The American mind has been constructed on a few obvious attitudes and assumptions about life. One is a pronounced idealistic streak. The Europeans that settled in this land believed that they were creating a new world and – for better or worse – they became infused with an almost unshakeable belief in the assumption that progress was positive. The future, however willy-nilly we may proceed forward, was ultimately bringing us closer to goodness.
The American mind is also rooted in practicality. Ideas for Americans have to work – they have to be practical. They have to in some way improve life or solve problems. This combination of idealism and practicality characterizes the American philosophies of Transcendentalism and Pragmatism.
There is another influence on the American mind and character that is of critical importance if we are to understand this nation’s philosophical attitude. This is the influence of Common Sense. When most of us think of common sense we think of those things that everyone knows without having to speak about them. Everyone knows that you don’t spit into the wind; and you don’t eat hot peppers if you feel nauseous. These things are just common sense we would say, and anyone who doesn’t realize them has no common sense.
The roots of this idea that there is a ‘common sense’ about things can be found in a Scottish philosophical school that was called Common Sense. Adam Smith who wrote the famous “Wealth of Nations” and set the foundations for a free market economic system was part of this school. Scottish common sense was the dominant philosophy at work in colonial and revolutionary America and it remained a dominant force in academic philosophy until the early twentieth century.
Scottish Common Sense was a philosophy based on a novel idea about when and how we can know that something is true. If you want to answer a question or a problem the way to find out the truth is by using common sense. But when these philosophers talked about common sense they didn’t just mean those things that everyone knows without thinking about them. They meant an understanding that was common to a group of people.
The idea was this: if you have a problem and you get a small group of people together to talk about it – and if each of the people involved drops any personal biases and inquires into the problem free of preference – then when the whole group comes to a common understanding of what is true that will be as close to truth as it is possible to get. Truth is contained in the common understanding – or common sense – that a group of unbiased investigators will inevitably come to. For those familiar with the Pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce you will see the influence of this way of thinking on his own work.
The most obvious American application of this idea is in the American jury system. In that system a small group of people come together and listen to a court case in a trial. They then discuss the case together until they come to unanimous agreement about what was true. They in effect talk together until they come to a “common sense” of the truth and that is what stands up in the court.
This adherence to common sense philosophy can also be seen reflected in George Herbert Mead and John Dewey’s belief that truth is held in the conversation of society. That which society most commonly speaks of as true is what is true. If you believe that society is wrong, if you feel that you are aware of a truth that the society that you live in does not recognize, then you have to start a new conversation among whoever is willing to talk to you about your ideas. If the conversation you start catches on and grows popular enough it can become the dominant conversation in society on that subject. If this happens then your view will have become what is true, because it will have become the “common sense” understanding in the conversation of society.