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About the author:
Andrew Pessin is Professor of Philosophy at Connecticut College, with degrees from Yale and Columbia—though he is perhaps most popular with his students for his appearances years ago as “The Genius” on the Late Show with David Letterman. Author of many academic articles and books, as well as four philosophy books, one textbook, and one audio course aimed at a general audience, his book, Uncommon Sense: The Strangest Ideas from the Smartest Philosophers, was named an “Outstanding Academic Title of 2013” by Choice. He has spent two decades teaching undergraduates at liberal arts colleges in addition to having spoken about philosophy to many non-philosophical audiences, so he has plenty of experience making philosophy entertaining, accessible, yet provocative and most of all fun. His previous novel, The Second Daughter, written under the pen name J. Jeffrey—read the novel to find out why the pen name!—was a Semi-Finalist in Literary Fiction at The Kindle Book Review Book awards, and he greatly enjoyed meeting (either in person or over Skype) with the many bookclubs that adopted it. In his spare time he composes and performs amusing philosophy songs. For more information about him or his work, please visit
An historical murder mystery based on real events.
Who would want to murder the world’s most famous philosopher?
Turns out: nearly everyone.
In 1649, Descartes was invited by the Queen of Sweden to become her Court Philosopher. Though he was the world’s leading philosopher, his life had by this point fallen apart. He was 53, penniless, living in exile in Amsterdam, alone. With much trepidation but not much choice, he arrived in Stockholm in mid-October.
Shortly thereafter he was dead.
Stop Making Sense
by Andrew Pessin
In my college days I discovered that nothing can be imagined which is too strange or incredible to have been said by some philosopher…
René Descartes (1596-1650)
Not only is the world stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagin …
Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) There’s a famous anecdote, related by the great ancient Greek philosopher Plato about the even more ancient (though slightly less great) Greek philosopher Thales. The latter was once walking about at night gazing upwards at the starry sky, thinking very profound and abstract thoughts about the heavens, when he tumbled into a well in front of him. A “witty and amusing” young girl nearby found this quite hilarious, and observed that while Thales might be passionate about understanding nature he was rather clueless when it came to seeing what was right before his eyes. As Plato then succinctly observes, the same joke applies equally well to all those “odd birds” who spend their lives in philosophy. Except that the last laugh just might, perhaps, belong to the philosopher. For what if—just what if—seeing what’s right before your eyes isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? True, smarty-pants philosophers sometimes get lost in their own thoughts to the point where they fall into proverbial wells. They may sometimes provide an inexpensive source of amusement and entertainment for the rest of us in their general lack of worldliness, and their apparent disconnectedness to reality. But then again, when you think about it a little, if you want to get at a genuine understanding of the world, if you want to really get connected to “reality,” who do you want to talk to, exactly: a great philosopher such as Thales, or Plato, or one of us, that is, the ordinary person making fun of them? What we have going for us, of course, is our healthy abundance of good old-fashioned common sense. But what if the truth about things does not, in the end, make much sense—or at least common sense, anyway? Think about what common sense is, after all. It’s what we believe about things when we don’t give them very much thought. It’s what we were taught in our childhood to believe about things, by people who themselves believed them without very much thought, and it’s what we have continued to believe without much thought ever since. It’s almost always very simple and straightforward, the kind of thing we can capture in a sentence or two. “What we see in front of us is really there,” for example, or “Some things cause other things,” or “Time flows,” or “It’s good to be a good person.” It’s what almost everyone believes about things, with near-universal consensus. But now that we are actually beginning to think about it a little, what are the chances that common sense, so described, should actually be correct? Do we really imagine that the world, overall, is simple and straightforward? The world that exists on unimaginable scales of space and time, where space seems both to go on to infinity and to be infinitely divisible, where time too seems to have neither beginning nor end? The world that requires advanced mathematics and not one but two different theories of relativity to describe it—simple and straightforward? Do we really imagine that the truths about the world might be expressible, adequately, in simple short sentences? And then there’s the fact that common sense is also what almost everyone believes. The principles of democracy are splendid when it comes to choosing our political leaders and related matters, for all sorts of reasons. But it’s not at all clear that their beneficial use extends much beyond that. There’s a famous debate between Plato and his equally great student Aristotle, for example, on whether universals must be instantiated in particulars. (Don’t ask!) There’s another famous debate between the influential Christian thinkers Anselm and Aquinas on whether the existence of God can be proved a priori. (Again, don’t ask!) The 17th-century physicist Isaac Newton debated the philosopher G. W. Leibniz over whether space is “absolute” or “relational.” (Don’t even think about asking!) When it comes to resolving such debates, to deciding which of the competing positions is correct, no one believes we should simply submit the question to a majority vote. Or at least not to a majority vote merely of us card-carrying common sensers. Indeed, as Descartes observes shortly after the passage quoted at the start,
… [A] majority vote is worthless as a proof of truths that are at all difficult to discover; for a single [person] is much more likely to hit upon them than a group of people …
When it comes to determining very subtle, or unusual, things—like the truths about the world—we need more than our common sense.
We need philosophy. Philosophy is what you get when you begin to actually think about things. When you begin to think about what’s right before your eyes and start to see questions where, previously, you assumed there were facts. When you begin to think about things in a new way, in a bigger way, beyond the here and now: when you begin to ask not merely how things really are but why they are, why there exists something rather than nothing at all, and how are we capable even of knowing that there exists something rather than nothing. It’s also what you get when you substitute for your hunches and intuitions and common sense about things something else: arguments. Not the kind of arguments we have with our friends, and parents, and partners, of course, the ones where voices get raised and mean things get said and everyone stops talking to everyone else, enjoyable as all that may be. Rather, philosophical arguments, chains of careful reasoning, from premises to conclusions, that we only occasionally need to bolster with a loud voice or a juicy insult. Good philosophical arguments only rarely end up changing your feelings about anyone, but they can, sometimes, do something far more profound. They can change your mind. They can get you to believe some pretty subtle, and unusual, and downright strange things. Things that are about as far removed from common sense as things could possibly be. But when you do come to believe these things, you will believe them on the basis of good and solid reasoning, the kind of reasoning that is ultimately the very foundation of making any sense at all. Welcome, in other words, to the world of uncommon sense.