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  • T.W. Emory

Common Sense Still Common.

As a well-known cynical quip maintains, common sense isn’t all that common. While at times this might seem to be the case, there are some basic indicators that argue that sound judgment based on experience continues with most; that people in general do display what is called normal native intelligence. While perhaps it’s mainly anecdotal evidence that’s cited as proof, still, it can be argued that most people seem to “know” or “sense” when something is clearly right or wrong; that people in general tend to realize when something they’re hearing or learning doesn’t pass the proverbial “smell test.” Not surprisingly, the idea of something not ‘smelling’ right even when we don’t know all the facts, is reflected in some notable insightful phrases that have come down to us.

For instance, H.L. Mencken is credited with having stated: “When somebody says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.” So it is that “follow the money” continues to be a sound directive in a police investigation or a congressional hearing. Or reflect on Shakespeare’s phrase from Hamlet: “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” In Shakespeare’s day, “protest” meant to declare solemnly or to positively affirm. This expression is often used to indicate that a person’s repeated and fervent attempts to convince others of something is actually what causes them to believe that the opposite is true. In other words, they sense they’re being snowed—or that “it’s about the money,” as Mencken might put it.

Consider too, the self-explanatory “duck test” which states: ‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.’ This famous ‘duck test’ is oddly similar to a well-known saying that came out of the world of jurisprudence. “I know it when I see it” became one of the most famous phrases in the entire history of the Supreme Court when Justice Potter Stewart wrote his short concurrence that “hard-core pornography” was hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it.” Hence, “I know it when I see it” has become an everyday way of describing a person’s attempt to classify a fact or a happening though its category is subjective or its criterion isn’t clear-cut. In other words, “common sense.”

Finally, consider a noteworthy verse from the Bible. A learned Jew in the first century was pretty much banking on the normal native intelligence that we moderns have come to associate with the ‘duck test’ and “I know it when I see it”, when he wrote the following to some of his dear friends who were then living in Rome: “You could hardly find anyone ready to die even for someone upright; though it is just possible that, for a really good person, someone might undertake to die.” The Christian apostle Paul seems to have known that the readers of his letter would simply know what he meant by “a really good person” without his having to explain it to them in great detail, which he didn’t.

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