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America and the Political Philosophy of Common Sense

Scott Philip Segrest

Publication Year: 2009

From Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson, seminal thinkers have declared “common sense” essential for moral discernment and civilized living. Yet the story of commonsense philosophy is not well known today.
            In America and the Political Philosophy of Common Sense, Scott Segrest traces the history and explores the personal and social meaning of common sense as understood especially in American thought and as reflected specifically in the writings of three paradigmatic thinkers: John Witherspoon, James McCosh, and William James. The first two represent Scottish Common Sense and the third, Pragmatism, the schools that together dominated American higher thought for nearly two centuries.
Educated Americans of the founding period warmly received Scottish Common Sense, Segrest writes, because it reflected so well what they already thought, and he uncovers the basic elements of American common sense in examining the thought of Witherspoon, who introduced that philosophy to them. With McCosh, he shows the furthest development and limits of the philosophy, and with it of American common sense in its Scottish realist phase. With James, he shows other dimensions of common sense that Americans had long embraced but that had never been examined philosophically.
            Clearly, Segrest’s work is much more than an intellectual history. It is a study of the American mind and of common sense itself—its essential character and its human significance, both moral and political. It was common sense, he affirms, that underlay the Declaration of Independence and the founders’ ideas of right and obligation that are still with us today. Segrest suggests that understanding this foundation and James’s refreshing of it could be the key to maintaining America’s vital moral core against a growing alienation from common sense across the Western world.
Stressing the urgency of understanding and preserving common sense, Segrest’s work sheds new light on an undervalued aspect of American thought and experience, helping us to perceive the ramifications of commonsense philosophy for dignified living.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Title Page, Series Information, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-viii


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pp. ix-x

Abbreviations Used in the Text

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pp. xi-xii


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pp. xiii-xvi

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-20

This study considers the political significance of something called common sense philosophy. Two likely reactions to the proposed topic present them-selves: Those generally skeptical about the value of philosophy for political life—those who tend to see philosophy as either vicious or useless—might say, “It’s about time! Finally, a common sense philosophy of politics!” Those of a ...

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2. Common Sense and the Common Sense Tradition

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pp. 21-63

The philosophical and political import of common sense is strikingly suggested in a passage from Eric Voegelin’s Autobiographical Reflections. The passage has the additional merit of highlighting the surprising philosophic richness of American culture and outlook. As a young German scholar studying in America at Columbia University around 1922, Voegelin found himself ...

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3. Witherspoon's "Plain Common Sense"

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pp. 64-100

The Western common sense tradition connects to American thought most directly in the form of Scottish Common Sense, and John Witherspoon was the key figure in making that philosophy a major force in American academia and in the minds of the many young men he sent out from Princeton to lead the country.1 More to the point for our purposes, Witherspoon constitutes a model— ...

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4. McCosh's Scientific Intuitionism

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pp. 101-132

The features of American moral consciousness that Witherspoon represented continued essentially unchanged to James McCosh’s presidency at Princeton, approximately the time that outlook transitioned to something new (though not entirely new). American religious understanding had not suddenly transmogrified since Tocqueville marveled at American religiosity in the 1830s. The ...

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5. The Common Sense Basis of James's Pragmatic Radical Empiricism

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pp. 133-174

William James’s thought represents a remarkable new development in Western common sense philosophy. Jamesian Pragmatism is, rightly considered, a continuation of that tradition. As James himself put it in the subtitle to Pragmatism, it is really but “a new name for some old ways of thinking.” But some elements of the old way had never been adequately assimilated into the tradition’s ...

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6. The Common Sense Basis of James's Moral and Social Theory

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pp. 175-208

James did not express his moral understanding in terms of natural right, but it can accurately be conceived in that vein. His indications of an “eternal moral order” and objective moral relations, his prioritization of human value in order of spiritual, social, and physical, and his treatment of justice and character all suggest a right determined by nature, albeit a nature more ...

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7. Conclusion

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pp. 209-224

How compatible were Scottish Common Sense and James’s philosophy? How compatible were the Scottish realist and the Jamesian moral understandings? What is their relevance for us? What can we conclude from this study as a whole about the personal and social meanings of common sense in general, and the role of common sense in the unfolding of American order in par-...


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pp. 225-252

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 253-264


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pp. 265-283

Back Cover

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p. BC-BC

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272072
E-ISBN-10: 082627207X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826218735
Print-ISBN-10: 0826218733

Page Count: 283
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: 1