Madness and the Demise of Common Sense

painting by untitled blue on flickr – Acrylic on 4 Canvas: 125x90cm

On a recent errand to acquire a bottle of aspirin from the neighborhood drug store, (never actually having set foot in the place previously,) as I walked through the door, I was immediately seized by an overwhelming desire to check the sign out front again to make sure I entered the right building! What I assumed was a place to buy medicine and health care products now appeared to be a Wal-Mart. Looking around briefly, I was tempted to ask directions to the pharmacy. Refusing to be intimidated, I walked past the lawn chairs, gift wrapping, housewares, videos, toys, and food, eventually ending up in the part of the store where one could find over-the-counter medicine. After a minute or two of further searching, I ended up in the aisle containing aspirin.

Easily forty feet long, what looked like a row in an aspirin warehouse contained hundreds of boxes of analgesics, with innumerable varieties of additives designed for every contingency of illness, except perhaps for the anxiety produced by too many choices.

Mike Kemp/Getty Images

Finding a particular brand, if you knew which one you wanted, was only marginally easier than deciding on a brand if you didn’t know. Cost-conscious consumers would have it a little easier, only having to choose amongst the generic versions of every brand name, knocking the search down by half. At that point you need only narrow your selection to small, medium, or large bottle; liquid or gel-tabs; chewable or time-release capsules; coated or plain. If you read labels you may have to spend the night! Of course, this is possible since the store is open twenty-four hours a day. What led to this madness? How did we get diverted from the relative simplicity of life a hundred years ago, to the virtually limitless chaos of modern life?

Common sense, long ago revered as the most important form of everyday reasoning, seems to have all but vanished from modern life in the 21st century. So diverse are we that finding something in common with even most of us may be unreachable. Ask people what is meant by common sense, and you will inevitably get no consensus. In a very unscientific survey of a dozen diverse men and women in different departments of my own workplace produced twelve remarkably different responses. Here are the results of my short survey:

1. What ought to be obvious and sensible to a majority of individuals.
2. The innate ability to reason and find the easiest and most efficient way.
3. What you know instinctively to be the right way to do something.
4. Going along with the norms of society.
5. The ability to think without external guidelines.
6. Knowing right from wrong.
7. The golden rule. Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t do to yourself.
8. Popular opinion
9. The ability to handle life situations and react in a logical, thoughtful process.
10. Native intelligence.
11. Levelheadedness.
12. The understanding of logic.

Unable to find agreement among my contemporaries, I sought out some definitions from established sources. Webster’s dictionary defined it as “sound practical judgment not based on reasoning or special knowledge.” Ralph Waldo Emerson described it as “Genius dressed in its working clothes,” and “the shortest line between two points.” In an essay for the first issue of the Atlantic Monthly in 1857, Oliver Wendell Holmes related a criticism of an old gentleman, responding to a statement Holmes had made, which the gentleman said made him sound, “like a transcendentalist,” and proclaimed that “for his part, common sense was good enough for him.” Holmes then replied, “Precisely so, my dear sir, common sense as you understand it.”

Perhaps the most famous pamphlet in American history was the one entitled, “Common Sense,” published in January of 1776 and written by Thomas Paine advocating a “Declaration for Independence,” by the American colonies. In it, Paine asserted that “the more formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason.” He summed up his view on common sense in this way:

“Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter.”

It was a very different world in which Mr. Paine announced his essential description of common sense, and who actually qualified as”wise and able men” is unknown. However, even a brief examination of life in the colonial era shows how the word “common” applied. Life in colonial America was difficult. Many people lost their lives while attempting to adapt to frontier conditions. Compared to our modern standards of scheduled working hours, vacations, and leisure time, the colonist’s lives were bleak and tedious. They worked from dawn to dusk and could not restrict their work to any set number of hours. The needs of simply existing required constant effort. The family unit was paramount, spending time with each other in a way that is virtually unknown today. Most people had so much in common, that “sensible” almost always translated into “self-evident.” These days, we appear to have so little in common that what could be called common before, not longer seems possible.

Recent quantum leaps in the availability of information technology have resulted in an overwhelming volume of possible avenues to explore, presenting an entirely new problem to challenge the survival skills of modern humans. With this landslide of technology, we seem find ourselves slowly being buried under the weight of every new development, and its accompanying library of information. Take a look at any computer or science magazine these days and you will notice a great deal of shouting going on about the latest technological leap. Wizardry that makes Merlin’s magic pale by comparison is now routine. Our mass media is replete with spectacular showcases of special effects and futuristic fanfares designed to dazzle and delight, and anything that does not contain these elements, regardless of its significance, seems to end up somewhere between invisible and absent.

State-of-the-art technologies in the real world, such as those responsible for the Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Shuttle, satellite communications, and the many breakthroughs of modern medical science have long term, permanent, and profound consequences for all of humanity. Already, in the short time it has taken to develop these bodies of knowledge, we have been faced with serious moral and ethical questions. As the pace accelerates, so too does the necessity to search deeper within ourselves for the wisdom to create appropriate responses to them. As we expand our horizons, we expand our understanding, and acquire the raw materials for enlightened social change. We will not be defined so much by the new technologies of the future as we will by our thoughtful and intelligent use of them. Before we plunge headlong into the new and spectacular, we need to be better prepared for the challenges they will present.

Before the greatest ballerina gives her greatest performance, she hones her skills, relentlessly practices her routines, and labors endlessly to be the best she can be. Buying a bottle of aspirin, by comparison, should not require quite as much work. We must find a way to shift our concentration from consumerism and razzle-dazzle, to the urgency to prepare like the great ballerina, for the most important performance in history–our future survival as human beings.

9 thoughts on “Madness and the Demise of Common Sense

  1. Well….yes….it can be a little scary to think of our own judgment as a component of common sense, especially when we consider that our own view of the world might not normally have elements in common with innumerable others. Conventional wisdom says that in diversity there is strength, and common sense in one situation, while it may not apply universally to all others, may have a common thread that most people can relate to easily, if they would just stop and think.

    This topic may need to be revisited before too long…it’s only common sense to think so….

  2. This post reminds me of the occasional wish I have to use only simple things, without tags. For example, instead of a plastic bag with company logo, a classic picnic basket, like a child.

    I agree with your conclusion, however, we do need to move beyond the razzle-dazzle of a few more megabits and get at what we mean to do with all this technology.

  3. Ultimately, I think the dust will settle as we move forward into the 21st century and with enough thoughtful and determined hearts and minds put toward the task, we will get at what we mean to do with the technology. Your urge to simplify is a good urge, I think, and perhaps by actually communicating with other people in person or through writing, like we all used to do, we could mitigate the razzle-dazzle a bit.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting…..John H.

  4. Profound ~ “We will not be defined so much by the new technologies of the future as we will by our thoughtful and intelligent use of them.”
    Heavy with implication ~ “Before the greatest ballerina gives her greatest performance, she hones her skills, relentlessly practices her routines, and labors endlessly to be the best she can be.”
    Is it not common sense then, that such activity would facilitate the honing of a plethora of skills, knowledge, values and character? Common sense is indeed absent in every facet of modern life, to some degree. For me, the most blatant, alarming and destructive illustrations of this concept lay in the factors that catalyzed the degeneration public education. It seems that “common sense” is now little more than a novelty. This has been my perception for quite some time, as I recognize it’s absence in my activities throughout most of my days. So then what? What do we do with this? I say, keep on smilin’, keep on truckin’ … but perhaps truck a bit harder. Compensate.

    1. Heidi,
      Thanks for your comment and for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully. I agree with you that our public educational system, of all the places to be lacking in common sense, might be the one where the most damage is evident. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most important places for common sense to prevail. If we would put greater emphasis on and more resources into improving our educational system, and instead of reducing the available curriculum, create more opportunities for educators like you to innovate and adapt for the 21st century, common sense might eventually return to society at large.

      I commend your efforts in creating and supporting the STEAM ACADEMY:

      In reviewing the images and stories on the Steam Academy blog site, it seems clear that your efforts are paying off in demonstrative ways. I would be glad to know if there was some way to support your efforts beyond visiting the site.

      Regards……John H.

  5. Hi John,

    How grateful I am to learn of your approval for our project! It was incredibly thoughtful of you to post our link ~ thank you.

    I was taught never to refuse help and believe this to be sound advice! I don’t anticipate a change in philosophy, nor in my policy of applying it… especially with work on the STEAM ACADEMY, United Artists Foundation and Global Children’s Village.

    We have an ever growing team with such tremendous talent that I’m genuinely humbled to be fortunate enough to have earned their interest and engagement. My feelings would be just the same were you lend your expertise to our work, to whatever capacity you’re willing and able.



    I wrote a post last year about the fallacy of consumer choice. I would add now that we have, as Western capitalist consumer societies, conflated all these consumer choices (that we can’t actually process anyway as the paper highlights) with individual freedom. When more of us wake up to the fact that these ‘choices’ actually oppress us and leave no room for us to develop, let alone use common sense, we will all be better off in the things that really matter.

    1. Thanks for the link to Jonah Lehrer’s blog posting on decision making. I’m a fan of his blog,”The Frontal Cortex,” at, and often find myself admiring his open-minded approach to neuroscientific subjects. Having to consider so many choices, or as Jonah puts it, having to “…navigate a world of seemingly infinite alternatives,” can overwhelm our conscious brains in such a way as to cause us to make poor choices. He reports the results of experiments which show that our gut instincts, intuition, and how we FEEL about the choice can actually produce better results.

      His conclusion points to the advantage of listening to our feelings:

      “In a final pair of experiments, the researchers demonstrated that the advantages of emotional decision-making could be undone by a subsequent bout of deliberation, which suggests that we shouldn’t doubt a particularly strong instinct, at least when the considering lots of information.

      While the evidence for an emotional advantage remains tentative, it’s clear that the old-fashioned view of feelings is no longer tenable. For too long, we’ve disparaged our inarticulate instincts/hunches/emotions/intuitions as irrational and irresponsible, a vestigial legacy of our animal past. Thanks to this new research, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear that our emotions have a logic all their own, that our instincts are often rooted in the processing powers of the unconscious brain.”

      Perhaps, as these experiments seem to indicate, our common sense notions of the world are, in important ways, reliant on our “emotional logic,” and might explain the apparent lack of common sense in modern life. We need to listen with our hearts, and open our minds to consider more than just the way things appear to the brain.

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment……John H.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s