The skill of critical thinking has become almost the most important skill of 21st century society. It is spoken and written about everywhere today. However, not all people understand enough about what kind of thinking it is, how it works, and whether it can be developed.
How often do we hear: “Turn on your common sense!”, “In terms of common sense this is…”, “Common sense suggests…”. Many people equate critical thinking with common sense. But is that fair? And what is common sense anyway?
What is common sense?
Common sense is a general concept of several important aspects of human life at once: health, thinking, meanings of life. The term is thought to come from Latin. It sounded like this – “sensus communus”, which translates as “common feeling”.
The term was coined by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He believed that in addition to the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell), there was one more sense, the “common sense”. It is it that coordinates separate senses and connects them together.
How can this concept be defined? It is a set of views on the surrounding reality, which are inherent in almost all people and which can be expected from almost all people without the need for discussion. It is people’s ideas about themselves, society, nature, which are formed under the influence of experience and pass a rigid selection on viability, because this system of ideas should adequately reflect the environment of our life activity.
That is, common sense is such a general opinion, folk wisdom, the views of the majority based on everyday experience. No one specially teaches these worldly notions, there are no “common sense” lessons. They are learned by people in the natural process of life.
Common sense has an important social function: on some level, it keeps us safe. After all, to share what most people share is to be with everyone else, in society.
We are all subconsciously afraid of being rejected by society. We are afraid of being alone. Moreover, let us imagine that some idea has been proven wrong. But if most people supported it, it turns out that almost everyone was wrong, not just us, and that’s not so scary.
“Common sense” sounds like the truth in the last resort, it’s like a bright flashing signal or a loud siren that screams at us, “Don’t even think about criticizing this idea!” As soon as we hear the mention of “common sense” in a conversation, it’s as if we have a veto over the verification of the correctness of that idea. But can a label hung by society be a guarantee of correctness? I don’t think so.
One thing is important to understand: most people can be wrong.
When common sense works and when it doesn’t
Common sense works well in everyday life, in the sphere of communication between people, but it does not work well in spheres where you need an unconventional view of things: creativity, business, science etc:
- It was once thought that the earth stood on three whales and a big turtle and was the center of the universe. And it was considered common sense. But it was a mistake!
- There was a time when virgins were sacrificed to get rich harvests;
- Slavery once flourished;
- There was a time when doctors practiced bloodletting to cure any disease;
- There was a time when everyone believed in alchemy;
- There was a time when Chinese girls had their feet bandaged and deformed to look like lotus buds;
- Somewhere people still believe that offspring can inherit the genes of all those with whom a woman has had sexual intercourse (I mean telegonism). And someone still considers this to be an unshakable truth.
It is hard to say that these are good illustrations of common sense. What we would now call nonsense was once shared by the majority. Moreover, these ideas were considered the norm, the dogma, the standard. And who knows, perhaps time will pass and future generations will remember with incomprehension and wonder what you and I think of as “common sense” now, what the majority shares without question.
Critical thinking and common sense are not the same thing. Critical thinking is your own, autonomous, independent thinking, not the opinion shared by the majority. We must continually demand that any idea, even one that falls under the category of “common sense,” be proven, understood, and justified.
What do you see here?
At one of my last lectures to my students, I showed them this photo taken in a mall bathroom:
When people see this, the first reaction is laughter. The second reaction is to ask: “Why? The third reaction is to start reasoning. In the vast majority of cases, people list that thoughts:
- This was done by crooked repairmen;
- Two rolls of toilet paper hung here on purpose so they could be changed less often;
- There was an extra toilet paper holder left over from repairs. Then they decided to bolt it here;
- One paper holder is for the butt and the other is for the face;
- The first holder was stolen (it has a screw on it), then a new one was put in. Then the old holder was found and screwed back on.
There were many versions. But the phrase that struck me the most was what one IT specialist said, “It’s a fail-safe cluster of toilet paper.” It is extremely brief and precise, so I will give my expanded interpretation:
- Obviously, this is a public place;
- There are 2 types of people interacting with toilet paper: the customer and the cleanliness manager. The customer wants the paper to BE available. The cleanliness manager checks the availability of paper once every 30 minutes;
- If paper is available, but not enough, there is a dilemma: Change = paper overspending, Leave = risk of leaving the client without paper;
- Having a duplicate roll removes a contradiction – change only a completely finished roll.
What does this example demonstrate?
Most people perceive the reality around them in a “looking at the teapot, seeing the teapot” mode. In order to understand TRUE sense, we need to go beyond what we see.
In that example we had to go into context:
- “See” the client and the cleanliness manager;
- Simulate the situation with paper replacement;
- Resolve the resulting contradiction.
This is the approach that lies at the base of critical thinking.
We live in the age of the Internet. There is VERY LARGE information and very less senses.
Instead of simply following common sense, we recommend rely on your own mind. It is important to try to decipher this or that phenomenon, as in our example, to identify the context, to understand the cause-and-effect relationships (why things happened this way).
Constantly train your mind to think systematically, to see connections. Over time, you’ll notice that your superficial view of things will disappear. And you will begin to see new possibilities!