Thursday, December 13, 2012

Therapy and common sense

This is probably well known, but I don't remember ever reading it or thinking of it for myself before. In Anna Boncompagni's "The Mother-tongue of Thought": James and Wittgenstein on Common Sense she points out that:
It might be worth noticing, that the German expression for common sense, gesunder Menschverstand, implicitly links common sense to health, as gesund means healthy.
She also quotes Wittgenstein saying that "a philosopher is one who must heal in himself many diseases of the understanding, before he can arrive at the notions of common sense," and:
Philosophy can be said to consist of three activities: to see the commonsense answer, to get yourself so deeply into the problem that the commonsense answer is unbearable, and to get from that situation back to the commonsense answer. But the commonsense answer in itself is no solution; everyone knows it. One must not in philosophy attempt to short-circuit problems.
I'm not sure exactly what I have learned from this (if I tried to say I suspect it would not sound like anything new at all, not even new to me), but I think I might have a deeper understanding of the importance of common sense for Wittgenstein as a result. 


  1. gadamer makes something (small) of this in the discussion of common sense early in 'truth and method'. i don't have it in front of me at the moment - i think a remark about how the connection to the idea of 'health' is an outlier in the tradition whose other steps run through 'sensus communis' and such?

    i've never read his book on health, i would expect it to come up again there.

  2. Although the English "common sense", of course, does not make this connection, lots of other languages makes the connection to health. And one finds the same connection in English in expressions such as "sound opinions", "sound advice", "sound reasoning", "a sound mind", as "sound"(as an adjective) means healthy and is actually directly derived from the German "gesund".

    Scandinavian languages makes both connections, since they will usually speak of "common healthy reason".

    On the other hand, I don't know how much to make of it: Do we even have a direct quote from W using "gesunder Menschverstand"?

  3. Thanks, Presskorn. The answer to your question "Do we even have a direct quote from W using "gesunder Menschverstand"?" appears to be No. It's not in the Nachlass, and the quotations from Wittgenstein about common sense come from sources originally in English (the Blue Book and lectures).

  4. Thank you all for your interest and comments.

    Wittgenstein does use that expression in German in Vermischte Bemerkungen, which is where the quote "a philosopher is one who must heal in himself many diseases of the understanding, before he can arrive at the notions of common sense" comes from. And in these very words the connection between health and common sense is explicit, as well as the idea that common sense is not the immediate therapy for the philosopher.

    Personally, I find it interesting that Wittgenstein thought about common sense as a "home" where one can go back to, but did not defend it in a Moorean sense.

  5. Thanks, Anna. I should have re-read your paper more carefully before replying to Presskorn.

    Yes, there must be a lot to be said about Wittgenstein's relation or attitude to common sense and how this is different from Moore's.

  6. In Finnish too, "common sense" is terve järki ('healthy reason'), or for the Heideggerians or Tolstoyans among us, terve maalaisjärki ('healthy rural reason' or 'healthy peasant reason'). That's my mother tongue, but I never made the connection until now. So Duncan, your "probably well known" is probably wrong!

    (A factor is that for some reason, Heikki Nyman's classic Finnish translation has terve ihmisymmärrys, 'healthy human understanding' – which is a word-for-word translation, but is not idiomatic at all – for gesunder Menschverstand.)

  7. Thanks, Tommi. I'm glad I'm not the only one who overlooked this!

    It's good to see you back here, too.