The Rediscovery of Common Sense Philosophy. By Stephen Boulter
Version of Record online: 7 APR 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 527–528, May 2009
How to Cite
McCall, B. (2009), The Rediscovery of Common Sense Philosophy. By Stephen Boulter. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 527–528. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00484_16.x
- Issue online: 7 APR 2009
- Version of Record online: 7 APR 2009
Pp. xvi, 239 , New York , Palgrave Macmillan , 2007 , $74.95.
Should philosophy be based upon common sense? Stephen Boulter argues that it should. What would philosophy look like if it were in friendly ‘relations’ with common sense? This text explores these and related questions. Contrary to popular conception and practice Boulter argues that any philosophical paradox and counterintuitive thesis ought to make one conclude that an error has been made in the formulation of the philosophical position, which reinforces the validity of the common sense foundation. This book is essentially a defense of the philosophy of common sense broadly in the spirit of Thomas Reid and G.E. Moore. The text breaks new ground, proffering a meta-philosophy of common sense, which draws upon the work of Aristotle, contemporary evolutionary biology and psychology, as well as historical studies on the origins of early modern philosophy (particularly Descartes). Boulter also dialogues rather extensively with Gilbert Ryle, John Austin, and Paul Grice within this text.
Part One offers new answers to the questions: What counts as a common sense belief? Why should common sense beliefs be considered default positions?, and Why is it that philosophers so frequently end up denying what we all know to be true? Pointedly, chapter one sets forth the distinctive and characteristic claims of a common sense philosopher, and draws up a tentative list of nearly two dozen common sense positions that philosophers would do well to respect. For example, building upon G.E. Moore, Boulter notes that the existence of material bodies within the universe, that all material objects are located within space, that human beings have minds endowed with higher level consciousness, and that mental acts are contained within (and ontologically dependent upon) bodies should be taken as a given truths. From Reid, Boulter constructs the following given truths (among others): that memory of an event is reliable (particularly recent ones), that there are some things that cannot exist by themselves (i.e., they must be in something else, as qualities or attributes), that moral judgments are true or false, and that most universally accepted principles should be taken as first principles (pp. 28–31).
In chapter two, Boulter offers a rigorous defense of the position that common sense beliefs ought to be treated as default positions. Interestingly, within this chapter Boulter suggests that a proposition counts as a common sense belief if it is reasonable to assume that it was necessary to ensure either social or ecological fitness in the evolution of hominids (I wonder, pointedly, if he would classify religion as such?). In chapters three and four Boulter questions why it is that philosophers of the past have commonly posited answers to questions that the common person never asks. In part, he suggests, these philosophical errors (at least in the modern period) are due to these philosophers (unwittingly) conducting their philosophical endeavors according to the rules and expectations of medieval theologians, and not of the philosophers.
Part Two defends common sense beliefs from specific challenges from prominent philosophers on topics from metaphysics to ethics, which in essence is an application of his meta-philosophy developed in part one. In particular, chapter five is a defense of the view that the external world is independent of our representations of it, and that this world is perceived directly, without projective perception. Chapter six is a rebuttal of Michael Dummett's semantic anti-realist challenge to metaphysical realism. Herein Boulter argues that Dummett provides no veritable reason to give up the principle of bivalence (i.e., that every proposition takes exactly one of two truth values: true or false). Chapter seven focuses on the philosophy of mind, and is a refutation of the eliminative materialist claims holding that all mental states now deemed to be filled with intentional content must be rejected on the basis of a as-yet-unidentified concept of neuroscience. Chapter eight is, for me, the most valuable. Here Boulter asserts and defends the notion that humans are, at least some of the time, responsible for their actions (which is in contradistinction to Galen Strawson and Peter van Inwagen, who both argue for a sort of determinism)
In sum, this book picks up the threads of former conceptions of the philosophy of common sense and relocates it within contemporary discussion, arguing for a return to intuitionism. Readers who have interests in early modern philosophy, intuitionism, and the Scottish School of Common Sense will find much to be delighted in. I caution the reader to be rather well versed with these topics, however, for Boulter makes assumptions rather regularly on the pre-understanding from the potential reader.