The PostBarthian
25Apr/120

Abraham Kuyper on Common Sense

Abraham Kuyper by Theo van Doesburg (1910)

Abraham Kuyper's Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology: Its Principles is one of the best theology works I've read this year, and I'd like to feature a few selections from it. The following is a brief anecdote on Kuyper's views on "Common Sense." Common Sense was a pamphalete by Thomas Paine that was widely distributed and led to mass confusion over what is known intrinsically by man. Paine's work may be good to consider as you read the following selection:

"But if among your acquaintances you meet with but few persons who have this insight to such an extent as to entitle them to the epithet of “wise folk,” all the others are not fools; and yet only this antithetical conception of foolishness elucidates sufficiently the exact conception of wisdom. A fool and a lunatic are not the same. An insane man is he whose consciousness works in the wrong way, so that all normal insight has become impossible for him. A fool, on the other hand, is he whose consciousness works normally, but who himself stands so crookedly over against the reality of things, that he makes mistake upon mistake and constantly makes the wrong move on the chess-board of life. He acts foolishly who makes an evident mistake in his representation of reality, and who in consequence of his noticeable lack of accurate insight, chooses the very thing that will serve him a wrong end. He lacks the proper relation to the reality, and this accounts for his mistakes. Between these “wise folk” and these “fools” stands the great mass of humanity, who in all possible gradations form the transition from the wise to the foolish; while among these general masses is found what used to be called a sound mind, common sense, le sens commun. This But if among your acquaintances you meet with but few persons who have this insight to such an extent as to entitle them to the epithet of “wise folk,” all the others are not fools; and yet only this antithetical conception of foolishness elucidates sufficiently the exact conception of wisdom. A fool and a lunatic are not the same. An insane man is he whose consciousness works in the wrong way, so that all normal insight has become impossible for him. A fool, on the other hand, is he whose consciousness works normally, but who himself stands so crookedly over against the reality of things, that he makes mistake upon mistake and constantly makes the wrong move on the chess-board of life. He acts foolishly who makes an evident mistake in his representation of reality, and who in consequence of his noticeable lack of accurate insight, chooses the very thing that will serve him a wrong end. He lacks the proper relation to the reality, and this accounts for his mistakes. Between these “wise folk” and these “fools” stands the great mass of humanity, who in all possible gradations form the transition from the wise to the foolish; while among these general masses is found what used to be called a sound mind, common sense, le sens commun. This 86 implies something that does not scale the heights of wisdom, but which, nevertheless, maintains a relation to it and offers a general basis for it. We grant that, more especially since the close of the last century, this expression “common sense” has been used synonymously with that analogous “public opinion” in which the weakened form of Rationalism reflected itself, and that this spectre has repeatedly been evoked to banish idealism, to mock the faith, and to hush every nobler feeling; but this was simple abuse. Originally, “common sense” meant by no means the iteration of the program of a particular school, but, on the contrary, a certain accuracy of tact, by which, in utter disregard of the pretensions of the schools, public opinion followed a track which turned neither too far to the right nor to the left. This weakened wisdom, which generally directs the course of life, occasionally forsook public opinion, and this gave foolishness the upper hand, and mad counsels free courses; but, in the long run, common sense almost always gained the day. And in individual persons it is found, that if the particular “wise folk” be excluded, one class is inclined to foolishness, while another class remains subject to the influence of a weakened wisdom, and the latter are said to be the people of common sense; a term which does not so much express a personal gift (charisma), as the fact that they sail in safe channels. If the phenomenon itself be thus sufficiently established, the question arises, how, culminating in wisdom and finding its antithesis in folly, this phenomenon of “common sense” is to be psychologically interpreted. It is not the fruit of early training, it is not the result of study, neither is it the effect of constant practice. Though it is granted that these three factors facilitate and strengthen the clear operations of this common sense and of this wisdom, the phenomenon itself does not find its origin in them. Two young men, brought up in the same social circle, of like educational advantages and of similar experience, will differ widely in point of wisdom; one will become a wise man, while with the other life will be a constant struggle. Thus we have to do with a certain capacity of the human mind, which is not introduced into it from without, but which is present in that mind as such, and abides there. The Dutch language has the beautiful word “be-sef-fen” (to sense), which etymologically is connected with the root of sap-ientia, and indicates a certain immediate affinity to that which exists outside of us. In this sense prudence and wisdom are innate; not an innate conception, but an insight which proceeds immediately from the affinity in which by nature we stand to the world about us, and to the world of higher things. Both point to a condition in which, if we may so express it, man felt Nature’s pulse beat; in which he shared the life of every animate thing, and so perceived and understood it; and in which, moreover, he also apprehended the higher life not as something foreign to himself, but as “sensing” it in his own sense of existence. Or if we look ahead, both phenomena lie in the line, at whose end the seeing (θεωρείν) is reached, “the knowing as we are known.” 86 implies something that does not scale the heights of wisdom, but which, nevertheless, maintains a relation to it and offers a general basis for it. We grant that, more especially since the close of the last century, this expression “common sense” has been used synonymously with that analogous “public opinion” in which the weakened form of Rationalism reflected itself, and that this spectre has repeatedly been evoked to banish idealism, to mock the faith, and to hush every nobler feeling; but this was simple abuse. Originally, “common sense” meant by no means the iteration of the program of a particular school, but, on the contrary, a certain accuracy of tact, by which, in utter disregard of the pretensions of the schools, public opinion followed a track which turned neither too far to the right nor to the left. This weakened wisdom, which generally directs the course of life, occasionally forsook public opinion, and this gave foolishness the upper hand, and mad counsels free courses; but, in the long run, common sense almost always gained the day. And in individual persons it is found, that if the particular “wise folk” be excluded, one class is inclined to foolishness, while another class remains subject to the influence of a weakened wisdom, and the latter are said to be the people of common sense; a term which does not so much express a personal gift (charisma), as the fact that they sail in safe channels. If the phenomenon itself be thus sufficiently established, the question arises, how, culminating in wisdom and finding its antithesis in folly, this phenomenon of “common sense” is to be psychologically interpreted. It is not the fruit of early training, it is not the result of study, neither is it the effect of constant practice. Though it is granted that these three factors facilitate and strengthen the clear operations of this common sense and of this wisdom, the phenomenon itself does not find its origin in them. Two young men, brought up in the same social circle, of like educational advantages and of similar experience, will differ widely in point of wisdom; one will become a wise man, while with the other life will be a constant struggle. Thus we have to do with a certain capacity of the human mind, which is not introduced into it from without, but which is present in that mind as such, and abides there. The Dutch language has the beautiful word “be-sef-fen” (to sense), which etymologically is connected with the root of sap-ientia, and indicates a certain immediate affinity to that which exists outside of us. In this sense prudence and wisdom are innate; not an innate conception, but an insight which proceeds immediately from the affinity in which by nature we stand to the world about us, and to the world of higher things. Both point to a condition in which, if we may so express it, man felt Nature’s pulse beat; in which he shared the life of every animate thing, and so perceived and understood it; and in which, moreover, he also apprehended the higher life not as something foreign to himself, but as “sensing” it in his own sense of existence. Or if we look ahead, both phenomena lie in the line, at whose end the seeing (θεωρείν) is reached, “the knowing as we are known.” 87 The energy of this intuition is now broken. With some it seems entirely lost, and these are called “fools.” With some others it still works comparatively with great effect, for which reason they are called, preeminently, the wise folk. And between these extremes range the people of common sense; so called because in them something is still found of the old, sound, primitive force (Urkraft) of the human mind. Now it is readily seen what a formidable dam wisdom and common sense prove against the destructive floods of Skepticism. If there were no other way open to knowledge than that which discursive thought provides, the subjective character which is inseparable from all higher science, the uncertainty which is the penalty of sin, and the impossibility between truth and falsehood to decide what shall be objectively compulsory would encourage Skepticism to strike ever deeper root. But since an entirely different way of knowledge is disclosed to us by wisdom and its allied common sense, which, independent of scientific investigation, has a starting point of its own, this intuitive knowledge, founded on fixed perceptions given with our consciousness itself, offers a saving counterpoise to Skepticism. For now we have a certain insight, and on the ground of this insight a relative certainty, which has no connection with the discursive conflict between truth and falsehood, and which, being constantly confirmed in the fiery test of practical application in daily life, gives us a starting-point by which the conviction maintains itself in us that we are able to grasp the truth of things. And since this wisdom and common sense determine those very issues and principles of life, against which skepticism directs its most critical and important attacks, we find in this phenomenon, so mysterious in itself, a saving strength which enables the human mind to effect its escape from the clutches of Skepticism. This wisdom can never supersede discursive thought, nor can it take the place of empiricism, but it has the general universal tendency to exclude follies from the processes of discursive thought, and in empirical investigation to promote the accuracy of our tact. In answer to the objection that it is difficult to harmonize this interpretation of “wisdom” with the conception of σόφία in our word “philosophy” (φιλοσόφία), we observe that for a just criticism of this apparent objection we must go back to the original conception of “wisdom” as held by the Greeks, and to the most ancient meaning of the combination of φιλείν with this word. As for “wisdom,” we refer first of all to the noteworthy sentence of Heraclitus: σοφίη άληθέα λέγειν καί ποιείν κατά φύσιν έπαίοντας, i.e. “Wisdom consists in knowing how to speak the truth, and how to live according to nature,” in which the last words especially indicate that “wisdom” is taken as ripening from a natural instinct, while the verb “to live” (ποιείν) exhibits its practical character."

-- Abraham Kuyper, Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology, lulu edition. (pg85-87)

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