UNDERGRADUATE PHILOSOPHY CONFERENCE CLOSING REMARKS
Robert M. Berchman
Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies
Why for everybody?
And why is philosophy an introduction to common sense?
I can answer these questions better after I have answered another. Why philosophy at all? Why should everyone learn how to think philosophically – how to ask the kind of searching questions that children and philosophers ask and that philosophers sometimes answer?
I have long accepted the claim that philosophy is everybody’s business but not in order to get more information about the world, our society, and ourselves. Here it might be better to turn to the natural and social sciences and to history. It is another way in which philosophy is useful – to help us understand things we already know, understand them better than we now understand them. Here we owe our presenters, respondents, and moderators a great deal of thanks. They have invited us to think philosophically.
In an effort to understand we began today where everybody should begin – with what we already knew in the light of our ordinary, commonplace experience. Beginning there, as Hegel notes, our thinking uses notions that we all possess, not because we were taught them in school, but because they are the common stock of human thought about anything and everything. We sometimes refer to these notions as our common sense about things. They are notions that we have formed as a result of the common experience we have in the course of our daily lives – experiences we have without any effort of inquiry on our part, experiences we all have simply because we are awake and conscious. In addition these common notions are thoughts we are able to express in the words we employ in everyday speech.
Forgive me for repeating the word “common” so many times. I cannot avoid doing so, and I lay stress on the word because what it means lies at the heart of this conference. Not everything is common. There are many things we call our own but there are other things that we recognize as not exclusively ours. We share them with others like a home all the members of a family share when they live in it together.
There are many things that people share. There are fewer things that we all share and are common to all of us, simply because we are all human. It is in this last all-embracing sense of the word common that I refer to common experiences, common notions, or common sense. Our common sense notions are expressed by such words as discontents, skepticism, irrationality, freedom, queerness, emergence, pragmatism, truth, mind, God, relativism, world. Most of us have been using these words and notions for a long time – since we were quite young. We started to use them in order to talk about experiences that all of us have had – disquiet, doubt, death, horizons, alienation, certainty, thinking, perfection, ambiguity, one-many-change-cause, and so on. What has been made clear today is that the words and notions examined by these philosophers today are all common – not exclusively yours, or mine, or anyone else’s.
In contrast, the things observed by scientists, social scientists, and historians are very special experiences. We may learn about them from their studies and reports, but, as a rule, we do not experience them ourselves. That and that alone is the reason why philosophy helps us understand and know ourselves and our lives, as well as the world and the society in which we live. Philosophy begins with experience but does not end there. It goes further. It adds to and surrounds experience with insights and reasons that are not common after all. Consequently, our grasp of things goes deeper and sometimes soars higher. Philosophy, in a word, is uncommon common sense. That is the great contribution philosophy brings to all of us. It makes the common, uncommon.
When Hegel and Heidegger said of a book or play that it is an impressive technical achievement, but we are not changed by experiencing it, we encounter an Erlebnis, a mere entertainment or interlude. When we have been transformed by thought, however, we experience an Erfahrung. Let us thank our undergraduate philosophers for their uncommon common-sense to philosophize with us today.