A selection from
APPEARANCE AND REALITY
Narrated by Ralph Cosham
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Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no
reasonable man could doubt it? This question, which at first sight
might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can
be asked. When we have realized the obstacles in the way of a
straightforward and confident answer, we shall be well launched on the
study of philosophy—for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer
such ultimate questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in
ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically, after
exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realizing
all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.
In daily life, we assume as certain many things which, on a closer
scrutiny, are found to be so full of apparent contradictions that only
a great amount of thought enables us to know what it is that we really
may believe. In the search for certainty, it is natural to begin with
our present experiences, and in some sense, no doubt, knowledge is to
be derived from them. But any statement as to what it is that our
immediate experiences make us know is very likely to be wrong. It
seems to me that I am now sitting in a chair, at a table of a certain
shape, on which I see sheets of paper with writing or print. By
turning my head I see out of the window buildings and clouds and the
sun. I believe that the sun is about ninety-three million miles from
the earth; that it is a hot globe many times bigger than the earth;
that, owing to the earth's rotation, it rises every morning, and will
continue to do so for an indefinite time in the future. I believe
that, if any other normal person comes into my room, he will see the
same chairs and tables and books and papers as I see, and that the
table which I see is the same as the table which I feel pressing
against my arm. All this seems to be so evident as to be hardly worth
stating, except in answer to a man who doubts whether I know anything.
Yet all this may be reasonably doubted, and all of it requires much
careful discussion before we can be sure that we have stated it in a
form that is wholly true.
To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate attention on the
table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is
smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound.
Any one else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with
this description, so that it might seem as if no difficulty would
arise; but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin.
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. It follows that if several people are looking at the
table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same
distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the
same point of view, and any change in the point of view makes some
change in the way the light is reflected.
For most practical purposes these differences are unimportant, but to
the painter they are all-important: the painter has to unlearn the
habit of thinking that things seem to have the colour which common
sense says they 'really' have, and to learn the habit of seeing things
as they appear. Here we have already the beginning of one of the
distinctions that cause most trouble in philosophy—the distinction
between 'appearance' and 'reality', between what things seem to be and
what they are. The painter wants to know what things seem to be, the
practical man and the philosopher want to know what they are; but the
philosopher's wish to know this is stronger than the practical man's,
and is more troubled by knowledge as to the difficulties of answering
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 table—it 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. And we know that even from a given point of view the colour
will seem different by artificial light, or to a colour-blind man, or
to a man wearing blue spectacles, while in the dark there will be no
colour at all, though to touch and hearing the table will be
unchanged. This colour is not something which is inherent in the
table, but something depending upon the table and the spectator and
the way the light falls on the table. When, in ordinary life, we
speak of _the_ colour of the table, we only mean the sort of colour
which it will seem to have to a normal spectator from an ordinary
point of view under usual conditions of light. But the other colours
which appear under other conditions have just as good a right to be
considered real; and therefore, to avoid favouritism, we are compelled
to deny that, in itself, the table has any one particular colour.
The same thing applies to the texture. With the naked eye one can see
the grain, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we
looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills
and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to
the naked eye. Which of these is the 'real' table? We are naturally
tempted to say that what we see through the microscope is more real,
but that in turn would be changed by a still more powerful microscope.
If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should
we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the
confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.
The shape of the table is no better. We are all in the habit of
judging as to the 'real' shapes of things, and we do this so
unreflectingly that we come to think we actually see the real shapes.
But, in fact, as we all have to learn if we try to draw, a given thing
looks different in shape from every different point of view. If our
table is 'really' rectangular, it will look, from almost all points of
view, as if it had two acute angles and two obtuse angles. If
opposite sides are parallel, they will look as if they converged to a
point away from the spectator; if they are of equal length, they will
look as if the nearer side were longer. All these things are not
commonly noticed in looking at a table, because experience has taught
us to construct the 'real' shape from the apparent shape, and the
'real' shape is what interests us as practical men. But the 'real'
shape is not what we see; it is something inferred from what we see.
And what we see is constantly changing in shape as we move about the
room; so that here again the senses seem not to give us the truth
about the table itself, but only about the appearance of the table.
Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is
true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we
feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends
upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body
we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or
various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal _directly_ any
definite property of the table, but at most to be _signs_ of some
property which perhaps _causes_ all the sensations, but is not
actually apparent in any of them. And the same applies still more
obviously to the sounds which can be elicited by rapping the table.
Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not
the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or
hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not _immediately_ known
to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known.
Hence, two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is
there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?
It will help us in considering these questions to have a few simple
terms of which the meaning is definite and clear. Let us give the
name of 'sense-data' to the things that are immediately known in
sensation: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardnesses,
roughnesses, and so on. We shall give the name 'sensation' to the
experience of being immediately aware of these things. Thus, whenever
we see a colour, we have a sensation _of_ the colour, but the colour
itself is a sense-datum, not a sensation. The colour is that _of_
which we are immediately aware, and the awareness itself is the
sensation. It is plain that if we are to know anything about the
table, it must be by means of the sense-data—brown colour, oblong
shape, smoothness, etc.—which we associate with the table; but, for
the reasons which have been given, we cannot say that the table is the
sense-data, or even that the sense-data are directly properties of the
If we take any common object of the sort that is supposed to be known
by the senses, what the senses immediately tell us is not the truth about
the object as it is apart from us, but only the truth about certain
sense-data which, so far as we can see, depend upon the relations
between us and the object. Thus what we directly see and feel is
merely 'appearance', which we believe to be a sign of some 'reality'
behind. But if the reality is not what appears, have we any means of
knowing whether there is any reality at all? And if so, have we any
means of finding out what it is like?
Such questions are bewildering, and it is difficult to know that even
the strangest hypotheses may not be true. Thus our familiar table,
which has roused but the slightest thoughts in us hitherto, has become
a problem full of surprising possibilities. The one thing we know
about it is that it is not what it seems. Beyond this modest result,
so far, we have the most complete liberty of conjecture. Leibniz
tells us it is a community of souls: Berkeley tells us it is an idea
in the mind of God; sober science, scarcely less wonderful, tells us
it is a vast collection of electric charges in violent motion.
Among these surprising possibilities, doubt suggests that perhaps
there is no table at all. Philosophy, if it cannot _answer_ so many
questions as we could wish, has at least the power of _asking_
questions which increase the interest of the world, and show the
strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the
commonest things of daily life.
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