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Appearance and Reality


In The Problems of Philosophy Bertrand Russell referred to the distinction between appearance and reality as "one of the distinctions that cause most trouble in philosophy." Why it should cause trouble in philosophy, however, when it causes little or no trouble outside of philosophy, Russell did not say. The distinction has played an important part in the thinking of many philosophers, and some of them, including Russell, have employed it in curious ways to support odd and seemingly paradoxical claims. It may be this last fact that Russell had in mind when he spoke of trouble.

Before turning to some of its troublesome uses in philosophy, let us consider some of its relatively untroublesome uses in everyday discourse.

Looks and Appearances

There is a potentially troublemaking ambiguity in the term to appear and its cognates. (This ambiguity is not peculiar to English but is also to be found, for example, in the Greek verb phainesthai and its cognates.) Contrary to Russell's suggestion, the distinction between appearance and reality is not simply the distinction "between what things seem to be and what they are," more precisely, the distinction between what things seem to be and what they are is not a simple distinction. There are at least two groups of appearance idiomswhat might be called "seeming idioms" and "looking idioms." The first group typically includes such expressions as "appears to be," "seems to be," "gives the appearance of being"; the second, such expressions as "appears," "looks," "feels," "tastes," "sounds."

The two groups are not always as obviously distinct as these examples make them appear to be. The same expression, particularly one from the second group (notoriously, "appears," but also such expressions as "looks as if"), may be used either as a seeming expression or as a looking expression. For example, "The oar appears bent" may mean either "The oar looks bent" or "The oar appears to be bent." These are by no means the same. I may say that the oar appears to be bent because it looks bent, and this is not to say that the oar appears to be bent because it appears to be bent or that it looks bent because it looks bent. Nor is there any necessary connection between the two statementsor, generally, between statements employing seeming idioms and those employing looking idioms. "The oar looks bent" does not imply or entail "The oar appears to be bent"; for the oar may look bentimmersed in water, it naturally doeswithout appearing to be bent. As St. Augustine put it in a striking passage in Contra Academicos (III, xi, 26): "'Is that true, then, which the eyes see in the case of the oar in water?' 'Quite true. For since there is a special reason for the oar's looking (videretur ) that way, I should rather accuse my eyes of playing me false if the oar looked straight (rectus appareret ) when dipped in water; for in that case my eyes would not be seeing what, under the circumstances, ought to be seen.'" (Compare J. L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia, p. 26.) The oar's looking bent in water is not an illusion, something that appears to be the case but is not; but this does not mean that the oar does not look bent. Conversely, "The oar appears to be bent" does not imply "The oar looks bent"; for the oar may appear to be bent without its looking bent; there may be reasons for saying that it appears to be bent (evidence that suggests that it is bent) other than its looking bent. (On this distinction, compare C. D. Broad, Scientific Thought, pp. 236237.)

An example of the troublemaking neglector at least apparent neglectof this distinction is to be found in Russell (op. cit.): "Although I believe that the table is 'really' of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change." But further on he wrote: "To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which pre-eminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the tableit appears to be of different colours from different points of view, and there is no reason for regarding some of these as more really its colour than others." But if all we have found is that the parts of the table that reflect the light look brighter than the others, it is by no means "evident" that there is no color which appears to be the color of the table.

seeming idioms

Seeming idioms have nothing strictly to do with the senses; looking idioms characteristically do. From the evidence at hand, it may appear, or look as if, there will be an economic recession within the year. The characteristic uses of seeming idioms are to express what one believes is probably the case, to refrain from committing oneself, or to express hesitancy about what is the case. (Compare G. J. Warnock, Berkeley, p. 186: "The essential function of the language of 'seeming' is that it is noncommittal as to the actual facts.") Hence, "I know that X is Y, but it appears (to me) that it is not Y " is odd or paradoxical in much the same way as is "I know that X is Y, but it may not be the case that it is." From "X appears to be Y " (though not "merely appears to be Y "), I cannot validly infer either "X is Y " or "X is not Y. " But "X appears to be Y " entails that it is possible that X is Y and possible that X is not Y.

The same is not true of looking idioms, except in so far as they double as seeming idioms. No oddity or paradox is involved in saying such things as "I know that the two lines in Müller-Lyer's drawing are the same length, but one of them still looks longer than the other."

looking idioms

Looking idioms have a number of uses or senses that must be kept distinct.

Noticing resemblances

To notice that an inkblot has the appearance of (looks like) a face or that Alfredo's voice sounds like Caruso's is to note a visible resemblance between the inkblot and a face or an audible resemblance between Alfredo's voice and Caruso's. Here appearance does not normally contrast with what is possibly reality; rather it is a reality. "Alfredo's voice sounds like Caruso's" does not mean either "Alfredo's voice appears to be Caruso's" or "Alfredo's voice (merely) sounds like Caruso's, but it isn't Caruso's voice." To be sure, in certain circumstances one might be misled by appearances. For instance, by the audible resemblance between Alfredo's voice and Caruso's one might suppose that he was hearing Caruso's voice. Compare, however, "At a distance (in this light, at a quick glance) that looks like blood (a dollar bill), but it's really just red paint (a soap coupon)."


To describe something's appearance may merely be to describe its perceptible (visible, audible, tactile) features, and as such it is to describe how something is, not how it looks or appears as possibly opposed to how it is. Here the apparent qualities of something are the real perceptible qualities of it. To describe a man's appearance, as opposed, say, to his character, is to describe those features of him (his "looks") that he can be seen to possess. Appearances in this sense are what are most often referred to as phenomena in the nonphilosophical use of the latter term, in such phrases as "biological phenomena."

"Looks" and "merely looks"

The phrase "mere appearance" ("merely looks, sounds") shows that there is a sense of "appears" as a looking idiom which is neutral with respect to how things are. "X merely looks red (to me, or under such-and-such conditions)" implies that X is not (really) red. But simply from "X looks red (to me, or under such-and-such conditions)" I cannot validly infer either that X (really) is red or that X (really) is not red. If it is possible, however, for X to look (sound, feel, taste) Y, it must at least be possible for X (really) to be Y. This logical feature of looking idioms, whichin this sensethey share with seeming idioms, may be the source of some confusion between them.

Protagorean Relativism

According to Plato (Theaetetus, 152; Cornford trans.), Protagoras held that "man is the measure of all thingsalike of the being of things that are and of the non-being of things that are not." And by this he meant that "any given thing is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you such as it appears to you." This statement can be read in two different ways, depending on whether "appears" is construed as a seeming idiom or a looking idiom. In either interpretation, however, it is a paradox or else a tautology.

Expressions such as "is for me" and "is for you" are distinctly odd, and one is puzzled to know what to make of them. If they are construed to mean the same as "is," Protagoras' statement then becomes manifestly paradoxical. For if "X appears to me to be Y (or looks Y to me)" and "X appears to you to be Z (or looks Z to you)" are equivalent respectively to "X is Y " and "X is Z," where Y and Z represent logically incompatible predicates, then the joint affirmation of two (possibly) true propositions, "X looks Y to me" and "X looks Z to you," would be equivalent to the necessarily false proposition that X is both Y and Z.

On the other hand, if we interpret "is for me" to mean the same as "appears to me" and "is for you" as "appears to you," Protagoras' dictum reduces to a tautology. For if "X appears to me to be Y " and "X appears to you to be Z " are equivalent respectively to "X is Y for me" and "X is Z for you," then, even if Y and Z represent logically incompatible predicates, the equivalent statements can be substituted for one another. In that case, Protagoras' dictum, generalized, reduces to either "Everything is for any given person such as it is for that person" or "Everything appears to any given person such as it appears to that person." But since the two statements are themselves equivalent, the effect of Protagoras' dictum is to obliterate any possible distinction between appearance and reality, or to claim what is clearly false, that there is no such distinction.

Protagoras' statement can be read in yet another way, but read in that way it is also a truism. The Greek verb phainesthai, especially with the participle, was used to state, not that something (merely) appears to be so, but that something manifestly is so. Read in this way, Protagoras' claim that appearance is reality is simply the claim that what is manifestly the case is the case. This innocent truism may have been intended to remind those of Protagoras' contemporaries who contemned the common run of men for living by appearances, which they equated with error, that what is reliably observed to be the case is justifiably said to be the case.

The Argument from Illusion

What has been called the "argument from illusion" has been used by many philosophers (for example, George Berkeley in Three Dialogues, I, and A. J. Ayer in Foundations of Empirical Knowledge, pp. 35) to justify some form of phenomenalism or subjective idealism. The argument rests on the fact that things sometimes appear (for example, look) different to different observers or to the same observer in different circumstances. This fact is supposed to show that sensible qualities, such as colors or odors, are not really "in" things. For if things can, say, look one color when they are (supposedly) really another, then we can never say what color they really are, what color really "inheres" in them. For all sensible qualities, as Berkeley put it, "are equally apparent"; he seems to have meant that for every putatively veridical perception there is a possible corresponding illusory one (or wherever it is possible that "X is Y " is true, it is equally possible that "X merely looks Y " is true). Hence, given any perception, P, it is possible that P is veridical and possible that P is illusory. But since there is no apparent or observable difference between a veridical P and an illusory P, we cannot in principle tell which it is. We cannot, for example, say what colors things are ; we can only say what colors they look.

The consequence of this argument is the same as that of Protagoras' dictum, namely, to obliterate in principle any distinction between "is" and "(merely) looks or sounds." But this is a distinction on which the argument itself rests: if the distinction cannot, in principle, be made, then the argument cannot get off the ground; but if the distinction can, in principle, be made, the conclusion of the argument cannot be true.

"is y" as a function of "appears y"

Many philosophers who have used the argument from illusion have attempted to resist the consequence that there is then no distinction between "is" and "(merely) looks." Berkeley, for example, protested that "the distinction between realities and chimeras retains its full force" (Principles of Human Knowledge, §34). He was able to suppose that it does because he supposed that "X is Y " is a logical function of "X appears (appears to be or, for example, looks) Y ": when the appearances of X are not only "lively" but "steady," "orderly," and "coherent," we say that X is (really) Y and not that it merely appears Y. Being is orderly and coherent appearing (Principles, §29).

But if this is so, the distinction between realities and chimeras does not retain its full force. "X appears Y consistently (steadily, in an orderly and coherent way)" neither is equivalent to, nor does it entail, "X is Y "; for it is possible that the former is true while the latter is false. The truth of the former may be evidence for the truth of the latter, but the latter is not a logical function of the former. (Compare Warnock, op. cit., pp. 180182.) The same holds for such claims as that of G. E. Moore (Commonplace Book, p. 145) that "'This book is blue' = This book looks (or would look) blue to normal people who look at it by good daylight at normal distances, i.e. not too far off or too near."

Phenomena and Things-in-Themselves

One of the foundation stones of Immanuel Kant's philosophy is the claim that "we can know objects only as they appear to us (to our senses), not as they may be in themselves" (Prolegomena, §10.) Read in one way, Kant's claim is tautologous. If by "an appearance" we mean a possible object of knowledge and by "a thing-in-itself" something that can be "thought" but cannot be known, the claim reduces to "What we can know, we can know; and what we cannot know, we cannot know." As such, this tells us nothing about the limits of knowledge, about what we can know, any more than "God can do everything that it is possible for God to do" tells us anything about the extent of God's powers.

Kant may, however, have meant the following: I can know that X is Y only if X can appear (to be) Y ; if, in principle, X cannot appear (to be) Y, then I cannot know that X is Y. This, too, is a truism. But it does not follow from this that "the things we intuit are not in themselves what we intuit them as being. As appearances, they cannot exist in themselves, but only in us" (Critique of Pure Reason, A42; Kemp Smith trans.). That is, it does not follow that X as it appears is not what it is apart from how it appears; nor does it follow that what X is apart from how it appears is different from how it appears. To allow Kant's inference is implicitly to endorse a paradox or to adopt a new use of "appears" to which no sense has been given. For if something appears (to be) so, it must be possible for it to be so "in itself"; and this is precisely the possibility which Kant does not allow.

appearances of the impossible

Closely related to Kant's distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves is the notion of appearances of the impossible. According to Parmenides and Zeno, multiplicity and motion, empty space and time, are impossible; yet things appear to be many, some of them appear to move, and so on. Similarly, for Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz bodies with their qualities, such as colors, are well-founded appearances (phaenomena bene fundata ), mere appearances "grounded" in monads and their perceptions; in reality there can be no such things as colored bodies. And according to F. H. Bradley in Appearance and Reality, space, time, motion and change, causation, things, and the self are "unreal as such" because they "contradict themselves"; hence, they are "mere appearances" or "contradictory appearances."

Taken at face value, this view is blatantly paradoxical: If for something to appear (to be) the case it must be possible for it "really" to be the case, then if it is impossible for it to be the case, it is impossible for it to appear (to be) the case. (Compare Morris Lazerowitz, The Structure of Metaphysics, pp. 208209.) The metaphysician of "contradictory appearances," however, may mean that for certain kinds of things, t, it is never permissible to say "There are t 's," but only "There appear to be t 's." But this, as Lazerowitz has pointed out (op. cit., esp. p. 225), has the consequence of obliterating the distinction between "is" and "appears" and hence of depriving "appears" of its meaning. For if "There are t 's" is in principle disallowed, "There appear to be t 's" loses its sense.

See also Augustine, St.; Austin, John Langshaw; Ayer, Alfred Jules; Berkeley, George; Bradley, Francis Herbert; Illusions; Kant, Immanuel; Moore, George Edward; Plato; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William.


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