It is not the sort of thing we expect from a Harvard professor. That makes it all the more amazing. True, he was standing at the edge of a kind of precipice. America’s long fall away from the way of thinking that had made America stretched out before him. In any event, he somehow managed to see far, far into America’s future.
Over a century ago, a Harvard professor of philosophy coined the phrase that describes our time. In his book Present Philosophical Tendencies (1912), Professor Ralph Barton Perry foresaw a time when people would too easily believe “what no one has ever believed before.”
Today, we are inundated with examples of people believing—or at least claiming to believe—what no one has ever believed before. There is the belief that a man who “identifies” as a woman must be allowed access to facilities which have always been reserved for women and girls. There is the belief that a man can have a “wife” who is a man. We are told we must stop designating a newborn as either male or female; a child must be allowed to discover which of the ever-increasing number of “genders” (67 when I last looked and surely more by now) it identifies with. The list of examples goes on and on.
Perry knew that American thinkers in his time were in the process of abandoning common sense. By pondering that fact, he came to understand what abandoning common sense was going to do to America.
America has been called the common sense nation. American thinkers abandoning common sense was going to be a big deal because common sense had always been at the core of the American idea. In his book The Enlightenment in America, Professor Henry F. May wrote that before the American Revolution, “increasingly after it, and with growing volume through at least the first half of the nineteenth century, a specific kind of…thought acquired a massive influence in America. This was the philosophy of common sense…” Allen Guelzo agrees: “Before the Civil War, every major [American] collegiate intellectual was a disciple” of the philosophy of common sense. According to Arthur Herman, the philosophy of common sense “was virtually the official creed of the American Republic.”
Perry understood that abandoning the philosophy of common sense would cast American thinkers adrift on the intellectual currents of the twentieth century. Perry’s brilliant insight was that abandoning common sense meant leaving truth behind–and that in the post-truth era, people would believe what no one has ever believed before. In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries made it official we had arrived in the post-truth era. The dictionaries selected “post-truth” as the Word of the Year for 2016.
Common sense philosophy is rooted in ordinary common sense. According to the philosophy of common sense and according to ordinary, everyday common sense, we are capable of knowing things that are true and knowing the difference between right and wrong. Professor Perry has a simple definition of common sense: “Common sense consists of the manifold things that can be taken for granted for the purposes of everyday life.”
That babies are either baby boys or baby girls and that men don’t belong in bathrooms or showers reserved for women and girls are among those manifold things that can be taken for granted for the purposes of everyday life. At least, there was a time not so long ago when they could be taken for granted.
When young Americans were taught the philosophy of common sense at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and all of the other institutions of higher learning in America, ordinary Americans and elite Americans had the common sense way of thinking in common.
But when young Americans were taught to reject truth and common sense and to embrace Progressivism in American universities, a gap opened up between ordinary Americans and elite Americans. That gap grew wider with the passage of time, and became a source of political and social instability. The elite eventually decided to close the gap by force. Fired up by the Progressivism they had acquired at the university, America’s elite began using the power of government and the other institutions they controlled to force ordinary Americans to submit to those beliefs no one has ever believed before.
As a result, Americans who still rely on common sense, who believe we can know the truth and the difference between right and wrong are now under attack from Progressive elites in government, in the media, and in corporate boardrooms.
The efforts of elite Americans to force common sense Americans to believe what has never been believed before makes clear that Frontpage is right about Progressives: “Inside Every Progressive Is A Totalitarian Screaming To Get Out.”
Robert Curry serves on the board of directors of the Claremont Institute and is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea and Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World, both from Encounter Books.