Austin Community College Introduction to Philosophy Epistemology Skepticism Q&As

Austin Community College Introduction to Philosophy Epistemology Skepticism Q&As

Introduction to Philosophy Epistemology Skepticism Q&As

Russell 1912: “Appearance & Reality” Page 1 of 7
Appearance and Reality1
by Bertrand Russell, 1912
English Analytic Philosopher
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
1 From Russell’s 1912 Problems of Philosophy, chapter 1.
Russell 1912: “Appearance & Reality” Page 2 of 7
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
the question.
To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there
is no colour which preeminently 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
Russell 1912: “Appearance & Reality” Page 3 of 7
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 gram, 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.
Russell 1912: “Appearance & Reality” Page 4 of 7
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
table. Thus a problem arises as to the relation of the sense-data to the real
table, supposing there is such a thing.
The real table, if it exists, we will call a ‘physical object’. Thus we have to
consider the relation of sense-data to physical objects. The collection of all
physical objects is called ‘matter’. Thus our two questions may be re-stated as
follows: (1) Is there any such thing as matter? (2) If so, what is its nature?
Russell 1912: “Appearance & Reality” Page 5 of 7
The philosopher who first brought prominently forward the reasons for
regarding the immediate objects of our senses as not existing independently of
us was Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753). His Three Dialogues between Hylas and
Philonous, in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists, undertake to prove that
there is no such thing as matter at all, and that the world consists of nothing
but minds and their ideas. Hylas has hitherto believed in matter, but he is no
match for Philonous, who mercilessly drives him into contradictions and
paradoxes, and makes his own denial of matter seem, in the end, as if it were
almost common sense. The arguments employed are of very different value:
some are important and sound, others are confused or quibbling. But Berkeley
retains the merit of having shown that the existence of matter is capable of
being denied without absurdity, and that if there are any things that exist
independently of us they cannot be the immediate objects of our sensations.
There are two different questions involved when we ask whether
matter exists, and it is important to keep them clear. We commonly mean by
‘matter’ something which is opposed to ‘mind’, something which we think of
as occupying space and as radically incapable of any sort of thought or
consciousness. It is chiefly in this sense that Berkeley denies matter; that is to
say, he does not deny that the sense-data which we commonly take as signs of
the existence of the table are really signs of the existence of something
independent of us, but he does deny that this something is nonmental, that it
is neither mind nor ideas entertained by some mind. He admits that there must
be something which continues to exist when we go out of the room or shut our
eyes, and that what we call seeing the table does really give us reason for
believing in something which persists even when we are not seeing it. But he
thinks that this something cannot be radically different in nature from what we
see, and cannot be independent of seeing altogether, though it must be
independent of our seeing. He is thus led to regard the ‘real’ table as an idea in
the mind of God. Such an idea has the required permanence and independence
of ourselves, without being — as matter would otherwise be — something quite
unknowable, in the sense that we can only infer it, and can never be directly
and immediately aware of it.
Other philosophers since Berkeley have also held that, although the
table does not depend for its existence upon being seen by me, it does depend
upon being seen (or otherwise apprehended in sensation) by some mind — not
Russell 1912: “Appearance & Reality” Page 6 of 7
necessarily the mind of God, but more often the whole collective mind of the
universe. This they hold, as Berkeley does, chiefly because they think there can
be nothing real — or at any rate nothing known to be real except minds and their
thoughts and feelings. We might state the argument by which they support
their view in some such way as this: ‘Whatever can be thought of is an idea in
the mind of the person thinking of it; therefore nothing can be thought of
except ideas in minds; therefore anything else is inconceivable, and what is
inconceivable cannot exist.’
Such an argument, in my opinion, is fallacious; and of course those who
advance it do not put it so shortly or so crudely. But whether valid or not, the
argument has been very widely advanced in one form or another; and very
many philosophers, perhaps a majority, have held that there is nothing real
except minds and their ideas. Such philosophers are called ‘idealists’. When
they come to explaining matter, they either say, like Berkeley, that matter is
really nothing but a collection of ideas, or they say, like Leibniz (1646-1716), that
what appears as matter is really a collection of more or less rudimentary minds.
But these philosophers, though they deny matter as opposed to mind,
nevertheless, in another sense, admit matter. It will be remembered that we
asked two questions; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort
of object can it be? Now both Berkeley and Leibniz admit that there is a real
table, but Berkeley says it is certain ideas in the mind of God, and Leibniz says it
is a colony of souls. Thus both of them answer our first question in the
affirmative, and only diverge from the views of ordinary mortals in their answer
to our second question. In fact, almost all philosophers seem to be agreed that
there is a real table. they almost all agree that, however much our sense-data –
– colour, shape, smoothness, etc. — may depend upon us, yet their occurrence
is a sign of something existing independently of us, something differing,
perhaps, completely from our sense-data whenever we are in a suitable relation
to the real table.
Now obviously this point in which the philosophers are agreed — the
view that there is a real table, whatever its nature may be is vitally important,
and it will be worth while to consider what reasons there are for accepting this
view before we go on to the further question as to the nature of the real table.
Russell 1912: “Appearance & Reality” Page 7 of 7
Our next chapter, therefore, will be concerned with the reasons for supposing
that there is a real table at all.
Before we go farther it will be well to consider for a moment what it is
that we have discovered so far. It has appeared that, 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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