Carson’s Common Sense

Historian David Bebbington has said, “A specific inheritance from the Enlightenment was commonsense philosopohy” (Bebbington, “The Dominance of Evangelicalism,” 123). Commonsense realism, as it is often referred to, owes its popularity to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid who taught ethics at Glasgow University from 1764-1796. Incidentally, this is the same university that Irish Baptist Alexander Carson attended as an undergraduate. Indeed, Carson calls Reid “the first name in moral science” (p. 402).

Common sense philosophy was the principle opponent of the skepticism of David Hume, but as Bebbington observes, it was also used to defend against German  rationalism and the philosophy of Mill. As an apologist Carson wrote much against higher criticism, or Neologism, that came out of Germany and used the categories of common sense in his defense.

Here is a quote from Carson that situates him well within this tradition:

Philosophers have laboured much to rest all their knowledge on the foundations, not only of self-evident, but of necessary truth. They have esteemed it an affront to their art, not to be able to deduce all their doctrines from the intuitive light of their own reasoning faculty. Evidence has been supposed to consist in the perception of the agreement or disagreement of our ideas; and, consequently, to believe anything which is not the result of the operation of reason, is to believe without authority.

For this purpose, some of our greatest philosophers have renounced the empire of common sense, and commenced their career with universal scepticism (sic). Even their own existence, and the existence of the world, cannot be taken for granted. These truths must be proved by reason, or they must want a foundation. But they have laboured in vain. After all the exertions of the greatest human faculties, it cannot be proved even that there is a world, unless implicit credence is given to the testimony of the senses. Not only do men in general, but even philosophers themselves, continue to believe in their own existence, and in the existence of the world, not from the arguments alleged by Des Cartes (sic), Malebranche, Arnauld, and Locke, but from the testimony of consciousness and the senses.

The theologian who loves to strut in the philosopher’s steps, and to ape his sentiments and language, has, also, talked much of subjecting the contents of the Word of God to the control and determinations of reason. What cannot be comprehended or accounted for by the reasoning faculty, it is supposed irrational to believe. With this standard in his hands, he goes through the Scriptures, pruning, and retrenching, and refining, and supplying, that the dictates of the Spirit may be modelled (sic), so as to pass the review of human reason.

Alexander Carson, “Faith the Foundation of the Greater Part of Human Knowledge,” in Works (London/Edinburgh: Hamilton, Adams/Wm. White, 1847) 1:401-402.


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