Paine, Thomas (2003/1776). “Common Sense.” In: Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine, 21.

Story behind the Passage

In a conversation today we talked about the fact that many businesses simply forget to listen to their clients. Even worse, they completely forget that clients should be at the center of everything they do. The weird thing about this is that listening to clients does not take any business skills. Carefully listening to ANYBODY does not take any special skills. Still, even business owners forget about this. “It just takes common sense to do this,” I said. And my friend on the other end of the line immediately agreed. “But some folks are just so much into their analytical stuff and the numbers that they forget about common sense,” she replied.

Indeed, common sense seems to have become a concept with a somewhat negative connotation by now. At least, this is my feeling. Some people use it in a derogatoriy way that suggests something like “the thinking of the uneducated.” They never say this explicitly but to me, it often sounds this way. In business, everything is about common sense, at least at the core. Or is it not common-sensical to deliver something and then take money for it? Give and take! Still, the bigger an organization and the more educated and specialized the people become, the more they stop using common sense in favor of other supposedly “rational” thought patterns.

This is why I grabbed Thomas Paine’s essay today. Yes, it might sound really strange to write about an essay from the 18th century. No, I do not want to start a lecture on American history now. Nothing could be further from my intentions. That is a curious finding that goes along with my choice today. Just when I opened the book now, I discovered so many notes and comments in the book that I can hardly believe that I was the one writing them. But I did. I must have been really excited about all this when I read it maybe in my second or third semester in university. I am not saying that I am not excited about political philosophy anymore. Still, I am in a very different place in my life now. Yes, America/the U.S. is still interesting to me. And yes, I am very American in many ways. Still, studying the U.S. has always been only one subject to me. It feels quite distant to me now. We have our own problems to fix in Germany and taking care of these is a lot more satisfying to me right now.

My Learnings

“Thoughts on the present state of American affairs.” You know what — I really do not care about this. This is a simple truth. Yes, I watch the news and whenever there is something about the U.S., that is fine, I listen. But really, the world is changing. The U.S. is not the center of everybody’s world anymore. The country has lost its pioneering role in the world. As with anything that seems to be important, that importance is really a projection of the observer. So, many people are currently shifting their attention to other parts of the world, particularly the East (Asia), to find out what the future will bring.

And I am one of them.

“… [T]hat he will put on, or rather that he will not put off the true character of a man, and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day.” For anybody who is not familiar with Thomas Paine and the significance of this essay — this piece was a milestone for the independence of America. So, “common sense” in this context, of course, meant the spirit of Enlightenment and the potential of political independence. Still, a sentence like this also has meaning without the particular historical context. At least, this is how I am reading it here.

What I am asking myself is whether the foundation of “enlarging one’s views beyond the present day” really is common sense. Intuitively, I would say yes. Only if you display “common sense,” whatever this might mean to you, you are free to a certain extent. You do not follow any preconceived dogma or social norms. You think independently and thus every situation is taken up separately and can lead to unplanned consequences. If you allow yourself to let individual and free thinking gain the upper hand, then you also need to let go of your inner handcuffs. You do whatever common sense tells you is the right — the only right — decision at a given point.

Since this all sounds abstract, let me get back to the fact that so many people work in companies and they have no idea what the clients are actually thinking about their products. Even worse, they do not think about the clients. They do not even think about the big picture as far as the company is concerned. They just do their job, i.e., they take care of a tiny part of the whole. That is it. Of course, this is ‘natural’ to a certain extent. We know all the talk about differentiation and specialization. But is this really “common sense”? Or would it not be more intuitive in a way that humans want to know what all their work is actually good for? Thus, they would also think of the customer all the time?

As far as my impression goes, I am a bit lost. I know how quickly you can drift into a mode where you forget about common sense. You just follow whatever everybody else is saying and doing. And then you get so caught up in the details that any ‘common-sensical’ perspective is lost. After all, common sense requires some distance, I would argue — some mental distance from the matter you are looking at. Nevertheless, our parent and grandparent generations did not make such a fuss about sophisticated thinking. They used more common sense, I guess. But maybe this is false. Maybe every generation says that about the elderly.

In any case, I would appreciate more common sense among all of us. Above all, “common sense” also means thinking about the common good in a way. Paine, of course, had the common good of the American people on his mind. I care more about the people around me right now — people in Europe but also in other parts of the world. I wish that all of us, especially the highly-educated, have the guts to stand up for common sense; or rather, regain it. To me this also means one important thing:

Speaking up for humanism; for what feels right and wrong; for what needs no measurement or science to pass as valuable.

After all, I think, there can never be “too much” common sense. There can only be too little. Somehow history always repeats itself. Yes, we have all the digital tools and three more centuries of rational thinking and science since Paine wrote. But if all this has led us to a point where people increasingly forget about common sense or even lack it — what is the benefit?

Reflection Questions

1) Do you know anything about the role of the concept of “common sense” in the history of your country/culture?

2) Does the concept of the “common good” make sense to you? Why/not?

3) How do you think about the present-day relationship between the U.S. and Europe?

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