the temptation to attack common sense, not by restating the views of common sense” (Wittgenstein 1960: 58-9).

Nonetheless, despite not wishing to speak on behalf of common sense, Wittgenstein reminded philosophers that their investigations had begun from a starting point in non-philosophical thinking in which of necessity not everything is doubted at once.

“The questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn” (Wittgenstein 1969 §341).

Applying this point to the problem of scepticism, and wishing to cure philosophers of “the temptation to attack common sense”, rather than attempt to solve the problem directly Wittgenstein attempted to point towards where the dead-end road begins that leads to the problem whilst taking care not to step onto the road himself.

Although Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) did not share Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy, his attitude to scepticism is in some respects comparable to Wittgenstein’s. For, on the sceptical hypothesis that the world, including all our memories, might have come into existence five minutes ago, Russell writes: “Like all skeptical hypotheses, it is logically tenable, but uninteresting” (Russell 1921: 160) – and best ignored.  However, at least in his early writings, it seems that Russell was not much impressed by common sense either. In the following passage he praises philosophy as its antidote:

“The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect” (Russell 1912: 129).

Yet, in his later, popular, books on politics and ethics he continually referenced common sense, and very often presented himself as speaking on behalf of common sense. The most obvious example is Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959). This contradiction might be resolved by saying that in his books on politics and ethics, although he was trading off his reputation as a great philosopher, he was not talking as a philosopher but as a journalist. According to Charles Pigden, Russell “was not sure whether ethical propositions rose to the dignity of knowledge” (Pigden 2021).

However, there is a further contradiction in Russell’s attitudes towards common sense. He would presumably accord Moore’s work in epistemology the name of philosophy, even though Moore aspired to speak on behalf of common sense in philosophy. But this would seem to be at odds with his argument that philosophy and common sense are fundamentally opposed. Note that this contradiction would not have arisen had Russell claimed that, “[t]he man who has no tincture of scepticism goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.”

Moore, Wittgenstein and Russell were clearly of different opinions as to philosophical methodology. Russell argued that ordinary language was unsuited to much philosophical analysis whereas Moore and Wittgenstein were respectful of the uses of ordinary language (which Moore saw as based on common sense); but none of them, and very few of their contemporaries in the English-speaking world, saw common sense as itself of philosophical interest. In this respect, they differed significantly from some of their continental contemporaries.

They differed, for example, from the (predominantly) French school of historical epistemology, that begins with Léon Brunschvicg (1869-1944) and that also includes Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) and Hélène Metzger (1889-1994).2placeholder The work of this school eventually reaches the English-speaking world indirectly via the influence of Metzger upon Thomas Kuhn (Kuhn 1962: xl).

Brunschvicg was of the opinion that common sense changes over time, sometimes quite radically and that the study of history reveals that there is nothing universal about it (Brunschvig 1922: 471). Bachelard, by contrast, believed that common sense is universal but that modern science is in the process justifiably breaking away from it. He argued that although common sense still persists we should struggle against its hold in order to pursue science (see Chimisso 2001). In this regard, Bachelard was in disagreement with Emile Meyerson (1859-1933) who argued that science builds on common sense (Meyerson 1931); and with Henri Bergson (1859-1941) who argued that “science runs counter to common sense only when strictly necessary” (Bergson 1922: 35).

In summary, whereas Brunschvicg believed in radical discontinuities between the common sense of one period and that of another, Bachelard believed in a radical discontinuity between common sense and natural science. An alternative position was advanced by Metzger who argued that although there are radical discontinuities between one age and the next – for example, modern common sense would deem alchemy to be absurd – there may yet be some continuities.  In advancing this position she was influenced by her own studies in the history of science and by the work of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939). Lévy-Bruhl referred to the different periods of history having different mentalités. Metzger referred to different periods of history as having different a prioris.

Not only was there greater interest in common sense among continental philosophers, there was also, in general (at least in the early twentieth century), a somewhat greater philosophical interest in history.3placeholder No general agreement was reached as to how common sense should be defined but an interesting problem was raised, particularly by Brunschvicg and Metzger, that if common sense changes through history then (against Reid and Moore) it can no longer be presupposed to consist of a number of universal truths available to everyone for all time.


Common Sense and Political Philosophy

The political aspects of common sense were explored by Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975).

Gramsci’s description of common sense resembles a positivist’s description of metaphysics: “Common sense is a disorderly aggregate of philosophical conceptions in which one can find whatever one likes” (Gramsci 1929-35: III, 334). Like Brunschvicg and Metzger, he believed that common sense changes over time: “Common sense is not a single conception, identical in time and space. It is the “folklore” of philosophy, and like folklore it appears in countless forms. The fundamental characteristics of common sense consist in its being a disjointed, incoherent, and inconsequential conception of the world, that matches the character of the multitudes whose philosophy it is” (Gramsci 1929-35: III, 333).

He also notes that every social stratum has its own ‘common sense,’ “which is ultimately the most widespread conception of life and morals […] Common sense is not something rigid and static; rather, it changes continuously, enriched by scientific notions and philosophical opinions which have entered into common usage. ‘Common sense’ is the folklore of ‘philosophy’ and stands midway between real ‘folklore’ (that is, as it is understood) and the philosophy, the science, the economics of the scholars. ‘Common sense’ creates the folklore of the future, that is a more or less rigidified phase of a certain time and place” (Gramsci 1929-35: I, 173).

Gramsci’s focus is upon common sense at the bottom of society. He believes that this contains some good sense but, since much of it has been passed down from above, it is imbued with conservatism: it “is led to believe that what exists today has always existed” (Gramsci 1929-35: III, 58). He argues that, in order to overcome this conservatism, what is required is for the proletariat to create a new common sense of their own, building upon precepts that already exist but that have been overlaid with the common sense of bourgeois conservatism. Philosophers can encourage and aid the creation of a better common sense, but only if they are in continual contact with those at the bottom of society.

Gramsci’s conception of common sense can be criticised for being too much like confused or repressed philosophy; however, this seems to omit one of its essential characteristics. As Vico observed, common sense is “judgement without reflection,” which philosophy is not. Even if, as Reid believed, common sense involves a modicum of reasoning, as compared to philosophy, its exercise is largely automatic.

Like Gramsci, Hannah Arendt also wished to understand common sense within a historical context. But, unlike Gramsci, she does not wish to reform common sense so much as have more of it. She argued that it is common sense that enables democracy and that it is the decline of common sense, which she associates with individuals’ increasing social isolation, that enables ideological thinking (Arendt 1951).

However, strictly speaking, Arendt’s argument relies not upon common sense but upon the Roman concept of sensus communis, ‘shared community values.’ But, again, something is missing in this view of common sense: for it is not difficult to acknowledge being in the same community as someone whom one believes to be lacking in common sense. In summary, arguably neither Gramsci nor Arendt fully captures the character of common sense: for it is not simply confused or repressed philosophy, nor is it sensus communis.

However, we should not on that account revert to the view of Reid and Moore, that common sense is a set of universal truths. For as Brunschvicg and Metzger have shown, historical evidence casts doubt on that claim.

And yet, even though common sense may vary over time, still, “you wouldn’t want to leave home without it” (Carey 2015: 38, my italics).


Mending Fences

The changeability of common sense should not be taken to imply that it is indefinable. Granted, after three hundred years it has still not been satisfactorily defined, but it is worth focussing upon its meaning for a while longer. For, as has been seen, what is at stake is not just the unresolved relationship between common sense and philosophy but also the question-begging use to which common sense is put in political polemic.

It is here suggested that although it may not be possible to define common sense as a body of knowledge, common sense may yet be defined functionally: as advice, to oneself or to others, that fulfils the essentially conservative role of preserving, as far as possible, the status quo. It “is like the loyal opposition in parliamentary democracies – annoying in its constant criticism and in the inertia it adds to the intellectual enterprise, yet important over the long haul in catching unnoticed error” (Coates 1996: 1). Gramsci was aware of the conservative function of the common sense but he thought of ‘conservative’ only in a political sense. However, a conservative political sense is optional.

Where common sense is, I believe, undeniably useful – not just to political conservatives – is in dealing with the unforeseen. For example, if I suddenly notice a small child near the edge of a cliff or standing next to a box of fireworks with a box of matches it would be highly inefficient to have to run through a formal argument about what to do.  Setting aside the issue of whether it is instinctive (as Hume believed) or whether it involves a modicum of reason (as Reid believed), in these situations common sense is “as invaluable as the virtue of conformity in the army and navy” (Thoreau 1849: 387). Conversely, in situations where reflection is needed, common sense alone can rarely can tell us what to think or do. “Uncommon sense” seems a better option.

But there is no meta-level from which to assign philosophy to one area of life and common sense to another. It is as well to have them both to-hand. Indeed, even in philosophy, in all its manifestations, common sense is not entirely forsaken. The prime example may be the principle of Occam’s razor: all else being equal, we should choose the simpler of two theses. This principle is sometimes formulated as Entia non sunt multipicanda praeter necessitatem (Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity) but the words Occam actually used were, Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora (it is pointless to do with more things what can be done with fewer) (see Thorburn 1918).

William of Occam (1285-1347) makes much use of this principle but it should be noted that there are similar views to be found in Aristotle, Seneca, Grosseteste and Aquinas, all of whom predate Occam. Indeed, although evidence of popular sayings of the time is sparse, it is not hard to imagine Occam deriving the idea that “it is pointless to do with more things what can be done with fewer” from a similar saying already in common use. Most of William of Occam’s contemporaries would have accepted the principle, although of course any overt suggestion that God works in any respect in the same way as, for example, a peasant mending a fence is likely to have been found controversial. But, nonetheless, despite this potential for controversy, the principle of Occam’s razor conforms to our suggested functional definition of common sense as advice intended to preserve the status quo (including the status quo of pre-existing beliefs). “Common sense . . . points to the rational procedure of tenaciously holding on to our current beliefs until enough evidence is mustered to warrant their abandonment” (Coates 1996: 5).

According to this suggested functionalist understanding of common sense, the use of Occam’s razor should not be taken to imply that philosophy and common sense are necessarily continuous with each other. Their focus is different: the exercise of common sense involves a drawing back from unforeseen danger, often automatically; whereas in philosophy we are more interested in seeking out unforeseen dangers in order to then avoid them.

On this understanding, common sense and philosophy (including scepticism) are not continuous with each other but nor are they necessarily in conflict – no more than are conservatism and creativity.

Dr. Stephen Leach is an Honorary Senior Fellow at the School of Social, Political and Global Studies of Keele University and is co-editor (with James Tartaglia) of The Meaning of Life and the Great Philosophers (2018).

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. 1951 / 1979. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harvest Books.

Bergson, Henri. 1922 / 1965. Duration and Simultaneity. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill.

Brunschvicg, Léon. 1922. L’Expérience humaine et la causalité physique. Paris: Alcan.

Carey, Toni Vogel. 2015. ‘The Life and Death of Common Sense’ Philosophy Now 110: 36-38.

Chimisso, Christina. 2001. Gaston Bachelard: Critic of Science and the Imagination. London and New York: Routledge.

Descartes, Rene. 1637 / 2003. Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences. Trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross. New York: Dover Publications.

Coates, John. 1996. The claims of common sense: Moore, Wittgenstein, Keynes and the claims of common sense. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1975. ‘Common Sense as a Cultural System’. Antioch Review 33 (1): 5-26.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1929-35 / 2011 Prison Notebooks. Vol. I. Trans. Joseph A. Buttigieg & Antonio Callari. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1929-35 / 2011 Prison Notebooks. Vol. III. Trans. Joseph A. Buttigieg. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hume, David. 1739-40 / 1969. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. E.C. Mossner. London: Penguin.

Hume, David. 1748 / 1974 An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. 3rd Ed. Ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge & P.H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1783 / 1950. Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics. Trans. Lewis White Beck. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1962 / 2012 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mackintosh, Sir James. 1837. Dissertation on the Progress of Ethical Philosophy. 2nd. Ed. Edinburgh: A. & C. Black.

Meyerson, Emile. 1931. Du cheminement de la pensée. Paris: Alcan.

Montaigne, Michel de. 1578-80 / 1943 ‘Of Presumption’ in The Complete Works. Trans. Donald M. Frame. London: Everyman.

Moore, G.E. 1939 / 1993. ‘Proof of an External World’ Proceedings of the British Academy 25 (1939) 273-300. Reprinted in Philosophical Papers and in G. E. Moore: Selected Writings Ed. T. Baldwin. Routledge, London, 147-70.

Pigden, Charles 2021. ‘Russell’s Moral Philosophy’ Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Russell’s Moral Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Reid, Thomas. 1764 / 1983. An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. Eds. Ronald E. Beanblossom & Keith Lehrer. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Reid, Thomas. 1967. Philosophical Works, with Notes and Supplementary Dissertations. Ed. Sir William Hamilton. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag.

Rosenfeld, Sophia. 2011. Common Sense: A Political History. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Russell, Bertrand. 1912 / 2015. The Problems of Philosophy. New Jersey: J.P. Piper Books.

Russell, Bertrand. 1921. The Analysis of Mind. London: George, Allen and Unwin.

Russell, B. 1944 / 1997. Replies to critics. In Last Philosophical Testament: 1943-68, J.G. Slater (Ed.). London: Routledge.

Thorburn, William. 1918. ‘The Myth of Occam’s Razor.’ Mind 27: 345-353.

Thoreau. 1849 / 1980. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Vico, Giambattista. 1725 / 2002. Scienza Nuova: The First New Science. Ed. Leon Pompa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1960. The Blue and the Brown Books. Preliminary Studies for ‘Philosophical Investigations’. Ed. R. Rhees. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1969. On Certainty. Eds. Denis Paul & G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell.


Moore’s gesturing is reminiscent of the creation of palaeolithic cave paintings – in which stencilled hands perhaps signify no more than that, ‘I was here – in the world.’


The following brief discussion is greatly indebted to the work Cristina Chimisso, although of course any mistakes in exegesis are my own.


In the pre-war period in Britain and America, R.G. Collingwood and Michael Oakeshott were exceptional in taking a philosophical interest in history but they were outside of the mainstream analytic tradition. Collingwood’s ‘absolute presuppositions’ may in some ways be comparable to Metzger’s ‘a prioris’. Of course, that is not to deny that a lot of good work was done, in the analytic tradition, in the history of philosophy.


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