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Scottish Common Sense Realism

ThomasReidWhile working on the Master of Divinity, one of my very favorite professors was Dr. Ted Cabal.  Dr. Cabal, once an ardent atheist, was converted while reading the Gospels.  In addition to having served as the pastor for several congregations and on the faculties of Dallas Baptist University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Cabal plays a mean guitar.  His favorite musical style used to be the blues, but he once quipped to me, “But now I’m too happy to play the blues!” Dr. Cabal is also the general editor of The Apologetics Study Bible.  I had the privilege of studying “Philosophy of Religion” under Dr. Cabal.  That class was a study of world philosophies and considered how philosophy and theology are interwoven.  I also studied philosophy during college, but the class was not nearly as detailed or informative as that in seminary.  My favorite portion of the seminary class was discovering Scottish Common Sense Realism (also known as the Scottish School of Common Sense).

Scottish Common Sense Realism is a school of epistemological philosophy that originated during the Scottish Enlightenment with the ideas of major figures such as Thomas Reid (pictured), Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson. Others notables included Gershom Carmichael, Archibald Campbell, George Turnbull, George Campbell, James Beattie, Alexander Gerard, Henry Home (Lord Kames) and Dugald Stewart.  It was developed in response to the skeptical philosophies of René Descartes, John Locke and David Hume, in particular.  A central concern of the school was to defend “common sense” against philosophical skepticism and paradox.  Rooted in Aristotelian thought, it advocates an empirical and scientific philosophy in which the trust of one’s senses is essential and implicit.  Each individual has an innate ability to perceive common ideas and that intuitive ability is fundamental in the accumulation of knowledge for both physical and metaphysical constructs.  Ordinary experiences provide a certain assurance not only of the existence of the self, but also the existence of real objects that may be seen and felt.  They also provide particular “first principles” upon which sound morality and religious beliefs may be established.  Observation alone, however, cannot account for all knowledge, and truth may only be garnered by reflection.  Common sense is, therefore, the foundation of philosophical inquiry.  Common Sense Realism maintains that common sense beliefs govern the lives and thoughts of all, including those who avow nonsensical notions.

Scottish Common Sense Realism is evident in the works of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  Adams compared the contributions of Dugald Stewart to those of Aristotle and Descartes.  Another American figure influenced greatly by Common Sense Realism was John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who also presided over Princeton University.  Students under Witherspoon’s tutelage included James Madison, who later served as president, as well as 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention and 12 governors.  Common Sense Realism not only pervaded intellectual circles in America during the Revolution, but also provided a stabilizing philosophical influence for the nation.  Benjamin Rush, who studied Common Sense Realism at the University of Edinburgh, was imbued by the realist philosophy in his scientific and political work, and provided a framework for his moral opposition to slavery.  Scottish Common Sense Realism also heavily influenced conservative religious thought, particularly at Princeton up through 1929.

Many people simply chuckle when I tell them that my philosophy is that of “Scottish Common Sense Realism,” having neither heard of it nor thinking it is a true philosophical school.  Nonetheless, it is an important and vital historical philosophical school which I believe contains essential principles, especially in our skeptical and often nonsensical world.

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