Author Interview: Jan Bransen

We caught up with Jan Bransen to discuss his book, Don't be Fooled: A Philosophy of Common Sense. Read on for our exclusive interview with Jan.

(Photo Credit: Dick van Aalst)

Jan Bransen is Professor of Philosophy of Behavioural Science at Radboud University in the Netherlands.

Jan studied philosophy and sociology at Utrecht University and has always had an interest in applying an analytic style of reasoning to questions of human self-understanding, thus crossing – or rather neglecting – the so-called analytic-Continental divide. He wrote his MA-thesis on the philosophy of perception, discussing both Frank Jackson’s and Ernst Cassirer’s work, and arguing that perception is a mode of being rather than a means of acquiring information about one’s environment. In his doctoral dissertation Jan reconstructed Salomon Maimon’s criticism of Kant’s transcendental philosophy and turned it into a post-Kantian scepticism that he used to criticize assumptions underlying twentieth century Anglo-American philosophy of mind. The dissertation was published as The Antinomy of Thought. Maimonian Skepticism and the Relation between Thoughts and Objects, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991.

After his graduation Jan worked for fifteen years at Utrecht University, teaching philosophical anthropology and publishing scholarly papers on autonomy, authenticity, and practical identity. At Utrecht he founded Philosophical Explorations. An International Journal of Mind and Action together with Anthonie Meijers and Stefaan E. Cuypers.

From 2000 to 2003 Jan was appointed to the Socrates Chair of Philosophical Anthropology at Leiden University before moving to Nijmegen where he became professor of philosophy at the Behavioural Science Institute of Radboud University.

At Nijmegen Jan got more interested in the philosophy of science which he came to think of as a variety of philosophical anthropology. After all, our contemporary culture has created a very dominant means of trying to improve our human self-understanding: behavioural science. Don’t be fooled is a testimony of this approach to science as a mode of being human.

Jan’s critical attitude to the alleged importance of scientific findings to living our ordinary life opened up a research interest in the differences, and the similiarities, between knowledge and love, resulting in a number of scholarly papers. But it also motivated him to turn to the writing of accessible books for a wider audience, the first of which was Become a Philosopher Yourself which appeared in Dutch in 2010. It was shortlisted for the Socrates Prize for the best Dutch philosophy book, the prize he actually won in 2014 with Don’t be fooled. Jan published three more books in Dutch since then: Your brain or your life (2014), Who will I be? (2015), and What philosophers love (2016).

Jan has three grown-up children and lives with his wife in a small village in the wooded area near Utrecht.

Could you please summarise the main argument of your book?

I argue in the book that common sense is of crucial importance to live our lifes as human beings. This, I claim, is an urgent reminder for those impressed by the contemporary abundance of scientific expertise. The argument begins with the recognition that experts and laypeople are actually in deadlock because both force the other to forget to ask themselves questions about their own fundamental assumptions. The obvious availability and innocence of ordinary language is one of these assumptions, which is both a blessing and a burden, for experts and laypeople alike. The first part of the book is an exploration of the capacities that together make up our common sense. One essential capacity I like to mention here is the accommodation of our emotions, both our own and those of the people we interact with. This trusting accommodation, I argue, allows us to edify our emotional responses, which is of great importance to navigate ourselves intellectually through contemporary society. This bit of the argument is critical today, given the inclination of brash populists to claim common sense for themselves and to identify it, thoughtlessly and mistakenly, with their own gut feeling. It is not. 

Common sense has a great potential for coping with unfamiliarity, ambiguity and conflict. Common sense is the source and the guard of our critical, open and honest capacity to think for ourselves. Common sense used to be, and might become again, an engaging ally of modern science.

The second part of the book explores a number of problems which are a consequence of the disturbed balance between common sense and expertise. I argue that this balance cannot be restored by an appeal to more expertise. Instead, only common sense can help us redress the balance.

When a philosopher talks about ‘common sense’ what does he or she really mean? How do we acquire common sense and is it different from intuition?

Common sense is an attitude towards our environment that can be summarized by the slogan: Automatic pilot if possible and investigative attitude if necessary. This slogan nicely captures the fact that there is no need to acquire common sense. Everybody always already possesses it. Yet, we can always continue to improve and edify our common sense. That is a crucial insight. We all have automatic inclinations all of the time. These are our impulsive responses that are easily triggered by environmental clues. They are part of our common sense. But the better we develop our sensibility to potential perturbations of how scenarios are expected to unfold, the better we become capable of shifting from these immediate inclinations to the investigative attitude in case this is needed. Developing this sensibility is key to full-blown common sense. That is actually just an intelligently reflective autopilot: it can switch itself off – automatically! – if needed. Once our automatic pilot is switched off, common sense shows its critical potential, its kinship with our ordinary human capacity for critical thinking. That is a part of common sense too, a part that we may be inclined to overlook, given that we are accustomed to a division of labour between laypeople and experts. That is an unfortunate side-effect of our modern scientistic culture.

Common sense as I understand it is a bit like intuition, but it differs in a number of ways. Intuition often is associated with a kind of non-inferential certainty: I don’t know how or why I know it, but I just know it! That is like the autopilot part in my picture. But intuition often seems to entail a kind of indifference towards scrutinizing the nature and the origin of one’s intuitions. That is not very smart, and not what common sense would advice. Sticking to one’s intuitions in this way deprives one after all of a number of opportunities for improvement. These have mainly to do with learning from others and learning to accommodate one’s emotions. Emotions play an important role in common sense, but not in the populist understanding of the fundamental primacy of our gut feeling. Common sense is a much more balanced and mature capacity.

You place considerable emphasis on the way expertise relies upon language. Can you explain this?

Actually, it is not only expertise that relies upon language. I place significant emphasis on the way human beings rely upon language. We are talking animals, I argue. We live by and in language. We do what we do under certain descriptions. We articulate our reasons for what we do and ask others for their explanations and justifications. This all comes very naturally in the little everyday things of life and therefore, I argue, we need for our daily affairs easy access to a rich ordinary language. However, I claim, expertise and particularly the expertise about our behaviour, has somehow colonized our ordinary language. Expertise is replacing ordinary words by technical ones, sometimes even without our recognition. Think for instance of the teenager’s brain. We don’t know what is going on in there. Not anymore. That is for brain scientists to know. But as a consequence we don’t know what we are talking about when we are talking about our teenagers. We might want them to get out of bed in the morning, but they may claim that their brains are unsuited for getting up so early. 

There is a further important theme relating expertise to language. In the technical domain experts develop smart interfaces between humans and equipment. Think about medication, microscopes, smartphones and self-driving cars. We don’t need to know how they work. We only need to know how to use them. But in the behavioural domain the only available interfaces are linguistic: instructions, procedures, communications. This raises a highly interesting new kind of problem, because it may be impossible for laypeople to use these linguistic devices when they don’t understand how they work, that is, what they mean. That, however, would require the laypeople to become experts, which, technically speaking, is a contradiction. I argue that there is an alternative: we might do without behavioural expertise if we develop and educate our common sense.

A key theme of the book is that, when faced with complexity, we should take up what you term ‘an investigative attitude’. Could you unpack this idea?

The basic idea of the investigative attitude is simply that of being aware of the fact that a situation is puzzling but that you don’t know which is the best question to ask about it. You are puzzled, but you do not know how exactly to articulate your puzzlement. I contrast this kind of puzzlement to situations in which you know what information you lack. When you lack information, or think you lack information, you presuppose the intelligibility of a procedure that will give you the missing information. But oftentimes there is no such procedure, or you don’t know whether there is nor whether you will be able to execute it if there would be. There are many situations like that. Think of wondering about accepting a job offer, or about moving to another part of the country. Think of situations in which you want to care for a deeply unhappy person. Think of situations in which experts contradict one another, or situations of incomprehensible or insoluble misunderstanding, or situations of grave ambiguity or ambivalence. In all such situations the fundamental problem is trying to find the right words to formulate a question that might give you direction. The investigative attitude is just a matter of awareness of such situations, a mindset that suppresses your eagerness for a quick answer, a serious engagement with exploring the nature of the problem, or set of problems, you might be facing. Such a mindset is actually an ordinary bit of a philosopher’s second nature. A philosopher is never just asking questions but is always reflecting on the questions being asked. Is this the question that should be asked? Such an investigative attitude is a crucial part of human intelligence, of our commonsensical approach to the unfamiliar. However, this part is apt to be silenced by a range of dominant tendencies, both in human nature and in modern culture, to emphasize the habitual, the usual, the familiar. My book tries to be an eye-opener in response to these tendencies. For there are often good reasons to pay attention to what is unfamiliar in what seems to be familiar, unusual in what seems to be natural, uncommon in what seems to be a matter of course. A well-developed capacity to take up an investigative attitude is a crucial feature of our common sense. It supports the kind of mental flexibility we need for survival and for flourishing.

One could argue that technological expertise is crucial in the solving of social problems. In Japan robots are being designed to help care for an ageing population, as there are insufficient human resources to care for the elderly. Isn’t this a case of expertise with a human face and something we should welcome?

There are lots of cases of expertise with a human face. These care robots may be one, perhaps, as is the internet, smartphones, endoscopic surgery, and so on. My book is not an attempt to blame, decry or reject expertise. But I see a problem in hyperspecialisation, in narrow forms of expertise, that promises us great gains of knowledge, collectively, but that has a regrettable reverse side: each one of us faces an ever expanding domain of ignorance, individually. I argue that we may have passed the optimum of specialisation. If so, more expertise is not a viable response. What we do need instead is a restoration of the critical potential that is key to our common sense.

Think of these Japanese care robots and the unintended side-effect that we might lose sight of any reason to visit the elderly anymore. After all, they’ve got their robots which might be much more efficient, punctual and patient than we ourselves. Should we welcome such a future for our ageing population? That is a good question. An important question. But there is no expertise to answer such questions, I argue. We need to ask them, to ourselves. We need to understand them. As questions. And we need all the common sense in the world to discuss these questions and to resist the inclination to rush towards easy answers or to simply leave those questions to anonymous experts, avoiding to consider our own responsibility.


Many scientists might say that scientific progress depends on their theories being shown to be falsifiable. Scientific knowledge and expertise is built up only after a great deal of trial and error. If so, isn’t there an element of common sense in scientific method itself?

Oh, yes, there definitely is. The scientific method is a wonderful accomplishment. It is in certain areas the best elaboration of the Enlightenment’s call to leave superstition and arbitrariness behind and to begin to think for ourselves. I explore in the book how science is continuous with common sense and how it could be an improvement or elevation of common sense. This requires us, however, to take into account that common sense itself is a disunity. 

Folk physics consists of expectations that are grounded in causal relations. But folk psychological expectations are actually not, or at least not fundamentally, grounded in merely causal relations. Normative relations such as obligations and entitlements play a much more essential role in the domain of human action, the domain of getting along with one another. But this means that the behavioural sciences should think about ways to improve and elevate our understanding of obligations and entitlements. That is a daunting task and I argue in the book that it will force behavioural scientists not to focus on the development of abstract models of human behaviour. They should rather increase their own and the public awareness of the nature of the authoritative relationships they have as experts with laypeople. Such an awareness will require and will inform our common sense.

Public policy programmes, such as health care, poverty eradication and policing, increasingly rely on ‘evidence-based’ approaches. Most of us want decisions to be based on evidence. Yet evidence is often created and gathered together by experts. What is the relation between evidence, expertise and common sense?

That is an extremely interesting question. Evidence is an often ill-understood notion which sounds technical and suggests not merely the epistemic authority of a scientist or research team, but something much stronger and more robust. If you have evidence you have the support of reality itself. But compare this for a moment with one of the little everyday things of life, which is actually a main strategy of the book. Reformulate general, far-reaching and abstract claims into particular, local and concrete claims and think carefully about the analogy this offers you. So, think for instance about a mess in your kitchen, see the traces of peanutbutter which is your son’s favourite food, ask your son what he has been doing, and look him in the eye when he tells you, as convincingly as he can, that it was your daughter’s, not him. Common sense, I argue, would suggest you that the following is the right question to ask in your situation: when is what evidence for what? Each of the question words requires a substantial explanation and any answer to each of these question words demands a substantial justification. Of course you can jump to conclusions. But that is not a commonsensical reaction. Of course you can hide behind a prestigious status and suggest that your expertise in your household gives you decisive evidence that it was your son who created the mess. And of course, you may be right. But if you are right, and if you have evidence, it will be a matter of your being able to provide the explanations and justifications that are at work in your answers to the ‘when’, the ‘what’ and the ‘what’. 

Scientists may be able to provide such answers too. And they definitely should. But precisely when we are talking about public policy, when we feel the pressure of practical urgencies, the audience may be wary of the expert’s caution, sophistication and nuance, and will be happy with any findings researchers report. But importantly, findings are merely semi-manufactured goods. You cannot do much with them without a substantial theory and without the serious critical assessment of all the auxiliary hypotheses that played a role in the reported research. Contemporary pressure on scientists to live up to their societal relevance seriously encourages them, however, to sell their findings, that is their semi-manufactured goods, for evidence. That is a real shame, particularly for behavioural science, which is, I regret to say, a science that so far has not succeeded in developing seriously substantial theories. Behavioural science would, therefore, really profit from keeping its findings to itself. Behavoural scientists should think very hard about their findings and particularly about what they are doing – as scientists – by communicating their findings to the public as if they were evidence.

You argue that when we’re faced with a lack of expertise we tend to turn towards science for answers. But there are also cases of people who reject science yet declare themselves experts, on religious doctrine or interpretation, for example. This seems like a very different kind of ‘expertise’. What should we make of it?

There is something disquieting about the very idea of ‘expertise’, something that should concern all of us. When you are an expert you have good and often decisive reasons for certain actions, but the more such reasons are grounded in your expertise the less you may be capable of explaining them fully to laypeople. That is part of what it means to have expertise. Of course, the expert can explain his reasons to another expert in the same field. But the layperson will be at a loss. He may trust either, or neither, expert, but he will not be able to let his decision be really informed by the reasons of the expert. Of course, the layperson might have his own reasons for trusting this or that expert, but those reasons are in principle not accessibly informed by the expert’s expertise. That is essential to the predicament of the expert-layperson relationship. This asymmetry in access to relevant reasons is an undeniable fact of life, which requires human beings to accept their mutual dependence, their basic need for trust and the accompanying inescapable vulnerability. That is just what it is. Think of your car mechanic who listens to that alarming noise in your engine and tells you that you’d better buy another car.

An important further question is how the expert uses his expertise in getting along with laypeople. Does he use his expertise as a wall, an obstacle for laypeople, to fend them off? Or does he support an open, fair and independent institution that offers every layperson an in principle accessible educational trajectory, emphasising that he is happy to share his expertise and considers the asymmetry primarily a matter of time and opportunity. That is basically the promise of the Enlightenment, out of which emerged both our modern idea of education and of science. 

I argue in the book that we need a lot of common sense to cope together – expert and lay person alike – with this asymmetric predicament. Crucially this means that we make a lot of effort to show and affirm that every bit of human expertise grows out of common sense. That is our only option to prevent the abuse of expertise. It is also our only option to defend ourselves against the opportunity for those in power to disguise their lack of reasons as a matter of expertise. There are no guarantees here. Life is an adventure. But if we build on common sense, our common sense, we’re most likely to avoid injustice and cruelty.

In the book you develop an interesting theory of what you call ‘humaning’. Can you explain what this is and why it is important in reclaiming common sense?

The basic idea of ‘humaning’ is to draw the reader’s attention to an extremely interesting human capacity, namely that of relating meaningfully to one’s own activity. People live (verb) their life (noun); they account for what they do. I explain in the book how the fact that we are talking animals, i.e. that we have language, gave rise to this intruiging self-relation. This simple but also deep idea of ‘humaning’ has three important consequences: (1) human beings always live their life under the guidance of an idea of what it is to live a human life; (2) human beings can objectify their ideas about their life as much as they want but they can never fully objectify their activity of living their life; and (3) human beings share their individual lives in their common language, which opens up a common world. 

With respect to the relation between expertise and common sense the real import of ‘humaning’ is an observation about the division of intellectual labour. Divisions of labour are crucial for human beings, but each one of us has to live his own life. Living one’s life cannot be left over to other people. Even if it would be possible for experts to know much more than we about how we should live to have a happy and satisfying life, this would not help us unless we were able to appropriate their expertise and apply it on our own terms in our own lives. This means that expert knowledge about human life should be locally embedded, individually embodied and practically enacted. It should therefore be a matter of common sense. This metaphor may be useful: no matter how many technically advanced tools experts provide us with, it is fundamentally our own hand that we should be capable of knowing how to use well.

In the UK the Conservative British politician Michael Gove declared that ‘we have had enough of experts’ and Donald Trump has gone even further, declaring a virtual war on scientific expertise. Both have appealed more or less to common sense. Is common sense reactionary? Can we protect it from being contaminated by political ideology?

No, common sense is not reactionary. I argue in the book that the basic slogan “Automatic pilot if possible and investigative attitude if necessary” shows that the capacity for critical thinking is a crucial part of common sense. When I wrote the book it seemed the principal opponent of common sense was a scientistic kind of expert, but over the last year another kind of opponent is quickly on the rise in the media: the brash populist who wants to claim common sense for himself and who identifies it, thoughtlessly and mistakenly, with his own gut feeling. Life can be complicated and the automatic pilot that we develop over the years is therefore very welcome. It allows us to respond quickly, almost mindlessly, yet most of the time appropriately. That is not, however, a matter of an instinctive gut feeling, but a matter of extended learning processes. Our automatic pilot ordinarily produces educated responses. 

But on top of that the more important bit is added by the fundamental sensitivity to respond smartly and suitably to apparent frustrations of our expectations. This sensibility motivates us, if our common sense is well-developed, to switch to the investigative attitude. That attitude encourages us to be cautious of potential biases and it motivates us to honestly ask ourselves serious questions. I would argue that the absence of this attitude is one of the most striking indications of the lack of common sense in reactionary forms of populism. Populists typically do not ask themselves questions. They simply claim their own truth and accuse their favorite opponents of untrustworthiness. The common sense I describe in the book recommends a number of thoughtful replies to such intrusive and disrespectful forms of populism. Courageous accomodation is one of them: it enables you to transform your opponent into a more receptive fellow human being, someone inclined to explore with you shared areas of ambiguity.

About the book

Don't be Fooled: A Philosophy of Common Sense

Don't be Fooled

A Philosophy of Common Sense

by Jan Bransen

In the debate leading up to the EU referendum in the United Kingdom, the British politician Michael Gove declared that "people in this country have had enough of experts". In the 2016 Presidential campaign in the United States, Donald Trump waged a war against the very idea of expertise. Yet if you are worried about your child's behaviour, don't know which laptop to buy, or just want to get fit, the answer is easy: ask an expert.

Format – 2017-04-28 
Routledge  (Paperback/Philosophy)